Perception Through Rhetoric: Ronald Reagan, America’s Most Beloved President

Camden Smith

Professor Gieseking

Conflicts & Cultures in American Society:

The 1980s

The ability to influence others by speech remains one of the most essential skills leaders must possess. Dating back centuries, authority figures’ ability to connect and govern their constituents largely rested on their oratory capability. In modern American politics, Ronald Reagan represents the most gifted orator to assume the role of President. His background as a television and radio announcer, as well as a gifted Hollywood actor, led President Reagan to establish himself as an articulate politician. Before even being elected Governor of California, Reagan began inspiring the American public with influential and articulate speeches. Moreover, he was elected into the Presidency during a time of weak economic conditions and volatile international order. Yet, despite the fluctuation of his approval ratings during this troubled period, Reagan always maintained an extremely high favorability of his character. Throughout his eight years as President, Reagan gave a multitude of noteworthy speeches promoting his conservative views. However, there are five speeches in particular, ‘A Time for Choosing’, ‘First Inaugural Address’, ‘Evil Empire’, ‘Tear Down this Wall’ and ‘1988 GOP Convention’, that illustrated to the American public his compassion, authenticity and eloquence. These speeches and subsequent character traits propelled Reagan above the controversy over policy and into the role of America’s most beloved President.

It takes meticulous adjustments and persistence to develop oneself into a great orator. Beginning in high school, Reagan honed his skill by participating in school plays, writing for the yearbook and serving as student body president. He went on to attend Eureka College in Euerka, Illinois, where he played football and swam competitively. He also served as a school newspaper reporter, drama club member and president on the student council.13 Many of Reagan’s extracurricular activities demonstrate how he evolved his public speaking skill. Additionally, he learned how forging strong and personal connections with peers was essential to accomplishing feats while in positions of leadership. One of Reagan’s first known public speeches occurred at Eureka College, when he voiced his discontent on behalf of the student body advocating against eliminating particular classes. Moreover, Reagans’ college years coincided with the Great Depression, so he was forced to work multiple jobs in order to support his impoverished family back in the small town of Dixon, Illinois.13 Both Reagan’s oratory and communicating skills, as well as many of his conservative values originated from his college experience. His activities and political activism established a strong background that allowed Reagan to enjoy a successful career before entering politics.11

Following his college graduation, Reagan worked in several different positions as a sportscaster. He held several prominent roles as the announcer for Chicago Cubs baseball games, as well as for the Big Ten football conference.13 However in this capacity, Reagan was developing his oratory ability only on the radio, which omitted many components of speaking in front of a camera. Yet, it only took a few years before Hollywood discovered his knack for connecting with audiences and riveting them with his words. Reagan evolved into a Hollywood star by appearing in a total of fifty-two films before his career ended. Although, Reagan’s Hollywood life was interrupted when he left for the Army Air Corps in 1941. Reagan was already enlisted in the United States Army Calvary Reserve as a reservist soldier since the 1930s, but he shifted to active duty after Pearl Harbor.13 The beginning to Reagan’s love for the military can be associated with his time served in the Air Corps. Due to his nearsightedness, Regan could not be placed into a combat role, so he further perfected his oratory skills in the Air Corps First Motion Picture Unit.11 Reagan starred in various patriotic and instructional films aimed at boosting patriotism, as well as morale. After the war, he returned to Hollywood where he continued playing leading roles in films.13 Over the course of his early career in broadcasting and in film, he progressed his oratory ability, as well as his behavior on screen. This path was critical for Reagan to develop fundamental skills that would manifest in his political career.11

Reagan’s political feelings were exacerbated when he served as President of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) in 1947. In a time of the Second Red Scare, Reagan felt that many Hollywood members were displaying traits of communism.13 This unsettled Reagan and caused him to make a shift away from his previous left-leaning ideology. His parents were self-described democrats and Reagan was a moderate liberal for his early adult life. However, as Reagan became irritated and unnerved from the communists, his political ideology moved further to the right.11 In 1962, Reagan supported Richard Nixon for Governor of California and officially changed his party registration to Republican. Reagan began to broadcast his views against big government and overbearing taxes. With his well-respected background as an articulate and charismatic actor, in combination with his superior oratory skills, Reagan became an important endorsement for many Republicans.13 Reagan’s speaking ability finally broke into the national spotlight in 1964 during a rally for Barry Goldwater’s Presidential campaign in California.

