Reagan’s speech 50 years ago real birth of conservative movement

Fifty years ago, on October 27, 1964, Ronald Reagan became a national political figure and birthed the modern conservative movement by giving a nationally televised speech on behalf of the floundering presidential campaign of his friend, Barry Goldwater.

“The Speech,” as it subsequently became known, was one of the few bright spots for conservatives and Republicans in an election that saw President Lyndon Johnson win a record 61 percent of the popular vote to Goldwater’s 39 percent—a defeat so epic that most commentators agreed it represented the death of conservatism as a viable political philosophy.

But in the thirty minutes allotted to his address, Reagan captured the attention of millions already distressed by the ambitions of Johnson’s Great Society, and the perception that a morally weakened America was at the mercy of God-less Soviet totalitarianism.

Reagan said almost nothing new or different from what Goldwater had been advocating in terms of policy.  Goldwater had said war with the Soviets was virtually inevitable; so did Reagan.  Goldwater had advocated making Social Security voluntary; so did Reagan.

But where Goldwater frightened people, Reagan comforted them.

Liberals had taken the Goldwater slogan, “In your heart, you know he’s right,” and cruelly twisted it into the rejoinder, “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.”

When Goldwater spoke, it made it seem as if it was the dawn of the apocalypse; when Reagan spoke, it seemed the dawn of a new day.  Reagan, said one impressed conservative, “was Goldwater mutton dressed up as lamb.”

The conservative wing of the Republican Party had been pushed aside for decades.  Before Goldwater, the last truly conservative GOP candidate for president was probably Calvin Coolidge in 1924.  Liberal and moderate Republicans disparaged their conservative brethren for wishing to take the party “back to Methuselah,” as Thomas Dewey phrased it.

But Reagan made conservatism seem like the future.

Was the difference only the messenger?  Perhaps.

One of the remarkable things about The Speech was that Reagan had been working on it for more than a decade—and for most of that decade he remained a loyal Democrat.

Reagan had been so liberal during the dark days of the Great Depression that friends insist he once flirted with joining the Communist Party.

But after World War II, disillusioned first by a series of strikes in Hollywood that he believed were Communist-inspired, Reagan became steadily more conservative, though he still campaigned for Harry Truman in 1948 and against Richard Nixon in 1950 during the latter’s U.S. Senate race.

With his once-promising movie career fading, Reagan found a new career in 1954 as a corporate spokesperson for General Electric.  It was a role that required him to host “GE Theater” every Sunday night on television, and to give speeches around the country to GE employees and civic groups touting the virtues of free enterprise and electric appliances.

Except for once telling him to quit attacking the Tennessee Valley Authority (a GE customer), GE never told Reagan what to say.  He was free to develop his own ideas and remarks, and so he continued to refine his talk over the years.

By Reagan’s own estimation, he had given a version of The Speech more than eight thousand times before he did so on behalf of Goldwater.  Little wonder that it seemed such a polished effort compared to the stilted appearances of most politicians during the early days of television.

Remarkably, Goldwater and his aides initially did not want Reagan’s help. Reading Reagan’s proposed remarks on paper, Goldwater, who had known Reagan for a dozen years, thought they were no more than a pastiche of antigovernment clichés, and worried it would reinforce Goldwater’s image as an extremist.

But reading Reagan on paper was a very different experience from hearing him speak.  Instead of a radical call for rebellion against the liberal order, one keen observer within GE said The Speech came across more as an affirmation of “old American values,” and no more controversial than “the Boy Scout code.”

Reagan was as effective in his use of humor as John Kennedy or Franklin Roosevelt had been.  His salvos against big government sounded more bemused than angry, such as his quip, “A government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on earth,” or, “Today there is a growing number who can’t see a fat man standing beside a thin man without automatically coming to the conclusion the fat man got that way by taking advantage of the thin one.”

Reagan even claimed to eschew ideology, saying there was now “no such thing as left or right, only up or down.”

What Reagan had done, as much with his demeanor as his message, was redefine populism, so that the term no longer meant wariness of the power of big business, but of the power and unfairness of big government.  In that regard, he seemed like a Jacksonian Democrat.

When Reagan said government had “taken from the needy and given to the greedy” with urban renewal programs that dislocated average homeowners for the primary benefit—so he said—of developers, he echoed these words from Jackson’s veto of the renewed charter of the Second Bank of the United States: “It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes.”

By tapping into such long-held American beliefs, Reagan was more restoration than revolution—the opposite of the perception of Goldwater.

Reagan’s concluding paragraphs were a mish-mash of quotes from Lincoln, Churchill and his one-time idol, FDR.

“You and I have a rendezvous with destiny,” Reagan said. “We’ll preserve for our children this last best hope of man on earth or we’ll sentence them to the last step into a thousand years of darkness.”

It might seem, as it did to Goldwater, a string of clichés, but there is always appeal in the tried and true.

The Speech generated nearly $1 million in contributions, most of them small, into the Goldwater campaign.  Yet, Goldwater never thanked Reagan for his effort.              Still only fifty-five years old, Goldwater no doubt resented how quickly conservatives pushed him aside to anoint Reagan as their new leader.  Later in life, Goldwater even dismissed Reagan as “just an actor.”

