The Greatest Communicator: What Ronald Reagan Taught Me About Politics, Leadership, and Lifeby Dick Wirthlin
"The Reagan presidency had many participants and has had many biographers. Dick Wirthlin has earned his place among the best of them. . . . Extremely readable, nicely told."
The Washington Times
"For twenty years, Ronald Reagan relied upon Dick Wirthlin as his pollster, chief political strategist, and, increasingly,
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Acclaim for The Greatest Communicator
"The Reagan presidency had many participants and has had many biographers. Dick Wirthlin has earned his place among the best of them. . . . Extremely readable, nicely told."
The Washington Times
"For twenty years, Ronald Reagan relied upon Dick Wirthlin as his pollster, chief political strategist, and, increasingly, as his trusted friend. Dick has waited until now to tell the inside story, but the wait has been more than worth it."
"A must-read for anyone who wants to understand the inner workings of President Reagan's ability to communicateand how he accomplished so much."
"Dick Wirthlin was there at the beginning of the Ronald Reagan prairie fire that began with the speech for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and spread across the nation with the election to the presidency in 1980. . . . His recollections are a valuable part of the real history of the Reagan revolution."
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The Greatest CommunicatorWhat Ronald Reagan Taught Me About Politics, Leadership, and Life
By Dick Wirthlin Wynton C. Hall
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-471-70509-8
Chapter OneThe Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship
Meeting Ronald Reagan, 1968
Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. -the line Ronald Reagan was to deliver as "Rick," Humphrey Bogart's character, in the movie Casablanca
Just one month following Ronald Reagan's 1984 landslide reelection victory, the president and I met in the Oval Office. He looked well rested that day, and I remember feeling like he hadn't aged a bit over the last four years. As Reagan got up from his desk to sit in his usual seat in front of the fireplace, he stopped at the window.
"Dick, how do you like my friend over there?" he asked.
I couldn't see what he was pointing to, so I walked to the window looking out over the Rose Garden. Curled up on one of the seats outside was a white and gray tabby cat.
"He's been there for the last two or three days," Reagan said. "I think he's made that chair his home."
"Mr. President," I replied, "I'd say that's pretty elegant and exclusive surroundings for a plain old alley cat."
Reagan just smiled and chuckled before sitting down by the fireplace.
When I think about the way Ronald Reagan viewed himself, I sometimes think of that little alley cat. Like his four-legged White House visitor, Reagan believed he hadwandered into the greatest honor on earth. The way he saw it, he was just an ordinary man who had been given an extraordinary opportunity. I, on the other hand, never saw it quite that way. To me, Reagan's talent and vision were anything but "ordinary." He was the most gifted leader I've ever known. But he never thought in those terms. Giving credit to others was always his way. I can still picture the little bronzed placard that sat on his desk: "There is no limit to what you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit." His lack of pretense and humble spirit were two of the things that drew me to him the first time we met, in 1968.
All of us who worked closely with Ronald Reagan have a story to tell about the first time we met him, but mine is a little different. It came about in the fall of 1968 when then governor Reagan wanted to hire me anonymously to conduct an opinion survey for him.
I learned two essential truths about Ronald Reagan during our first encounter on a sun-drenched day in California. First, Reagan was no "amiable dunce," as Clark Clifford once infamously called him. And second, this was a man who understood how to use words to win hearts and minds.
At the time, I was a visiting professor of economics at Arizona State University. Four years earlier at Brigham Young University, I had started doing some polling and consulting on the side. Back then my politics were somewhat mixed. When I was a boy growing up in Utah, my mother was chairperson of the Women's Republican Club of Utah. So I had always considered myself a Republican. When I was a PhD student at the University of California at Berkeley, my friends thought I was an "ultra-conservative," but when I was a professor at BYU my politics were thought moderate by most and even liberal by a few.
The academic life was filled with intellectual energy and excitement. But by 1968, other opportunities had begun to emerge. And this opportunity changed my life forever.
