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PHILIP MARTIN: Ronnie, we hardly knew ye

by Philip Martin | October 15, 2019 at 6:52 a.m.

Ronald Reagan was my governor when I was a kid. Like most kids, I didn't think much about that.

I heard somebody older say something about him playing with model trains (there is a photo of him in Look magazine in 1967 examining a toy train) and for some reason that stuck with me. I remember him being touted as a likely presidential candidate in 1968 and seeing his postage stamp-sized picture in the Weekly Reader magazine handed out in our grade school; it might have been in conjunction with its quadrennial Reader Student Presidential Election Poll.

But I doubt it was. That poll famously correctly predicted the winner of every U.S. presidential election from 1960 to 2016. (In 2016, like most polls, they were wrong.) So it seems likely that the actual poll wouldn't have appeared in the magazine until after the conventions had occurred and the major candidates were set. I couldn't find the information online, but I'm willing to bet that the candidates the WR offered students across the country in 1968 consisted of Republican Richard Nixon, Democrat Hubert Humphrey and American Independent George Wallace.

Still I cannot rule out the possibility that I once voted for Reagan.

Robert T. Mann, who I know as "Bob" from the Reagan-era days when we were boy reporters together at the Shreveport Journal, admits in his new book Becoming Ronald Reagan: The Rise of A Conservative Icon, that he voted twice for Reagan while in his 20s. But he did so reluctantly, in part because of mild liberal tendencies that seeped in during his 20s, but mostly because he considered Reagan an intellectual lightweight who acted as a front man for supply-siders.

Bob, who is a whole 21/2 months older than I am, went on to work in politics and now holds the Manship Chair at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. He's written six other political histories of the U.S. civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, American wartime dissent and the 1964 presidential election.

(On the other hand, Bob, I once had dinner with Barry Goldwater. Nyah nyah nyah.)

I thought Reagan's greatest political asset was the same thing that made him effective in some movie roles: He exemplified a certain kind of American male experience and seemed like a big, friendly plain-spoken Westerner with a generous spirit. He could tell a story and emanated a kind of wholesome star power. And while a lack of sexual magnetism kept him from becoming the sort of A-list movie star he aspired to be, it made him accessible to grandmothers and children. If, as Paul Begala--who claims he first heard it in a bar--says, "politics is just show business for ugly people," Reagan self-relegated himself to a lower division when he entered public life.

Unlike Bob, I didn't vote for him. In 1980, I wasted a vote on John B. Anderson, a Republican who was running as an independent. By 1984, I was appalled that he had yet to even mention the AIDS epidemic.

Until I read Bob's book, I had an idea of Reagan as a nice man, a decent sort who deserved credit for ending the Cold War and whose economic policies brought real growth. On balance, I don't think his economic policies were disastrous. A lot of government spending in the Reagan years was more precisely military spending which hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union. Only with that threat removed could Bill Clinton have balanced the budget.

Yet I'm still not inclined to give Reagan too much credit or blame; I don't know whether things turned out the way they did because of his policies or in spite of them. At his best, Reagan--like Nixon before him--was able to transcend traditional "liberal" and "conservative" positions. But part of me still thinks he was lucky, opportunistic, and that some of his domestic policies were regressive. Reagan made it unsafe for any potential office seeker to embrace the word "liberal," but that victory--if that's what it was--was more semantic than philosophical. (We'll save Iran-Contra for another time.)

Bob's book, however, challenged and ultimately changed the way I thought about him as a person. I had an idea of Reagan as a cipher, an actor good at speaking words someone else had crafted. But Bob takes a hard look at Reagan's largely auto-didactic education and reading habits, and he's convinced me that the man was far more complex and questing than one might expect the star of Bedtime for Bonzo to be.

What everyone knows about Reagan is that he went from being, in his words, "a near hopeless hemophiliac liberal . . . who "bled for causes" in the '40s and early '50s to a staunch anti-liberal by 1960, when he campaigned for Richard Nixon.

A lot of people have speculated why: his disillusion with Hollywood communists, his realization that he was in the highest tax bracket, first-hand experience with post-war London under Labour Party rule. I always assumed that he came under the sway of Lemuel Ricketts Boulware, the vice president of General Electric who rescued Reagan's career by hiring him as the announcer on Death Valley Days and paying him to give motivational speeches at G.E. factories around the country.

Boulware--best known for developing Boulwarism, basically a take-it-or-leave-it approach to negotiating with unions--was a high conservative. Reagan, always impressionable and eager to please his new boss, became one too.

But Bob, in part by examining local newspaper stories about those speeches Reagan was delivering as he traveled the country as a G.E. goodwill ambassador, has produced a portrait of a man much more conflicted and complex, who read widely and deeply and was willing to jettison callow opinions when he decided they were flawed.

I would have never imagined that Reagan was the type to spend his down time on a movie set immersed in books. I never knew that there was a time in his life when, afraid to fly, he whiled away the hours on train trips reading.

None of this fundamentally changes my complicated opinion with Reagan the president and problematic conservative touchstone. But it makes me like him a lot more and reminds me that almost everything--and everyone--is more deserving of consideration than popular depictions suggest.

Would it that every subject get a biographer as sensitive and conscientious as Bob Mann.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at [email protected] and read his blog at

Editorial on 10/15/2019

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