But it was Reagan’s theatrical and oratorical skills, often compared to Kennedy’s at the time, that gave conservatism new life even in the midst of a deadly defeat.

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Being Irish is being American

On St. Patrick’s Day, everyone is a little Irish, but with a fifth of all Americans claiming an Irish heritage year-round, it should not be surprising that our two most popular presidents, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, have each also been called “our most Irish of presidents.”

What is surprising is that neither Kennedy nor Reagan cared much about their Irish heritage until they entered politics. In Reagan’s case, he did not much embrace his Irish roots until he became president, though that is largely because he knew very little about them.

Twenty-two American presidents from Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama have claimed at least some Irish descent, but only Kennedy and Reagan are the sons of Irish Catholic fathers, though Reagan adopted the religious faith of his Protestant, non-Irish mother.

While Americans of all stripes are no doubt proud of their various ethnic heritages, as historian Jay Dolan has noted, it is considered “chic to be Irish,” and when Americans with multiple ethnic backgrounds have the opportunity to choose with which heritage they most identify, they most often choose their Irish heritage.

While Irish immigrants were once feared and despised during the 1800s, particularly because of their Catholicism in a Protestant-dominated nation, Irish-Americans are now the quintessential immigrant success story. As others have noted, the Irish heritage in America is so widespread that to declare one’s Irish heritage is akin to declaring one’s American identity.

Further, while our history with some nations that provided large numbers of immigrants to America, such as Great Britain or Germany, is complicated, the United States has never been in conflict with Ireland, nor is Ireland identified with colonialism, imperialism, or some of the other collective baggage born by other ethnicities.

Despite that seeming political advantage, Kennedy’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., actively discouraged his family from celebrating their Irish roots beyond faithfully attending Mass. The elder Kennedy chafed at slights, real and perceived, that he believed he suffered in Boston, where the Congregationalist Brahmins still ruled.

The Kennedy clan hailed from County Wexford, on the east coast of Ireland, but it was not until he was a congressman, in 1947, that John Kennedy decided to visit his ancestral home even though he had spent a great deal of time in Great Britain when his father was the American ambassador there from 1938-1941.

Kennedy and his father admired all things English and they resented being referred to as an “Irishman.” When a fellow naval officer first heard Joe Kennedy over the radio and expressed surprise that he spoke with an upper-class accent befitting a man who had attended both Boston Latin School and Harvard, Kennedy became furious that anyone would expect his father to “talk mick.”

Once he ran for Congress in Massachusetts’ Eleventh District, however, Kennedy, who had deep family roots in Boston but little personal familiarity beyond his own time at Harvard, realized he would need to identify more closely with his Irish-American constituents.

More importantly, following Al Smith’s sobering defeat in the 1928 presidential contest, Irish-American Catholics had made substantial inroads, especially in films and other popular culture, in assuring Americans that neither the Irish nor Catholics were the foreign menace Protestant Americans had once feared.

By 1960, Catholicism had become mainstream and Catholic pride was likely a greater help to Kennedy’s election than lingering Protestant prejudice was a burden, and Kennedy’s triumphant 1963 visit to Ireland and his address to the Irish Parliament was one of the high points of his presidency.

Reagan, whose family (then the O’Regans) came from County Tipperary, also made a sentimental visit home to the little village of Ballyporeen, which named a pub in his honor.

For Reagan, it was a true trip of discovery, for he knew very little about his Irish heritage. Reagan’s father was orphaned at age six, and Jack Reagan was able to pass little history on to his second son beyond a faded photograph of his grandparents.

Jack did not even pass on his religion. While Reagan’s older brother had been baptized Catholic, Reagan’s mother had had a religious conversion and raised Ronald in the Church of Christ.

Once elected president, Burke’s Peerage presented Reagan with a genealogy that showed he was distantly related to Kennedy, but the more important relationship he forged was with another Irish-American politician; Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill.

O’Neill fiercely opposed many Reagan policies, but they used their shared Irish heritage, old to O’Neill and new to Reagan, to forge a civil relationship where they agreed to disagree and set aside their differences after 6 p.m. so that they could sit down “to swap Irish stories.”

This shared heritage convinced many Americans that bipartisan goodwill ruled Washington. True or (likely) not, the tone of the Reagan-O’Neill relationship, based on being Irish, provided a good deal of luster to Reagan’s image, and helps explain why, along with Kennedy, he is routinely named in Gallup and other surveys as one of our greatest presidents.

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Kennedy, Reagan deserve Oscar for melding Hollywood and Washington

As the motion picture industry gathers tonight (March 2) to honor its greatest achievements of the past year, it is fitting that we recall the two great leading men of American politics: John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

Actors and politicians share so many of the same vanities and insecurities, noted Jack Valenti, the late head of the Motion Picture Association of America and former aide to Lyndon Johnson, that it is difficult to tell whether Hollywood or Washington, D.C., most deserves the title “entertainment capital of the world.”

