Ronald Reagan: A look at his life, presidency and policies with Craig Shirley

Feb 03, 2011

Craig Shirley, Reagan historian and author, will be online Thursday, Feb. 3, at 11 a.m., to talk about the "great communicator's" life, presidency, policies and more. Have a question? Ask now.

Good Morning and Thank You Jodi for inviting me to be here today. My name is Craig Shirley and am known in several capacities, but for your purposes today, my expertise is as a Reagan historian, especially on his presidential campaigns, his childhood and early years in the White House. I've written two books on Reagan( Reagan's Revolution) the first on his 1976 challenge of Gerald Ford, in which Reagan lost, and his 1980 campaign (Rendezvous with Destiny) in which he defeated Jimmy Carter.


I am currently writing a biography of Newt Gingrich, another book on World War II, and three more on Reagan.

Reagan's alma mater, Eureka College, has selected me as their first Reagan Scholar and I will be teaching a class there in May on preidential campaigns.




Craig Shirley

How does Reagan's trip to Bitburg affect his legacy? Will he be remembered for combating the USSR, or for laying roses on the graves of the SS?

Frankly, thisis the first time the subject has come up. No one thinks for one second that Reagan was doing anything other that keeping a promise to the German government of 1985, which incidentially had many years earlier, outlawed all forms of Nazism including any representations.

How do you think Reagan's persona might have influenced Obama as a leader? They're so different ideologically speaking but they both came to power at a pivotal time for the economy and faced midterm setbacks. Do you think Obama's looking up to Reagan more and more nowadays?

A great deal I think. Reagan's persona was influenced to some degree by FDR, especially the optimism and frankly, presidents who express faith in the American people, who express faith in the future, tend to win and those who don't tend to lose. This outlook had been the province of the Democrats from 1932 up until 1980, when Carter forefitted it to Reagan. The GOP lost it to Clinton in 1992, got it back to a degree in 2000 and lost it again in 2008. Right now, the future is up for grabs between the two parties but Obama right now is making the better claim to it.

It was painfully obvious during at least the second term that Reagan was slipping terribly. His handlers were having to compensate more and more for him. Saying otherwise is irresponsible, but obviously it couldn't be said at the time for national security reasons, and now it contradicts his "legacy". Admitting that the president was not competent during his presidency would be suicide. But still should be admitted!!

There is no evidence that Reagan was any less mentally and physically vigorous the day he left office than he was the day he entered office. Did he tired more, yes, but he was also 78 years old as of Feb, 1989. All those years, though, he had extensive physically and intellectual tests and all showed a healthy and engaged man. On the other hand, I know people in Washington who forget that Rock Creek Parkway reverses direction at 5pm!

Mr. Shirley. What were the main themes of Reagan's presidency and why did he think that they were so important?

Good question. Reagan's own answer was that he was most proud of restoring the self-confidence of the American people, something that had been waning since the assassination of JFK. After 17 years of a lost war, a corrupt president, gas lines, inflation, unemployment, losing the Cold War, by 1980, Americans were ready for a radical change. People need to remember that Reagan was in many ways a radical, in terms of his foreign policy and in terms of his economic policies. But he also cherished the fundamental institutions of America; family, neighborhood, faith, the Constitution.


Without a self-confident nation, progress--including economic---is difficult. Without economic growth, a muscular defense and foreing policy is difficult. And without a muscular defense and foreign policy, there is no victory in the Cold War.

Three part question from a conservative. 1) Wasn't Reagan a man who was made for his era and the problems of that era? 2) Isn't the Republican yearning for another Reagan as pointless as a 70s Democrat yearning for another Roosevelt or a 1840s Democrat yearning for another Jefferson? 3) The problems of America today are so vastly different than those of 1980, how can we know how Reagan would approach them?

I subscribe to Carlyle's "Great Man" theory. No one other than Washington could have led America in the Revolutionary War, no one other than Lincoln could have freed the slaves and held the Union together, no one other than FDR could have given the American people hope (even as the New Deal was an economic failure) or led the Allies to victory. Eisenhower was the perfect president for the 50's. No one other the King could have lead the civil rights movement.

By 1980, the American people needed hope and inspiration and Reagan--not Carter, Bush, Connolly or Dole---understood this. Kennedy did but his policies were wrong and the voters knew this. Reagan was the best candidate for 1980 because he understood the American people better than any of the others.


2) Yes. They can learn from his policies, they can learn from his character, but they should also be themselves. This is something else they could learn from Reagan who was always himself. They also need to learn what Reagan did in the 1970's and that is opposition is not governance. You have to offer your own views and programs to the voters.


