The Gipper's Golden Rules

Nineteen-eleven was a vintage year. It was the year that gave us Ronald Reagan, one of the most decent, honorable, hardworking men to ever sit in the Oval Office. While the country at large is full of great Americans, they sometimes seem to be scarce in areas where the trappings of power can alter a person’s sense of reality.

There is nothing more annoying than a person with an aggrandized sense of self-basking in the glow of their own self-importance-and nothing more admirable than a person whose quiet sense of personal integrity is uncorrupted by power.

Reagan could have been the kindly grandfather living down the street. He often reminded me of my own Pennsylvania farmer grandfather who was also born in that fine year, 1911.

The life lessons absorbed from the Gipper are the subject of Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson’s book, How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life. As always, the lessons learned through experience are the most profound.

You can tell a great deal about executives, be they corporate, private or 501(c)3ers, by the way they treat the least person on the staff. In other words, the styles of Ronald Reagan and Hillary Clinton were vastly different.

Reagan was president of the greatest nation on earth but never forgot his roots. His faith in the good Lord gave his life a center. A foreign dignitary or a little old lady with a fake White House invitation would be treated with equal respect.

  • When life buries you, dig. A wonderful lesson recounted by Robinson is the pony story. Deep manure was a sign to Reagan that there must be a pony somewhere. He was the child of an alcoholic father who never gave up. Rather, he chose to the see the good in everyone and not let his misfortunes embitter his character.
  • Reagan believed in the value of hard work. Robinson recounts that Reagan did much of the physical labor on Rancho del Cielo himself-chopping wood, riding horses, and building fences. He didn’t see work as an affront to human dignity but rather as cooperation in God’s creation. In opposing confiscatory taxation, which robs men of the fruits of their labor, Reagan was defending the dignity of work.

  • Words Matter. The words penned by Robinson for Reagan’s trip to Berlin were unequivocal and direct. After speaking with one of the ranking diplomats, who told Robinson that Berliners had gotten used to the Wall, he went to dinner with some undiplomatic friends. The wife of a retired World Bank executive, Ingeborg Elz, told Robinson, “If this man Gorbachev is serious with his talk of glasnost and perestroika, he can prove it. He can get rid of this wall.” Obviously, she had not gotten “used to” the Wall.
  • The Berlin speech turned out to be one of the most fought over in the Reagan Administration. No fewer than seven other drafts were presented for the president’s consideration. Riding with deputy chief of staff Ken Duberstein a few hours before the speech, Reagan slapped Ken Duberstein’s knee and said, “The boys at State are going to kill me, but it’s the right thing to do.” Walls come down much faster with direct language than with dreamy wishes of hoping for freedom one day.

    Robinson reflects on how the Reagan speechwriters were able to work their craft so that Reagan sounded like Reagan while someone else was doing the actual writing. Soaking up the attitudes and directness of their boss made the job easier. No fence sitting. An evil empire is an evil empire.

  • Say your prayers. Reagan was a man of faith. After the attempt on his life he wrote in his diary, “Whatever happens now, I owe my life to God and will try to serve Him every way I can.” Bill Clark says he was a man of prayer in all moods and circumstances. Reagan’s attitude toward prayer taught Robinson not to be ashamed of his faith.
  • You Matter. The fate of the free world may not depend on one individual as it was carried by Ronald Reagan, but each person is of the utmost importance to other people in his life.
  • The core of Reagan’s presidency was about what was good for the country as opposed to the “it’s all about me” attitude. How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life is a wonderfully uplifting reflection on the life of a truly great man and how virtue can be applied to anyone’s life. Ronald Reagan was not great because he was famous, but great because he was so good.