But it is not an either/or choice; Kennedy and Reagan, more than any other individuals, forged a bond between the two cities that can almost make them seem one and the same.
Kennedy was long ago labeled our first “movie star president,” and Reagan, of course, was the first movie star to become president, but their affiliation with Hollywood went far beyond simply being photogenic.

They each took Hollywood seriously—a favor that insecure Hollywood repaid ten-fold. They carefully studied how to use Hollywood’s glamour, its talents, and its uncanny ability to tap into the American subconscious to further their own political careers.

“There have been many times in this office,” Reagan quipped while president, “when I’ve wondered how you could do the job if you hadn’t been an actor.”

Reagan did not mean simply being able to learn your lines, take direction, and know from which angle you should be photographed; he also meant developing a character, understanding the motivations and feelings of others, and then gauging the audience reaction to a performance.

It is common to dismiss Reagan as a second-rate “B-movie” actor, but in truth Reagan was exceptionally successful at his profession and admired by his peers.

His acting range was limited (he had trouble projecting menace or sensuality), but in January 1942, the Los Angeles Times opined that Reagan was developing into a “first-rate actor.” He was a top box-office draw and was paid like one by Warner Brothers, earning a salary of $170,000 per year in 1946, comparable to what Errol Flynn made. But Reagan was as interested in what went on behind the camera as in front of it. He immersed himself in the screen business, serving, for example, as president of the Screen Actors Guild. Director Fred de Cordova said he imagined Reagan becoming a studio executive one day, not a politician.

Kennedy, too, was more than a passing fan of films and the beautiful women who starred in them.

Kennedy’s father had made a large part of his fortune investing in movie studios and even producing films for his actress lover, Gloria Swanson. He not only taught his children about the movie business and what made a successful news reel, he also bought his children 8 mm movie cameras to use and learn about film making.

Kennedy inherited his father’s “consuming interest in the movies,” historian Garry Wills has noted, and that interest peaked as Kennedy prepared to enter politics.

Just after World War II and before he returned to Massachusetts to run for Congress, Kennedy traveled to Hollywood and stayed for two months, rooming with a young Robert Stack, closely observing the great stars, trying to fathom the secret of their allure.

While dining together, Kennedy found Gary Cooper “yawn-inducingly boring,” yet upon leaving the restaurant Cooper was mobbed by adoring fans.

“How does he do it?” Kennedy asked a friend, following up with the more important question, “Do you think I could learn how to do it?”

It was not a crash course that Kennedy took, but a life-long tutorial. Previous presidents and politicians might have posed with a star as a publicity stunt (see Lauren Bacall lounging on Harry Truman’s piano), but Kennedy actively cultivated stars as friends, lovers, advisers, and helpers.

Kennedy learned the business so well that while president he took control and personally approved the cast and script of a movie about his wartime exploits in the South Pacific, though PT-109 did not star Kennedy’s first choice to play himself, Warren Beatty.

Before that, the star-studded gala organized by pal Frank Sinatra for Kennedy’s inaugural was such a break with the past and heralded such an obviously new alliance between entertainment and politics that actress Better Davis giddily proclaimed that “show-biz … has become the Sixth Estate.”

Twenty years later, having been dumped by President Kennedy because of alleged ties to the mob, Sinatra organized a similar gala for Reagan’s inaugural, crooning “Nancy (With the Laughing Face)” to the new First Lady who blew kisses back.

Reagan would also follow Kennedy’s lead in turning the White House into a major venue for cultural events, though none glittered as much as the Pablo Casals concert organized for Kennedy in 1961.

Now, such cross-pollination between politics and show business is routine. Actors adopt political causes, politicians seek celebrity endorsements, Hollywood funds the left and right in Washington, and presidents set a cultural tone in ways unimagined a half-century ago.

When Clark Gable stood bare-chested in 1934’s It Happened One Night, it allegedly ruined the nation’s undershirt industry. When it was learned that Kennedy did not like hats, the hat business faced a huge downturn. The president as a “leading man” to borrow historian Burton Peretti’s theme, never seemed more obvious.

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50th anniversary of influential Kennedy tax cuts

Fifty years ago Wednesday (Feb. 26), perhaps the most progressive president in history, Lyndon Johnson, signed into law sweeping cuts in income tax rates that had first been proposed by President John F. Kennedy, and which arguably began a process that has led to the growing issue of income inequality in America.

The Kennedy tax cuts began a dramatic change in how Americans think about the income tax, its relationship to economic growth, the obligations of the wealthiest in our society, and how serious a problem we consider the national debt.

Important not only because of its effect at the time, seventeen years later, Kennedy’s tax program was used by President Ronald Reagan to justify his own additional substantial cuts in income tax rates, which further accelerated the gap between rich and poor.

While the results of their tax programs were similar in many ways, Kennedy and Reagan had different reasons for proposing tax rate reductions—and none were necessarily about relieving the wealthy of a large share of their tax burden, though that was a significant practical effect.

When Kennedy took office in January 1961, the highest marginal federal income tax rate was an astonishing 91 percent, a holdover from the high rates first imposed under Herbert Hoover to counter the Great Depression, and even higher rates later, peaking at 94 percent for the highest income earners, to fund World War II.

