“No one understood the cardinal rule of politics better than Ronald Reagan – ‘define or be defined.’ He was a product of Hollywood. He understood the camera. He understood that there is perception and there is reality, and the perception of reality is all that matters - not the reality itself. So he had to project himself in a certain way, and he did it because of his training - and he did it flawlessly.”
L. Brent Bozell III, founder and president of the Media Research Center, gave this warm tribute to the Great Communicator before an audience at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, Wednesday, just two days before the birthday of the beloved late President.
Bozell was on hand ostensibly to tout “The Reagan I Knew” by the late William F. Buckley, Jr., a man who enjoyed thirty years of fast friendship with the man who brought the American conservative movement out of the political wilderness and into the White House.
When Buckley was struck down at his desk in February 2008, he was putting the finishing touches on his intimate memoir of Ronald Reagan.
“The interesting thing is history can’t stop writing about Ronald Reagan,” said Bozell to the full room. “Trivia question: How many books on Ronald Reagan have been written? Answer: As of last spring, 900 books have been written on Ronald Reagan.”
But Bozell noted that Buckley’s work was especially a labor of love and insight.
And it was insight into the phenomenon that was and is Ronald Reagan that eluded and frustrated his enemies when the former actor, Screen Actors Guild president and California Governor arrived in Washington.
“[T]hroughout his tenure on the political scene, they did everything in their power to redefine him the way they wanted to redefine him,” noted Bozell. “But they had some problems with Ronald Reagan.”
“[T]hey could never quite understand what they wanted to define him as - because on the one hand, the talking points were that he was this stuttering old fool, this Class B Hollywood washed-up has-been who somehow washed ashore in the Potomac River and here he was as President of the United States…”
“On the other hand,” added Bozell, “you have the media running these stories about how Ronald Reagan was this evil genius who was going to get us into a war with the Soviet Union – overnight - and that he had to be stopped because of his master plan to destroy the planet earth.”
“They cannot make up their mind,” Bozell recalled. “They had another problem, which is Ronald Reagan himself - because the more people who saw Ronald Reagan, the more they saw that there was genuine good cheer, genuine personality, and genuine optimism.
“It all came natural to Ronald Reagan because that is who Ronald Reagan was,” Bozell added. “He didn’t have to force it on the camera. His face just made love to the camera, and the more the Americans saw him, the more they loved him, and the more the media attacked him, the more he sparkled in the eyes of the public.
“He just worked that way. The more they went after him, the better it was for Ronald Reagan. He understood this,” Bozell concluded.
Ron and Bill
Ronald Reagan and Buckley were political allies and close friends throughout Reagan’s political career. They went on vacations together and shared inside jokes.
When Reagan was elected President, Buckley wrote him to say that Reagan should not offer him any position in the new administration. Reagan wrote back saying he had hoped to appoint Buckley U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan (then under Soviet occupation).
For the rest of his term, Reagan called Buckley “Mr. Ambassador.” On the day the Soviets withdrew, he wrote Buckley to congratulate him for single-handedly driving out the red Army “without ever leaving Kabul.”
Whether serious or jousting each other with their wits, Reagan and Buckley understood and taught each other for decades -- and together the President and his biographer changed history.
Which is why “The Reagan I Knew” is such an important memoir and slice of history, noted Bozell.
“Bill Buckley also understood the art of ‘define or be defined,’ but he understood it differently,” opined the syndicated columnist, television commentator, author and publisher.
“The media, his critics, did their utmost to present Bill Buckley as the epitome of all of those things that they thought should be despised in the conservative movement -- greed, elitism… Bill Buckley loved it because Bill Buckley knew that there was one thing that he had that his opposition never had – he had the ability to slaughter them in a debate.
“So he let them come after him and he responded. He responded with a full frontal assault. He responded with both guns blazing. He responded with his teeth gripping a knife that was going to slash his opponent’s throat rhetorically, but he did it with a smile… He was a genuinely nice fellow. He just knew how to beat you and he knew how to slit your throat.”
But if good friend Buckley had this unique killer instinct, what stirred in the inner sanctum of Ronald Reagan’s temperament?
Bozell described what Buckley had to say on the subject. Was Reagan really a hair-trigger with his hand poised above the nuclear strike button?
Bluffing the Soviet Bear
“Bill Buckley also suggests that what was unknown about Ronald Reagan was the perception that he would not have a problem in putting his finger on the nuclear button if needed,” said Bozell. “Buckley ultimately questioned whether Ronald Reagan ever would have done it. He believed that Ronald Reagan was far more of a pacifist than he was letting on…”
Bozell said that Buckley introduced us to something that you really don’t see in the other 900 books, which is the personal relationship between two conservative giants.
“There are lessons that come out of this book. One is that they didn’t agree on everything,” Bozell noted.
One of those disagreements, recounted Bozell, occurred when the two friends paired up on Buckley’s public affairs television program, “Firing Line.”
On one memorable show in the late 1970s, the two friends debated over returning the Panama Canal to Panama. After opening statements, Reagan, who opposed the treaty, paused, smiled, then said, “Well, Bill, my first question is, Why haven’t you already rushed across the room here to tell me that you've seen the light?”
Buckley threw back: “I’m afraid that if I came any closer to you, the force of my illumination would blind you.”
The Reagan humor was in full throttle after the verbal sparring over the canal. Nancy and Ronald invited Buckley and his wife, Pat, to their home… As Bozell decribed:
“Buckley recounts about how they were driving up the driveway and he saw three hand painted signs. The first one said ‘We built it,’ the second one said, ‘We paid for it,’ and the third one said, ‘It is ours.’
“That was Reagan’s way of greeting him,” said Bozell. “Buckley would respond by periodically writing him -- asking him when he was going to give away the Erie Canal.”
For years, Bozell recounted, Buckley flirted with Nancy Reagan, addressing her as “Cherie” and playfully imagining a lustful rendezvous in Casablanca.
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