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Remembering Ronald Reagan

By James C. Humes   |   Tuesday, 05 Feb 2008 08:05 AM

Ronald Reagan said that 90 percent of leadership was communication, and the minute detail that he paid to preparation confirmed that belief.

Compare that to his successor, Bush senior, who told this writer that all "speeches were b***s**t!" Bush’s contempt of writers was shown by denying the White House “Mess” to his speech staff.

Reagan had been writing talks even before he became the nation’s most popular after-dinner speaker in the 1950s. From those early days on, when a speech date loomed, Reagan would begin to think about a topic to fit the audience. His next step was to flip through his thousand anecdotes on 3” by 5” cards for the right story that would reinforce the theme of his talk. For a trade association, he might tell one that poked fun at politicians or bureaucrats.

One story he liked was about the time Benjamin Franklin, Dr. Benjamin Rush, and Thomas Jefferson argued about what was the oldest profession. Dr. Rush said, “Medicine, because the carving of Eve from the rib of Adam was a surgical procedure.” Jefferson, the builder of Monticello, said, “It was an architect, since he brought order out of chaos.”

“No,” said Franklin, “it’s the politician. After all, who brought about the chaos?” [Editor's Note: Get more Reagan insight in James Humes' book "The Wit & Wisdom of Ronald Reagan" Go here now.]

The next thing he would mull over was a closing patriotic and poignant vignette that would trigger a standing ovation.

His favorite, of course, was Gov. John Winthrop’s words in 1636 who, as he landed in Massachusetts on the ship Arabella, spoke of building that “shining city on the hill.”

Reagan worked hard to make his speeches sound natural, almost like conversation. He was like the woman who spends a lot of time on makeup to make it look as if she has on no makeup.

A fellow Solon criticized the great Athenian orator Demosthenes, saying that his speeches “smelled too much of the lamp,” meaning too many hours were spent perfecting the perfect phrase. For example, Ted Sorensen’s words for JFK, "Ask not what your country can do for you, rather ask what you can do for your country.” Such parallelism, I know as a former speechwriter, does not easily spring from your head.

Reagan made his speeches seem almost effortless. He liked to imagine that he was talking to someone in a kitchen. He would have detested the pontifications of politicians like Gore or Kerry that preached down at people. Look at these Reagan lines: “At home our enemy is no longer Red Coats but red ink,” or “You know what the government policy is. If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. If it stops moving, subsidize it.”

The style is not oratorical but conversational.

It is an easy flow of words, and Reagan redrafted talks many times to achieve that effect. Yet the alliteration and repetition of words is that of a practiced speaker to audiences, not newspaper journalists, who write for the printed page.

His text before him on the lectern on the dais was not written out in article form where the line ends where space runs out on the left side of the page but rather almost in verse form — a phrase that fills up most of the space on a line.

That enabled him to glance at the phrase then conversationalize that line while looking at the audience.

In 1989, after Reagan left the White House, I observed him preparing for a speech to a national retail association. He rejected each course of the fine dinner offered him.

Instead, he drank a cup from a pot of hot water. His only sustenance was a big chocolate chip cookie that came in an aluminum wrapping. He told me he learned it from a preacher and a crooner friend — Billy Graham and Frank Sinatra. The hot water soothed aging vocal chords, and the cookie was for quick energy. He also told me never to eat any dairy products — butter, cheese, or a creamy salad dressing, because they clot up your mouth.

He would then put in two contact lenses — one nearsighted for looking at notes and the other one farsighted so he could see the audience. Reagan’s poor eyesight almost stopped him from having a movie career. Contacts in the late 1930s were painful. Reagan hated to wear them, and off-set crew people would move their hands to direct him to one side or another. His bad eyes would prevent him from military service abroad in World War II.

One other speaking tip he gave me was to put on fresh shoes just before speaking. “It gives me new energy,” he said. The clothing he wore looked like he had picked them off the rack at JC Penney. The style seemed average “Joe public,” but the suit was actually tailor made. His wide collared shirt (always with a solid color tie tied in a Windsor knot) was also specially ordered to make his short neck seem longer. He had copied that trick from Jimmy Cagney, who also worked at Warner Brothers studio and had the same problem.

Memory is one of the skills all actors work at developing. But Reagan’s memory was phenomenal. His nickname among film directors was “one-shot Ron.” He was so prepared in his 53 feature films that a take never had to be re-filmed because he never flubbed a line. He also, unlike many of his acting fraternity, never arrived late, never arrived hung-over, and always arrived with his invariably sunny temperament. Ego fits that so often afflict Hollywood stars were never displayed by Reagan.

After his stint in World War II as an Army film training director, he returned to his acting career in 1947.

He played the supporting role of a Yank next to the lead British actor Richard Todd in "Hasty Heart," which was filmed in London. In the script, an English soldier scoffs at the American saying that he could not name the books of the Bible. The Yank then reels off: “Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations . . .,” all the way to Revelation.

Reagan did this in the first take, to the amazement of all. Years later, at a dinner in the White House, where clergy were present, Reagan rattled off all the books of the Bible once again. [Editor's Note: Get more Reagan insight in James Humes' book "The Wit & Wisdom of Ronald Reagan" Go here now.]

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James C. Humes is professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. A former White House speechwriter, he is the author of "The Wit And Wisdom Of Ronald Reagan."

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