Despite the high tax rates sustained during the Eisenhower administration, the U.S. economy had grown at a solid average rate of 2 to 3 percent per year and there were few serious discussions about reducing the federal tax burden.

But there was considerable concern that the American economy was underperforming, particularly vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, whose economy was (erroneously) believed to be growing at an astronomical rate of 6 to 10 percent per year.

Viewing almost every issue as he did through the prism of the Cold War, Kennedy asked his economic advisers how the United States could achieve at least an annual 5 percent growth rate to keep pace with the Soviets. The answer from his chief economic adviser, the liberal University of Minnesota economist Walter Heller, was tax cuts—for at that time liberals were arguing for tax cuts while conservatives were opposed, worrying that a tax cut would lead to deficit spending that would trigger inflation.

Kennedy initially sided with the conservatives, for he, too, feared inflation more than unemployment, part of an overall world view that led historian Allen J. Matusow to label Kennedy the “quintessential corporate liberal.”

But Kennedy was eventually persuaded by Heller and others that tax cuts would spur economic growth. Retrospectively, Heller insisted that Kennedy hoped that the ensuing prosperity would free Congress to spend more on social programs aimed at reducing poverty.

Heller acknowledged that Kennedy’s proposal was based, at least partly, on the theory of “supply-side economics,” which argues that in the right circumstances the loss of revenue from tax cuts can be fully or at least partially offset by higher tax revenues from increased economic activity spurred by the tax cut.

Heller argued that the key difference between the Kennedy tax cuts and the Reagan tax cuts was intent; Kennedy, at least according to Heller, wanted to cut taxes to stimulate the economy so he could increase federal spending, while Reagan would have been sorely disappointed had his tax cuts actually generated more federal tax revenue.

Despite Reagan’s apparent embrace of supply-side economics, as Reagan aide Bruce Bartlett has noted, neither Reagan nor any of his close advisers argued that his tax cut would “pay for itself.” Nor did any of them view the promotion of economic growth as the prime consideration behind a tax cut.

Rather, Reagan was candid in hoping a tax cut would lead to a reduction in the size of the federal government. Author Jeff Madrick said Reagan subscribed to conservative economist Milton Friedman’s belief that the only way to reduce federal spending was “to starve the beast.”

Appeals to fiscal discipline had failed to convince the nation to reduce or at least stall the growth in federal spending. Reagan said it was time for a new approach. In a nationally televised speech, Reagan explained, “Well, you know, we can lecture our children about extravagance until we run out of voice and breath. Or we can cure their extravagance by simply reducing the allowance.”

Where Kennedy’s legislation lowered the top marginal rate from 91 to 70 percent and the lowest marginal rate from 20 to 14 percent, Reagan in 1981 proposed reducing the top marginal rate from 70 to 50 percent and the lowest rate from 14 to 12 percent.

Both tax cuts were followed by periods of substantial economic growth. In the two years after Kennedy’s tax cuts took effect, the U.S. economy grew by 17 percent, which prompted federal spending to increase by 13.5 percent. U.S. News & World Report gushed that the tax cuts had “achieved something like magic,” and LBJ was led to believe he could do both “guns and butter,” funding the Vietnam War and the Great Society.

In the first year after Reagan’s tax cuts took effect, economic growth actually declined by nearly two percent, but in each year of Reagan’s second term the economy grew by an average of roughly four percent per year. Reagan and his fellow conservatives credited this growth to the tax rate reductions—just as had those who supported the Kennedy tax cuts.

The degree to which the ensuing economic growth could be credited to either of the tax cuts is still hotly debated among economists. The 1960s and 1980s were also periods of technological advances and increased government spending, especially on defense. Reagan also benefited from monetary policies, which he supported, that greatly reduced the inflation that had burdened the economy in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These were all critical factors, too, but the perception that tax reductions almost automatically trigger economic growth became embedded in the public consciousness.

If Heller accurately portrayed Kennedy’s rationale for the tax cuts, then it did indeed lead to increase domestic spending. But if Reagan’s goal in cutting taxes was reduced federal spending, he failed. Not a single major federal agency or program was eliminated during his administration.

Because domestic spending was not abated, because defense spending increased, and because the tax cuts did not pay for themselves, deficit spending worsened, as Kennedy, conservatives, and others had worried they would. Reagan had said a balanced budget was his goal, but he was unwilling to sacrifice spending on defense to achieve it.

In 1961, Kennedy’s first year in office, the federal deficit was just more than $3 billion; by 1968, LBJ’s last year and three years after Kennedy’s tax cuts took full effect, the federal deficit was $25 billion. Of course, these numbers were dwarfed during the Reagan era. In 1981, Reagan’s first year in office, the government ran a $78 billion deficit but by 1983 the annual deficit topped $200 billion and stayed near or above that amount throughout Reagan’s presidency.

Yet, because public opinion credited the tax cuts with economic growth (and because everybody personally enjoys paying fewer taxes), the public outcry was muted.

Increased American comfort with deficit spending led former Vice President Dick Cheney to proclaim that Reagan had proved, with Kennedy and LBJ’s prior example, that “deficits don’t matter,” at least politically. Heller had bragged that the great achievement of Kennedy’s tax cuts was that he had “banished’ the idea that public debt was “burden on our grandchildren.”

Worry over debt, of course, has not been banished in many quarters, but it does appear that the Kennedy and Reagan tax cuts combined have had the very significant result of creating a new sense of what is an appropriate or fair tax rate, especially for the wealthy.

This was highlighted during the bitter debate two years ago when, at President Barack Obama’s behest, the top marginal rate for those individuals earning more than $400,000 per year was raised from 35 to 39.6 percent. This rather small 4.6 percent gap was conflated by antagonists on both sides as the difference between creeping socialism and unfettered capitalist greed.

Forgotten was that Republican President Herbert Hoover approved a top income tax rate of 63 percent on those making more than $1 million per year to help the government deal with the Great Depression, and that the Republican President Dwight Eisenhower made no serious effort to lower that top 91 percent marginal tax rate that had existed throughout the 1950s.

Such rates today would be automatically dismissed as confiscatory, while conservatives, now lacking the caution of their forbearers, appear to argue that tax cuts are always good for the economy.

They always seem to be good for the wealthy. By the end of Reagan’s two terms, taxes on the middle fifth of income earners had been cut by 0.7 percent and many low wage earners had actually seen their taxes increase because of a Reagan-sponsored increase in the payroll tax to fund Social Security. The top 10 percent of income earners, meanwhile, had had their taxes cut 3.3 percent, while taxes fell 8.1 percent for the notorious top one percent.

Kennedy had also been warned that his tax cuts would benefit the rich at the expense of the poor and middle class. Liberal economist Leon Keyserling complained at the time that 45 percent of the Kennedy/LBJ tax cuts went to the wealthiest 12 percent of Americans. Keyserling warned that income inequality would result in a sluggish economy because too many consumers would have too little purchasing power.

In 1983, during the worst of the Reagan recession and before the economy rebounded, a 1983 Gallup survey found that 70 percent of Americans agreed with the statement, “Reagan represents the rich rather than the average Americans.”

Yet, while middle class Americans seem to understand that their economic interests have been harmed over the past several decades, there is no sense that they believe that income tax rates have played a role in their worsening condition.

Perhaps this is because both parties—first Democrats under Kennedy and Johnson and then Republicans under Reagan—embraced dramatic reductions in income tax rates, especially for the wealthy, and then credited those tax cuts for subsequent economic growth. This change in how Americans now view the income tax, their faith that tax cuts spur the economy, and the growing disparity in income was a bipartisan effort.

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Are Kennedy and Reagan really our greatest presidents?

Forget Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt. If Americans today could choose which presidents’ faces should be chiseled on Mount Rushmore it would be John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

For the past fifteen years, when Gallup and others have asked Americans whom they consider our greatest president, the response has consistently been either Kennedy or Reagan. Only Lincoln has occasionally edged them out of the top spot.

Late last year, in a survey taken in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, 90 percent of respondents said they believed Kennedy had been a good president, while 78 percent gave a positive retrospective job approval rating to Reagan.

These numbers are an astonishing political consensus in a nation that is supposed to be deeply polarized. To get those highly positive numbers, it is clear that many conservative Republicans now have fond memories of Kennedy, the icon of liberals, and more than a few Democrats feel an affection for Reagan, the icon of conservatives, that did not exist during his presidency in the 1980s.

What makes Kennedy and Reagan’s enduring appeal more striking is that historians do not generally share the public’s high opinion of either man.

While surveys vary a bit depending upon who is participating, the consensus among historians is that Kennedy and Reagan were only slightly above average presidents.

A cumulative average of some fifteen surveys taken by historians over the past twenty years rank Kennedy as the eleventh-best president in history (out of forty-four), while Reagan ranks six spots lower at seventeenth.

Critics suggest the discrepancy between the judgment of historians and public opinion is attributable to the publics’ fancy for Kennedy and Reagan’s more superficial qualities, such as their good looks, glamorous wives, and, most particularly, their mastery of communications, especially how they presented themselves on television.

But a close examination of their presidencies reveal similarities in temperament and policies that suggest they represent a political ideal for how Americans hope their presidents act.

At first glance, Kennedy and Reagan might seem to have little in common. Kennedy, the youngest man ever elected president, is an icon of liberals. Reagan, the oldest man elected president, is the icon of conservatives. Yet, for all his high-minded rhetoric, each man governed as a pragmatic centrist.

It is not that their words did not matter. As Richard Reeves, a biographer of both men, has noted, in politics words can be more important than deeds.

While the term is more associated with Reagan than Kennedy, in truth both men believed in the idea of American exceptionalism, which is the idea that the United States has, in the words of historian Russel B Nye, “a particular mission in the world, and a unique contribution to make to it.”

