Like FDR or JFK, Ronald Reagan has become more of a symbol for many Americans than a flesh and blood person. For some he’s the embodiment of all that’s good in America, while for others he’s the very opposite. But beyond the political divides, who was Reagan, the man?
My guest today spent five years researching and writing an epic, non-partisan biography that seeks to bring the abstraction of Reagan back down to earth. His name is Bob Spitz and his biography is Reagan: An American Journey.
We begin our conversation discussing how Reagan’s hardscrabble childhood in the Midwest and his family’s staunch progressive politics influenced his early political outlook. Bob then shares how a young Ronald Reagan showed signs of becoming “the Great Communicator” as a young man and how his charm and innate talent for speaking led to a successful career in radio and the movies.
We then discuss why Reagan went from being a true believing Democratic New Dealer to being a leader in the burgeoning conservative movement in the 1960s. Bob delves into Reagan’s leadership style as governor of California and President of the United States and the important role Nancy Reagan played throughout his political career.
We end our conversation discussing Reagan’s ultimate legacy.
- How Bob went from the music industry to writing biography
- How Reagan’s upbringing influenced his later political career
- Why young Reagan idolized FDR
- Were there early signs that Reagan would become “the Great Communicator”?
- His early career in sports radio broadcasting
- Reagan’s transition to movies and acting
- Why Reagan was perpetually a “B” movie star rather than being a star
- Reagan’s tenure as president of the Screen Actor’s Guild
- When his political shift happened
- Reagan’s role in WWII
- How Reagan’s move to TV propelled his political career
- Nancy’s role in his career
- Reagan’s leadership style as a politician
- Why Reagan was such a good delegator
- How Reagan restored America’s belief in their leaders
- The assassination attempt that nearly killed him
- How Reagan remained popular despite the political controversies of his terms in office
- Is there a consensus forming about his legacy?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Joy Hodges
- Reagan’s radio career in Iowa
- Kings Row
- Knute Rockne, All American
- Olivia de Havilland
- First Motion Picture Unit
- G.E. Theater
- Jane Wyman
- Reagan’s 1964 speech for Barry Goldwater
- Reagan’s 1980 debate win over George Bush
- Iran-Contra affair
- Reagan fires 11,000+ air traffic controllers
- The Challenger speech
- “Tear down this wall!” speech
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Like FDR or JFK, Ronald Reagan has become more of a symbol for many Americans that a flesh and blood person. For some, he’s the embodiment of all that’s good in America, while for others, he’s the very opposite. But beyond the political divides, who was Reagan, the man? My guest today spent five years researching and writing an epic nonpartisan biography that seeks to bring the abstraction of Reagan back down to earth. His name is Bob Spitz, and his biography is Reagan: An American Journey.
We begin our conversation discussing how Reagan’s hardscrabble childhood in the Midwest, and his family’s staunch progressive politics influenced early political outlook. Bob then shares how a young Ronald Reagan showed signs of becoming the Great Communicator as a young man, how his charm and innate talent for speaking led to his successful career in radio and the movies.
We then discuss why Reagan went from being a true believing Democratic New Dealer to being a leader in the burgeoning conservative movement in the 1960s. Bob then delves into Reagan’s leadership style as governor of California and President of the United States, and the important role that Nancy Reagan played throughout his political career. We begin our conversation discussing Reagan’s ultimate legacy. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at AOM.IS/RonaldReagan.
Bob Spitz, welcome to the show.
Bob Spitz: My pleasure. Great to be here.
Brett McKay: So, you’ve got an interesting career. You’ve been in the music industry. You’ve represented the Partridge Family, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John. Then you’ve parlayed that into a writing career, where you’ve written biographies about the Beatles, the history of Woodstock. But now, you’ve got this tome of a biography about President Ronald Reagan. So, how did you go from writing about pop-culture music to President Reagan?
