Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Evolution of Ronald Reagan

Here is a great article by John Fund of the Wall Street Journal's Opinion Journal on how Ronald Reagan became a conservative. Check it out:

What GE Brought to His Life
The education of Ronald Reagan.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007 12:01 a.m. EST

Almost everyone now agrees Ronald Reagan's nationally televised speech in 1964 on behalf of Barry Goldwater did a great deal not only for Goldwater's candidacy but for Reagan himself. Columnist David Broder has called it "the most successful political debut" of the century. No less a conservative eminence than William F. Buckley flatly says that what became known as The Speech--a rousing call for freedom and free markets--"catapulted Reagan from Hollywood to the White House."

But what forces shaped such a seminal address? For decades, historians have debated exactly how Reagan went from a self-described "hemophiliac liberal" to America's leading small-government conservative in little more than a decade. The answer has a lot to do with the years 1954 to 1962, when Reagan worked as the host of CBS's top-rated "General Electric Theater" and served as GE's spokesman.

For weeks at a time he would tour GE's 139 plants, eventually meeting most of the 250,000 employees in them. Reagan himself estimated that he spent 4,000 hours before GE microphones giving talks that started out with Hollywood patter but ended up as full-throated warnings about Big Government. "GE tours became almost a post-graduate course in political science for me . . .," he later wrote. "By 1960 I had completed the process of self-conversion."

Thomas W. Evans, a lawyer who served in the Reagan administration, has composed an elegant history of Reagan's "studies" with General Electric. Much of "The Education of Ronald Reagan" is devoted to rediscovering Lemuel Boulware, Reagan's mentor at GE and the dynamo behind both the company's PR efforts and its labor-negotiation policy. Boulware believed that at the start of contract talks, GE should make an offer it viewed as fair to stockholders, workers and customers and then stick with it, allowing for almost no changes. This "take it or leave it" approach was so successful (strikes became almost unknown at GE) that it entered the lexicon of labor relations as "Boulwarism."

But Boulware, who had served his labor-relations apprenticeship as deputy director of the War Production Board in World War II, also believed that the policy would work only if executives went over the heads of union officials and educated the workers directly about why they had a stake in GE's prosperity. Mr. Evans notes that "a worker who learned that GE's profit margin was much smaller than he had been led to believe or that union officials had not been truthful with him" was unlikely to join a picket line or insist on over-the-top demands. Thanks to his outreach to workers, and his workers' surveys, Boulware was "reputed to understand blue collar workers better than anyone in the country."

Boulware's efforts included an elaborate campaign to educate both GE's workers and the public on the moral and economic benefits of free enterprise. "Our free markets and our free persons are at stake," he told the graduating class of the Harvard Business School in 1949. To combat what he saw as creeping collectivism, he encouraged workers to form book clubs and to read free-market texts from the Foundation for Economic Education--e.g., Henry Hazlitt's "Economics in One Lesson" and Wilhelm Ropke's "Economics of the Free Society." He also encouraged his managers to read The Wall Street Journal's editorial page and Mr. Buckley's brand-new National Review.

Mr. Boulware's free-market message so penetrated GE's work force that Reagan, his traveling ambassador, quickly saw how important it was for him to become familiar with what the workers were reading. Over time, his own reading and his conversations with GE workers had an effect. By the late 1950s Reagan was lambasting those "who can't see a fat man standing beside a thin one without automatically concluding the fat man got that way by taking advantage of the thin one." Historian Rick Perlstein has concluded that "Reagan was an integral component in the Boulwarite system."

The alliance lasted until 1961, when Boulware was eased into retirement after his methods came under growing legal attack from unions backed by the new Kennedy administration appointees on the National Labor Relations Board. The next year, when Reagan's contract came up, he received a call from a GE executive who told him that the company wanted him to pitch GE products, not economic policy.

"You can get somebody else," Reagan recalled saying. "There's no way that I could go out now to an audience that is expecting the type of thing I've been doing for the last eight years and suddenly stand up and start selling them electric toasters." Within two days, GE canceled the CBS show that Reagan had hosted.

But the lessons Reagan had learned during his GE barnstorming stuck with him. Several passages in The Speech of 1964 came directly from his GE talks. ("There is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down: up to man's age-old dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order; or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism.")

The influence of those years lasted well into Reagan's presidency. The Time magazine journalist Hugh Sidey recalled admiring some of Reagan's White House speeches so much that he asked a speechwriter who had written them. "Reagan," he was told. "They were actually pretty much the speeches he had given when he worked for General Electric." And for the GE talks, Reagan was his own speechwriter.

It was in these forgotten GE years, brought to life so vividly by Mr. Evans, that Reagan developed into "The Great Communicator"--someone not only with an engaging speaking style but with something principled to say. A gifted popularizer of liberty had thus found the perfect partner in a business leader who believed in aggressively defending the free-market system. Would that more such business leaders existed today.

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