It is hard to think of two American programs more attuned to the idea of exceptionalism than Kennedy’s belief that the United States should be the first nation to put a man on the moon, or his idea of a Peace Corps in which bright young Americans could bring peace and prosperity to underprivileged villagers around the world.

Reagan aimed equally high, for he believed God had placed him in the presidency for the specific reason of bringing down communism and reducing the threat of nuclear war.

While Reagan’s rhetoric actually increased East-West tensions during his first term in office, by the time he left office, with the remarkable personal relationship he forged with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, he had largely achieved both goals.

It is instructive, however, that Reagan hastened the dissolution of the Soviet Union with quiet diplomacy rather than armed confrontation.

Both Kennedy and Reagan dramatically increased defense spending, including on nuclear weaponry, during their presidencies, and both engaged in rhetoric that can only be described as bellicose.

Yet, when each man was faced with the real prospect of nuclear war, Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis and Reagan after the USSR shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007, they ignored advice form their hard line advisors and stepped back from the brink. Ultimately, they proved to be men of peace.

It was a sense of caution that each man also exhibited in domestic affairs.
While his inaugural address, with its call to “pay any price” for liberty, inspired the Freedom Riders and others to act, for most of his presidency Kennedy fretted that civil rights activists were pushing too hard and too fast.

Reagan had promised a “revolution,” but ultimately did not eliminate a single major federal program or agency; in fact, he ensured the cornerstone of the New Deal, Social Security, remained solvent for decades.

Like FDR and Lincoln before them, Kennedy and Reagan’s enduring popularity is a sign that Americans expect both inspiration and pragmatism from their presidents. It is a remarkably delicate balance that only the most adroit politicians can manage, but then that is why Americans would place Kennedy and Reagan on Mount Rushmore.

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Laughter is one of Kennedy and Reagan’s enduring legacies

American politicians are no longer as popular as they used to be, but then American politicians are no longer as amusing as they used to be.

Few presidents—few politicians—used humor more effectively than John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

Not coincidentally, surveys conducted over the past dozen years show Americans consistently ranking Kennedy and Reagan as our two greatest presidents. The only other contender is Abraham Lincoln, also a president known for his effective use of humor.

There is an old show business adage that “dying is easy; comedy is hard.” Humor is risky. A joke gone wrong can cause offense or seem mean-spirited. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was temporarily derailed by his quip that Hillary Clinton was “likable enough.” Obama hasn’t told many spontaneous jokes since.

Further, humor must be funny, and to be funny a joke has to explore some truth about the human condition. Truth is a high bar for politicians.

Given the pitfalls inherent in humor, the public cannot help but admire a politician who has the self-confidence to attempt it, though just being funny isn’t enough. If it were, we’d have had President Mo Udall and President Bob Dole.

The humor must also serve a purpose, and this is why Kennedy and Reagan were such successful practitioners and why they are so fondly remembered.

Kennedy and Reagan used very different forms of humor, each tailored to the image they wished to present to the American public.

As the author of two books, Kennedy enjoyed his reputation as an intellectual. His brand of wit was a Shavian mix of wry and often self-deprecating quips, and ripostes designed to project urbanity.

A prime example, which he penned himself, was Kennedy’s welcome to a group of Nobel laureates dining at the White House: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House—with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Another of Kennedy’s well-remembered bon mots was his observation that Washington, D.C., is “a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.”

Americans were particularly enthralled by Kennedy’s use of humor during his legendary news conferences televised live. Kennedy’s command of facts and the most minute data of government was impressive, but what wowed a televised audience that once reach sixty-five million Americans was that he was comfortable enough to make jokes such as his laconic reaction to the news that the Republican National Committee had passed a resolution declaring his presidency a failure: “I assume it passed unanimously.”

Reagan was also capable of a quick quip. Surrounded by doctors and other medical personnel after he had been shot by a would-be assassin, Reagan still had the presence of mind to joke, “If I had this much attention in Hollywood, I’d have stayed there.”

But Reagan’s preferred use of humor was to call upon his reservoir of hundreds of hoary stories and corny jokes that he had collected and memorized over the years.

In Hollywood, Reagan had enjoyed lunching with the movies’ top comedians, such as Bob Hope or Jack Benny, at the legendary Chasen’s restaurant and watching them try out their new material on one another and learning a thing or two about comedic delivery.

But Reagan’s jokes were well received not simply because of his deft timing, but because, much like Lincoln before him, he somehow always had a joke at the ready appropriate to underscore whatever point was making.

Unlike Kennedy, Reagan’s aim was not urbanity, but folksiness. If Kennedy seemed ready to match wits with the Algonquin Roundtable, Reagan’s stories appealed to those who skimmed the Reader’s Digest for new jokes to share at the next Rotary Club meeting.

Reagan’s professed favorites were jokes that he claimed were told by Soviet citizens that emphasized both the failure of the communist system and the shared humanity of Americans and Russians.

In one story, Reagan asserted that the Soviet economy was in such shambles that a Soviet citizen had to wait ten years to purchase a new car. Reagan said one fellow had finally completed all the necessary paperwork and was told by the apparatchik in charge to come back ten years from that day to pick up his car.

