- The Washington Times - Monday, October 18, 2004

For the 20 most significant years of his life, Ronald Reagan worked hand-in-glove with Dick Wirthlin, his pollster and chief strategist. Recommended by Barry Goldwater, Mr. Wirthlin was hired at his first meeting with the California governor, and whether in Sacramento or Washington, Mr. Reagan kept both his ear and his door open to Mr. Wirthlin. He once told a reporter, “When Dick Wirthlin speaks, I listen.”

Now, as his own historian, Mr. Wirthlin has written a book about his friend, the president, and it is nicely told. Titled “The Greatest Communicator: What Ronald Reagan Taught Me about Politics, Leadership, and Life,” it is thoughtful and kind in its personal observations of others, and extremely readable when discussing the many political and other events in which they shared interest.

Mr. Wirthlin saw Mr. Reagan as a man of enormous long-range view, and with very strong views on the big issues, able to dig in his heels when pushed. He also saw him explode once at an outsider’s suggestion that he might be a racist.

In part, the book focuses on the great link that developed between Mr. Reagan and the American people, largely through his love of words and his extraordinary skill in using them. Mr. Reagan understood how to win hearts and minds, and in this he was in a league of his own.

Mr. Wirthlin knew from his numbers that Reagan speeches turned people into Reagan voters, and that Mr. Reagan not only understood how to speak effectively, but that he could also speak spontaneously with tremendous effect.

At the 1976 Republican Convention, Gerald Ford won the nomination and called Mr. Reagan to the platform for a display of unity. In response, Mr. Reagan delivered such an inspiring, impromptu address on his confidence in America’s future that many delegates wondered if they had nominated the right man.

Mr. Reagan put long hours and meticulous care into the writing, wording and preparation of his major speeches. He never lost touch with his own guideline: Persuade through reason and motivate through emotion.

Beyond the oratorical arena, the book is laced with discussions of political events and problems. John Sears is recalled from his days as Mr. Reagan’s campaign manager in 1976. Of particular events involving Mr. Sears, Mr. Wirthlin writes, “The strategy was sound. The tactics were not.”

Mr. Sears was back four years later to run Mr. Reagan’s 1980 campaign. It wasn’t long before Mr. Reagan’s staunch political friends from California, now holding senior campaign staff positions, began to be fired. Longtime press aide Lyn Nofziger and close political friend Mike Deaver were the first to go. Mr. Reagan was furious.

Of this, Mr. Wirthlin said, “John Sears seemed to have his sights set on eliminating a good portion of the California gang.” The day after the New Hampshire primary, Mr. Sears and two colleagues were dismissed.

If you need to refresh your memory on the race against Jimmy Carter, and Mr. Carter’s so-called “malaise” speech (it was almost a work of political suicide) check out Mr. Wirthlin’s excellent account, including Mr. Reagan’s instant retort.

Mr. Wirthlin was one of the very few who worked closely with Mr. Reagan to determine who would be his vice president. They were caught in a swirling debate over whether it should be Gerald Ford. You can read it all here — why Mr. Ford wasn’t chosen and why George H.W. Bush was.

The assassination attempt, so near to fatal, is reported in all its familiarity, but with a personal touch that could best come from one of those who could feel the closeness of what almost happened, or thank God that it didn’t.

In the second term, Mr. Wirthlin noticed small but significant things, such as notable differences in the president when Don Regan, chief of staff, was in the room. Mr. Reagan became much more serious and restrained than Mr. Wirthlin had ever seen him.

However, Mr. Wirthlin’s account of Mr. Reagan and Mr. Regan discussing men’s shirts and shorts and how many the president would need to carry to Geneva for his first meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev, is the book’s high point of great humor.

In the closing segments, Mr. Wirthlin takes us through the Challenger and Nicaragua disasters, and works through the ongoing Soviet-American tensions like an expert on nuclear issues and diplomatic stress, all climaxed by Mr. Reagan’s historic challenge, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

That Ronald Reagan was a deeply devoted, religious man has long been known. Mr. Wirthlin includes recurring references to Mr. Reagan’s faith. “His faith affected the way he lived and saw the world,” Mr. Wirthlin declares.

The Reagan presidency had many participants and has had many biographers. Dick Wirthlin has earned his place among the best of them. His book should enhance the appreciation of Ronald Reagan from all concerned.

Ambassador Robert M. Smalley was appointed by President Reagan.

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