It all started with a phone call. The person on the other end introduced himself as one "Tom Green" from New York. Mr. Green said he wanted to hire me to conduct a public opinion survey of Californians' attitudes about a host of policy issues, as well as voters' impressions of various state leaders. Naturally, I wanted to know more-who would use the numbers and how would the data be applied? But the client remained cryptic. All he would say was that more information would be forthcoming once the polling was complete. To allay any concerns I might have about his ability to fund the study, Green gave me some references to verify his financial means. Today, when I think about it, I sometimes wonder why the secretive nature of it all didn't raise any red flags. But, for whatever reason, it didn't.
I put the finishing touches on the final report a few weeks later. Green and I agreed I would fly to Los Angeles for a face-to-face meeting where I would present my data to my mysterious client. We met at the International Hotel on Century Boulevard near the Los Angeles Airport. As soon as the words "Hello, Mr. Green" crossed my lips, the man interrupted me. "Actually, my name isn't really Mr. Green. It's Tom Reed" (a well-known California political operative). Thoroughly confused, I asked where the meeting would be held, but he wouldn't budge. An evasive "You'll see" was as far as he was willing to go. So Reed and I hopped into a limousine and cruised toward the California hills. As we hit the San Diego Freeway heading north, he explained that I would be discussing my information with a party of one, the governor of the state, Ronald Reagan.
I don't think I'll ever forget that ride. My traveling companion remained silent. The freeway was clogged, making the drive seem even longer than it was. Worse, the roads nearing the Reagan home were riddled with curves. Whoever built those roads must have been in love with hairpin turns, because it felt like we were driving in a never-ending spiral, which only added to my anxiety. Meanwhile, Reed would not tell me how my data would be used. I tried not to fidget. This whole scenario-complete with fictitious names, tortuous roads, and a stoic limo driver-was starting to feel more and more like a scene out of The Godfather than a legitimate business enterprise. But finally we arrived at a beautiful, ranch-style home that sparkled in the California sun.
You know those rare moments when you just know something major, something life-changing, is about to happen? Well, for me, this was one of those moments.
The car came to a halt and a casually dressed and smiling Governor Ronald Reagan emerged from his front door. I made a mental note about how much it impressed me that the governor of the most populous state in the union would welcome us as we made our way up the driveway.
"Hi, Dick. Ronald Reagan. So nice to meet you. Please, come in."
Little did I know that the hand clasping mine belonged to the man who would become one of my dearest, lifelong friends. And if someone had told me that the actor-turned-governor standing before me would lead America brilliantly for eight years as president, win the cold war, and change the contours of human history, I might not have believed them. You see, at that point in time I had bought into many of the myths about Reagan. Frankly, I thought he was politically to the right of Attila the Hun! I had unthinkingly swallowed many of the cynical lines created by the governor's opponents: "he's a political lightweight," "an extremist who recites right-wing dogma," "a simpleton whose biggest accomplishment is that his name has scrolled the screens of Hollywood's B-movie list." In sum, the rap on Reagan was that he could not lead; that rather, he was easily led. Characterizations such as these revealed the great chasm between fact and fiction operative in the minds of Reagan's opponents and, for a time, in mine as well.
"Thanks so much, Dick, for making the trip out to the house."
"Governor, it's a pleasure to be here with you. I didn't know we were going to meet today," I confessed, "but it's an honor nonetheless."
Now, you've got to appreciate this scene: Here I am, a Mormon professor of economics-a statistician-dressed in a brown polyester suit, standing across from the actor who was originally cast to play the role of Rick (Humphrey Bogart's debonair character) in the cinematic classic Casablanca. As if the contrast between us wasn't stark enough, Reagan was wearing a pair of expertly tailored white slacks and a stylish checkered shirt with the top two buttons left casually undone so as to expose a golden tan reminiscent of the Hollywood Hills at sunset. A farm boy from a small smelter town in Utah turned academic meeting with a bona fide Hollywood movie star turned governor?
I felt about as comfortable as a fish swimming in a bowl of wet cement.
