THE EDUCATION OF RONALD REAGAN: THE GENERAL ELECTRIC YEARS AND THE UNTOLD STORY OF HIS CONVERSION TO CONSERVATISM
By Thomas Evans, Columbia University Press, $29.50, 302 pages
Much has been written about Ronald Reagan’s political career. But surprisingly little focus, until now, has been given to the specific processes that molded the 40th president’s political views. Thomas Evans’ latest book provides a welcome redress to that condition, discussing how Mr. Reagan rose up from New Deal conservatism to become the conservative standard-bearer of the last third of the 20th century. Long on details on Mr. Reagan’s association with General Electric, this volume is a necessary addition to any Reagan library.
The conventional wisdom regarding Mr. Reagan’s rise to national political visibility and viability is that he was “made” when he delivered what has come to be known as “The Speech” just before the 1964 election on behalf of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.
As the subtitle would indicate, the truth is that Mr. Reagan was not just some overnight celebrity on the political scene. On the contrary, argues Mr. Evans, Mr. Reagan was afforded a “post-graduate course in political science” courtesy of his longtime association with General Electric and the “profound influence” of longtime GE vice president and labor strategist Lemuel Boulware, who served as Mr. Reagan’s primary political mentor through his GE years and beyond.
How profound was Boulware’s influence on the future president? This exhaustively researched volume shows that the “free-market fundamentalist” Boulware offered Mr. Reagan a political education that extended “well beyond the bargaining table,” Mr. Evans writes early on. “He became familiar with such diverse thinkers as von Mises, Lenin, Hayek, and the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu. He read and reread the practical economics of Henry Hazlitt. He quoted Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton.”
Mr. Reagan, who largely traveled by train during his years making speeches and public appearances on behalf of GE, certainly had ample time to absorb the material and the philosophy Lem Boulware offered. And it was not long until sound conservative economic policy took hold in the future president’s brain, leading him to a “conversion” that led him to observe, years after the fact, that during his time at GE “I wasn’t just making speeches — I was preaching a sermon.”
Even as Mr. Reagan was becoming an increasingly adroit exponent of the conservative gospel, he was serving as president of the Screen Actors Guild in 1958 when he was forced to threaten a strike in protest of unfair labor practices throughout the motion picture industry.
As the present volume illustrates, Mr. Reagan had a leg up in negotiations in part because of the lessons he learned from Boulware, so brilliant on the other side of the table. Mr. Reagan was so successful in his role that many in his industry seemed to take it personally for years afterwards, as best evidenced by Jack Warner’s zinger dismissal of Mr. Reagan’s campaign for the California governorship in 1966. “No, no, no, no — you’ve got it all wrong,” the producer nonpareil declared after Mr. Reagan’s victory in California. “Jimmy Stewart for governor, Ronald Reagan for best friend.”
Though Jack Warner may have regarded — or pretended to regard — Mr. Reagan as a political lightweight, the future president had no such delusions about his former employer and negotiating partner. He’s quoted here as pithily saying that “after the studios, Gorbachev was a snap.” And who would deny him that insight? It can be said that Mr. Reagan’s particular Hollywood career was integral to making him the president he was. And, as Mr. Evans argues, his late career would have shaken out much differently without the intellectual regimen he adopted as his time in Hollywood began to run out.
For those who know little about Lemuel Boulware and his “take-it-or-leave-it” approach to employee management, this book will be a revelation. Clearly, Mr. Evans rewarded GE’s willingness to give him the first look at previously sealed proprietary documents with a book so favorable to the company that it seems to gloss over any of Boulware’s or GE’s flaws. The book is so centered on those early years, that, when the author finally gets around to discussing the Reagan presidency, the treatment of the later stuff seems distinctly summaristic and semi-complete, in the vein of accounts found in a high-school civics text.
Despite these qualms, however, the book is definitely worth reading for those who want to know how Ronald Reagan evolved into the “Great Communicator” of political yore.
A.G. Gancarski is a writer in Jacksonville, Fla.