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Thursday, June 10, 2004

Reagan and Leadership

During this week, we've all been bombarded with reflections of President Reagan. Not surprisingly, most of the remembrances have been fond ones. Watching the footage I’ve been struck by how plain spoken his speeches were. If you’re interested in a written portrait of Reagan that is easy to get through at just 260 pages you should check out the excellent book Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader by Dinesh D’Souza published in 1997. I read it back in 2000 and cracked it open again this week.

D'Souza is a conservative and author of the book The End of Racism published in 1995, which I would also recommend. He was a member of the administration in Reagan’s second term. From his first negative perception of how the White House was run he gradually grew in respect for Reagan and offers an analysis of Reagan’s leadership style and the important events of this presidency.

In short, D’Souza concludes that Reagan had the three essential characteristics of a leader.

  • Vision. Although we forget, it was Reagan who had the vision to see that totalitarianism was not sustainable and would be placed "on the ash heap of history" and concentrated his policies to that end. D’Souza does a great job of reflecting the tenor of the times and shows how out of step Reagan was with the western intelligentsia who thought the Soviet economy and system were strong (perhaps more so than the west) and the doves who thought we should appease the Soviets with trade. The author also argues that calling for SDI was also an act of moral vision spurred by Reagan’s conviction that an ongoing nuclear arms race was immoral (and certainly MAD) and that the government was failing by not attempting to protect its people. Reagan’s critics refer to him as a man of few ideas and indeed the author shows him as a man unconcerned with details who delegated much authority, which eventually would come back to haunt him in the Iran/Contra scandal of 1987. But overall, it was his vision that kept the ship on course and that the American people responded to. D’Souza would agree with the critics but points out that they were the right ones and that he never wavered from them.

  • Action. Reagan took action in confronting the Soviets with the famous evil empire speech, the military buildup that brought the Soviets to the bargaining table, his tough approach at the table, and finally his cooperation with Gorbachev that led to historic reductions in nuclear weapons and his call for the dismantling of the Berlin wall. His actions in Grenada (the first rollback of communism since the Truman Doctrine was inaugurated) and Central America also flowed directly from his vision of liberty as the current of history. In addition, his decisive action against the air traffic controllers set the tone for his presidency. Although he can be rightly criticized for increasing the national debt he did so in order to win the cold war, a worthy goal and one he accomplished.

  • Consent of the governed. In the era of Clinton government by opinion pole became increasingly popular. Reagan on the other hand used opinion poles to understand how the public might react to his course of action. He then persuaded people to his views through his plain spoken convictions. D’Souza records how on several occasions (his trip to Bitburg cemetery, the air traffic controller’s strike, his refusal to sign a treaty on sea exploration, his bombing of Lybia, among others) Reagan took action despite the public’s likely negative reaction and then eschewed his speech writers preferring to write his remarks to the American people himself and usually bringing them around to his point of view. As many of those interviewed this week testified, D'Souza grounds this ability to communicate effectively in Reagan’s complete comfort with himself and his ideals and the fact that with Reagan, what you saw is what you got.

  • As I watch the funeral ceremony today I’m proud that Reagan was our president and hope that history’s verdict is that Reagan was a true leader in a time where a leader was required.


    Ron said...

    I speculate that the arms race was really about bankrupting Russia. The US Government, using their own highly specialized think tank, figured out that they could run the Russian economy into the ground, thus breaking their system. That's what the arms race was about, I assert.

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