A Perfect Reagan Two-Pack For Summer Reading

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Herbert Stupp Editor, Your Weekly American Top Ten list
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True Reagan; What Made Ronald Reagan Great and why it Matters; by James S. Rosebush; Center Street/Hachette Book Group; 278 pages; 2016.

Reagan’s 1968 Dress Rehearsal; Ike, RFK and Reagan’s Emergence as a World Statesman; by Gene Kopelson; Figueroa (USC) Press; 972 pages; 2016.

For those who presume we have learned all there is to know about President Ronald Reagan, here are two new works that will disabuse the reader of such a notion, even in their early chapters. To the benefit of readers, these books complement each other and reveal heretofore unknown facets of the popular president’s life, mindset and achievements.

James Rosebush was a Deputy Assistant to the President for the first six years of the administration, and may have spent more time in Reagan’s company than any other staff member. Consulted on policy matters and public relations concerns, Rosebush was also trusted to make personal decisions for the first family, such as selecting clothing for Reagan’s 1981 post-shooting emergence from the hospital to return “home” to the White House.

Rosebush gives us up-close-and-personal insights, anecdotes and first-hand stories about President Reagan’s leadership style, wit and humanity.

Gene Kopelson is a semi-retired radiation oncologist who has established himself as a serious historian in his second career. He focuses on the presidential campaign rarely mentioned among Reagan chroniclers: 1968. Then Governor of California, Ronald Reagan was the “favorite son” candidate of his state’s huge delegation, while he and his advisors began planning for 1968 right after his gubernatorial election in November 1966. An actual declared campaign for the Republican presidential nomination was already underway between former Vice President Richard Nixon and sitting New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller.

I should disclose that as a teenager in 1968, I was a member of an elite (read: small) organization, Young New Yorkers for Reagan. I later served in all eight years of President Reagan’s administration, as a New York-based Federal regional administrator. Our New York group was affiliated with the national “Students for Reagan campaign, which generated tens of thousands of campus volunteers.

Kopelson’s book covers much new material and is credible as a reference work. At 972 pages, it may take slower readers more time to complete the book than did Reagan’s actual, declared campaign in 1968, which was only 57 hours in duration.

One of this book’s revelations to me and surely others was Governor Reagan’s frequent communications with and reliance on former President Dwight D. Eisenhower for advice and support. “Ike” was an active mentor and endorsed Ronald Reagan for Governor of California in 1966, but when the Republican nomination for President was settled in 1968, he endorsed his loyal Vice President, Richard Nixon, for the job prior to the convention. In 1967, Ike told the press that he would endorse Ronald Reagan for president if he won the nomination.

Reagan benefitted from Eisenhower’s counsel on missile defense, Cold War strategy, the Vietnam war and political campaigning. They remained in close touch until Ike passed away in 1969.

Kopelson’s book also zeroes in on a mirror-image relationship for Ronald Reagan. That is, his negative encounters with Robert F. Kennedy, whose surprisingly vengeful aggressiveness against the future president reaped results opposite of Kennedy’s intentions.

RFK, as Attorney General in his brother’s administration, is credited with unleashing IRS audits on Reagan, going back for a full decade of review and scrutiny. No irregularities were discovered in the Reagan tax returns.

Reagan was the popular, long-time president of the Screen Actors Guild, but SAG became embroiled in a controversy with another association representing actors and performers, MCA. As part of his investigation into the business relationship, Bobby Kennedy arranged for a subpoena and testimony by Reagan regarding the interactions and potential conflicts between the organizations. Again, the future president acquitted himself well and no one suggested that Reagan’s efforts on behalf of his thespian constituents were anything but honest, above board and beneficial to the acting profession.

Bobby’s coup-de-grace, though, was yet to come. Kennedy called the corporate leaders of General Electric, urging them to “get rid” of television’s popular General Electric Theater and its host, none other than Ronald Reagan. (Although Reagan and the Kennedys had anti-Communist roots and shared enthusiasm for tax cuts, by 1962-63, they had favored different political candidates a few times. Indeed, Joseph Kennedy Sr. was enraged by still-Democrat Reagan’s support for Nixon in 1960.).   

