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Ronald Reagan, the great narrator.

Feb 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 22 • By FRED BARNES
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In February 1981, President Reagan was searching for ways to win support for spending cuts. He’d been president less than a month. The national debt was closing in on $1 trillion and Reagan wanted the public to grasp the danger of owing that much money​—​and thus the need to slash government spending.

Reagan had come upon a tantalizing nugget of information: A stack of $1,000 bills totaling $1 trillion would be 80 miles high. But when he informed his speechwriters of this, they were skeptical. They checked with the U.S. Mint. By extrapolating from measurements of $1,000 bills, the mint determined Reagan was on to something. A $1 trillion stack, it turned out, would be 67 miles high.

And so Reagan’s speech to Congress on February 18, 1981, included this passage near the top:

Our national debt is approaching $1 trillion. A few weeks ago I called such a figure incomprehensible, and I’ve been trying ever since to think of a way to illustrate how big a trillion really is. And the best I could come up with is that if you had a stack of $1,000 bills in your hand only four inches high, you’d be a millionaire. A trillion dollars would be a stack of $1,000 bills 67 miles high.

That spring, Reagan’s spending cuts​—​most of them​—​were approved by a solidly Democratic House to the chagrin of Speaker Tip O’Neill. And Reagan’s knack for explaining dry economic numbers in plain and uncomplicated terms was an important contributing factor.

I cite this example of Reagan’s gift of political persuasion for two reasons. It’s instructive, or at least should be. He did what politicians don’t do today. He defined economic terms and concepts in easily understandable language. Mitt Romney failed at this in his presidential campaign. And his surrogates, except for Paul Ryan, were just as opaque.

Reagan didn’t assume voters understand economic jargon. Do they know why the debt-to-GDP ratio matters? Do they have a clue about the damage a “debt crisis” would cause? Can they visualize what today’s national debt of $16 trillion looks like? Not likely. Reagan would have tutored them so they could.

The second reason is broader. His role as the Great Explainer was only one aspect of Reagan that separates him from 21st-century Republican candidates and national leaders and from Democrats like President Obama as well. As much as they yearn to be like Reagan, they cannot. He had skills and strengths they lack.

Reagan said having been an actor really came in handy in politics, but so did his experience as a speechwriter. “Until I got to the White House, I wrote all my own speeches,” he insisted. George H. Nash, the scholar of conservatism, investigated Reagan’s claim and said he “found no reason to disbelieve him.”

George P. Shultz, Reagan’s secretary of state, got a hands-on lesson in speechwriting from Reagan. In his introduction to a collection of Reagan’s writings, Shultz recalled asking Reagan to look over a proposed speech on foreign policy “to be sure that I had it the way he wanted it.” Reagan read the speech and declared it to be “quite satisfactory.”

Then, after a pause, Reagan said, “Of course, if I were giving that speech, it would be different.” How so? Shultz asked. “Well, you’ve written this so it can be read,” Reagan said. “It can be reprinted in the New York Times or in your State Department Bulletin. .  .  . But I talk to people—when they are in front of me, or at the other end of a television camera or a radio microphone—and that’s different.”

Reagan showed Shultz what he meant. He edited the speech. “He made four or five edits and put a caret in the margin and wrote ‘story.’ Then he handed it back to me. As I read what he had done, I saw that he had changed the tone of my speech completely.”

In his speeches, Reagan emphasized the lives of individual Americans, believing audiences would be interested, even mesmerized. He talked far more about others than himself. He invented the stagecraft of having a “hero” in the House gallery, introducing him, and telling his story.

Reagan also had a “narrative” before that term had become fashionable—a story or a few sentences that told what motivated him. Most politicians’ narratives are personal. Senator Marco Rubio’s is about his family’s coming to America from Cuba and finding a great land of opportunity. One of President Obama’s narratives says Republicans had run the economy into a ditch and wanted to take the wheel again, but he wouldn’t let them.

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