Bob Spitz: Well, it wasn’t just music. In between the Beatles and Reagan, I was Julia Child’s biographer. And so, when it came time to look for a new subject after I was Julia’s biographer, I thought that you could draw a straight line through the Beatles and Julia, through two elements that each of them had. And that was, number one, they were beloved, and number two, they had changed the culture. So, I was looking to find a subject who embraced both of those qualities. And the list was incredibly small.
I mean, I had thought for six months and gone through all the Kennedy Center nominees, the Medal of Honor winners, and people who embraced both qualities, both elements, were far and few. And my wife said to me, “What about Ronald Reagan?” And I took a big swallow and thought, “I can’t do this. I’m a lifelong Democrat. I’ve never voted for a Republican in my life. I didn’t vote for Reagan twice. How was I going to write a biography of Ronald Reagan?” But he embodied both of those qualities.
I mean, I was so intrigued by the fact that so many people in this country considered him a beloved individual, whether or not they agreed with his policies. I mean, he’s cited by Barack Obama and Bill Clinton as a beacon almost all the time. And he certainly changed the culture. And so, I thought, “I’m going to look into this a little more.” And what I did, I found a subject who led one of the most remarkable lives that I had ever encountered, and was so rich for a biography, and I couldn’t resist.
Brett McKay: Okay. So, besides, you said you were a lifelong Democrat. You never thought you’d write about Ronald Reagan because he was an icon of the Republican Party. But besides that, I mean, Ronald Reagan, he’s more symbol than man, almost, right? I mean, was that part sort of trepidation for you about this project, like, how do you get to the actual person, Ronald Reagan?
Bob Spitz: Yeah. Well, he had grown into myth, and that’s always difficult for a biographer to penetrate. I had the same thing with the Beatles when I became their biographer. You just have to do the legwork. I mean, it took me 2 1/2 years of talking to 350 people, and visiting all the places where Reagan grew up, and going through all his personal files until a picture of a personality emerges that you know to be true. And that happens with almost any biography that anyone encounters. If you do the legwork, soon enough, you can peel off the armor and get to the inner core of the person. And that’s what I was striving to do through all my work.
Brett McKay: So, let’s talk about Reagan’s childhood and youth. How did his upbringing influence his later political career?
Bob Spitz: Yeah, well that’s a good question. Ronald Reagan had one of the most humble backgrounds I’ve ever encountered. His father was a reckless alcoholic. His mom was a pious, religious person. They often had to move under the cover of night when the rent came due. Reagan and his brother often had to share just a single bed. So, what he did was, he kind of receded into his own little life world and blocked out everybody else around him. This allowed him to really have a fantasy life. He read a lot. He always reached for the stars. And this is a man again, who came from a humble background but wound up being not just the voice of the Midwest on the radio, but a Hollywood movie star, the Governor of California, and the President of the United States.
And I think a lot of it had to do with him protecting himself from his surroundings as a young kid. He also went to a college that was well beyond his means. He was basically, a C and a D student, and relied on his charm and his personality, and developed that. He had a strong religious background from his mom, he had a core set of principles that he always held dear to himself, and he traded on all of that to become the man he did.
Brett McKay: And what’s interesting, too, about his childhood that you talk a lot about too, his dad was a diehard Democrat. And his mom, you said she was pious, but she was a part of a church that was part of the Social Gospel movement, where it kind of became the Progressive movement.
Bob Spitz: Exactly right. And Reagan grew up as a Democrat, as a progressive liberal, who idolized Franklin D. Roosevelt. And what he idolized most of all was Roosevelt’s social embodiments. He loved the fact that Roosevelt honored the working man, who loved unions. He hated the oil barons and the bankers, and that he gave money to welfare for people. And so, Reagan had a lot of that background in him that he did get from his parents. And it was all kind of a liberal ethic.
Brett McKay: So, Reagan became known as The Great Communicator. That’s his nickname. Were there signs of that as a child or a young man, that he had this ability to connect with an audience, and just really say the right thing at the time?