RFK threatened to hold up lucrative government contracts with G.E. unless they complied with his demands. Amazingly, G.E. “caved” and cancelled its popular television show, dispatching popular host Reagan to the unemployment lines.

But by creating a new focal point in Reagan’s career, RFK became the catalyst for Ronald Reagan’s personal entry into politics and soon thereafter, his landslide win over incumbent California Governor Edmund Brown (father of current Governor Jerry Brown). Who knows? Without Kennedy’s crude pressure tactics, General Electric Theater might still be on TV, with Reagan hosting into the 1970s or even the 1980s. That would have meant no election of a Governor Reagan and no election of a President Reagan, though television would have made him a wealthier man.

As amiable as Ronald Reagan was, he understood and resented the relentless threat posed by Robert Kennedy through much of the ’60s. But in 1967, Reagan won an important moral victory against then-U.S. Senator Kennedy. A debate was scheduled on national television between the liberal Senator and the conservative Governor, with the focus on Vietnam and world affairs. Kennedy and others who repeatedly underestimated Reagan presumed their hero would make rhetorical mincemeat of a governor with less than half a year’s experience in government.

The debate was international in scope, with the student audience and the CBS moderator in Oxford, England, Governor Reagan in Sacramento and Senator Kennedy in Washington.

Perhaps because of the indignities heaped on him by RFK’s abuse of his stations in government, Governor Reagan prepared himself well for the debate. By all accounts, Reagan clearly bested Kennedy, as readers can judge for themselves by accessing the debate via YouTube or another Internet source.

The debate was a major spark that helped ignite the Republican and conservative grassroots to support Ronald Reagan for the 1968 nomination.

Kennedy is said to have been traumatized by the encounter, admonishing staff to “never schedule a debate” with Reagan again.

On the awful June night when Senator Kennedy won the California Democrat primary and was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan moments later, Governor Reagan appeared on the late night Joey Bishop Show to offer prayerful and respectful recollections of the tragically just-departed Senator.

Years later, President Reagan demonstrated the warmth and graciousness that endeared to him to so many Americans. The books of both Jim Rosebush and Gene Kopelson describe Reagan’s personal embrace of the Kennedys.

With the battles of the 1960s long behind him, President Reagan hosted athletes from the Special Olympics, a much-praised program initiated by Kennedy family members. The President’s White House comments were naturally generous to the challenged athletes who had worked so hard to better themselves and to compete. But he was equally generous with the Kennedys, and Eunice Kennedy Shriver told Mr. Rosebush how that day profoundly changed her “perception of Ronald Reagan, his character, kindness, humanity, and leadership qualities.”

In Jim Rosebush’s book, readers will get an insider’s perspective on President Reagan, from the campaign trail, to governing, to relaxing in the White House or at his beloved California ranch. There are plenty of Reagan quotes that demonstrate why the President’s communication skills are so universally praised. Reagan was truly the “speechwriter in chief,” and books and letters he personally penned corroborate his talents.

One of Ronald Reagan’s most riveting speeches had its most famous lines repeatedly excised out by State Department proofreaders, until the moment of truth arrived at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany in 1987. The boys at the State Department are not going to like this,” Reagan told his staff as he alighted from his car.

The Reagan lines at the Berlin wall, of course, were: Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” And those words changed the world and sparked a rebirth of freedom in eastern Europe and the demise of the Soviet Communist system.  

Gene Kopelson’s treatment of Governor Reagan’s short-lived 1968 run for the presidency brings new insights into the Reagan of the 1950s and 1960s, as his political philosophy was crystallizing into the principled conservatism we remember. It turns out that Reagan was repeatedly calling for the Berlin Wall (erected in 1961 with Soviet tanks to “support” the bricklayers) to be removed in the 1960s. Senator Goldwater and his chief speechwriter, Brent Bozell Sr., made the same point in the 1964 presidential campaign.

But even more surprising was Ronald Reagan’s call for a strategic missile defense system as early as the 1960s. “SDI” was not a hastily conceived dream in the 1980s, but something Reagan had been thinking about and formulating for decades, with early encouragement from his mentor, former President Eisenhower.

