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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Reading List: How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life

Robinson, Peter. How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life. New York: Harper Perennial, 2003. ISBN 978-0-06-052400-5.
In 1982, the author, a recent graduate of Dartmouth College who had spent two years studying at Oxford, then remained in England to write a novel, re-assessed his career prospects and concluded that, based upon experience, novelist did not rank high among them. He sent letters to everybody he thought might provide him leads on job opportunities. Only William F. Buckley replied, suggesting that Robinson contact his son, Christopher, then chief speechwriter for Vice President George H. W. Bush, who might know of some openings for speechwriters. Hoping at most for a few pointers, the author flew to Washington to meet Buckley, who was planning to leave the White House, creating a vacancy in the Vice President's speechwriting shop. After a whirlwind of interviews, Robinson found himself, in his mid-twenties, having never written a speech before in his life, at work in the Old Executive Office Building, tasked with putting words into the mouth of the Vice President of the United States.

After a year and a half writing for Bush, two of the President's speechwriters quit at the same time. Forced to find replacements on short notice, the head of the office recruited the author to write for Reagan: “He hired me because I was already in the building.” From then through 1988, he wrote speeches for Reagan, some momentous (Reagan's June 1987 speech at the Brandenburg gate, where Robinson's phrase, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”, uttered by Reagan against vehement objections from the State Department and some of his senior advisers, was a pivotal moment in the ending of the Cold War), but also many more for less epochal events such as visits of Boy Scouts to the White House, ceremonies honouring athletes, and the dozens of other circumstances where the President was called upon to “say a few words”. And because the media were quick to pounce on any misstatement by the President, even the most routine remarks had to be meticulously fact-checked by a team of researchers. For every grand turn of phrase in a high profile speech, there were many moments spent staring at the blank screen of a word processor as the deadline for some inconsequential event loomed ever closer and wondering, “How am I supposed to get twenty minutes out of that?“.

But this is not just a book about the life of a White House speechwriter (although there is plenty of insight to be had on that topic). Its goal is to collect and transmit the wisdom that a young man, in his first job, learned by observing Ronald Reagan masterfully doing the job to which he had aspired since entering politics in the 1960s. Reagan was such a straightforward and unaffected person that many underestimated him. For example, compared to the hard-driving types toiling from dawn to dusk who populate many White House positions, Reagan never seemed to work very hard. He would rise at his accustomed hour, work for five to eight hours at his presidential duties, exercise, have dinner, review papers, and get to bed on time. Some interpreted this as his being lazy, but Robinson's fellow speechwriter, Clark Judge, remarked “He never confuses inputs with output. … Who cares how many hours a day a President puts in? It's what a President accomplishes that matters.”

These are lessons aplenty here, all illustrated with anecdotes from the Reagan White House: the distinction between luck and the results from persistence in the face of adversity seen in retrospect; the unreasonable effectiveness and inherent dignity of doing one's job, whatever it be, well; viewing life not as background scenery but rather an arena in which one can act, changing not just the outcome but the circumstances one encounters; the power of words, especially those sincerely believed and founded in comprehensible, time-proven concepts; scepticism toward the pronouncements of “experts” whose oracle-like proclamations make sense only to other experts—if it doesn't make sense to an intelligent person with some grounding in the basics, it probably doesn't make sense period; the importance of marriage, and how the Reagans complemented one another in facing the challenges and stress of the office; the centrality of faith, tempered by a belief in free will and the importance of the individual; how both true believers and pragmatists, despite how often they despise one another, are both essential to actually getting things done; and that what ultimately matters is what you make of whatever situation in which you find yourself.

These are all profound lessons to take on board, especially in the drinking from a firehose environment of the Executive Office of the President, and in one's twenties. But this is not a dour self-help book: it is an insightful, beautifully written, and often laugh-out-loud funny account of how these insights were gleaned on the job, by observing Reagan at work and how he and his administration got things done, often against fierce political and media opposition. This is one of those books that I wish I could travel back in time and hand a copy to my twenty-year-old self—it would have saved a great deal of time and anguish, even for a person like me who has no interest whatsoever in politics. Fundamentally, it's about getting things done, and that's universally applicable.

People matter. Individuals matter. Long before Ronald Reagan was a radio broadcaster, actor, or politician, he worked summers as a lifeguard. Between 1927 and 1932, he personally saved 77 people from drowning. “There were seventy-seven people walking around northern Illinois who wouldn't have been there if it hadn't been for Reagan—and Reagan knew it.” It is not just a few exceptional people who change the world for the better, but all of those who do their jobs and overcome the challenges with which life presents them. Learning this can change anybody's life.

More recently, Mr. Robinson is the host of Uncommon Knowledge and co-founder of Ricochet.com.

Posted at December 31, 2014 00:56