Robert Mann is a professor at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication and author of Becoming Ronald Reagan: The Rise of a Conservative Icon.
When he burst into national politics 55 years ago this month, Ronald Reagan was known primarily as a washed-up movie actor. The man who would become California governor two years later, and U.S. president 14 years after that, was famous for a few decent movies in the late 1930s and, more recently, for serving at the avuncular host of NBC’s popular half-hour, Sunday night drama series, “General Electric Theater.”
But that show had been off the air since 1962 and Reagan had shown up recently on syndicated television as host of the long-running syndicated western series “Death Valley Days.”
But now, on the night of Oct. 27, 1964, Reagan was on national television, speaking for Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. For thirty minutes that evening, millions of Americans watched the former actor present the campaign’s most eloquent argument for Goldwater in his race against President Lyndon Johnson.
Reagan’s speech was a lightning bolt of political theater. His commanding presence and the ease and poise with which he spoke about national issues stunned some viewers.
Hundreds of citizens sent telegrams to Reagan at his home or in care of the campaign. “It was thrilling, the best speech of the campaign,” a viewer from Lake Forest, Ill., wrote later that night. A Brooklyn, New York, man wrote the next morning: “Greatest political speech we’ve heard. You are the strongest thing going for Uncle Goldie.” A viewer from Baltimore told Reagan his was the “most thrilling and spellbinding speech I have ever heard.”
Many of those who didn’t send telegrams sent checks. Reagan would help raise more than $700,000 in contributions, a remarkable sum for 1964.
Overnight, the former actor was a national political sensation. His new acclaim would propel Reagan into the 1966 California governor’s race, which he would win by a million votes. By 1967, national political reporters would consider him a possible presidential nominee.
It was all so sudden. And to many national reporters, it was a disorienting transformation. Some detractors denigrated Reagan as nothing more than a lightweight who traded on his former fame to launch a new career since the old one no longer paid his bills. But these insults and slights wouldn’t effect Reagan. His remarkable political skills and his attractive, optimistic message easily overrode doubts about his abilities.
But the underestimation of Reagan never stopped. From the first day of his presidency to the last, many critics saw him as little more than an “amiable dunce,” as former Defense Secretary Clark Clifford once called him.
This is how I viewed Reagan for decades. And that ended when I began researching his early political career for clues about how this struggling actor–a former liberal Democrat– remade himself so quickly into a conservative politician. And not just any politician, but one with skills and instincts superior to most of the seasoned political professionals of his day.
What I learned was that far from bursting onto the political scene in 1964 with this one remarkable speech for Goldwater, Reagan had prepared for this moment for years. Since late 1954, when he began hosting “General Electric Theater,” Reagan had traveled the country by train, visiting each of GE’s 135 manufacturing plants as the company’s goodwill ambassador. In almost every town, he spoke to the local chamber of commerce or a civic club. He gave interviews to reporters. He greeted employees on factory floors like a seasoned politician.
At first, the former Screen Actors Guild president had talked about Hollywood, but he soon pivoted to his favorite topics, politics and policy. He spoke about the threats posed by communism, socialism and big government.
Every speech to every group was a work in progress. He had no prepared text, only a stack of index cards on which he wrote the prompt for an anecdote or fact to illustrate a point. If a story or joke fell flat, he tossed the card and tried a new one.
Because he had a photographic memory and required no text, Reagan always observed his audiences when he talked. He watched them closely for their reactions to everything he said. He knew when a line landed powerfully. He knew when he had persuaded them that the federal government really was out of control. He could see it in their eyes.
Most national reporters hadn’t noticed that a future political star was quietly acquiring the skills that would earn him acclaim as the most gifted politician of his generation. That’s because most of his early speeches were in backwater towns. They had gone unnoticed. He was just an actor, a television host and a goodwill ambassador. There was no reason to pay him much mind.
Reagan’s remarkable speech for Goldwater didn’t influence the election much, if at all. Goldwater lost in a landslide. Reagan, however, emerged a winner in the eyes of those Republicans who recognized his enormous potential as a political leader.
What his new fans did not recognize, however, was how hard Reagan had worked to prepare for this moment. In the decades prior, he had read widely about economics, education, agriculture and foreign policy. He was no policy expert, but he was no mindless amateur. He had done his homework.
As one who held Reagan in low esteem, I was surprised by what I found. I had assumed Reagan’s success as president was largely a result of his acting ability. In other words, he was simply playing a role and reading a script that others wrote for him.
This may have been the case once he reached the White House and employed a company of speech writers, but in his early days, what Reagan told audiences was the product of his own reading and thinking.
This is not to say that his stardom and acting abilities were not inconsequential to his success. His movie fame gave him opportunities to talk about political issues. His ease in front of the movie camera translated into the same kind of ease before a crowd. And his ability to retain facts, figures and stories allowed him to closely watch his audiences and learn the craft of speechmaking from their responses.
More than anything, however, it was Reagan’s willingness to put in those long hours on the road, fine tuning his message and honing his political skills in the minor league of small-town America. By the time he burst into the big league, in October 1964, his ability to deliver a political speech was nearly perfect. He appeared as a fully formed politician. All he lacked was a campaign from which to launch his political career. Within months, he found his race–and the rest is American political history.
Reagan would never persuade some of his detractors that he was anything more than a former actor playing the role of a politician. But he was more. To study Reagan’s early career is to discover a well-read man of substance and considerable intellectual curiosity.
True, he did not possess a towering intellect; he was not a policy innovator; and much of his knowledge and ideas were derivative.
He was not, however, an “amiable dunce,” as his enemies claimed. For decades, these detractors underestimated him and they often paid a price for that misjudgment. Whatever he lacked in policy expertise, Reagan more than compensated with a rare ability to connect with people and explain his ideas in ways they could easily understand and believe.
Reagan’s sudden appearance on the national political scene on Oct. 27, 1964, should be remembered as a significant day in American political history. But, more useful in understanding his rise as a conservative icon is studying his assiduous preparation for that moment. Reagan’s toil in the political minor leagues in the 1950s and early 1960s was not only largely unnoticed, it was is one of the more interesting and significant periods of his remarkable life.