Tom Reed said goodbye before hopping back into the limo, leaving me alone with the governor. Reagan invited me inside his home, and it was there that I first met Nancy. After greeting me warmly, she asked what we would like to drink. "Dick and I will have two fruit juices, please," Reagan said. We made our way into his library overlooking the family swimming pool. Nancy brought us our drinks, and as she did, the governor broke the ice with his trademark wit.
"So, Dick, did you enjoy yourself at Berkeley? Nancy thinks it's terrible there. She doesn't believe in free love."
"Oh, Ronnie. Stop that." Nancy giggled.
Grinning, I said, "Well, honestly, I pre-dated all that, Governor. In 1964 I took a job at Brigham Young, where I chaired the economics department and reestablished and directed the survey research center."
Sitting across from Reagan, I guess the first thing that struck me most in those initial fifteen minutes or so was his interest in me as a person, not as a pollster. We talked about family and church and our mutual interest in policies designed to help those living in poverty. He wasn't just interested in "getting down to business," like so many politicians I've worked with. To him, getting to know someone was his business. He asked questions and listened. Indeed, many years later, Reagan once told an audience, "When Dick Wirthlin speaks, I listen!" But the truth is Reagan believed everyone deserved an attentive ear.
For example, the former prime minister of Canada, Brian Mulroney, tells a story about the time he overheard former French president François Mitterrand say of Ronald Reagan that he "is not so much a Great Communicator-although he is-as someone in communion with the American people." On that point, Mitterrand was absolutely correct.
As we talked, Reagan skillfully directed the conversation to the many things he and I had in common. We had both studied economics in college and grown up in middle American farm communities defined by faith and family. What's more, he was an incurable optimist, as am I. Topic after topic, at every turn, he built communicative bridges with ease.
After chatting for a while, it was finally time to discuss my survey data. I can honestly say that Ronald Reagan proved to be one of the most empirically astute clients I've ever had. Throughout my career as a strategist, I've always used a little test to determine a client's level of intellectual curiosity. Before explaining my findings, I take ten minutes to explain the statistical design of a client's survey. Often, the individual will nod approvingly, in a hurried way, as if to say nonverbally, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Enough with the statistical mumbo-jumbo. What's the bottom line? What do you recommend I say?"
But that's not how Reagan responded. He interrupted me with questions about my sample, about the margin of error, about the way a question was worded. And he did it in a way that showed he understood the strengths and weaknesses of survey research. After all, Reagan was no stranger to numbers. He had majored in economics at Eureka College, so he understood that data is only as valuable as the method used to collect it. Moreover, he wasn't interested in being told what to say-he intrinsically knew that. He was interested in the most effective way to convey his message. But most importantly, he never lost sight of what all those numbers I shuffled in front of him were really all about.
Many years later during a speech commemorating my firm's twenty-fifth anniversary, Ronald Reagan explained the thoughts that had filled his mind every time we sat down and sifted through the myriad pages of my polling data: "For every number, I saw a face. The numbers represented the people, and we had to remember that the people are the ones who sent us there." I'm glad he said those words aloud. But the simple truth is, he didn't need to. I knew as much the very first day I met him.
Like the photograph of the little boy with whom he had spoken on the phone, for Reagan, a person's countenance was a map. In the midst of a president's frenetic daily pace, I suppose the human face represented a shorthand way to remain grounded and mindful of those he was charged to lead. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Speakers spend the bulk of their lives staring out at an ocean of faces. When a president is leading a country of over 200 million people, the face connects him to the reality of that endeavor and reminds him of the lives his leadership affects.
Interestingly, the voters I had polled on Reagan's behalf in that very first study felt the same way about the power of the human face and its capacity to communicate. Among the reams of numbers dealing with questions about education, taxes, and campus riots had been a crop of queries on voters' views of various California political figures. When they were asked for their impressions of the governor, one of Reagan's most frequently cited strengths was his ability to speak. Even among people who were intent on voting for another candidate or who were undecided, Reagan rated highly. One number in particular sprung off the page: 64 percent of those interviewed said they were impressed with Reagan's ability to communicate through television. Voters enjoyed seeing his face and listening to him speak. I decided to tuck this finding away in my mental filing cabinet for later use.