Bob Spitz: Yeah, he really learned that in college. He got called on as a freshman to lead a student protest that basically, shut down the university. And it was right at that moment that he developed his voice. I mean, he really felt that he could stand up in front of a crowd and sway them with his rhetoric. And that was something he traded on again and again. You know, he did the same thing after college as a radio personality. He really learned how to use that voice and to communicate.
Brett McKay: So yeah, did he graduate college? Did he finish?
Bob Spitz: He did finish college, yeah. He did four years of college. Eked through, just barely eked through, and decided that he wanted something greater in life. And he had to leave the small town that he was brought up in, Dixon, Illinois, and move further west. And so, he wound up in Iowa, in Davenport, behind a radio microphone.
Brett McKay: And how did that happen? What that sort of an accident, or was he very persistent, like, that’s what he wanted to do and he just hit the pavement with resumes, and just said, “Can I get a job?”
Bob Spitz: Yeah, no, it was sheer fortitude and sheer dreaming. He decided he wanted to be a radio broadcaster, a sports broadcaster. So, he got in the car with his resume and went straight to Chicago, right to the top. And basically, the woman who was at the reception desk at the NBC affiliate there said, “Look, you’re going about this all the wrong way. It’s like baseball. You start in the minor leagues. So, find a small country station, get a job, get your foot in the door there, and see if you can begin your career that way.”
And so, he did. He found a small station in Davenport. He wedged himself in the door. And before he knew it, he had wedged the rest of himself in, as well. And he was off and running to a great career that, if it had only stopped in radio, he would have had a very, very successful career.
Brett McKay: Right. And I imagine calling sports games, that’s what he became known for, he learned how to communicate and improvise on the fly, right?
Bob Spitz: He did. He actually broadcast the games, the Cubs and the White Sox games, every night to as wide an audience as eight different states without ever having seen one of those games. He got all of the information on what was going on, on the field through teletype dispatches that he would then have to translate, and then broadcast as if he were listening to it as a live game. And so, he had to be incredibly creative, absolutely dramatic, and really know how to put something like that across.
Brett McKay: I think you mentioned one moment, one game, the teletype machine stopped working, so he had to just pretty much make something up for like, half an hour.
Bob Spitz: He had the guy fouling off ball after ball. He kept watching the teletype machine to see if it would come back on. He’d have the manager go out to the pitching mound to talk to the pitcher. Then there were more foul balls. And finally when it came back on, Reagan found out that the guy had fouled out on the first pitch.
Brett McKay: And at this time, I think another important thing, he wasn’t Ronald Reagan yet. He was known as Dutch Reagan. That’s how he introduced himself, and he was known professionally on the radio for a while, correct?
Bob Spitz: Yeah, absolutely. He had only ever been called Dutch, as a kid, in high school, in college. And that’s what his listening audience knew him as, too. Never, ever called himself Ronald, nor did his parents call himself Ronald.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about when he became Ronald Reagan. We all know, Ronald Reagan’s the one President that was a movie star before he became President.
Bob Spitz: Right.
Brett McKay: How did that happen? Because this guy’s in radio. How did he get in front of the Silver Screen?
Bob Spitz: You know, he accompanied the Cubs out to spring training. They were training on Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles. And he knew a young woman from Iowa named Joy Hodges, who was singing with big bands in LA, and had dinner with her. And she said, “You know, you ought to try out at Warner Brothers. You ought to try out for a screen test in the movies. You have what it takes, except for those glasses you’re wearing.” She took the glasses off of him and said, “Don’t ever put them on again.”
And right there at that dinner, he said, “Okay, call your agent. See if he can get me a screen test.” He had a screen test two days later, and about four days later as he was heading back to Davenport with the Cubs, he got a telegram that Warner Brothers wanted to sign him to a contract. And that was the beginning of the beginning.
Brett McKay: So, it was sort of like something he stumbled into, accidentally. Was this, I mean, did he have a goal, he thought, “Maybe one day I could do movies”? Because he acted, as a child.
Bob Spitz: He did. He acted, as a child, and he acted in college. And in fact, he was in a competition at Northwestern University, and won. And one of the drama coaches there said, “You know, you have a really good future on the stage.” So, Reagan was always thinking there might be something bigger than just being behind a microphone. He was eager. He had that at the back of his mind. And I think when he had dinner with Joy Hodges that night, he had his eye on Hollywood.
Brett McKay: So, Reagan started in movies, but he never became a leading man. He was always in these B movies. What kept him from becoming a star? Because it seems like the way you describe it, that’s what he wanted so bad. And it was always in his grasp, but just a little out of reach.
Bob Spitz: Well, what kept him from being a movie star was lack of talent. He was kind of wooden. He was charming. He had that look that best friends have in the movies. But he had no depth as an actor, and that always kept him from getting the roles that he coveted. I mean, he worked next to Errol Flynn, and Olivia de Havilland, and Betty Davis, and some of the bigger, Bill Holden, who was his buddy, some of the bigger stars. But he didn’t have what they had. And I think Jack Warner that. He had two opportunities in Kings Row, and in Knute Rockne, All American. And he was serviceable, but not star quality.
Brett McKay: One thing that came out of the movie business is that he became president of the Screen Actors Guild. What was his stint there like, and how did that spark … Did it cause a spark for his political career later on?
Bob Spitz: Well, his stint there was brilliant. I mean, he wasn’t just the president of the Screen Actors Guild for one term. He won for six terms running. And he did that because he had a real way of communicating with the actors who he represented, and he had an incredible sense of politics. He knew how to play them. Ronald Reagan was a political animal, not just around his dad when they talked politics, but in college, and especially in Hollywood. On the set, when they broke between each scene, Reagan was an incredible chatterbox.
I had the distinct pleasure of going to Paris and doing a huge interview with Olivia de Havilland, who was just on the cusp of her 100th birthday, and remembered so well how Reagan would talk politics between every scene. He was obsessed with it. In fact, when they went to the commissary for lunch, actors would wait to see where he sat before going into the commissary so they didn’t wind up next to him and get an ear full of politics. So, politics was always on Reagan’s mind. And that worked in conjunction with his presidency of the Screen Actors Guild, especially during one of the more violent times in Hollywood, during the strikes and the blacklist. And he knew how to wend his way through those particular obstacles. And that really helped him later on, when it came time for politics.
Brett McKay: Right. I mean, I think in the book you talk about, he stopped being it. And then they asked him to come back because he was just, everyone thought he did a good job at what he did.
Bob Spitz: Yeah, yeah. He was actually the president for five terms running. Then he took a hiatus, thinking, “I’m never going back to that.” But they really needed him around the time of the blacklist. And he agreed to come back and represent the Guild again.
Brett McKay: So, as you mentioned, we even talked about earlier in the show, he started off as a true-believing Democratic New Dealer. But now, he became this conservative icon. When did his shift in politics start happening? Was it around this time in the movies?
Bob Spitz: Yeah, oh, absolutely. It happened during the violent strikes. Olivia de Havilland actually set this out for me in perfect terms. The different committees in Hollywood at the time, there were many activist committees, were being infiltrated by people who believed in the communist principles. And Reagan saw how that really broke up meetings and interfered with studio politics, and felt that communists where an evil group. And so, his politics started to skew from the left to the right.
Also, Reagan had made a serious mistake. When he went into the Army, he had heard, during World War II, he had heard that the soldiers during World War I, when they came out when the war had ended, were forgiven their taxes. So, Reagan decided to take the chance and not pay his taxes, thinking that, “Of course, it’ll be the same during World War II.” And it wasn’t, and he wound up with a $93,000 tax bill, and never forgave Uncle Sam. He always felt Uncle Sam was picking his pocket, that big government was starting to interfere in his life, even though it had been his mistake. But that also helped skew his politics from the left to the right, as well. So, by the time he was finished as a Hollywood star, around the mid-1950s, Ronald Reagan was seriously looking at the Republican Party, and had left the Democratic Party behind.
Brett McKay: Well, you mentioned that stint in the Army. I didn’t know that about Reagan, that he served in the Army. What did he do during World War II?
Bob Spitz: Actually, he never left Hollywood. He was stationed in Hollywood with something called the First Motion Picture Unit. And their job was to make training films for the GIs. And in fact, it became more serious than that. Reagan famously narrated a film that was made in a Hollywood studio during World War II that had a simulation of Japan. And as the camera flew over the simulation, it guided the pilots later on, that would drop the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Brett McKay: Wow. So, his career as a Hollywood star ended in the 1950s. What did he do between the time, because he kind of, did he have a period where he was sort of out in the wilderness for a while?
Bob Spitz: Not so much the wilderness. He had a few interesting things … The first thing that befell him when he didn’t know what was going to happen in his life, was that he took a two-week job as the host of a corny vaudeville show in a Las Vegas casino. And he was despondent doing something like that. But he got an offer during this time to do television. And it was a place that he didn’t want to go. He felt that once an actor moved to television, because it was such a fledgling new thing, that it would cheapen his career. He still had hopes that he could revive his career, although he never did.
But an offer came his way to be a host of GE’s, General Electric’s Sunday night Anthology drama series called GE Theater, in which he could act, as well on several episodes. But the most important thing about that offer was, GE also asked him to be its ambassador. And that would be to travel during the weeks to its big plants all over America, and talk to the workers about what was going on at GE, and find out what was going on in the workers’ lives. Reagan absolutely loved this job. He did it for several years. And again, if he had only done this for the rest of his life, I think he would’ve been a happy buckaroo.
But this is where he became really involved with the working class, and what was going on with their lives. And he found that they were very much like the people he grew up with in Dixon, Illinois, people who were struggling to make ends meet. He listened to what they were doing. He listened to what their dreams and their desires were. And right there, in that job at GE, he really started to formulate his foundation as a politician later on.
Brett McKay: And besides that, he would also do what you called the mashed potato circuit. He’d go and do these off-the-cuff speeches. I think there, also, he sort of honed that ability to communicate on the fly, but also connect with an audience instantly.
Bob Spitz: Yeah, Reagan loved speaking. I mean, he spoke to the people at the GE plants. He would also always gather a group around and talk to them. But then, as you said, at night, he would go out and speak to civic organizations. The American Legion, or the Elks, or whoever paid for his services. And he developed a real, he was a raconteur. He loved telling jokes. He told some Hollywood stories. But then he would gravitate to politics, and what he thought was going on in the world, and what he felt needed to change. And audiences were kept in rapt attention.
Brett McKay: So, he was the spokesperson for GE during the 50s. How long that stint last? Did it go into the 60s?
Bob Spitz: That lasted five or six years, yeah, into the 60s, exactly right.
Brett McKay: So, how did becoming Governor of California end up on his radar?
Bob Spitz: Well, he became such a good speaker that he had attracted a small group of businessmen in California where he lived, who thought that he had something to give, in a larger way, in a political way. And these were wealthy businessmen who were either, they controlled all the car dealerships, or they had oil, or beer manufacturing. They later became, of course, his kitchen cabinet, his famous kitchen cabinet. But they asked him to give a speech in 1964, for Barry Goldwater, as Goldwater’s candidacy was really tanking. It was a half-hour speech on TV, which they paid for.
And it was all there on that stage. The charisma, the charm, the wisdom, the connection. Reagan had it all. And those businessmen looked at him, and they thought, “We’ve got the wrong politician on the ticket.” And they decided then and there to run Ronald Reagan for Governor of California.
Brett McKay: Before we get to his stint as governor, we’ve got to talk about a person who played a huge role in Reagan’s life, and that was Nancy Reagan, his wife.
Bob Spitz: His second wife, by the way.
Brett McKay: Second wife, right, yeah. We didn’t talk about his first wife, the actress Jane Wyman.
Bob Spitz: And was really crushed when that marriage fell apart.
Brett McKay: But then he meets Nancy. And one thing, if you look at pictures of Ronald and Nancy, you always see Nancy kind of looking up wistfully, with doe eyes, at Ronald Reagan. But this picture you paint of her, she was also very assertive and very powerful. So, what was Nancy’s role in Reagan’s political career?