3) The same. Circumstances change, but principles don't.

What is your view of Ron Reagan's inference of President Reagan having some degree of dementia onset while still in the White House?

Speaking for the dozens of people who worked up close and personal with Reagan during those years (I didn't) no one else has made this observation.

But I did go visit him with my brother in 1996---two years after the Altzheimer's was announced---and when my brother asked Reagan if he came to the office every day, he quipped, "Not on the seventh day!" Pretty good for an 85 year old man!

I voted for Reagan twice, glad I did, and am a conservative. The Reagan Administration was largely a great success. Yet it would seem that conservatives have failed at conserving anything in the last 25 years, especially on the culture front. Do you agree?

Yes, I agree. The evidence is there to suggest that as the country has moved away from its moral core, as public schools have failed to reinforced fundamental values, teach American history, we've seen a dimunition of the culture. Mediocrity is celebrated and true excellence is criticized. Everybody gets a soccer trophy for just showing up. But we can cheer when a child legitimately scores.


The way families are responding is to self-edit their culture by home schooling, private schooling, tightly regulating their childrens lives, doing what they can do to stave off the corrupting elements of our culture.


One can only hope that with the democratization of information and the eventual surrender of the public service unions (even FDR opposed them as unsustainable) there will come a readjustment in the culture and a backlash against the modernity of mediocrity.

I don't get it. While he lowered taxes for the rich by about 20%, he ended up raising taxes for the lower class about 5%. The national debt tripled under his presidency, he presided over a stock market crash, and started a "war on drugs" that has dumped money into a black hole. Oh yeah, and he was a complete failure in Lebanon, failed on Immigration, and ever hear of something called the Iran-Contra affair that he didn't "know" about? Help me out with these questions please!!

Reagan made the excellent point. Why is it inflationary for people to spend their own money as Carter claimed, but not inflationary for Carter to take it a spend it?

Reagan cut taxes across the board, created 18-20 million new jobs, eradicated inflation (under 5 percent when he left office, was at, what, 18 percent when he came in) eradicated high interest rates (7 percent when he left office, over 21 percent when he came in) won the Cold War, thuse eliminated Soviet nuclar missiles aimed at our children's heads, help to free millions behind the Iron Curtain, where statues of him spring up each year.

Meanwhile millions were lifted out of poverty in this country dues to his pro-growth policies.


Lebanon was a mistake and he admitted it, took responsibility. Iran-Contra was a mistake (though the Boland Amendment was probably unconstitutional) and while he didn't know about, he took responsibility for it and in the process, took a hit on his presidency, and attempted to solve the small immigraiton problem by signing Simpson-Mazolli. Problem is parts of the law dealing with illegal aliens was never enforced.


Millions freed after the Reagan presidency. Millions more secure in their homes and jobs and secure in their belief in America.


Help me out here. What don't I understand?

Much has been made in the press concerning President Obama needing to move, as President Reagan did, to a less ideological stance to a more pragmatic position. Do you believe that Reagan did indeed compromise his ideological fervor in favor of pragmatism?

Sure he did. All good leaders know when to compromise. He said he learned in Sacramento to be happy with getting 80 percent of what he wanted. I am now reviewing Reagan's quotes in the various newspapers (including the Washington Post) for a book I am doing on Newt Gingrich. And Reagan in 1984 has lost none of his ideological passion. He just knows what he can do, how far he can go and how far he can't. He worked with Tip O'Neill to pass TERFA in the summer of 1982, over the objections of his most ardent supporters, but he felt the deficit was too high. Still, his tax cut was $350 billion and TEFRA was $95 billion, so the American taxpayer still came out way ahead. He did lower tax rates from 70 percent top marginal rate to 28 percent.

I think frankly some of what is going on in the press is the flavor of the month, the typical Washington insider parlor game and much ado about nothing. No one in their right mind thinks that Obama's ideology and world view are anything like Ronald Reagan's. Reagan was the very embodiment of American Exceptionalism and Obama as we all know recently diminished it by comparing it to Greek Exceptionalism!

What was Nancy Reagan's role in Reagan's presidency? Do his dairies indicate Alzheimer's?

Without Mrs. Reagan, there would have never been a President Ronald Reagan. She was once described as a "Metternich in Adolfo dresses" which I interpret as a compliment. Metternich was able to get things done by getting people to make decisions and take action.

Mrs. Reagan was a balm to him and he hated being on the road without her. His diaries recount on several occassions how much he missed her when she was traveling. She also was better as judging who was there to help Reagan versus helping themselves than he was.

