Ronald Regan, a Republican, was the 40th president of the United States. When he took office in 1981, he was the oldest to be elected at that time, serving two terms until 1989. Today, some will remember him as a onetime Hollywood actor who, like Arnold Schwarzenegger many years later, went on to be Governor of California.
Unlike Arnie, who was disqualified from standing, having been born outside USA, he went on to become President.
Old news clips capture his genial smiling face, in conversation with close ally, Margaret Thatcher. Others show him with Mikhail Gorbachev, the rival with whom he paved the way to better relations with the USSR. In America, In one memorable speech, these words resonated. “Tear down the wall, Mr Gorbachev!”
Together with Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama, he is considered one the greatest presidential orators. He was known as “the Great Communicator.’
His life can be seen as one of constant rehearsal, readying him for his biggest performance role, that of President. His first job was on a local radio station where he learnt “to talk to your audience, not over their heads or through them. Don’t try to talk in a special language of broadcasting or even of politics, just use normal everyday words.” As an unscripted sport commentator, talking under pressure and off-the -cuff became second nature, something that would serve him well in his political life.
His success as a radio performer led to the call from Hollywood. There he became an actor. A good one who honed his craft, rehearsing and starring in some seventy films. Playing a part became natural and, in all but one of his films, he played the ‘good guy’, not the villain.
The down to earth, humorous optimist persona, key to his political success, was consolidated. As a Captain during the war, he served in a wartime Motion Picture unit producing some 400 training films. He understood performance from both sides of the camera.
Having mastered radio and film, he moved into television, a medium that was increasingly outperforming its predecessors. then increasingly taking its place as the medium of influence. In the fifties, he hosted one of the top-rated network shows, General Electric Theater, showcasing 235 plays over six years. This gave him invaluable experience of live broadcast. (Donald Trump, fifty years later, was to benefit from his years of experience hosting the American version of the Apprentice.)
A spin off from the television show was an annual 16 weeks-week tour of sponsor GE’s plants, delivering speeches to the workforce, sometimes as many as fourteen a day! With that level of practice, no wonder he made political speeches seem effortless.
Arguably no one first entered political life so well practiced, so comfortable in rehearsal, so confident in what worked for him. He instructed his script writers to stick to his template for a good speech- they were to be no longer than twenty minutes (TED Talks are 18 minutes) and follow the (classic) format “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you’ve told them.” He felt deeply that a speech must take into account the audiences mood and guide their passions and emotions, while using the words of the common man. It was vital ‘to be honest in what you’re saying’ and ‘to be in touch with your audience.’
Carefully crafted scripts were subjected to rigorous rehearsal, where Regan would add stories, epithets and humorous anecdotes from his celebrated collection of personal ‘notes’, putting his personal stamp on the speech. His ‘honeyed’ voice worked equally well in a fireside chat broadcast as in a major platform speech. He could ‘keep your attention reading from the phone book’, but his use of language, the timing, the easy delivery, and injections of humour made his performances compelling.
One of his earlier speeches,” A Time for Choosing,” is widely regarded as among the greatest of the twentieth century.
Aristotle wrote of ethos, logos and pathos as the three essential elements of persuasive speaking, the appeal from character, the appeals of reason and emotion. Regan was a master of all three, but it was his manner, his personality that so lifted his performances. A politician, he came across as non-political, an honest straight talking, ‘one of us.’ Reagan himself credited his political success to an empathy with ordinary Americans. To one reporter, who on the eve of his election in 1980, asked what people saw in him, Reagan replied: “Would you laugh if I told you that I think, maybe, they see themselves, and that I’m one of them? I’ve never been able to detach myself or think that I, somehow, am apart from them.”
One story captures the essence of his performing genius. In the 1984 presidential debate with his much younger rival Walter Mondale, he faced tough questions. Was he getting too old for the job? Did he worry he might not have the necessary energy? With a gentle smile, and perfect comedic timing (undoubtedly rehearsed) he replied “No, I don’t, and I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Regan was a master of the rhetorical virtue; kairos. Your words need to be suited to the moment of their speaking.
The audience, including Walter Mondale, burst into laughter.
This was seen as a defining moment leading to him winning the election.