But that day, sitting in the library of his Pacific Palisades home, I watched Reagan operate one-on-one in close quarters, unobstructed by the glare of a television screen. When he gave voice to his vision and values, the façade of fame and the pretense of power were erased from my mind. My preconceptions of a heavy-handed, right-wing Hollywood actor had been wrong from the start. Like the millions of voters who would later elect him president, I found that Reagan's belief in America's promise and his innate optimism paralleled my own. Better still, there was nothing Machiavellian about him. He just had a way of making me feel like we were connected to something much larger than ourselves. He had more raw leadership ability than anyone I had ever seen. And whether I realized it then or not, the synergy of his words, values, and vision would forever change the way I viewed political strategy and leadership.
When we were finished with our meeting, Nancy and the governor walked me to the door. Just as quickly as they had vanished, Tom Reed and the limo driver had reappeared and were waiting outside.
Excerpted from The Greatest Communicator by Dick Wirthlin Wynton C. Hall Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this
(Michael Deaver, political advisor and Deputy Chief of Staff to Ronald Reagan and author of A Different Drummer: My Thirty Years With Ronald Reagan)
"No one knew and understood Ronald Reagan the leader better than Dick Wirthlin. And no one explained so well the core of Reagan's leadership, what Wirthlin calls his ability 'to change lives and the world with words." The Greatest Communicatoris a smart and insightful book, indispensable to understanding Reagan."
—Fred Barnes, executive editor, The Weekly Standard,and co-host, "The Beltway Boys," FOX News
"For twenty years, through two victorious elections to the White House, Ronald Reagan relied upon Dick Wirthlin as his pollster, chief political strategist, and increasingly, as his trusted friend. Dick has waited until now to tell the inside story, but the wait has been more than worth it. A scholar, a gentleman and one of the country's best political analysts, Dick has written a warm, illuminating story that helps us all understand why America remains so drawn to Reagan."
"A lot of people claim to have been in Reagan's inner circle; Dick Wirthlin truly was. As his chief political strategist and pollster, no one understood Reagan's ability to communicate better than Dick. The Greatest Communicator is must reading for anyone who admired President Reagan."
"Dick Wirthlin was one of the few individuals who was with Ronald Reagan from the very beginning. In The Greatest Communicator, it becomes clear why Reagan kept Wirthlin at his side all those years. The book is a must r ead for anyone who wants to understand the inner workings of President Reagan's ability to communicate--and how he accomplished so much."
"Dick Wirthlin was there at the beginning of the Ronald Reagan prairie fire that began with the speech for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and spread across the Nation with the election to the Presidency in 1980. Dick was a member of the Reagan strategic team and his recollections are a valuable part of the real history of the Reagan revolution."
—Michael Deaver, political advisor and Deputy Chief of Staff to Ronald Reagan and author of A Different Drummer: My Thirty Years With Ronald Reagan
"Was anybody more important to the Reagan Revolution than Dick Wirthlin? Like Reagan himself, Dick Wirthlin was a man of personal gentleness and goodness who was also insightful, wise and talented. The president trusted him, in fact, thought the world of him. As did so many of us who worked with him on three presidential campaigns and in the White House years. He has quite a story to tell."
—Tony Dolan, chief speechwriter, Deputy Assistant to President Reagan, and author of the "Evil Empire" speech
"Richard Wirthlin, the wizard of polling, pulls back the curtain and provides an intimate look at the extraordinary relationship between President Reagan and his pollster. This book is a political junkie's delight and a staple for any communications course." —Peter D. Hart, public opinion analyst
(Tony Dolan, chief speechwriter, Deputy Assistant to President Reagan, and author of the Evil Empire Speech)
Meet the Author
DICK WIRTHLIN masterminded Ronald Reagan's 1980 and 1984 presidential campaigns. He is currently a member of the board of directors of Harris Interactive. Wirthlin has appeared on virtually every news and television program, including FOX News, Larry King Live, and Hardball with Chris Matthews.
WYNTON C. HALL is an award-winning presidential scholar and speechwriter. His work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, and the Washington Times.
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