They were the consumate team, madly in love with each other and content to be alone with no one else around.

Given your interest in carpentry, what work did Ronald Reagan himself do on the ranch? I'm curious as to which structures he completed.

I know he built the telephone fences there, which was a series of complicated posts and cross sections cut by chain saw. They extend all over the property.

I don't think he was the master carpenter Jimmy Carter is (who builds beautiful furniture)  but Reagan put the roof on Rancho de Cielo, laid flooring, put in a pond and was generally handy with his tools and knew his way around a workshop.

Why is Reagan widely considered one of the great conservative Presidents, given his record of government expansion, massive notional debt incursion and raised taxes?

I think the evidence is overwhelming of his conservatism and how much he acted on his conservatism while in office. However, because of the nature of our system of goverment, he did not oftne have a cooperative Congress---including the Republicans.

Do you have any personal stories involving Reagan? Something important or funny to you?

The first time I met Reagan was in 1978 at the old New Hampshire Highway Hotel in Concord, NH. I was working for Gordon Humphrey, who was running for the US Senate. Reagan came up to campaign for Mel Thomson, who was running for re-election as governor.

But Reagan agreed to make a commercial for Humphrey and I was waiting for him and the camera crew in the lobby of the hotel. The crew was late, but Reagan wasn't though his two aides dissappeared quicking. We sat in the lobby talking about sports we played in high school, the New Hampshire weather, just stuff. I was 22 years old and he didn't know me from Adam's off ox, but he was kind and pleasant and solicitious.

I'd be interested in your thoughts about the following. I remember this guy. His writers were good with a quip and he learned his lines well as he was still acting. I remember that our National debt went from $1 Billion to $4 Billion because of his "Riverboat Gamble" (Howard Baker) and "Voo Doo Economics" (Bush 41) and started us on the road to the Balance of Payments hole we're in today. I remember that he turned a blind eye on selling weapons to Iran (our enemy at the time and certainly now) to raise money to finance a terrorist guerilla band in Nicaragua in violation of the law passed by Congress and signed into law by him. I remember that he purposely dismantled the SynFuels Corporation and Solar Energy Research in 1981 which had been established under Carter in 1978 for the express purpose of developing oil from oil shale, gas from coal, and electricity from the sun. If he had not, we would have been closer to energy independence today, 30 years later.

I recently wrote a piece on the fallacy of Carter's energy policies, including proclaiming "National Sun Day" while members of his Administration seriously discussed taxing sun usage. I kid you not! If you search on the internet, you'll find the piece.


PS The national wealth---GDP--- went up by billions more.

I like Reagan, but I think the deification has gone too far. Why can't we have a more nuanced view of our leaders? From the media, one is constantly fed the notion that JFK was a martyred Apollo, Nixon, totally evil, and Reagan was second only to Kennedy in perfection. All the others (even FDR) are more or less disparaged or ignored. Enough Kennedy and Reagan worship and a little more appreciation of the problems they left behind for their successors to clean up. Kennedy messed up aplenty in his first year and a half, so much that the world came close to nuclear war and Reagan did not deign to notice AIDS until Rock Hudson died, not to mention blowing the federal budget to Kingdom Come.

Since there are so many people out there willing to gratuitously attack Reagan, I don't think it is deification.

I think everybody understand this was a very good man who was also flawed like all men.

Isn't it a myth or accepted as dogma by the MSM that the Democrats are the party of tax and spend and the Republicans are fiscally responsible? Doesn't the evidence going back to Reagan indicate the GOP when in power has run enormous deficits and debt and grew the Federal government, so maybe Republican's should be the party of borrow and spend? Dick Cheney said that Reagan proved deficits don't matter. Was Cheney Right?

Deficits matter and Reagan thought they did.

Ronald Reagan is often thought to be the one who defined the outer edge of the Republican Party and our nation's conservatism. But there were many who feared Reagan was not conservative enough. I recall those who were afraid (NIxon, Haig and others who feared Reagan wouldn't stand up to Gorbechev at the Rekjevic summit. I think Reagan was actually quite the pragmatist in retrospect. Your comments?

Yes, he was under constant criticism by conservatives all through his presidency. Even by those who never supported him!

In light of what has happened to the economy and US financial institutions in the past 25 years, would it not be correct to say that such self-confidence has been one huge collective delusion?


Did reagan really try to convert Gorbachev? And what was the name of his economic adviser, the one with the big white hair, that graced us with the trickle down economics, that helped the US economy soar in that era? Much appreciation.

You mean to a capitalist? Never heard that Reagan did but he did want Gorbachev to understand that the Cold War was not an academic exercise, that there were real people involved and that freedom was the state intended for people.

