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Ronald Reagan: 1911-2004

He connected with his words

Published June 6, 2004

WASHINGTON - Ronald Reagan changed the way presidents talk.

Before Reagan was elected in 1980, most presidential speeches were little more than a guy reading a script. John F. Kennedy won high marks for his oratory, but Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon never seemed to enjoy giving a speech, especially when they were talking into a TV camera. Jimmy Carter wasn't much better. His slow delivery was too mellow for a hot medium.

But Reagan understood there were millions of people on the other side of the camera lens. He spoke to them with a comfort and sincerity that other presidents lacked. His best lines are still fresh in our memory:

His declaration that "Government is not the solution, it's the problem."

His slightly amused "There you go again" during a debate with Carter.

His angry plea at the Berlin Wall, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

Some of the credit belongs to Reagan's speech writers, wordsmiths like Peggy Noonan who could transform his conservative ideas into poetic phrases. But most of the credit belongs to Reagan himself. His off-the-cuff comments were often as good as anything Noonan could write.

Sure, the fact that Reagan was an actor made him a better speaker. But his skills were far more complex than simply delivering his lines. Reagan understood how to connect with people.

He understood that symbolism is often more effective than substance. That's not to say Reagan lacked substance - his philosophy of small government and lower taxes was endorsed by an army of conservative thinkers. But he realized that the way to inspire voters was to simplify his ideas into lines the voters could remember.

He was the first president to master the sound bite, the snappy one-liner that has become the main way politicians communicate. He was no policy wonk, but that didn't matter. Someone else did R & D. Reagan was in charge of sales.

You can see Reagan's impact in President George W. Bush and even Bill Clinton.

You can hear echoes of Reagan in many of Bush's speeches - his fight against the "axis of evil" and his vow to get Osama bin Laden "dead or alive." Bush doesn't have Reagan's smooth delivery (Democrats love to make fun of Bush's verbal gaffes), but he has skillfully used Reaganesque language to win support for the war in Iraq and his tax cuts. He cast the war in stark terms of good and evil and said the tax cuts would "let the people keep their own money."

Clinton also learned from Reagan, but it was more about style than substance.

Quick: Can you recall a memorable line from Clinton (other than "I did not have sex with that woman")?

Maybe not.

Yet Clinton is widely regarded as an effective communicator, even by many Republicans. That's because, just as Reagan did, he connected with crowds, he felt their pain. If he hadn't become president, Clinton would have made a great talk show host.

Unlike Reagan, he had a tendency to talk and talk and talk. His speech to the 1988 Democratic National Convention rambled so long that some people thought it would hurt his chances to become president. His memoirs, to be published later this month, will be more than 900 pages.

But Clinton still connected with voters. Like Reagan, he traced his roots to humble beginnings in small-town America. He didn't use as much of the sweeping "shining city on a hill" rhetoric as Reagan, but his optimistic vision struck a chord with people the way Reagan's had.

And so Reagan's legacy lives on. But for now, he is the only one who can truly be called the Great Communicator.

[Last modified June 5, 2004, 22:29:04]

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