The Education of Ronald Reagan

The Education of Ronald Reagan: The General Electric Years and the Untold Story of His Conversion to Conservatism

Thomas W. Evans
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    The Education of Ronald Reagan
    Book Description:

    In October 1964, Ronald Reagan gave a televised speech in support of Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. "The Speech," as it has come to be known, helped launch Ronald Reagan as a leading force in the American conservative movement. However, less than twenty years earlier, Reagan was a prominent Hollywood liberal, the president of the Screen Actors Guild, and a fervent supporter of FDR and Harry Truman. While many agree that Reagan's anticommunism grew out of his experiences with the Hollywood communists of the late 1940s, the origins of his conservative ideology have remained obscure.

    Based on a newly discovered collection of private papers as well as interviews and corporate documents, The Education of Ronald Reagan offers new insights into Reagan's ideological development and his political ascendancy. Thomas W. Evans links the eight years (1954-1962) in which Reagan worked for General Electric-acting as host of its television program, GE Theater, and traveling the country as the company's public-relations envoy-to his conversion to conservatism.

    In particular, Evans reveals the profound influence of GE executive Lemuel Boulware, who would become Reagan's political and ideological mentor. Boulware, known for his tough stance against union officials and his innovative corporate strategies to win over workers, championed the core tenets of modern American conservatism-free-market fundamentalism, anticommunism, lower taxes, and limited government. Building on the ideas and influence of Boulware, Reagan would soon begin his rise as a national political figure and an icon of the American conservative movement.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51107-0
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-xii)
  3. PART I Background
      (pp. 3-23)

      On October 27, 1964, Ronald Reagan delivered his famous, nationally televised speech in support of conservative Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. David Broder, the dean of the Washington press corps, and his coauthor Stephen Hess, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, later wrote that it was “the most successful political debut since William Jennings Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech in 1896.”¹

      Biographers and historians are unanimous in the finding that “The Speech,” as it became known to both admirers and critics, was developed while Reagan toured the country for General Electric during the eight years that he was employed by...

      (pp. 24-34)

      Context is key in the process of education. In Ronald Reagan’s case, the context was politics, with emphases on economics and frequent forays into foreign policy. The size of government, the extent of taxation, and the competition of foreign ideologies were all major themes in his political education. Much of this came from the policies of the company he worked for and the role that company chose to play in the politics of the nation. A lot of it came from the times in which he lived and the epochal events that formed them.

      As Tom Brokaw points out, this...

  4. PART II A Postgraduate Course in Political Science
      (pp. 37-56)

      In 1946, the leadership team within General Electric learned the lesson that every management in corporate America learned that year—that they did not possess the political and negotiating skills of the union leaders. At GE, however, they learned a second lesson as well. Even as the strike led to acceptance of union demands in GE plants, one part of the company—which involved thousands of workers and millions of dollars of annual revenues—suffered no direct losses from the strike. In fact, it did not go out on strike at all. Its manager was Lemuel Boulware.

      Boulware was just...

      (pp. 57-68)

      When he first came to work for GE in 1954, Ronald Reagan’s principal role was to host the General Electric Theater on television. But he was also committed to spend a quarter of his time touring all of the plants in GE’s far-flung, decentralized corporate empire. The premise for the tour was simple enough: the appearance of Reagan—GE’s new employee and soon to be its most familiar face—at each of the company’s locations would give the workers a sense of unity under the GE banner. As will be seen in later chapters, there was a significant political element...

      (pp. 69-80)

      In addition to the avalanche of materials—bulletins, newspapers, books, and magazines—sent to GE employees, Ronald Reagan also had access to lessons and texts specifically prepared to educate the workers and middle management of the company. Classes were held at the company’s plants and in its schools. As Time observed, General Electric “maintains company schools with more students (32,000) than most U.S. universities.”¹ The nature of these materials and the manner in which Reagan studied them is key to the understanding of his education.

      The General Electric Company maintains a school. Nestled in the Hudson Valley in Ossining, New...

  5. PART III An Apprenticeship for Public Life
      (pp. 83-97)

      Ronald Reagan’s first national campaign began in 1958. It rose from a plan developed by Ralph Cordiner and Lemuel Boulware in June of that year. At the time of their strategy meeting, held on a small island off Florida, the two executives were among the most powerful men in the United States. It was at about this time that Cordiner was selected as Businessman of the Year in the annual economic and business review of a respected national publication. He chaired President Eisenhower’s powerful Business Council. An academic observer evaluating Boulware’s program concluded that “no single movement in labor relations...