You said principles don't change, but values change. Look at how the majority of society has changed regarding gay rights. I don't think we can know how anyone would feel about all issues 30 years later. People grow and change. If his priciples didn't change, then why did he go from an FDR democrat to a conservative republican?

Actually, FDR ran in 1932 on cutting federal spending and balancing the budget. Reagan used to claim that his party changed and not he.


Still, when I referred to his principles, I should have explained that I was referring to his fully matured world view as of 1980. He was always a principled man, even as his politics changed.

His letter to America was one of the most beautiful letter from a President I had ever read. Do we know who helped him write it? My mother had Alzheimer's and it took us several years to suspect that her sometimes confusion and forgetfulness was something more than just normal aging. I didn't the his son was suggesting his advisors was keeping a huge national security secret, but reflected a son's concern that something was not right.

From reading thousands of his letters, commentaries and the like over the years, that letter is pure Reagan.

I had a lot of grief with Reagan's failure to support Gerald Ford in 76. Can you comment on this? Also, what is your evaluation of the charge against Reagan for starting his Presidential campaign in Philadelphia, MS?

Reagan was tepid in supporting Ford, no doubt about it but he born the brunt of personal and sometimes vicious attacks by the Ford campaign for the previous year, so some amount of trepidation is understandable.


Also, he started his fall campaign in 1980 in Liberty State Park in New Jersey, not in the South. Carter stated his in the south however, when he paid a glowing trible to George Wallace, who was on the dais with Carter that day.

I noted that one of President Reagan's keys to success may have been his constant optimism. Why this is important is that, no matter what the problem, he conveyed to everyone that a solution was possible. I think, as a leader, this was a good trait. Do you any observations on how Reagan personally inspired the people around him and the public?

He got it from his parents, his upbringing in the midwest,

his marriage to Nancy, the sheer joy of being a free man in a free country, free to puruse his dreams, free to meet people.

Abraham Lincoln once said that people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. Reagan had made up his mind to be happy.

Years ago I saw a documentary that included the 1968 presidential campaign. In it, Richard Nixon is interviewed during the Republican Primaries and he oddly made a comment about how he was not "an actor." I immediately saw the connection to Reagan because Reagan had just won the 1980 election, but it made me think a bit about Nixon and Reagan -- two California politicians who both won the presidency but who rose to power in the same large state. Of course, their legacies are quite different too. When Reagan was sworn in, Nixon was far, far out of favor, but we all recognize today that former presidents are some of the nation's most valuable resources. I was wondering if you could comment some on the relationship between Reagan and Nixon and their staffs.

Respecful if distant. They frankly didn't understand each other. In public, they always supported each other but in private, they would sometimes voice their doubts, espeically Nixon.


Reagan was furious that Nixon had embarassed him, the GOP and the country in August of 1974.

I too thought back and thought: yeah, reagan might have been slipping. But last week or whenever, when watching the video of him responding to the challenger situation, wow, he was COMPLETELY compelling. If that's him slipping, I'll take him over some of the other people who might have all their faculties.


My thoughts on this are that he was a great president. However, a whole generation of women (and many men) have grown up thinking that the Rs are evil because of their stance on making abortion illegal. So many people I know will never ever not ever vote R - because of Reagan's legacy on this issue. It's not like the Rs do anything to combat this - they keep trying to get the religious right on their side every election, to reinforce people's thoughts on the Rs.

Reagan was also pro-life.

It seems to me that conservatives do not wish to spend or invest in our schools, R & D, or infrastructure. How can we get to any kind of excellence if we insist on breaking up into individual states with individual goals?

Excellence come from entrepreneuship and competition and you can't get that from government.

It seems to me that Reagan has become more of a GOP icon, used by others, and his real accomplishments and failures, that all presidents have, are either exggaerated or glossed. As a historian, does this bother you? I suppose most presidents wouldn't mind becoming an icon, but to me, he is being used by people who would never have agreed with him while he was president. He raised taxes because it was necessary for the good of the country. And I think he would have hated the vicious attack machine that many( not exlcusively) in his party use today. What would Reagan really think of the current crop of candidates? when I read that Sarah Palin would be speaking at his centennial, I thought it was an insult to Reagan. I did not agree with many of his policies--- his stand on AIDS, trickle down economiic, arms for hostages, etc,,,, but I thought he did something great for the country and that was to make America proud again. I hope that his legacy will not be used and tarnished by those who seek to ride his coattails.

