18 April 2011

Ronald Reagan at 100 by one of his speechwriters

On returning from a few days skiing, I was greeted by an email from Clark Judge, MD of the White House Writers' Group and former Reagan speechwriter, linking to a fascinating article marking the centenary of the late president's birth.

As regular readers will know, I'm quite a fan of the great communicator's technical skills and the fact that, had I been an American, I probably wouldn't have voted for him is of no significance whatsoever. In fact, I always find it vaguely irritating that so many people seem to be incapable of leaving their own political views on one side when it comes to analysing and learning from speakers with whom they happen to disagree.

But he's a right winger!
Many years ago, I found myself being denounced in the the bowels of Broadcasting House by a BBC technician who was supposed to be helping in the production of Radio 4 programme I was involved in. My sins, according to him, were that I (a) asked him to find a copy of Reagan's television address on the Challenger disaster in 1986 and (b) referred to it as 'the most impressive American speech I'd heard since Martin Luther King's I have a dream'.

After a few moments trying to explain that you'd never get very far in understanding how effective communication works by confining your observations to people you agreed with, I quickly realised that there was no point in wasting any more time arguing, pulled rank (as a guest on the programme) and insisted that he came up with the clip I wanted to use.

Under-estimated by the British?
The case of Ronald Reagan is an interesting one, because his appeal never seemed to go down as well on British ears as it did on those of his fellow Americans. Whether this was because his presidency coincided with the success of ITV's satirical puppet show Spitting Image, in which the then president was regularly featured as being a bit short in the brain department, I do not know.

But what I do know is that the writers and producers of Spitting Image were not alone among British audiences and commentators in underestimating Reagan's achievements, both as a communicator and as a politician.

That's why I've always been fascinated by him and by talking to and reading articles by people who actually knew him - and is also why I'd recommend speechwriters and anyone else with a serious interest in communication the read Clark Judge's article on Ronald Reagan at 100.

Meanwhile, and by way of a taster, here are a few extracts from the article likely to be of special interest to speechwriters:

Analyse the audience
Former Reagan aide and speechwriter, now California congressman, Dana Rohrabacher, tells of a campaign stop involving a grade school class of blind children. After reporters had left for their bus, Reagan stayed behind and asked the teacher if the children would like to feel his face. The teacher said they would be thrilled. So for a few minutes, without publicity, the children got to “see” him in the only way they could.

Reagan’s storytelling was part of his public persona. In speeches, he used humor and anecdotes to make points. But in small gatherings, what might be called an economy of the story (that is, an exchange of value) was often at play. White House aides would become exasperated in meetings with outsiders as the president told tales they had sat through frequently before. They never considered the dynamics of those meetings. The president heard whatever the visitors had come to say. He absorbed their information, opinions, or requests (the value he derived from the meeting). Meanwhile, his stories left his guests feeling responded to and confided in (the value they derived). He did this without saying anything that might surprise or embarrass him if it appeared in the press, or that committed him to policies he might think better of later. Both sides gained. He risked nothing.

Reagan had numerous devices for controlling risk. These included the famous staff-prepared talking points for even trivial events and the tape on each stage floor telling him where to stand. He expected staff to think through every detail of an appearance.

It was widely known that the formal White House staffing system put the president last in line to see most speech drafts. Few knew that he put himself first for reviewing the most sensitive addresses, especially ones dealing with the Soviet Union. This was true of at least one of the Soviet-specific speeches I drafted. It was true of Peter Robinson’s 1987 “Tear Down This Wall” draft. Only after the president had seen them were the texts distributed, when, for Soviet speeches in particular, furious fights often developed. With others carrying the battle, the president would remain politically untouched. But he had already set the boundaries for an acceptable outcome. In the case of “Tear Down This Wall,” the chief and deputy chief of staff, communications director, and speechwriters knew he had marked as untouchable the call for dismantling the Berlin Wall—but only they knew.'


Jeff Bailey said...

Great post Max. Everyone should read the entire article on Reagan. It is very, VERY, good.

Thanks so much for sharing this.

Keith Davis said...

Hi Max
Ronald Reagan is usually up towards the top of anybody's great speakers list.

One comment I like about RR is from Peggy Noonan...

"Reagan always needed a joke at thge top of a speech because he needed the quick victory of laughter. It helped him relax."

Love the phrase "quick victory."

Happy Easter Max and if you do get a minute, It would be great to see you over at easy public speaking.