Ronald Reagan's rise to national political prominence began on October 27, 1964, when he gave a televised campaign speech on behalf of Senator Barry Goldwater (R-Arizona), the Republican nominee for president. Speculation about Reagan running for president began following what became known as "the speech." During the next decade, Reagan's national political profile grew -- and so did speculation about a presidential bid. On November 8, 1966, Reagan defeated Edmund "Pat" Brown, the two-term incumbent, for the governorship of California by a million-vote margin. In 1968, he became a "favorite son" candidate for the Republican nomination for president, briefly challenging Richard Nixon at the convention in Miami Beach, Florida. On November 3, 1970, he was reelected California's governor by defeating Assemblyman Jesse Unruh by a half-million votes. In 1972, he actively campaigned on behalf of President Richard Nixon's reelection effort. When he stepped down as governor of California in January 1975, Reagan was a seasoned political figure who was widely considered to be a future Republican presidential nominee.
It soon became clear from Reagan's actions that he was determined to run for president of the United States. As the popular ex-governor of California, he could have moved on to the private sector, giving speeches, serving on corporate boards, perhaps even making a movie or two -- and making lots of money. He didn't. President Gerald Ford offered him the prestigious post of ambassador to Great Britain; he turned it down. He could have gone to Washington and served in President Ford's cabinet as secretary of commerce or transportation. He said no to the president.
Instead Reagan followed a different path -- a path that eventually led to victory, to becoming the 40th president of the United States.
Reagan faced a daunting gauntlet as he took his first steps along that path in 1975. The country had just gone through the trials of the Watergate political scandal. In January a bleak national poll was announced to Republican state chairs meeting in Chicago. It showed that "only 18 percent of the American people identified themselves as Republicans." President Nixon was forced to resign on August 9, 1974. Democrats made substantial gains in the November 5, 1974, elections in both houses of Congress and in state legislatures.
On February 6, 1975, Reagan had his 64th birthday, one year short of when many people retire. While he had a growing band of supporters, many thought he was too old and had misgivings about his health and endurance. They doubted he could survive the long run for the presidency, to say nothing of governing for four -- and perhaps eight -- years.
Many thought he was far too conservative, a Neanderthal throwback, even more so than Barry Goldwater, whom Lyndon Johnson had defeated by a landslide just ten years earlier. He had no major financial support and his full-time staff was only half a dozen or so. Moreover, few politicians were in his corner -- only one U.S. senator, Paul Laxalt of Nevada, and a couple of members of Congress.
Finally, and most important, Reagan faced the prospect of running against an incumbent president -- a Republican one. It is tough enough to run against an incumbent president of another party, but it is nigh impossible to take out one of your own in a primary fight. In Republican circles, running against a president of your own party was "just not done."
But Reagan ran.
It was not supposed to happen this way. With Richard Nixon's election to a second term in 1972, Reagan's staff expected him to be running, if he chose to do so, for an open seat, not against an incumbent, let alone an incumbent of his own party. The field of candidates for the Republican nomination of 1976, they thought, might include Charles Percy, Republican senator from Illinois; John Connally from Texas, who had been Nixon's secretary of the treasury; and Nelson Rockefeller, who resigned as governor of New York in December 1973 during his fourth term.
But that was before Watergate. When Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 and Gerald Ford became president, he also became the leading contender for the 1976 nomination. Ford was vulnerable, however. He had been selected to replace vice president Spiro T. Agnew when Agnew resigned in 1973 over another scandal. Nixon's first choice as a replacement for Agnew was John Connally, but the Congress objected. Thus, an unelected, second-choice vice president became the incumbent president.
Ford nominated Nelson Rockefeller to take the vacant vice presidency on August 20, 1974. It was a job Reagan probably thought should have gone to him. Reagan had told reporters that the executive experience of governors was often overlooked in selecting national leaders, and also stated that the new vice president should hold views consistent with the mandate of 1972, which he believed reflected the Republican Party's conservative and even libertarian philosophical basis, "a belief in individual freedom and the reduction of government." Rockefeller's reputation as a member of the Eastern liberal establishment and left wing of the Republican party did not fit this description; his selection was viewed as an outrage by many conservatives.
Ford had never taken Reagan seriously, and Reagan had not even been on his final list of five candidates for the vice presidency. Ford eventually asked Rockefeller to withdraw from the ticket for the 1976 election given Rockefeller's unpopularity within the party, but it was November 3, 1975, before Rockefeller made the announcement -- well after the July 15, 1975, formation of Citizens for Reagan, which would become Reagan's campaign committee, and barely before the formal announcement of Reagan's candidacy on November 20. Ford's support with the general public had fallen, furthermore, after he pardoned Nixon on September 8, 1974.