      (pp. 98-110)

      Each month a group of corporate executives met in a conference room on the seventh floor of New York’s University Club. The membership list was maintained by Boulware’s secretary.¹ Although the attendees wielded tremendous power, no public mention of the group or its meetings ever appeared. They modestly referred to themselves as “The Wise Men.”

      Virgil Day was the regular attendee for GE, but Lem Boulware set the agenda and often attended personally. Not all of the members of this ad hoc group could make each meeting, but twenty to thirty was the usual number. They were the executives in...

      (pp. 111-125)

      Ronald Reagan acknowledges that he “wasn’t unaware” that during his first couple of years on the road “GE sometimes had to sell a few groups on taking on a Hollywood actor as a speaker.”¹ Reagan was plagued with such doubters throughout his career. If he was delivering a polished or moving address, they asked who wrote the script. After all, his critics and opponents would point out, he was an actor. While virtually all of Reagan’s biographers acknowledge that early versions of “The Speech” were delivered in his GE years, very little has been written about how the content developed....

      (pp. 126-138)

      In March 1960, AFL-CIO president George Meany telegraphed Ronald Reagan that Reagan had “the full sympathy and support of the AFLCIO in your fight for fair treatment.” He commended Reagan for his “long record of peaceful collective bargaining.”¹

      Of course, Meany’s endorsement had been offered to Reagan in his capacity as president of the Screen Actors Guild. The full text of the telegram, along with strong expressions of support from other union leaders, is set out later in this chapter. Presidential biographer Garry Wills writes, “The New Deal prepared the way for Reagan in Hollywood,” and quotes Reagan’s appraisal of...

      (pp. 139-154)

      Ronald Reagan is the only U.S. president to have served as a union president. His secretary of state, George Shultz, commented on that before Reagan’s first summit with Mikhail Gorbachev. “Reagan saw himself as an experienced negotiator,” Shultz observed, “going back to his days as president of the Screen Actors Guild.”¹ Shultz felt the experience made the president more “self-confident.” Reagan himself commented that “after the studios, Gorbachev was a snap.”² Moreover, during his GE years, Reagan had the opportunity to observe Lemuel Boulware, the acknowledged master of union-management negotiations, and to participate in his program. The development of skill...

  6. PART IV Encouraging an Increasing Majority of Citizens
      (pp. 157-184)

      The campaign that Ronald Reagan began in 1958 did not end until he removed himself from public life, due to the anticipated disabling effect of Alzheimer’s disease on November 5, 1994. Then, as he said in his poignant letter to his “Fellow Americans,” he would soon “begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life.”¹

      Although GE had scored a significant victory over the IUE in its new labor contract, union power throughout the country was at its zenith as the 1960s began. Statutory changes at the state level in supplemental-unemployment benefits and right-to-work laws could...

      (pp. 185-198)

      After the 1968 Republican National Convention, some of the press corps pursued Ronald Reagan for a postmortem. “Is the Presidential bug finally out of your system?” he was asked. “There never was a Presidential bug in my system,” he replied.¹

      Nevertheless, just two years after he had won elective office for the first time, Reagan’s age made him take a step that he probably would not have taken at this time if he had been younger. If Nixon gained the nomination in 1968, won the general election, and then served a second term, Reagan’s next opportunity would be 1976. He...

      (pp. 199-222)

      In the movie The Candidate, young Bill McKay (played by Robert Redford) wins a U.S. Senate seat from California. In the course of the campaign, which is handled by skilled professional managers, the candidate abandons or compromises almost everything he believes in. After he wins, in a rush of anxiety, he turns to one of his managers and asks, “What do we do now?”¹

      Regrettably, the candidate’s position is not unusual. Most men and women who run for office have spent time—often years—in developing a strategy to win elections, with only a vague idea of what they want...

  7. APPENDIX: Speeches of Reuther, Boulware, and Reagan
      (pp. 224-228)
      (pp. 229-237)
      (pp. 238-250)
  8. NOTES
    (pp. 251-276)
    (pp. 277-284)
    (pp. 285-286)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 287-304)