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.
Reagan’s narrative was bigger. It was about America as a “shining city on a hill.” He devoted his speech to the first Conservative Political Action Conference in 1974 to it, and mentioned it 40 times as president. It became “his signature line in his ballad of America’s story,” Nash wrote. “For him this single image seemed to capture the essence of what he termed the nation’s ‘destiny.’ ” It was this “city on a hill” that Reagan warned was threatened by big government and Soviet communism.
Contrary to his reputation, Reagan was enormously self-disciplined. He ignored the political buzz that often gripped Washington and agitated his aides. “From show business, he knew the difference of playing to the critics and playing to the box office,” says Reagan historian Steven Hayward. He didn’t let the press get under his skin. “His discipline extended to knowing not to make any news in interviews,” Hayward says. He cared about how the media covered him, “but knew he’d be better off acting as if he didn’t care.”
As a presidential candidate, Romney touted himself as a “full-spectrum conservative.” He wasn’t, but Reagan really was, and knew exactly why. Romney’s campaign was fixated on one issue, the economy. Reagan believed economic and social conservatism could be combined in one “politically effective whole.”
He made a case for this in 1977 in a CPAC address. “What I envision is not simply a melding together of two branches of American conservatism into a temporary uneasy alliance, but the creation of a new, lasting majority,” he said. “We went a long way toward doing it in California. We can do it in America.”
In fact, he did. Reagan spawned a conservative era based on what his former aide Jeffrey Bell calls “integrated conservatism.” Romney jettisoned the social conservative side, and lost. “Subtraction rather than addition from your core philosophy is not how you prevail in an age of polarization,” Bell says.
In early 1981, Reagan didn’t agonize about using a gimmick like that stack of $1,000 bills. He used another as a metaphor for a weak dollar. Again, his aides were dubious. But it was Reagan’s idea and he went ahead with it.
“Here is a dollar such as you earned, spent, or saved in 1960,” he said in a televised speech to Congress. He held up a dollar bill. “And here is a quarter, a dime, and a penny—36 cents.” He held up the three coins. “That’s what this 1960 dollar is worth today. And if the present world inflation rate should continue three more years, that dollar will be worth a quarter.”
It was a contrivance, for sure, but it made the case, as only Reagan could.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard. This article is a condensed version of his speech last week to the Ronald Reagan Society at Eureka College in Illinois, Reagan’s alma mater.