In The Greatest Communicator: What Ronald Reagan Taught Me About Politics, Leadership and Life, a book laced with insights and revealing personal experiences, Dick Wirthlin, for more than two decades Ronald Reagan’s pollster and political strategist, gives us in six words the essence of the 40th president’s success as a communicator: “Persuade through reason; motivate through emotion.”
Watch a video of any Reagan speech today and you will see this method at work. Always goal-directed, Reagan set three for himself as president: reduce taxes and rationalize the system; bring the Cold War to a successful conclusion; and limit the size and scope of the federal government. As we learn from Wirthlin, however, one goal, ending the Cold War, stood out above the others.
He relates a meeting with the Reagans one evening in the White House family quarters during which the president interrupts a discussion of some economic data by asking Wirthlin, “Do you know what I really want to be remembered for?” He went on to say that he wanted to be remembered as a president who brought “a sense and reality of peace and security. I want to eliminate that awful fear that each of us fears sometimes when we get up in the morning knowing that the world could be destroyed through a nuclear holocaust.”
Wirthlin describes a number of the moves Reagan made to achieve his goal: a sequence of speeches, policy decisions and summit meetings that resulted in the first arms reduction treaty and, in time, the unraveling of the Soviet Union.
The author recounts his first meeting with Reagan in 1968 (he didn’t know until shortly before who he was going to meet–but that’s another story). He writes, “I found that Reagan’s belief in America’s promise and his innate optimism paralleled by own.”
Over the next 20 years Wirthlin would regularly bring Reagan his research findings and his recommendations,. Quiet and self-effacing, Wirthlin would usually begin these meetings with a slight smile and the admission that , “I have bad news and good news.” The bad news was usually served up first, politely but straight-forwardly. Over the years Reagan knew that Wirthlin could always be relied on to give honest and earnest reports and advice.
Another insight Wirthlin shares is Reagan’s competitive instinct. Those of us who worked closely with Reagan were aware of this, but it was not generally known, for his demeanor was one of affability. He dealt with setbacks gracefully and often with a touch of wry humor, but he liked to win. Wirthlin concludes that Reagan “relished the fight”
Values–a subject much discussed following this November’s election–were the heart of Reagan’s communicative strength, according to Wirthlin. He defines “values” as “those beliefs that give life its meaning and worth…like gravity, these invisible forces order the way we live,the choices we make, and the things we hold dear.” Underscoring his conclusion is the quotation of the late French President Francois Mitterand that Reagan “is not so much a Great Communicator–although he is–as someone in communion with the American people.”
For public figures who would like to achieve Reagan’s level of communicative skill, Wirthlin reveals that Reagan practiced and rehearsed his speeches many times, thus internalizing them.
Yes, he used a podium TelePrompter for major addresses and his famous four-by-six-inch “shorthand” cards for other speeches, but prepared himself thoroughly before ever stepping up to a podium.
The author also remarks on Reagan’s proclivity of focusing attention away from himself and to others. He writes, “…leaders who communicate their values while transferring attention away from themselves speak volumes. Doing so projects an image of self-assurance and concern for others.” The famous motto plaque on Reagan’s desk captures this idea well: “There’s no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.”
The book is not without faults, but they are few and minor, for example using the verb “construct” as if it were a noun and “data” as if it were singular. Vexing, however, is the lack of an index. This book is a valuable addition to the Reagan literature and an index would make it much more useful as a research source.
Nevertheless, Dick Wirthlin captures Reagan, the leader, and Reagan the man who inspired intense loyalty among so many people. This is a highly personal reminiscence and one that will be enjoyed by anyone who is interested in learning more about the man who, as Margaret Thatcher put it, “won the Cold War without firing a shot.”
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