Bob Spitz: Well, you know, that’s funny. When I wrote about the Beatles, I knew that the bogeyman of the story was Yoko Ono.
Brett McKay: Right.
Bob Spitz: And boy, was I wrong. She was not. In fact, she was a strong, assertive woman. And when I began working on the Reagan biography, I thought, “Ah-hah. I understand. The bogeyman of this book is gonna be Nancy Reagan.” And I was wrong again. As you said, she was strong, she was assertive, she had his back throughout his entire life. When they got to the White House later on, Nancy had one goal and one goal only in mind, and that was to protect her husband’s legacy. She wanted him to be known after his presidency, as a man of peace. And from the very first day they set foot in the Oval Office, she hounded him incessantly to make peace with the Soviet Union, and to reduce the threat of nuclear war. And I think, after all my research, I can safely say that we have Nancy Reagan to thank for Reagan meeting with Gorbachev, and indeed, reducing the threat of nuclear annihilation and the dismantlement of the Soviet Empire.
Brett McKay: So, circling back to his career as Governor, what was his leadership style like as an executive?
Bob Spitz: Well, he didn’t really know what he was doing as Governor, to begin with. He really was just winging it. And so at the beginning, the first two years were a little chaotic. But then he hit his stride. And here’s what he discovered. He had a most Democratic assembly in his legislature. And of course, he was a Republican. And he realized that the only way he could get anything done was through compromise and cooperation.
And so, Reagan frequently reached across the aisle to work with the Democrats and to get bills passed. And this was something that occurred, not only in his governorship, but in his presidency, as well. Because he wound up with a Democratic legislature, and Tip O’Neill as a very strong Democratic Speaker of The House. They disagreed on everything, but Reagan would reach across the aisle, work with O’Neill, and get things done. And he really learned this as the Governor of California. He decided that he had to represent everybody in his state. That is unheard of today.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about his political career as President, because I thought this was one of the most fascinating sections, leading up to his nomination as President in 1980. Because there was this huge amount of fierce politicking going on in the Republican Party. The Republican Party was sort of undergoing a identity crisis, if we can call it that. And Reagan steps in … and he was kind of a long shot at first, wasn’t he?
Bob Spitz: Yeah, he was a long shot. I mean, everybody thought of as just an actor who was trying to become President. And they were also worried about his kind of conservative politics, which were new. That was a new strain of Republicanism that hadn’t been in the White House before. And so, yeah, he was a long shot. I mean, the person who wasn’t the long shot was George Bush. George Bush had won the Iowa primary, the Iowa caucuses, and was just about to sweep the New Hampshire primaries, as well, until a famous debate with Reagan, in which Bush fell apart. And Reagan’s candidacy took off.
So, he was a dark horse. But once he won the nomination … actually, he was still a dark horse. People expected Jimmy Carter to win a second term. But the Iranian hostage crisis had really torpedoed Carter’s Presidency.
Brett McKay: Well, another thing we didn’t mention this, he challenged Gerald Ford, right, when Gerald Ford ran?
Bob Spitz: Yeah, that was in ’76. He ran against Gerald Ford. Absolutely unheard of to challenge an incumbent in your own party. Reagan almost won the nomination. It was only at the last minute that he didn’t. And Ford never really forgave him for that. And so, when Ford heard that he was running again, he tried to offer him an ambassadorship somewhere to get Reagan out of the way, or a cabinet post that would have put him in a corner somewhere. But Reagan was too savvy to fall for that.
Brett McKay: And you mentioned that, okay, going back to that debate, I know we are kind of jumping around, with George Bush, that was that famous debate where Reagan’s campaign paid for it. And that’s where he has that famous line, “I paid for this microphone,” and for some reason, it brought down the house.
