Opinion

Ronald Reagan Was, Truly, The Great Communicator

Thomas C. Reed Former Secretary of the Air Force

Fifty years ago an obscure motion picture professional was catapulted into the political stratosphere by one stunning performance. Ronald Reagan’s Time for Choosing speech, delivered in support of Barry Goldwater’s failing presidential candidacy, was hailed by David Broder as “the most successful political debut” of the Twentieth Century.

In time, Reagan came to be known as the Great Communicator, but that is an inadequate designation. Reagan’s ability to connect extended far beyond and below the television studio.

For example: In 1966 I was leading Reagan’s campaign for governor in the northern counties of California. Much of that drive was conducted at the retail level. We wished to connect with the local civic leaders and press as best we could.

On January 22, I met our candidate in San Francisco for the hour-long drive north to Healdsburg, a small town then known as the Buckle of the Prune Belt. Our target was the Healdsburg Tribune.

Sonoma County is an agricultural community. It is quite dependent on water for apples and grapes along with a host of other crops. As an eager young volunteer, I had done extensive research on the north coast’s water supply, on plans to flood Round Valley, and on the Corps of Engineers’ plans to reverse the flow of the Eel River to better serve the farmers.

Environmentalists were up in arms. Native Americans, citing bygone treaties, were in anguish. But the farmers needed water. As we entered the wine country, I gave our candidate my briefing on Sonoma County’s water supply. Unneeded of course; Reagan knew all about ranches and water.

As we pulled into the Tribune’s rain-soaked parking lot, that paper’s sturdy editor greeted us at his door with an extended hand and a wide grin, but he had his own agenda. The wooden floor of his one-room office was spattered with blood. Two pieces of a dismembered reptile were still in motion.

Let’s get out of here, I thought. That man has just killed a rattlesnake!

Our infectiously charming candidate showed no concern. He was right at home. Reagan laughed, then launched into a tale about a rattlesnake that once made his horse bolt out on the trail. Both men chuckled, trading stories for half an hour about the best, or the least dangerous, ways to deal with rattlesnakes. No discussion of the Eel River or Round Valley. As the sun was setting, they exchanged warm handshakes. We left Healdsburg after trading mutual pledges of support.

It was a typical performance by the Great Communicator; he was able to connect wherever he went.

A year later, once installed in the governor’s office, Reagan blocked the flooding of Round Valley

“A deal’s a deal,” he observed to his gratified parks director and horrified water superintendent when announcing the decision. The governor’s vast mind had stored away my every caution. 

Thomas C. Reed served as Secretary of the Air Force in the Ford and Carter administrations. He is the author of the just-released exploration of Reagan’s character: The Reagan Enigma