In 1974, as Reagan was preparing to leave the governorship, Walter Cronkite, the famous newscaster, offered him the opportunity to do two commentaries a week on the CBS Evening News. Reagan would be balanced by Eric Sevareid, who would also do two commentaries on other nights. Reagan's staff was ecstatic. That would give Reagan roughly 40 percent of the nightly news viewing audience, to say nothing of how much money he might make.
True, Cronkite did offer him a large audience, but it was under Cronkite's control. CBS television could have fired Reagan at will. They could have followed his commentary with a rebuttal or presented him as representing a far-out minority, the "other side." He could only speak twice a week, and he had no control over the news that night which would set the stage for his talk.
Reagan said no to Cronkite's offer. The answer he gave to Mike Deaver, a senior aide, was that "people will tire of me on television -- they won't tire of me on the radio."
That may not have been the real reason. Reagan was quietly intent on running for president. He needed a way to speak to the voters -- millions of them. As he prepared for the 1980 campaign, he commented on how he had communicated with the public since he left the governorship in this February 5, 1979, letter:
I am trying to avoid declaring until as late as I can in the year for a number of reasons. 1.) I think it is too early and 2.) I lose some valuable forums the day I declare, among them 300 radio stations (5 days a week), 100 newspapers (twice a week), to say nothing of all the speaking engagements. But, I am going to be in this race -- don't quote me on that to the press, but you tell anyone who's interested that you are sure I am going to do it.
What Reagan wanted was control of a large megaphone, one with which he could speak daily to potential voters on what he wanted to talk about.
On behalf of radio producer Harry O'Connor, actor Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. asked his old friend Reagan if he would be interested in doing a radio commentary that O'Connor would produce and syndicate nationally. In October 1974, Peter Hannaford, assistant to the governor and director of public affairs, and Michael Deaver, an aide to the governor, presented Reagan with a comprehensive proposal that included O'Connor's offer, a nationally syndicated newspaper program, and speaking engagements around the country. Reagan liked the proposal and agreed to do it under the management of their new firm, Deaver & Hannaford, Inc.
Two strategy documents dated November 4, 1974, provided an outline and guide for Reagan's post-governorship activities, now two months away. "Testing the potential strength of a Presidential bid, without RR [Ronald Reagan] overtly stepping out of the 'mashed potato circuit' role he has described for himself" was discussed in "Ronald Reagan: Building a National Organization." In "Ronald Reagan: A Program for the Future," the upcoming nationally syndicated radio program and newspaper column as well as speaking engagements around the country were described as necessary components for Reagan to "maintain influence in the Republican Party; strengthen and consolidate leadership as the national conservative spokesman; and enhance [his] foreign affairs credibility."
By January 8, 1975, three days after he had turned over the governor's mantle to Democrat Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown, Reagan had crafted his first set of radio commentaries. On that day, shortly before his first newpaper column would be published, he sat down in the recording studio and taped 13 commentaries. The first one for which a handwritten draft has been found was on inflation. Radio stations flocked to his commentary and soon he was broadcasting daily on more than 200 radio stations.
Reagan's broadcasts reached potential voters in virtually every nook and cranny of the United States. Occasionally the program was rejected regardless of its potential to attract advertisers. The KFI (Los Angeles) radio station manager wrote on December 4, 1974, "Thank you for sending the Ronald Reagan audition. We are not interested at this time." And then he added by hand: " -- even sponsored!" During his radio broadcasting career from 1975 to 1979, it is estimated that he spoke to between 20 and 30 million Americans a week.
The personal campaign machine that Reagan built and ran from 1975 to 1979 was his pathway to the presidency. His speeches and columns were important and necessary, but his radio commentaries were the driving force. The radio program gave Reagan a national platform that no other politician had at the time.
Advertisers would occasionally withdraw sponsorship of Reagan's radio program because listeners complained about Reagan's views, and a handful of newspaper editors who contended that Reagan appeared too much like a presidential candidate canceled his column. As stipulated by the provision for equal opportunity by the Federal Communications Act, media outlets are to provide equal air time to qualified political candidates. On November 20, 1975, Reagan announced his intention to seek the Republican Party's nomination for the presidency. He devoted the next nine months to his campaign, and guest commentators and then Senator Barry Goldwater temporarily took over the radio program.
On August 19, 1976, Reagan accepted defeat by President Gerald Ford at the Republican convention in Kansas City in a close race for delegates. Less than two weeks after the convention, Reagan was again writing radio commentaries. One of them, "Shaping the World for 100 Years to Come," was not only a statement of Reagan's political philosophy and abhorrence of nuclear weapons, but also a window into how he wrote his commentaries; much of the commentary was a restatement of his extemporaneous speech at the Republican Convention. Although his commentaries would sometimes be a restatement of one of his newspaper columns, speeches, or congressional testimony,18 Reagan cast a wide net in looking for sources and subjects of his radio commentaries.
Reagan consistently read conservative magazines such as Alternative: An American Spectator, Commentary, Human Events, and National Review, and he often mentioned these sources in his commentaries. He quoted from many newspapers, including the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, and government documents such as the Congressional Record. Reagan also relied upon books he was reading.