Bob Spitz: Yeah, it was a very famous debate. It occurred toward the end of the New Hampshire primary, when he and George Bush were running neck and neck. It was a tumultuous night. And in the book, I really dramatize it, because it was full of drama. Bush tried to keep the other candidates who were running, Bob Dole, Howard Baker, Phil Crane, and John Anderson, off the debate stage. And Reagan wanted them on the debate stage. And in the band room at the school where they were holding the debate, I mean, they were all screaming at each other. It was incredible.
Bush was on the stage waiting for Reagan, and Reagan brought up the other people, the other candidates on stage. And Bush’s people would not let them speak. Bush wouldn’t even look at Ronald Reagan. He wouldn’t look at him in the eye. And so, once the other candidates left and it was just Bush and Reagan on this dais, Bush fell apart. And Reagan kind of never forgave him for that. When it came time to choose a vice president later on, and George Bush was the obvious choice, Reagan’s mind flashed back to that night in New Hampshire and thought, “I don’t want a guy who falls apart as my vice president.” But they struck a deal after that, and of course, you know how that turned out.
Brett McKay: I know how it turns out. So, he becomes President. What was his leadership style like as President? Was it similar to what he did as Governor of California, sort of delegate, very hands-off?
Bob Spitz: Yeah, absolutely. Reagan was not the smartest man in the room, and he knew it. His ego wasn’t so big that he couldn’t hire experts and rely on their advice, which is what he did. He had a fantastic Chief of Staff in Jim Baker, he had Ed Meese advising him on his politics, Mike Dever in the Oval Office, who handled all of his personal things. And he deferred to these people, especially to his national security people. He listened to them, he sifted through information, he chose the best people. And often, he changed his mind, based on what they had told him.
And Reagan, again, and I can’t emphasize this too strongly, was willing to reach across the aisle to make compromises, to bring the Democrats into his fold, and to get things accomplished. And he did. There was no infighting. They disagreed on policy, Reagan and the Democrats, but there was no fighting or hurling insults, or disparaging someone’s character. I mean, there was just none of that. They worked arm in arm.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I mean, it seems like one of Reagan’s things that you talk about throughout the book is this idea he was dedicated to decency, just American values, and he wanted Americans to feel that, right, and inspire Americans to reach for that?
Bob Spitz: Yeah, I think if you could point to one thing that Reagan accomplished more than anything else, he restored the morale of Americans for their government and their leaders. And that, in itself, is a remarkable accomplishment.
Brett McKay: Another interesting fact about Reagan’s presidency, is in just a few months, he had an assassination attempt. And I didn’t know how close this guy was to dying. I mean, it was pretty bad, right?
Bob Spitz: Yeah. Again, in the book, I was lucky enough to be able to speak to all the doctors and nurses who had attended him while he was in the hospital. And they told me these specific instances of how close that bullet was to his heart, and how difficult it was to remove it. There was a chance he was not going to make it. And this was only, this was a month after he had taken office. That’s how quickly this had happened. So, I think that assassination attempt changed his entire perspective. It really put them in touch with his own mortality, and he realized that he had some quick work to do. And he had to again, reach out to the Soviets and try to find a way to make peace.
Brett McKay: And again, exercising that Great Communicator improvisation ability, his wife comes in, sees him on the bed, and he says, famously, “Honey, I forgot to duck.”
Bob Spitz: Yeah, that was actually a Joe Lewis line. Joe Lewis used that when he was knocked out in his famous championship fight. And Reagan, Reagan the sportscaster, knew that line, and knew when to use it.
Brett McKay: So, Reagan’s Presidency, there was some controversies. The Iran-Contra affair, the economy started slowing down a bit, there was the strike with the air traffic controllers that he had to shut down. But despite all these controversies, Reagan remained a pretty popular President throughout his entire career. I mean, what do you think the appeal was? Was it just his ability to connect and communicate with people?
Bob Spitz: Yeah. He was an actor who had become President. And so, he knew how to use the camera, he knew how to talk to people, and he also strove for a middle ground. He was a pragmatist. He was conservative, but he was not a, what you would call a right-winger. He was a man who kind of hewed to the middle. And I think if you looked at Bill Clinton’s candidacy years later, Clinton is a Democrat also hewed to the middle. I mean, that was his secret, and that’s why his Presidency was so successful.