“Morning or afternoon?” the man asked. “Ten years from now, what difference does it make?” the apparatchik asked. “Well,” said the man, “the plumber is coming in the morning!” Ba-da-boom!

The audience laughed for Reagan as they laughed for Kennedy, which is likely why so many Americans still smile at their memories.

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Happy Birthday, Ronald Reagan: A Legacy Reconsidered

Were he alive, Ronald Reagan would turn 103 years old today (Feb. 6) and likely be pleasantly surprised to discover he is far more popular now than when he left office twenty-five years ago.

Multiple surveys taken over the past fifteen years show Americans now rank Reagan as one of our three greatest presidents, along with Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.

A recent CNN/ORC survey found that 78 percent of Americans believe that Reagan did a good job as president.  Only Kennedy, with an even more extraordinary retrospective job approval rating of 90 percent, ranks higher among presidents of the past half-century.

But Reagan’s current popularity is more surprising than the martyred Kennedy’s because Reagan was a far more polarizing figure when in the White House.

In his brief thirty-four months in office, Kennedy averaged a job approval rating of 70 percent, and his lowest approval rating was 56 percent in the weeks shortly before his assassination because of the loss of Southern white support over the issue of civil rights.

To place those numbers in recent context, according to Gallup, President George W. Bush never had a job approval rating above 51 percent during his entire second term, and President Barack Obama has not had an approval rating above the 56 percent since his first few months in office.

On the other hand, Obama has never had an approval rating quite as low as Reagan’s worst, which was an abysmal 35 percent during the worst of the 1982-83 recession, an example of the many peaks and valleys of Reagan’s popularity.

Despite popular memory, Reagan did not come into office with a great mandate.  He won election with less than 51 percent of the popular vote in 1980 and only 11 percent of those who voted for him said they did so because of his conservative ideology.

Upon taking office, Reagan’s job approval rating was a very modest 51 percent—the lowest of any president so early in his presidency—but it soared to 68 percent after he survived an assassination attempt in March 1981.

After the nadir of the recession, his approval rating climbed steadily during the economic boom of the mid-1980s, plummeted again following revelations of the Iran-Contra scandal, and rose once more near the end of his presidency when Reagan reached a series of groundbreaking arms control agreements with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Still, for a decade after he left office, Reagan’s legacy remained decidedly mixed.  An ABC News poll taken just a few years after he left office found that Reagan was simultaneously ranked both the greatest president in American history and the second worst, behind only Richard Nixon, and as recently as 1999 only 56 percent of Americans believed Reagan would be remembered as an “above average” or better president.

Since then, however, Reagan’s appeal has grown and, more importantly, broadened.

The conservative Republican icon could not receive a retrospective job approval rating of 78 percent without having won over a significant number of Democrats, including some self-identified liberals, just as Kennedy could not enjoy a 90 percent approval rating without the support of some self-identified conservatives.

Some of Reagan’s enhanced popularity among non-Republicans is due to sympathetic comparisons of Reagan’s more pragmatic brand of conservatism with the alleged radicalism of today’s Tea Party-influenced Republican Party.

But some is also due to the realization that for all his heartfelt conservative beliefs and rhetoric, Reagan, by and large, governed as a centrist.

Reagan, of course, had been a devoted liberal and Democrat until at least about 1950 before he began a political pilgrimage to the right and quickly became as vocal in his pride in his newfound conservatism as he had been in his old New Deal liberalism.

Many accused Reagan of seeking only to benefit big business and the wealthy, but he certainly did not want to be seen as only a friend to the privileged.

During his 1980 campaign, he said, “We Republicans have to show people we’re not part of big business and the country-club set.  We’re part of the Main Street, the small towns, the city neighborhood; the shopkeeper, the farmer, the cop on the beat, the blue-collar and the white-collar workers.”

And it is one of Reagan’s most enduring political legacies that he helped redefine populism.  Populism had once meant being a foe of the pervasive power of big business, which ran roughshod over the common people.

Reagan tapped into an even older tradition of populism, dating to the founders of, of all things, the Democratic Party—Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson—who had argued that big government was at least as great an enemy of the people as big business, for government, rather than serving to equalize power between the “haves” and “have nots,” too often tilts in service to powerful special interests.

This new populism is not aimed at the dispossessed, historian Gil Troy noted, “but to those with some possessions to lose.”

Yet, despite the supposed “Reagan Revolution,” Reagan did not eliminate a single major federal program or agency.  He cut income tax rates (as had Kennedy), but he also took personal command and adopted the recommendations of a bipartisan commission that made that cornerstone of New Deal liberalism, Social Security, solvent for decades—largely by supporting an increase in the payroll tax.

Reagan’s anti-communist rhetoric was bellicose, and he dramatically increased defense spending (as had Kennedy), but in foreign affairs he was interested in preserving the peace and cautious enough that his own United Nations Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick once fumed, “Ronald Reagan resembles Jimmy Carter more than anyone conceived possible.”

When Barack Obama first ran for president in 2008, he raised many Democratic eyebrows by professing hope that he might be a “transformative” president like Reagan, whom he had also praised for helping Americans “rediscover the traditional virtues of hard work, patriotism, personal responsibility, optimism and faith.”

