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.
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.
No deal! To his credit, though, he tried it. For one day. After that he said, “Thank you, but it’s just not me. I have to wear the shirt collars I am comfortable with – even if they do expose my Adam’s apple and make me look older.”
Reagan, as a leader, was comfortable with himself, so people were generally comfortable with him. He was not unmindful of his mistakes, but he didn’t obsess about them. He was accorded the “Teflon” label because no matter what mistakes he made, most of them didn’t stick to him. But really, it was his attitude on the inside that caused criticisms to only temporarily affect his popularity, his outside.
He was not prone to personal pique, and he didn’t take things personally. He was able to live that famous saying that sat front and center on his desk, “There is no limit to how far a man can go or what he can achieve if he does not care who gets the credit.” And he didn’t care.
3. The power of nonverbal and verbal communication. It is often said that you win your audience within the first eight seconds in which you enter a room, and you may lose them in the first eight seconds of your speech.
True, Reagan had honed his nonverbal communication skills on studio back lots and under stage lights, yet many of these moves were natural and as fluid for him as when he was a lifeguard or a running back – just as was his motioning of me to the correct side of the motorcade limo.
Early in the first term, the way Reagan entered the East Room at the beginning of White House press conferences was altered to fill a camera lens – the opening televised frame of the president striding down the “cross hall” on the long red carpet and up to the podium to provide a sense of anticipation of the important messages to come.
These types of moves may be attributed to theatrics and handlers, but they are all essential elements of Reagan’s leadership style and reflected his reverence for the country. And because of that, they worked – not through artifice but naturalness.
Fundamentally it is important to relate the ability of the “great communicator” back to his ever-present belief system.
When Reagan honored the fallen Challenger shuttle astronauts and repeated those famous lines from John G. Magee’s poem “High Flight,” you had a sense he could feel “the surly bonds of earth” loosening – because he did.
He lived in that type of world. He believed, as the poem concludes, that those who had perished on that space mission would “touch the face of God.”
Reagan's speaking skills were directly related to his beliefs in this way: He knew what he believed, and what he spoke was what he believed. There is no better test or proof of a leader’s ability to communicate than that.
James S. Rosebush was a deputy assistant to President Reagan and also chief of staff to first lady Nancy Reagan.