Millions of Americans know of President Reagan’s incredible strength and grace after nearly dying from an assassin’s bullets in March 1981. My favorite interchange from the pivotal hours and days following the life-saving surgery to have the bullet removed from near Reagan’s heart involves an earnest young Marine posted outside the unconscious president’s hospital room. The Marine was instructed, once he saw the president awakening, to reassure him that his government was operating.

Seeing President Reagan blinking his eyes open, the young Marine entered the room and somberly told him: “Mr. President, I think you’ll be pleased to know that the Federal government is functioning as usual.”

The groggy president responded: “What makes you think I’d be ‘pleased’ to know that?”

Jim Rosebush analyzes the impact of the Reagan shooting, and how it impacted the president, First Lady Nancy Reagan, and many staff who scheduled and traveled with the president. Being as close to the Reagans as he was, Rosebush looks at other major life events that affected the president, including his unexpected divorce from actress Jane Wyman, his two unsuccessful campaigns for president, a declining film career and his final Alzheimer’s disability, among other challenges.

The president rarely reflected openly on these life-changing events and Jim Rosebush noted Ronald Reagan’s lack of self-absorption and remarkable resilience in facing personal, organizational and later domestic and international crises.

We know of President George W. Bush’s private donations to an array of charities around the nation, but through True Reagan, we learn of Ronald Reagan’s personal philanthropy. One aide “hand-carried checks for four thousand or five thousand dollars to people who had written him.” The president would instruct staff, Don’t tell people. I was poor myself.Reagan did not have the means to “make large donations, but he kept up a steady stream of smaller contributions where he could while promoting and acknowledging the power of giving to the American people,” notes Mr. Rosebush.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan would give their personal time, often visiting wounded Vietnam veterans in the California hospitals, without any press present or fanfare.

Kopelson’s book offers additional insights into Reagan’s campaigns for California governor and that under-reported 1968 campaign for president. Having registered as a Republican in 1962, he cited Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge and Dwight Eisenhower as his role models while he was preparing to become governor.

It was in the 1960s that Reagan, perhaps with input from President Eisenhower, developed his famous “11th commandment,” urging that Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican. Reagan focused his critiques on President Johnson and his administration, not on other Republicans, despite having obvious differences with the likes of Rockefeller, Lindsay, Javits, Romney Senior (Governor of Michigan), Percy and other self-described GOP moderates and liberals. Needless to say, this GOP truce, driven by a genteel and amiable Ronald Reagan, was a marked contrast with the 2016 campaign and its verbal food-fights.

Conservative Democrat Mayor Sam Yorty of Los Angeles favored Reagan over incumbent Democrat Governor Edmund Brown. An active “Mexican-American Democrats for Reagan” was formed. The contrasts with 2016 go on.   

Kopelson offers many details about Ronald Reagan’s undeclared, favorite-son candidacy, as his supporters garnered impressive electoral showings in most regions of the country. In 1968, only 17 states held primaries for president, with the rest making choices through state conventions, caucuses and other processes. Ronald Reagan, even undeclared, actually won more primary votes that year than did Richard Nixon.

Yet Nixon won the nomination and the presidency through his contacts with state GOP officials running those conventions and caucuses.

Which book to purchase, or at least to buy first? For inside-the-White House observations and surprises about Ronald Reagan in private, coupled with many of the President’s most memorable quotes, Jim Rosebush’s True Reagan is your tome.

But if you want to learn more about the much ignored first Reagan for President campaign, featuring many interviews, insights and disclosures such as Eisenhower’s active role in Reagan’s development, then Gene Kopelson’s Reagan’s 1968 Dress Rehearsal; Ike, RFK and Reagan’s Emergence as a World Statesman should be your purchase.    

Both books offer plenty that’s new to readers about a man who was not only one of the 20th century’s most consequential leaders, but one of the great figures in world history.

It will be a long, hot summer, you’ve just received your income tax refund, and these two books truly complement each other, rarely covering the same material. So buy them both.

Herbert W. Stupp served in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W Bush. For eight years, he was Mayor Giuliani’s Commissioner of the NYC Department for the Aging. Early in his career, he was an Emmy award winning TV editorialist for WOR-TV New York.