Reagan's blend of stagecraft and statecraft

The presidential election of 1980 inaugurated the conservative revolution. It also demonstrated the dazzling skill of Ronald Reagan in blending stagecraft with statecraft. Craig Shirley chronicles the 1980 campaign in "Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America." Reagan wasn't alone, however, in understanding the role of stagecraft in politics. Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy also were exemplars - but, in Shirley's view, the latest charismatic occupant of the White House, President Barack Obama, has much to learn from his predecessors. Shirley is president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, a conservative marketing firm.

GUEST BLOGGER: Craig Shirley

Almost 30 years ago to the day, Ronald Reagan stunned the political world by crushing his main opponent for the 1980 GOP presidential nomination, Amb. George H.W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary, winning 50 percent of the vote to Bush's 23 percent. Just that morning, newspapers across the country pronounced the primary "too close to call."

A few days earlier, Reagan and Bush had attended a debate sponsored by the Nashua Telegraph (but paid for by Reagan's campaign) where Reagan famously thundered to editor Jon Breen, who was attempting to have the Gipper's microphone turned off, "I am paying for this microphone Mr. Green!"

The line was similar to one uttered by Spencer Tracy in the movie, "State of the Union" but it was not the first time in American politics where life imitated art. Indeed, today it is sometimes difficult to know the difference, especially given America's first Facebook president, Barack Obama.

The conventional thinking became that absent the debate, Reagan would have lost the Granite State primary and with it, the Republican party's nomination, coming on the heels of Bush's stunning win in the Iowa Caucuses over Reagan five weeks earlier. In fact, lacking the debate, Reagan probably would have still won New Hampshire, albeit it by a much closer margin.

Just as important though is how Reagan was self-aware about the overlap between stagecraft and statecraft. His old campaign manager, John Sears once asserted that Reagan could not tell the difference between the real world of politics and the fantasy world of Hollywood.

Yet years later and deep into his presidency, Reagan was asked by a reporter if his years in Hollywood had helped him be a better president. Insightfully, Reagan replied, "I don't know how you can do this job and not be an actor."

Reagan understood what Shakespeare has proclaimed hundreds of years earlier: "The play's the thing." All good leadership also involves good presentation.

George Washington never appeared before his troops without his uniform immaculate, his horse brushed and the leather saddle brightly waxed and polished. Franklin Roosevelt would not let crowds see him in his wheelchair, and John F. Kennedy was rarely seen using the crutches he often depended upon because of his bad back. Churchill mainlined drama.

Still, each of these men including Reagan keenly understood that presentation can get one only so far and that eventually, the substance of the man and his ideas had to predominate. Each of these self-confident men surrounded himself with men of letters.

Today, Washington political classes are surrounded by shallow people armed with Blackberries and not books. With our consultant-as-celebrity dominated political world, there is a lesson that has been lost on both sides of the aisle.

American politics has followed the lead of Hollywood only no longer is life imitating art, it is competing with it. Cults of personalities now dominate Washington and while the pursuit of ideas is left behind.

Yes, Reagan and his predecessors understood that Washington and the world provided them with a stage, but the presentation must be of substance. Reagan, Roosevelt, Kennedy and those who grasped the uses of power chose to be and not just to be seen.

By Steven E. Levingston |  February 25, 2010; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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