Following Obama’s lead, liberals now co-opt the Reagan legacy in much the same way that conservatives, including Reagan, began claiming Kennedy as one of their own a number of years ago.  This cross-partisan identification could not occur had either Kennedy or Reagan governed at the extreme of the American political spectrum.

There is an ongoing debate about whether America is a “center-right” or a “center-left” nation.  It might be either, depending upon the circumstances, but the operative word in either assertion is “center.” That is where Kennedy and Reagan both governed and is a significant reason they are currently our most admired presidents.

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Super Sunday Thought: How Football Shaped Our Two Most Popular Presidents

Ever since Teddy Roosevelt demanded that colleges change the rules to protect players’ lives and health, American presidents have often had an intimate relationship with football, but none were more profoundly shaped by their experiences in football than were John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

But it was not success in football that changed their lives, but their failure in the sport that pushed these hyper-competitive men to direct their combative energies elsewhere, most especially politics.

Success in football, Reagan remembered, was “a matter of life and death.” Baseball may have been the national pastime, but when Kennedy and Reagan were schoolboys in the 1920s and 1930s heroes such as Red Grange and Notre Dame’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” had made football the premier interscholastic sport.

Success in football had special appeal to two scrawny, bookish, and often lonely boys anxious to demonstrate their manhood and gain the admiration of their peers. Being a flop in football was particularly galling to both men because each had an older brother who excelled at the sport.

Coaches acknowledged that Kennedy was a scrapper who fought hard on every play. But at nearly fifteen, despite having entered a bodybuilding class, Kennedy, who battled a myriad of health problems his entire life, weighed only 117 pounds and was so skinny he earned the unfortunate nickname “Rat Face.”

Reagan was nearly as puny; at 125 pounds, he failed to make even the junior varsity team as a freshman in high school. Summer work as a lifeguard helped Reagan fill out, but he was still undersized for a lineman and slow and therefore saw limited playing time.

Reagan decided to enroll in Eureka College in large part not to get a college education, but to have one last chance to achieve gridiron glory. It was as elusive at Eureka as it had been at Dixon High.

The importance Reagan attached to football can be measured by his reaction to losing the 1976 Republican presidential nomination to Gerald Ford; he said the only disappointment he could compare it with was his failure to earn a letter, or even play a down, as a freshman at Eureka.

After that humiliation, Reagan nearly dropped out of school, but was persuaded to come back and eventually earned a varsity letter. More importantly, Reagan seemed to remember virtually every play of every game in which he participated, a feat that proved crucial when he had to broadcast a mock game, using only his imagination, when he later auditioned for and won a coveted job as a sportscaster.

Reagan became one of the most popular sports announcers in the Midwest, which led to a movie career that in turn led to his entry into politics.

Like Reagan, Kennedy hoped for another chance in college and he played on both the freshman team and the junior varsity his sophomore year at Harvard. But he still weighed less than 150 pounds and also having a bad back, he finally dropped the sport, but the dream stuck.

For most of his adult life, Kennedy still admired athletes more than intellectuals. His congressional aide, Billy Sutton, said that if you could figure out Kennedy’s fascination with football, “you’d have the real key to his character.”

Limited to still often-bloody games of touch football with his large family and many friends, Kennedy slowly warmed to the intellectual life, gaining fame in his early twenties by writing the best-selling book, Why England Slept.

But he never forgot his dream and spent many hours fantasizing about being the next Otto Graham or some other football star., “I honestly think he’d rather have been a pro football quarterback than president,” Sutton said.

As with Kennedy, football always had a special hold on Reagan. It is not a coincidence that perhaps his most heartfelt film performance was as the dying Notre Dame football star George Gipp.

While suffering from Alzheimer’s in the final years of his life, family members said Reagan would not reminisce about his time as president or even his life as a movie star. Rather, he would imagine he was back in school and was being called off the bench to enter a football game and have the opportunity to win schoolboy glory once more.

 

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Scott discusses “Kennedy and Reagan” on C-SPAN’s “Book TV”

Scott will be appearing on C-SPAN’s “Book TV” (C-SPAN 2) on Sunday, January 19, at 6:45 a.m. PST (9:45 a.m. EST). It is a tape of a presentation that Scott made back In November at Powell’s Books in Beaverton along with fellow author Dean Owen. The program can also be viewed at the following link: http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/November22

 

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Watch Scott discuss “Kennedy and Reagan” and “Almost President

Watch Scott on the exciting new network Pivot TV as he discusses “Kennedy and Reagan: Why Their Legacies Endure” with TakePartLive host Jacob Soboroff.  The segment aired December 5, 2013

Watch Scott discuss “Almost President: The Men Who Lost the Race But Changed the Nation” here on C-SPAN’s Book TV during Scott’s appearance at The Rediscovered Bookshop in Boise, Idaho, last year. Scott’s appearance at Powell’s Beaverton where he discussed “Kennedy and Reagan: Why Their Legacies Endure” will be broadcast on Book TV soon.

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