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From a ride in Ronald Reagan's limo, lessons on authenticity

On my first limousine ride alone with Ronald Reagan as a senior aide, he told me how much his mother shaped his beliefs. One thing about President Reagan, you knew what he believed in. Many voters may have a difficult time finding such rock-solid conviction in Romney or Obama.

By James S. Rosebush / May 16, 2012

Ronald Reagan waves from the back of his presidential limousine on Feb. 6, 1984. Op-ed contributor James S. Rosebush writes: "I remember trying to convince the president to wear higher cut collars on his dress shirts to provide a more youthful appearance. No deal!"

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Washington

Early one morning, in Ronald Reagan’s first year in office, I walked briskly with him from the Oval Office to the motorcade on the circular drive of the South Lawn. I was scheduled to take my first limousine ride alone with the president as a senior aide. The trouble was, I had no idea which door of the limo to enter.

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Reagan, always elegant of gait, strode to the right side of the car, and while intuitively sensing my predicament, but not engaged in it, waved me around the other side of the long black Cadillac – where I landed on the back seat next to him, avoiding what could have been an uncomfortable contretemps.

Our errand that day was for the president to unveil his public-private partnerships initiative. It was part of my responsibility in that first year to develop and manage what became Reagan’s favorite domestic policy project. What unfolded on that ride, however, was far more than the typical policy briefing delivered to a president under way to an event.

Reagan talked the whole way, delivering an uninterrupted explanation – more of a sharing really – of the roots of the belief system that shaped his leadership.

One thing about Reagan was that people always knew what he stood for and where he stood on the major issues of his presidency. In the current political climate, many voters may have a difficult time finding that kind of rock-solid set of beliefs in either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama.

So it’s worth looking at Reagan’s leadership, and three key ways in which authenticity defined it – all on display in that motorcade ride:

1. Unshakable adherence to values. Two words often used to describe Reagan were optimistic and stubborn. Note that he not only had a belief system (for example, optimism), he also adhered to it (stubborn).

Reagan believed the adage that people like you better if you tell them their virtues than their vices. He saw the good in just about everyone. Americans responded well to Reagan telling them that they were good and that they were a part of a grand experiment to benefit the world.

His basic belief system was born in two parts. The first was the moral architecture built in his early childhood. In his limo that morning, Reagan told me how greatly his mother had influenced him. She was an occasional preacher, a Bible teacher, and expounder.

His early values provided him with an internal compass he consulted almost unconsciously. These beliefs weren’t bracketed by a specific creed or organized religion; they were his own, in the way that Jefferson handpicked moral ingredients that made up his belief system.

The second part was developed as an adult in his political journey from union organizer to staunch conservative. This “Part B” focused on what he came to believe was the correct fundamental role of government – small and nonintrusive – and the primary position of the private sector. Hence, his interest in public-private partnerships.

Reagan’s beliefs made him regular, honest, confident, and repetitive, but somehow not boring. His constituents knew what to expect. People understood his message. What you saw with Reagan was what you got. Nothing dauntingly intellectual, yet purposefully inspirational.

2. A high degree of self-knowledge. Teleprompters cannot hide gaps in self-knowledge. The camera lens magnifies every element of personal insecurity. I remember trying to convince the president to wear higher cut collars on his dress shirts to provide a more youthful appearance.

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