What Today's Leaders Can Learn From Reagan
Mortimer B. Zuckerman
Obama, other presidents should embrace his sunny confidence
The celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of President Ronald Reagan brings to mind my first revealing encounter with him. It was the result of the 1986 seizure by the Soviet KGB of the Moscow bureau chief of U.S.News & World Report, Nick Daniloff.
I went to Moscow to try to secure his release, but it became obvious he had been arrested on a trumped-up charge and would be a hostage until America released a real spy. Only a week before, the United States had seized an employee at the Soviet mission to the United Nations who had been caught red-handed trying to buy secret weapons technology relating to heat-resistant metals for rockets and jet engines. Nick was in jail as trading bait.
On my return to the United States, I worked in the White House with the president and his senior staff. We met virtually on a daily basis for the better part of a month, as the White House struggled to work out an acceptable basis on which Daniloff could be repatriated.
This was how I came to have firsthand experience of President Reagan in private action. He attended many of the almost daily discussions organized by the White House team. He had an unfailing optimism, an unending, self-deprecating sense of humor, and a calmness and charm that were totally devoid of any conceit. He was totally engaging at all times and spoke in plain language, both privately and publicly. He was also a marvelous storyteller. We shared a love of jokes, and he and his wonderful wife, Nancy, were kind enough to invite me to Washington to share dinner with them a number of times, always with the admonition from the president to save, for him, my best jokes. [See photos of Reagan's life.]
But what struck me most of all, and has remained in my mind all these many years, was just how effective Reagan was. He had an instantaneous grasp of the main issue or the true problems, and he was decisive in his responses. The team working to free Daniloff was glad to follow his lead. Thereafter, I was always amused (and maybe irritated, too) to contrast how effective he had been in real time, as compared to the way he was portrayed in some political talk and by some of the press.
Reagan provided what Americans wanted most: a strong leader who could and would lead in a principled way.
To refresh a phrase once used about former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, this man was "not for turning." He made that clear early on, to the gratified astonishment of the nation, when he fired the striking air traffic controllers--who quickly learned that this commander in chief was not to be taken casually.
Reagan had come into office when the United States was mired in an economic and even psychological downturn, reflecting the doldrums of the Carter years and the perception of his administration as feckless and naive. Reagan was determined that more of the same would not do. Shortly into his presidency, he set about convincing the American public that there had to be a decisive change in direction. His map was stereoscopic: He created a vision of where we'd been and where he intended to take us, unafraid to spell out what was to be feared, unabashed in the evocation of dreams for the future. He personified Harry Truman's definition of a leader--a man who had the ability to get other people to do what they don't want to do and to like it. It was never easy, even when he made it look so. [See editorial cartoons about the economy.]
As if born with the instinct to be a transformational president, Reagan knew how to instill confidence in a nation that felt it had lost its way. Add to that his transparent likability, and you can understand why Americans felt so good about him and better about themselves when they listened to him. In the process, he earned an enormous presumption of credibility, affection, and support from the American public, even among those, like myself, who hadn't voted for him.
How much we miss that quality of leadership today, when it is the political system itself that raises disquiet. Much of our contemporary leadership passes off tough decisions to some other body (the perpetual commissions!) or, worse, to some future generation. The resulting political vacuum has created a sense of government in disarray, unable to make the wise and tough decisions required.
And it has created a demoralized public.
We worry that our children will not enjoy the opportunities we have taken for granted. We worry that our runaway financial system is broken, that we are losing our technological and business leadership edge in the world, that nobody will have the shrewdness and guts to fix the system of entitlements. We worry that there may be truth in Mancur Olson's contention in his famous book, The Rise and Decline of Nations. One of the consequences of institutional aging, he argued, is the creation of a culture of entitlement, of special interest groups that inevitably take bite after tiny bite out of the total national wealth through tax breaks, special appropriations, earmarks, and other favors that are all easier to initiate than to end, and thus hobble the nation and its future.
Everyone seems to be talking not just about the recession but also about a decline of America's power and status, about an America that no longer leads the world and is faltering in the context of a rejuvenated Asia, especially China. No longer do we seem to have the air of what Mark Twain once described as the serene confidence of a poker player with four aces.
So today we remember fondly "the great communicator" who loved to frame his public policies in such pithy metaphors. "A recession," he explained, "is when your neighbor loses his job; a depression is when you lose yours." And he could be bitingly direct, too. He uttered the most memorable line of the Cold War in Berlin in 1987: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." Yet he was ready to form a friendship with the same Mikhail Gorbachev, negotiating agreements, and again bringing forth another pointed slogan: "Trust but verify."
It could be said he was lucky to inherit a crisis near resolution. Minutes after his inauguration, Iran released the 52 American hostages. It remains a controversial subject, but there's little doubt Iran recognized that the man who won the presidency that November could be as tough-minded as conditions would demand: The Iranians were fearful that Reagan might bomb them. Less than three months later, he became a folk hero, the victim of an attempted assassination who could say to the surgeons treating him, "Please tell me you're all Republicans."
So the question remains: How can we evoke Reagan's spirit?
Disappointment should not give way to despair. Americans are as well placed to exploit the global economy as we were in the new continental marketplace of a century ago. Yes, we may be challenged in technology, but remember, we spend twice as much per capita on info-tech as Western European firms and eight times the global average. We successfully replaced large, mass-produced consumer products with sophisticated goods derived from intellectual output and knowledge-based industry. We have a unique culture of enterprise and management that stemmed from a market stretching vast distances over mountains, deserts, and rivers in the effort to satisfy diverse populations.
We have a business culture that has nourished individualism, entrepreneurialism, pragmatism, and novelty, along with an abiding respect for the rule of law. American business is dominated by contract and law rather than by kinship and custom; not by primogeniture but by merit, common beliefs, technology, and scientific management.
No other country has a population so given to self-help, self-improvement, and even self-renovation.
Maybe Reagan would have the deftness not to offend the Chinese while reminding us that, of the world's top 20 universities, none is in China. Young Chinese, Indians, Brazilians, and Europeans come here knowing they will have a level of opportunity beyond what they will have at home (which makes it so stupid, as President Obama remarked, to send them home with their U.S. degrees). [Read: Reagan and Kennedy as Role Models for Obama.]
Yes, we are worried, but worry has always preceded reform in America, which has always bounced back after periods of decline and a loss of confidence. Just think, almost 20 million more Americans were employed at the end of the Reagan years than when he took office.
Reagan understood how to restore faith in the country and a people he so clearly loved. He would have crystallized the developing consensus on what we have to do. He would have made investment in the nation's decaying infrastructure as exciting an adventure as Lincoln made our great transcontinental railway (while also leading a war).
In the end, it takes vision, leadership, and imagination to regenerate the American dream. Ronald Reagan proved that it could be done.
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