As an historian, I focus on the facts. And the facts about Reagan make him one of America's four greatest presidents. But don't ask me, ask Ted Kennedy who gave Reagan all the credit for winning the Cold War, ask liberal historians John Patrick Diggings, who rated Rr as one of the four greatest because they all liberated many people (Washington, Lincoln, FDR and Reagan) or liberal historian James MacGregor Burns, who put Reagan in the great or near great category.

I agree with your comment that the signature accomplishment was the restoration of confidence in the US. However, the Reagan Presidency also saw the inauguration of soaring deficits and a 'cut taxes is the answer to everything' mentality.' I recognize that Reagan also imposed "revenue enhancements", so he knew in his heart that government had to be paid for, yet the legacies are his. The rhetoric survives the reality. Your thoughts?

Since you brought up the reality, seems to me it survives too. He always regretted not dong more aobut spending and abortion.

Did Ronald Reagan have any close friends who can tell us what he really thought in private? Seems like other than Nancy, he did not really confide in anyone.

Sure. Ed Meese. Peter Hannaford. Lyn Nofziger. Mide Deaver. The Kitchen Cabinet.

But you are right, Mrs. Reagan was his closest friend and confident, just as my wife Zorine is mine.

Sounded like a happy marriage to me.

Would Reagan have supported the really weird and nutty ideas embraced by today's Tea Party?

Reagna was the original Tea Party leader. In 1975, he ran against the Washington "Buddy System" and took on big labor, big government and "Bigh Business." He was a populist who embraced enlightened and optimistic conservatism.

What did Ronald Reagan think of George H.W. Bush? There have been some authors who claim he was disappointed in his Vice President. Some claim Bush abandoned some of Reagan's legacy and that Reagan spoke more favorable of Clinton at times. What have you found?

He certainly had a lot of doubts in the 70's and the 80 campaign about Bush, but they came around after bush went on the ticket and actually became good friends.

I can't speak to what he thought about the Bush presidency or Clinton, but you've sparked my interest!

Having been a thinking adult during Reagan's time in office I remember the positive and the negative. I wonder if the deification of any politician is healthy for the country. FDR tried to pack the supreme court. Reagan sent troups to Lebanon only to see them killed and he withdrew them. What are your thoughts on making men more then mortal?

No one on this Earth has the power to make someone more than mortal.

Reagan was a man who was uniquely gifted, but also had his flaws, like all of us.

And no one was more aware of his own flaws than Reagan.

I was greatly disappointed after losing to Ford in 76 that he did not help him. Can you comment. Also, he started his campaign in Philadelphia, MS -- did he regret that?

Didn't I already answer this? RR began his 80 flal campaign in Liberty State Park in New Jersey. Carter began his in the south, where he paid tribute to Geo. Wallace, who was on the stage.


This has been alot of fund Jodi and Andrea. Thanks ever so much to you and the Washington Post for inviting me to participate.




Craig Shirley

In This Chat
Craig Shirley
Craig Shirley is president and CEO of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs which he originally founded in 1984. The firm is internationally recognized among public opinion leaders and the national media as a leading marketer of right-of-center thought and individuals.

Mr. Shirley is also the bestselling author of Reagan's Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All, which detailed Ronald Reagan's pivotal 1976 presidential campaign.

After four years of intense work, Mr. Shirley completed his second volume, published by ISI Books, which details Reagan's 1980 campaign titled Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America. George F. Will penned the foreword to Shirley's newest effort. The great Reagan biographer, Lou Cannon, favorably reviewed this work in The Daily Caller.

Both books have been hailed as the definitive works on Reagan's event-making campaigns of 1976 and 1980.

Shirley is now working on several more books including a joint effort with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich entitled, Citizen Newt, a political biography of the influential conservative leader. Citizen Newt will be released in late 2011.

Mr. Shirley has been professionally involved in American politics and government for over four decades. He has worked in government and on campaigns at the congressional, gubernatorial and presidential levels and has appeared on or been interviewed by nearly every major media outlet over that time. Shirley is a much sought after commentator, writer and lecturer having spoken at the Reagan Library, Eureka College, the Dole Institute and the Reagan Center in Santa Barbara to name just a few. He is also a member of the Board of Governors of the Reagan Ranch, a part of Young America’s Foundation.

Eureka College has just announced Shirley at its first ever Reagan Scholar and he will teach a class on presidential elections there in May of this year.

Mr. Shirley divides his time between his home in Alexandria and a second home, “Trickle Down Point” on the Rappahannock River, where he, his wife Zorine and their four children enjoy sailing, water skiing and target shooting. Shirley is also an accomplished photographer, scuba diver and carpenter, having built two houses.
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