Yeah, Reagan knew that he was the President of all Americans, not just a few Americans. And so, I think he tried to do things that were not too radical, or too unexpected, or too self-serving. And that’s why, when an ardent Democrat like myself who never voted him, looks back on his career, I have a little fondness for it. Would I vote for him today? Absolutely not, because those aren’t my politics. I don’t follow those policies. But do I respect him as a man and a leader? Absolutely, 100%.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I mean, during those times as President, he gave some really famous speeches. We’ve done some articles on the most famous speeches in American history, and Reagan’s Challenger speech always comes up. His speech about tearing down the wall always comes up. I mean, did he write those himself, or were those sort of off-the-cuff, where you just, “I’m going to go with-”
Bob Spitz: No, they weren’t, they were written for him. But the secret was knowing how to deliver them. You could write something for anybody. If they don’t know how to deliver it, and put it across, and really sell their audience, then no matter what’s on the printed page, doesn’t mean that much. He had a way of communicating with his populace, and people loved him for it. And I would say safely, we miss him for it, as well.
Brett McKay: What were his last years like?
Bob Spitz: Well, his last years were haphazard. He famously came down with Alzheimer’s disease. I was actually very fortunate to be able to talk to the people who were in the room with him when they told him that he had it. I think it was always on the horizon for him. His mother had died of it, his father had it, his brother, Neil, had it. I think Reagan always felt it was coming down the pike. It was no surprise. And for several years after his Presidency, he managed to go into the office every day and see people. Bill Clinton famously came to see him. George Bush came to see him often. And he had his finger on the pulse of Washington.
But as the Alzheimer’s took over, his mind started to slip away, and things got tough for him. And in the end, the last two years of his life, Nancy made sure that he was not seen publicly. And she really gave up her own life to sit and take care of him until he died.
Brett McKay: It’s been 30 years since his Presidency. Is there sort of a consensus developing amongst historians and political scientists about his administration or his legacy?
Bob Spitz: I think more about his legacy than his administration. He’s been cited in all kinds of polls as being one of the 10 great Presidents. I don’t think it was really for what he did, although there was the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and really, his peaceful negotiations with Mikael Gorbachev. But his second administration was mired in Iran-Contra controversy, rightfully so. And he had really missed the boat on the AIDS crisis. He completely avoided it, which he even admitted was a huge mistake in his career. So, I think his legacy, when you look at it, is more about Reagan the man than Reagan the President. But yeah, he’s always ranked very high.
Brett McKay: What do you hope people walk away with about Reagan, after finishing your book?
Bob Spitz: Well, look, I mean, this is a man whose life framed the entire 20th century. So really, as you mentioned at the outset, it’s a great history lesson. It’s a great history lesson, there’s a lot about Hollywood, there’s a lot about growing up in the Midwest, and of course, a shift to the right and the rise of conservatism. So, I think what I’d like people to walk away with more than anything, is the fact that Ronald Reagan changed our lives, and changed the culture.
And this is how it happened. It’s a real behind-the-scenes look at it. I was afforded the right to see his private papers, which nobody had ever seen before. These weren’t the papers in the Reagan library. These were the ones that were in his office desk that he referred to often as he was Governor and President. And so, I hope that you really get a sense of the man and what he accomplished in his life.
Brett McKay: Bob, is there some place people can go to learn more about your work?
Bob Spitz: Absolutely. Head to my website, BobSpitz.com. You can find out about all my books. And if you want an autographed copy, you can even get one through the website. So, it’s a good place to start to look.
Brett McKay: Well, Bob Spitz, thanks so much for your time. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Bob Spitz: Mine, too. Thanks for having me here.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Bob Spitz. He’s the author of the biography Reagan: An American Journey. It’s available on Amazon.com and at bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at BobSpitz.com. Also, check out our show notes at AOM.IS/RonaldReagan, where you’ll find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.
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