Barry Goldwater chose Reagan to speak at his Presidential campaign rally due to their closely lined ideals. The speech, titled ‘A Time for Choosing’, is regarded as the singled event that launched Reagans political career. At the time it was not seen as a declaration of Reagans intentions to run for office, but retrospectively a clear correlation can be drawn from the speech and Reagan’s political ambitions, “I didn’t know it then, but that speech was one of the most important milestones of my life”7. Americans were captivated by Reagan’s speech, because it was delivered smoothly, but emphatically. The former Hollywood actor ensured his “effective political rhetoric [was] sharp and subtle at the same time”3, and that he connected with American’s who were listening.

Moreover, Reagan was able to demonize President Lyndon Johnson’s policies contrasting them to many conservative ideals. The ‘choosing’ refers to the choice America has to begin rejecting Johnson’s failed principles, “a comparatively angry and serious Reagan, serving up partisan red meat against liberalism and the Democrats”3. This electrifying speech maintained Reagan’s favorable personality amongst most Americans, but it more importantly introduced the political ferocity he was armed with. It garnered attention due to Reagan’s ability to connect with voters and demonstrated his many positive character traits.

After Reagan won the Republican nomination over his eventual Vice President, George H. W. Bush, he went on to beat sitting President Jimmy Carter by 9% of the vote. On January 20th, 1981, Reagan gave his first Presidential address in the West Front of the United States Capital.12 The patriotic backdrop provided the perfect opportunity for Reagan deliver an inspiring and uplifting speech that outlined his vision for the country. In the inaugural setting, Reagan employed symbolic terms and ideas that exemplified his conservative philosophy,” ‘We, the people,’ and its stern warning to ‘the enemies of freedom, those who are potential adversaries’ ”12. Moreover, Reagan continued his method of speaking to people through his speeches. Even in his inaugural address, Reagan was able to grow closer to his constituents, “Employing an almost conversational style rather than flights of rhetoric”12. He rallied the crowd by speaking to them rather then over them.

Moreover, the release of fifty-two American hostages in Iran coincided with the inauguration. The diplomatic crisis had occurred for 444 days and the safety of all involved left Americans particularly excited, “news seemed to turn the inauguration celebration, normally a highly festive occasion, into an event of unbridled joy for Mr. Reagan and his supporters” 12. The inauguration allowed Reagan to eloquently put forth conservative policy that he intended to address particular issues, which Carter had created with his liberal ideals. Both the safe release of all American hostages in Iran, as well as Reagan’s well received vision of government drove his approval rating hit 67% three months into office.10

Although Reagan was fortunate with the outcome and timing of the Iranian hostage crisis, there were many other imperfect conditions that he was forced to endure during his first term. Carter left the economy with high inflation, high unemployment and slow GDP growth. The Federal Reserve increased interest rates in order to curb inflation and Americans were in fear of a worsening economy.14 Additionally, the United States was entering the crux of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. This inherently led many Americans to fear for their safety, which reflected poorly on Reagan. Professor Greg Smith, Trinity College professor of Political Science, believes that the drastic fall of Reagan’s approval ratings from 1981 to March 1983 was primarily caused by substandard conditions that Carter left during the end of his Presidency.14 Early in his first term, Reagan introduced his laissez-faire economic polices dubbed ‘Reaganomics’, which proved successful in combating many of the economic problems. Yet, the larger scale problem was the Cold War. Reagan took a firm stance against the Soviet Union by building up the military and bolstering the CIA Special Activities Division (which stopped the global spread of communism).