Reagan was a powerful speaker. He wrote legibly and had a soothing, captivating radio voice. But it wasn't his penmanship or his voice that drove him up this path -- it was the ideas about which he wrote and spoke.
The manuscripts from which this book is drawn were discovered by accident. Kiron Skinner was the first scholar since Edmund Morris to be granted access to the private papers of President Ronald Reagan. Skinner discovered the handwritten drafts of Reagan's radio commentaries, letters, speeches, and other writings in 1996 and 1997 while doing extensive archival research in the private papers for her research on the end of the cold war.
Skinner along with Annelise Anderson and Martin Anderson undertook an analysis of the radio manuscripts, which yielded 1,027 commentaries. Six hundred and seventy three of the radio commentaries were written in Reagan's hand. He wrote another nine that were not, as far as we know, broadcast.
Some of the remaining 354 commentaries were written by Reagan, but his handwritten draft has not been found in the archives, is lost, or was discarded -- and thus they are not attributed to Reagan. The rest were written by his staff, primarily Peter Hannaford, and edited by Reagan. A database of the radio commentaries developed by Annelise Anderson is produced here as an Appendix.
Of the commentaries we know he wrote, almost one-third were on foreign policy or national defense, although those that compared socialist and capitalist economies also had domestic implications. Reagan's foreign policy essays dealt with issues ranging from apartheid in Southern Africa to the nuclear arms race and to the political efficacy of international organizations like the United Nations. He also reported on his trips abroad in radio segments.
More than two-thirds of the commentaries were explicitly on domestic issues, most often the economy -- inflation, taxing and spending, unemployment, monetary policy, and excessive regulation. Energy and the environment were also frequent topics. Reagan also wrote about social security, Medicare and national health insurance, welfare, and education. He addressed issues such as illegal drugs and crime -- and wrote a number of essays with religious or inspirational themes, about topics as diverse as John Wayne and the Bible. Reagan sometimes used his airtime to advocate causes he thought exemplified American values.
The five years leading up to 1980 were difficult years. The country was still dealing with the aftermath of the Vietnam war and Watergate. In foreign affairs the standard view was that the Soviet Union was an effective economic and military power, one with which the West would have to learn to live for a long time. In fact there was some doubt about whether the Western free-market democracies could compete effectively with centrally controlled systems that were less subject to the will of their constituents and could repress dissent. Many people thought the two systems would converge, becoming more like each other over time. The Soviet Union seemed to be intent on increasing its military might and expanding its sphere of influence in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In the United States the activities of U.S. intelligence agencies were investigated, challenged, and restrained. The share of the U.S. economy devoted to national defense declined steadily from its Vietnam peak of 9.4 percent in 1968 to less than 5 percent in 1979, when Congress called a halt and declared that more resources needed to be devoted to defense.
The lack of confidence in the vitality of market economies was exacerbated by the difficulties of Great Britain and, later, the United States. The United States feared the "British disease" -- high inflation and low economic growth, or stagflation. In the 1960s it had seemed possible to fine-tune the economy -- to increase growth and employment at the cost of somewhat higher inflation. But this prescription seemed no longer to work in the 1970s. In addition, by the mid-1970s the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) dominated world oil markets and was able to curtail oil output and raise prices of crude oil; the increased cost of energy created additional problems for importing countries, especially in 1973 and again in 1979.
Taken as a whole, the essays Reagan wrote over this difficult five-year period were a powerful campaign weapon, allowing him to explain his views to tens of millions of potential voters. It is doubtful whether he could have become president without them. And when he did become president, the essays acted as his personal, handwritten policy platform for governing.
In early 1980, Reagan wrote:
I am surprised at times that there is so much lack of knowledge about my positions. For several years except when I was running in '76 and now in the present campaign, I have had a five-day-a-week radio commentary on more than 300 stations nationwide. I took up virtually every subject mentionable and stated my views on those subjects, but I guess there were a lot of people who were not listening. Maybe, as the campaign goes on, there will be more awareness of where I stand on these various issues.
The radio commentaries made it possible for Reagan to smoothly shift gears from running America's largest state to demonstrating that he was capable of becoming its commander-in-chief.
On March 7, 1979, the Reagan for President Committee was announced. On October 25, Reagan taped his last set of commentaries. On November 13, he announced his intention to seek the Republican Party's 1980 nomination for the presidency.
Two months before his victory on November 4, 1980, a television and radio trade magazine declared: "If Ronald Reagan reaches 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., he can figuratively give a low bow in the direction of Harry O'Connor who may be as much responsible for Reagan's nomination -- and if he is elected -- his election as anyone." Reagan had reached America long before he accepted the Republican Party's nomination for the presidency on July 17, 1980, and before his November landslide.
Introductions and commentary copyright © 2004 by Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson and Martin Anderson