Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
May 7, 2009
POLITICS: How Reagan Made Himself Reagan
The recent flap over Jeb Bush talking about leaving Reagan behind has been overblown - Jeb's point is that the GOP needs to sell its ideas, not just the Reagan brand, and that's obviously true as the man himself recedes into memory for a lot of the electorate.
Steve Hayward, though, has an excellent point that should be drilled into the heads of GOP candidates everywhere:
[A]ll those folks who claim to be Reaganites would take the time to sit down a study the man's methods - not his ideology - more seriously. As we now know, he worked extremely hard, studying the issues in depth and preparing and practicing his speeches at great length. I'm frankly appalled at the low level of rhetorical skill displayed by most GOP politicians today. It is not just a matter of talent; talent helps, but Reagan showed that hard work is the key ingredient. Too many of our would-be party leaders today are simply lazy, and think they can coast through speeches and media appearances with little forethought. Finally, Reagan lived by an old show-business adage - always leave your audience wanting more. His speeches were often memorable because they were relatively short. You could fit five of Reagan's state of the union speeches inside one of Bill Clinton's or George W. Bush's. (This means you, Governor Palin, whom I heard in Anchorage in March making a rambling hour-long speech that someone at my table rightly described as "Castroesque.") So try this out, GOP leaders: Shorter speeches. People will remember more of what you say, and want to hear you say more later. This really isn't rocket science. Heck, it isn't even political science.
Very few politicians bring together all the elements of communication Reagan did: specific ideas, backed by specific facts; inspiring rhetoric, well-delivered; good use of humor, whether planned, ad-libbed, or by knowing when to use planned ad-libs; brevity; warmth; respect for the audience's intelligence. I still think Rudy Giuliani is the closest we have to that, although Rudy's too hard around the edges to match Reagan's personality. But then, rhetorical skill actually wasn't the weakness of the GOP field in 2008. On the Democratic side, Obama is a match for Reagan at soaring rhetoric, but he rarely communicates the kind of concrete, memorable messages backed by facts that Reagan deployed, and he doesn't really switch gears well to being funny or folksy or warm; all his best stuff is in the tone of the JFK Inaugural.
Bush and Obama are both proof of the adage that hard work matters - Bush is a famously poor speaker, but his big set-piece speeches that he worked at usually came off well; Obama is notorious for hemming, hawing and bumbling when away from his TelePrompter (which he uses in many situations where Bush might have been well-advised to try one), but he performed well in the debates with McCain when he put the effort into it.
Most of the major GOP future stars have the potential to be really excellent communicators, but each will need to work on something different, like Gov. Jindal with the TelePrompter. Hayward's advice would be well-taken by all of them.