Reagan articulated this strong opposition to the Soviet Union in an iconic speech titled ‘The Evil Empire’. Just as he did in earlier speeches, Reagan implemented symbolic terms and description in order to more strongly convey his points. The move was risky, because many left-wing academics and politician’s saw Reagan’s speech as an attack on their own ideologies. Dr. Henry Steele Commager, Amherst College History professor, deemed the speech, “the worst presidential speech in American history, and I’ve read them all”15. Many Americans believed that it was either a brainless strategic move or unethical to paint communism as an ‘evil empire’. Yet, Reagan spoke with conviction and illustrated his unapologetic approach about how the United States would perceive the Soviet Union,

It was a searing speech, not merely because it was so provocative, which it was, or incendiary or controversial, which it also was, but because it was such an obvious truth that so desperately needed to be said by someone at the presidential level. Ronald Reagan cut through the clutter, and the moral equivalency and accommodation, and spoke loudly and boldly, with the uncompromising courage and confidence that was so uniquely Ronald Reagan.6

 

Throughout the speech, Reagan demystified the atrocities and human rights violations that the Soviet Union committed. Natan Sharanksy, a Jewish dissident, who was being held in a Soviet labor camp “jumped for joy”6 and tapped Morse Code alerting other political prisoners of Reagan’s speech. Sharanksy overheard guards discussing the implications of the speech, and he felt as if, “the leader of the free world had spoken the truth — a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us”6. Reagan, through his conviction and direct oratory, invigorated people around the world with defiance against the Soviet Union. His words changed the perception of communism, and ultimately led to the downfall of the Soviet Union.

Speaking in West Berlin on June 12th, 1987, Reagan vigorously condemned the purpose of behind the Berlin Wall. He demanded that Soviet Leaders, and specifically Mikhail Gorbachev, remove the wall in order to liberate the people of Germany. At this point in Reagan’s presidency, he was a more confident and calculated speechwriter than at any point before his second term. Although Reagan spoke with similar authenticity and boldness in his second term, staffers were much more involved in the writing of his speeches. Professor Smith, a junior speechwriter for Reagan in the 1980s, believed that before Reagan’s second term, the President wrote the entirety of his speeches without editors or public relations officials reviewing them, “They were penned strictly by him”14. However, for addresses like the Berlin Wall speech, Reagan utilized junior and senior speechwriters, editors and public relations officials. Although unlike his Carter and all of his successors, Regan never hired a Director of Speechwriting position. Professor Smith noted that Regan would often times make substantial changes to the speeches, because he was skeptical of only one person writing his speeches.14

Reagan’s speech in Berlin was a powerful declaration to the world that denounced communism. The tone was more hostile and aggressive than other speeches, but Reagan’s strong morale objection to communism was fully illustrated. There was a fierce debate in the Reagan administration about the subject matter and symbolism within the speech, “Several opinion columnists criticized Reagan for being too naïve and idealistic”4. However, Reagan remained confident in his message and broadcasted the point around the world. His fearless and intrepid personality was transmitted through his message, which led to the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall.

When Reagan left office on January 20th, 1989, his approval rating of 63% exhibited the promising effects of his policies.10 Although only a slight majority of Americans found his job performance favorable, a much higher percentage found his personality likeable. Five months before Reagan departed from the White House, he gave an emotional address at the Republican National Convention in August 1988. Reagan reinforced the positive changes that his Presidency made to the economic and international conditions of the United States. However more importantly, Reagan demonstrated his compassionate and sincere nature by thanking the American people for their support. He spoke to the energized audience members by asking them rhetorical questions and jabbing at proposed democratic policies. Reagan’s oratory ability enabled him to discredit liberal ideals without coming across as ill-mannered. Reagan’s address to the convention epitomized his fiery personality, as well as his ability to remain mannerly.

In 2015, Reagan serves as the icon for many conservative values. He faced many difficult issues as he took over for a failing Carter Presidency. Moreover, international crises such has the Beirut barracks bombing, USS Vincennes shooting of an Iranian commercial flight and the Iran-Contra Affair, all proved to test Reagan’s diplomatic ability. Reagan’s approval became unsatisfactory during many of these catastrophes. Yet, his character and oratory skills were always demonstrated when facing these challenges, so his approval ratings continually recovered.11 Although his approval ratings were not always as high as one might believe, his retrospective approval ratings are far better. Americans regard Reagan as the ‘greatest President ever’, trumping Presidents Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy in the latest Gallup poll.8 Moreover, Reagan ranks second behind evangelist minister, Bill Graham, for ‘most admired man from 1947-2014’.5 Both men had an exquisite ability to communicate with Americans, as well as to connect on a very personal level. It was the “personal glow”2 that led Reagan to enter the “best friend role”2, where Americans could not stay mad at him. Professor Smith added how Reagan’s personal likability always remained high, and he characterized the former President as, “A guy of ideas, an intrinsically likeable person, and a President who did not let public opinion influence his decisions”14. Reagan proved to be a President who was just as compassionate and personal, as he was bold and unapologetic.

Reagan’s legacy still illuminates the political landscape today. Ever since my academic interest in politics developed, I continually heard about the oracle of Ronald Reagan and his exceptional speeches. Before the course I knew about the broader feelings towards Reagan, but I did not study his speeches or public perception in depth. Moreover, I was surprised to learn about how there were so many movements during the 1980s that countered Reagan’s conservatism (i.e. provocative music and gay/lesbian). I believe that Reagan was the most important and influential person in the 1980s, despite the plethora of other powerful individuals. He truly did utilize his oratory ability in order to win over the American public with his compassion, authenticity and eloquence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

  1. Dolan, Anthony R. “Four Little Words.” WSJ. N.p., 8 Nov. 2009. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.
  2. Glasser, Theodore Lewis., and Charles T. Salmon. Public Opinion and the Communication of Consent. New York: Guilford, 1995. Print.
  3. Hayward, Steven F. “Why Ronald Reagan’s ‘A Time for Choosing’ Endures after All This Time.” Washington Post. N.p., 23 Oct. 2014. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.
  4. Herskovits, Arielle. “Reagan’s “Tear down This Wall” Analyzed.” Constitution Daily. N.p., 10 Nov. 2010. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.
  5. Jones, Jeffrey M. “Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton Extend Run as Most Admired.” com. N.p., 29 Dec. 2014. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.
  6. Kengor, Paul. “Reagan’s ‘Evil Empire’ Turns 30.” The American Spectator. N.p., 8 Mar. 2013. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.
  7. Meyers, Jim. “Reagan’s ‘Time for Choosing’ at 50: It Changed a Nation.” Newsmax. N.p., 27 Oct. 2014. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.
  8. Newport, Frank. “Americans Say Reagan Is the Greatest U.S. President.” com. N.p., 18 Feb. 2011. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.
  9. Newport, Frank, Jeffrey M. Jones, and Lydia Saad. “Ronald Reagan From the People’s Perspective: A Gallup Poll Review.” com. N.p., 7 June 2004. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.
  10. “Presidential Job Approval Center.” com. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.
  11. Reagan, Ronald. An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. Print.
  12. “Reagan Takes Oath as 40th President.” Editorial. New York Times [New York] 21 Jan. 1981: n. pag. On This Day. New York Times, 21 Jan. 1981. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.
  13. “Ronald Reagan: Life Before the Presidency.” Miller Center of Public Affairs. Ed. Lou Cannon. University of Virginia, n.d. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.
  14. Smith, Greg. “Ronald Reagan Speeches.” Interview. 10 Dec. 2015: n. pag. Print.
  15. “Winning The Cold War, Part I – The “Evil Empire” Speech.” The Other Half of History. N.p., 23 Jan. 2011. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

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