The Magazine

The Complete Package

Ronald Reagan, the great narrator.

Feb 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 22 • By FRED BARNES
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 20 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers