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'Reagan Inside Out' by Bob Slosser
Spiritual Life

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Reagan Inside Out: The President

By Bob Slosser Senior Writer -- The President

It was ten years later. Ronald Reagan had been elected President of the United States by a large margin. Pat Boone, in Washington on business a few days after the election, found himself thinking of his old friend as midnight approached.

Since it was only nine o'clock in California, he telephoned across the country to the Reagans' Pacific Palisades home.

"Nancy answered," he remembered, "and she said, 'We're in bed, but the TV is on. We just felt like we should get to bed early tonight.' "

After a few moments of light-hearted talk, she put Reagan on the phone.

"Hello, Mr. President!" Boone almost sang the words. "Boy, how great that sounds!"

"It sounds pretty good to me, too," the president-elect chuckled. After congratulating him-"he was feeling great about it all"-Boone asked if he remembered the prayer in Sacramento, "the time we joined hands and prayed, and we had a sense you were being called to something higher."

Without hesitation, according to Boone, Reagan replied enthusiastically, "Of course I do."

"We didn't get into any in-depth conversation about it," Boone recalled, "but I said something like 'It appears we were right-on, and we know you're going to make a great president.' "

To have lost sight of that prophetic word would have been understandable. Its fulfillment certainly did not come overnight. Following a half-hearted effort against Richard Nixon for the GOP nomination in 1968, the Californian sat quietly by in 1972 and then went all out in 1976 to try unsuccessfully to deny the nomination to Gerald Ford, to the dismay of the Republican establishment.

After that, many of the experts wrote Reagan off as too old. He would, after all, turn seventy just two weeks after taking office should he achieve the impossible in 1980.

George Otis more and more resembled a false prophet.

Bob Slosser interviews Ronald Reagan in the White HouseNonetheless, on the evening of 13 November 1979, Ronald Reagan appeared at the New York Hilton in territory far from his nurturing West to declare, "I am here tonight to announce my intention to seek the Republican nomination for President of the United States."

His intention was not founded on the prophecy; neither did he reject it. Rather, his decision was based on a conviction hammered out over a decade and a half that he understood the United States and its needs and that he could lead the people to fulfillment. In his view, conditions had deteriorated badly since another man of good will, Jimmy Carter, had felt a similar conviction and had risen to the presidency. Something must be done.

Announcing his candidacy, he declared, "I am totally unwilling to see this country fail in its obligation to itself and to the other free peoples of the world."

Actually, Reagan had been running intently toward 1980 for the previous year and a half. That night in New York, his delivery, if not all the content, had been shaped to its husky best. Many politicians and newsmen were unimpressed by what they heard but, as was so often the case with this actor-turned-politician, the millions watching on television were stimulated. The cameras picked up no trace of the staff dissension that was straining this man so dependent on unity. They could not see the campaign mismanagement, the tendency to hide the real Reagan, that would soon bring reorganization. They heard a man who sounded like them.

"The crisis we face is not the result of any failure of the American spirit," he said firmly, without harshness. "It is a failure of our leaders to establish rational goals and give our people something to order their lives by. If I am elected, I shall regard my election as proof that the people of the United States have decided to set a new agenda and have recognized that the human spirit thrives best when goals are set and progress can be measured in their achievement."

Pounding at inflation and weakness in the American economy, massive government growth, and declining stature internationally, he predicted that the people wanted "a leader who will unleash their great strength and remove the roadblocks government has put in their way."

Then, with the wide-eyed, little-boy look that often surfaces in moments of seriousness, he said simply: "I want to do that more than anything I've ever wanted. And it's something that I believe with God's help I can do."

The professionals saw those last two sentences as a cliche. But were they? Reagan watchers had come to believe that those remarks, perhaps corny, revealed the true man. He did want to heal what he believed to be the sickness in his beloved land. He was not embarrassed by calling it his beloved land. He was serious when he invoked God's help.

That was the man Reagan, the last of ten Republicans to declare their candidacy for 1980, the one who rolled on to win the party's nomination with ease after some tentative early moments, arising primarily from his organizational and strategy problems. Threaded through those months of campaigning were some unusual, inner-man ideas and phrases that continued to be lost on the politicians and the newsmen but were noted by millions of disenchanted voters.

"I believe this nation hungers for a spiritual revival," he said frequently, insisting that "we have a rendezvous with destiny."

He spoke often of America's becoming "a city on a hill," quoting John Winthrop's admonition to the Pilgrims: "The eyes of all people are upon us so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world."

Perhaps one of the most powerful such moments came on the night he accepted the party nomination at the national convention in Detroit's Joe Louis Arena. It was not a graceful moment, but a certain awkwardness in execution often seems to blend into a special Reagan graciousness that translates into persuasiveness. Looking up, and then down, and then back up, he seemed small and even insecure behind the massive convention podium.

Then he blurted, "I'll confess that I've been a little afraid to suggest what I'm going to suggest." He paused slightly. "I'm more afraid not to-that we begin our crusade joined together in a moment of silent prayer."

He allowed ten seconds or more to pass, although it seemed longer, and he looked up. Everyone was on his side in that moment. "God bless America," he said huskily.

Moments like that are difficult to assess. Newsmen generally have no frame of reference from which to make a judgment. They figure the words are throwaway lines, superficial at best. Those who do not themselves engage in prayer find it difficult to imagine that anyone takes it seriously. They're not evil in their assessments, but merely lacking the experience to judge the impact of such actions-either with voters or with God.

And newsmen are not alone. Others in the so-called political nation, which will be discussed in some detail later, have the same weakness. These include politicians, academicians, big business executives, labor leaders, television and film figures, authors, and other opinion makers.

As a result, the "system" was blind-sided by the runaway victory in the 1980 race for the presidency, fooled by the Reagan mystery. The unhappiness with Carter was recognized, but the closing rush to the westerner assumed proportions in the countryside that were not foreseen.

In his biography of this actor, screen union leader, corporate spokesman, and two-term governor, newsman Lou Cannon saw past the politics to at least part of the quality of Reagan's appeal when he wrote some time later: "Reagan profited from Watergate because it encouraged voters to look at the human dimension of their leaders, a yardstick by which Reagan is better measured than by, say, an examination of his intimate knowledge of the merits of competing strategic weapons systems."l

He added: "Campaigns are won in the hearts of men before they are won at the ballot box. They are won by candidates doing what they do best and knowing themselves and feeling secure about what they are saying."2

Reagan had talked to the people.

The Californian was taking a shower when he learned he had been elected. It was about 5:30 in the afternoon, West Coast time. For the rest of the night, his best line was "I just can't believe it." He repeated it dozens of times, first at a dinner with close friends in Bel Air, then at a reception on the top floor of the Century Plaza, and finally at a jubilant party of supporters in the hotel's ballroom.

But the former governor could believe it. He had not been confident of the electoral landslide that broke loose, but he had worked to win. He had expected to win.

This showed clearly in his extemporaneous remarks to the happy throng in the ballroom. "I'm not frightened by what lies ahead and I don't believe the American people are frightened," he said, certain of his interpretation of the mood of America. "Together, we are going to do what has to be done. We're going to put America back to work again."

He knew his audience, and once again, he let his inner man show:

"When I accepted your nomination for president, I hesitatingly asked for your prayers at that moment. I won't ask for them at this particular moment, but I will just say that I will be very happy to have them in the days ahead."

Ronald Reagan, the man from the West, was the first president in history to face west from the Capitol instead of east for his inauguration. He chose to gaze upon the marvelous monuments and memorials honoring the great leadership of America's past. An old-fashioned man, he was genuinely moved by recollections of "the giants on whose shoulders we stand."

And he continued a spiritual man that sunny January 20. "Let us renew our determination, our courage, and our strength," he said. "And let us renew our faith and hope. We have every right to dream heroic dreams."

There was the thread again, revealed in variations. Faith and hope. He apparently believed he knew how to put meat on those spiritual bones. He believed the people wanted him to make the effort.

It meant change. Sharp change. It called for hard, radical decisions in the White House, in the Congress, in the state houses and the town halls. But he apparently had faith and hope that the courage was there to make the decisions, even though it had not always been forthcoming in his eight years as Governor of California. But the forum was larger now. The pulpit was bigger. And the people were staring up at it, eager, expectant. As one sympathetic journalist wrote of the man who had just climbed into that pulpit: "Americans who look for a Big Daddy in the White House will not find one there. They will see, instead, a simple, earnest, courageous man who is seeking guidance from God. "3

Peter Hannaford is a Reagan man. He worked hard to get him elected president. Reagan was, after all, the major client of his California-based public relations firm. As a wordsman, Hannaford fell upon one of those rare passages that, despite its generalities, captured in half a dozen sentences the essence of the incoming president and set the stage fairly and clearly for his administration:

In Ronald Reagan's case, over a period of years he worked out a clear set of principles about the role of government and, on holding public office, never altered his principles, though he was quite willing to compromise in terms of accomplishing specific program elements [italics added]. As Governor of California, he proved he was consistent, but also practical. He knew that a successful chief executive and politician could not fight every battle as if it were Armageddon. His political acumen was and is probably based on many factors in his background: his mother's steadfast belief in God and good works in the temporal world; his father's good humor; his tolerance for idiosyncrasies and unconventionality, probably developed during his film career when he had to get along with a wide variety of temperaments; his instinct for negotiating, forged during his six terms as president of the Screen Actors' Guild; his belief that government was growing out of control, developed strongly in his years with General Electric and his many contacts with business people and plant workers.

There was no reason to believe he would not apply the same approach to the federal government. Would he be served well by those around him, or would he suffer from the inevitable "turf" disputes that plague the early months of most administrations?4

Reagan was in the White House. The country loved him. His party held a majority in the Senate for the first time in twenty-six years. Republicans had gained in the House and given that body a more conservative flavor. He said he was on God's side. God seemed to be on his.

What now? Could he govern? Could anyone of his persuasion govern? Those were mysteries.

Enjoying a crescendo of popularity and enthusiasm that often accompanies a change in Washington administrations, the new president moved quickly and steadfastly on two broad fronts, much as his campaign and inauguration had forecast-economy and defense. He felt he must curb runaway inflation and spending, getting "the government off the backs" of the people, including business, and re-establish the United States as a credible leader of the Western world.

Edwin Meese III, counselor to the president, spoke of those goals three years later. "When the president came in," he said, "we had a 180-day plan-and basically a plan for the whole first year. We then extended that by what ought to happen in the second year. He set the objectives. One was to revitalize the economy, and the second was to rebuild our national defenses."

Reflecting on the need for "leading" and not always merely "reacting" to situations, which is a temptation with any large organization, whether a corporation or a government, Meese went on: "In a sense you could say we were reacting to a situation-one that had been building up for a long time-but we were taking the lead on what we ought to be doing, rather than waiting for Congress to pass bills and we then decide what to do about them. So that was where the president dominated the agenda.

"Then in the second half of the second year, we had a major midterm planning exercise throughout the whole government. ...We met with every department head and every major agency head and developed what things we should be doing in the second two years. Each Cabinet council did the same thing. And so that set the agenda for the next year. So in that sense, we were again trying to get ahead of things rather than merely reacting."

These objectives, which would be expanded into regulatory areas, crime, education, and the like, obviously called for a major turnaround in the direction of the country in recent decades. Unusual steps would be required. But would the system, the establishment, the opinion leaders permit those steps?

Reagan's well-developed skills as a communicator were, as always, his most valuable asset as he attempted to establish himself and his team in the skeptical, cynical city of Washington. Even those who assumed they disagreed with everything he stood for found they couldn't help liking him. His charm-his earnestness, his sincerity-overpowered their natural hostility. A few minutes of conversation with him proved capable of modifying even the most hardened position.

Furthermore, Reagan was riding high with the people out across the land. He appeared to have a mandate, certainly in terms of the electoral process, and he knew how to reach out and touch those who had risen to his cause and propelled him into office when everyone thought his day had passed. He was magnificent on television and radio.

His toughest struggle, as is the case with so many newcomers to Washington, was with the press corps. Personal relationships were good, but his performance before them as a group left much to be desired. He seemed uncomfortable at news conferences-nervous or unprepared or both. He sometimes bobbled questions, and even gave wrong answers, which though later corrected still proved damaging.

A complicating factor for the president was his difficulty in hearing, tracing back to damage done in his acting days when a gun was fired close to his ear. Confusion caused by this weakness reached a point where an amplifier had to be installed in the presidential podium. (In 1983 he went a step further and began to wear a tiny hearing aid.)

But the problem was greater than this. Reagan simply had not mastered his subject matter well enough, probably because of inexperience in the job, to allow his communicative skills to take hold. And the anxiety caused by this showed. One of Washington's temperate and seasoned columnists, David Broder, worried about this weakness: "The comments on Capitol Hill and in embassies suggest that the tension and anxiety the president displays when answering questions about his policies are beginning to cause concern among those here and abroad who look to the White House for leadership."5

The White House staff worried more than Broder, scheduling fewer press conferences and working with the president to stretch out his answers and thus deal with fewer questions. In a word, Reagan became unnatural. "The relaxed sense of command and self-control that he communicated so advantageously in his 1980 campaign debates and in almost every formal speech he has made as president turns into a very tentative and tense performance in the press conferences," observed Broder.

Before long came a distinct sag. True, a number of Reagan's new directions for the government and the country, usually in modified form, slipped into place, almost imperceptibly at times. Inflation eased. But unemployment soared. Interest rates were unbelievably high. Recession-hard times-gripped many industrial regions. The ogre of budget deficits grew uglier and bigger.

Controversy raged over the size of defense and social entitlement expenditures, and a third monster grew in impact-interest paid on a worsening national debt. It seemed obvious that nothing approaching budget balance could be expected with these three items alone soaring into the hundreds of billions of dollars.

And so the struggle went.

Congress became tougher, especially after Democratic gains in the midterm elections, and the public outcry against recession became louder. With this, the complexion of Reagan's popularity changed. Uncertainty about his policy leadership was reflected in opinion polls, yet his personal standing held fairly high. Somehow, even though they railed against recession, the people were touched by his commitment to the changes he believed were necessary for restoration.

They remembered accounts of his words to the Cabinet as he sought additional reductions in domestic social spending in the face of recession and pressure for slashes in defense. Pressing for courageous action to correct the country's problems, he asked his officers: "Can anyone here say that if we can't do it, someone down the road can do it? And if no one does it, what happens to the country? All of us here know the economy would face an eventual collapse. I know it's a tremendous challenge, but ask yourselves: If not us, who? If not now, when?"

Such reports of his sincerity registered well with the population, even the portion that didn't see eye to eye with him. If he said in private what he was saying in public, then he must really mean it.

And he apparently did mean it, even when some of those closest to him were having second thoughts. There was the time late in his first year when the pressure was mounting to reverse his field and accept some increases in taxes, which he ultimately did even though he said he believed they were contrary to the best long-run interests of the country.

Again, Cannon captured the determination of the man:

Even those who had known Reagan a long time would be touched by the faith he showed in his policies when there didn't seem to be much hope for them. Deaver [his closest aide] would remember the time on December 4, 1981, when Stockman [director of OMB] and Baker [chief of staft] had tried to win Reagan's support for "revenue enhancements." Reagan stubbornly shook his head. "Revenue enhancements," he said, "are by any other name a tax increase." Stockman and Baker left. Deaver lingered behind in the gathering gloom of the Oval Office, talking with the president he both protected and admired about the administration's dwindling economic options. Reagan reviewed what had been said to him, then shook his head. "You know, Mike," he said, "I just don't think that some of my people believe in my program the way I do."6

Such episodes graphically bore out his typical one-liner aimed at critics who argued that he was too simplistic in his approach to complex difficulties: There are simple answers to the nation's problems, but not easy ones.

As the weeks and months evolved into years, Reagan passed the midway point in his term and the darkness of recession seemed to be paling. Unemployment was still painfully high, but other indicators showed brightness. The inflation rate remained low. Business was getting stronger. The temper of the people generally seemed better. A quiet confidence appeared to be replacing jitters.

Why? Was improvement inevitable? Was the administration merely lucky?

The answer most likely lay in a principle that is always necessary for success, it seems, and that is the principle of perseverance. Pat Robertson, in his book The Secret Kingdom issued during this period, dwelt at length on this principle, which he described as a law built into the universe. "The ways of the universe yield to perseverance," he said, illustrating with the story of the egg and the chick, who has to keep pecking and pecking, working and struggling, to fight his way out of the place where he was conceived. Before long, he attains the strength to cope with a new life and breaks free of the shell.

"Certain risks," Robertson said, "go with new life and growth-the risks of freedom, we might say-but God prepares us for those risks, through perseverance and struggle, building our muscles, as it were, for each new phase. To refuse to struggle is to stand still, to stagnate."7

It was not likely that Reagan had philosophized his way through the matter of perseverance. Instead he had absorbed the principle from his patient, hard-working mother when he was a child and then developed it out of necessity at each stage of his ever-changing life's course. By the time he was president, at age seventy, he knew unconsciously the power of perseverance. He knew enough to "take what I can get" when dealing with legislators or political opponents, holding on for the time when he would obtain more. By using what he had and pressing on with it, he gradually received more, unconsciously applying another principle explored by Robertson, that of use: The one who uses what he has to the fullest, whether it be material goods or talents, will receive more and more.

A Virginia medical doctor unwittingly revealed a widespread perception of Reagan's persevering style in a casual political discussion a few months after midterm. "You can't go by what you see every day in the papers or on television," R. B. Henry of Norfolk said. "Day by day, he looks like he's in trouble and losing everything, but in the end he seems to get what he wants. I'd say he knows what he wants to do, he believes in it, and quite frankly he's gotten quite a bit done, even though that didn't always appear to be the case."

So it was with the economy, with strengthening of the military, and with regulatory reform.

However, with a number of other key proposals, immediate success could not be claimed. The so-called New Federalism, in which programs and tax bases to finance them were to be shifted over to the states, appeared to be making slow progress. The proposal to bring economic harmony and security to the Caribbean basin struggled against higher priorities. And little was heard of the high-sounding campaign goal to bind the three nations of the North American continent closer together, although Reagan and the other leaders continued to meet.

Even more serious to a large number of early backers of the conservative standard bearer was inaction on several social and moral issues that had wracked the nation spasmodically for years. Especially volatile were the questions of abortion and prayer in the schools.

Although many concerned with these issues-and similar ones like busing for school integration, tuition tax credits for children in private schools, and safety in the streets-had been willing to let economic concerns take priority, they were growing restless.

Reagan continued to insist that he would press such issues through to resolution, but he received little support within the establishment. Would he be able to deal with that establishment?

Questions also continued to arise about the Reagan administration's vision for the Middle East, specifically its commitment to the aspirations of Israel. In the quest for peace, would he go too far in making concessions to the Arabs?

At the same time, Central America threatened to erupt into a major conflagration, possibly embroiling the super powers. Some thought he was too harsh in his anticommunism, others not harsh enough.

Significant numbers of conservative leaders-politicians, writers, economists-reached a time of noisy discontent midway in Reagan's first term. Their writings and speeches often reflected a sense of betrayal by the president, deploring the so-called "pragmatism" they felt merely meant watering-down principle. Reagan's inclusion of a number of Republican establishment figures in the hierarchy-George Shultz, James Baker, David Gergen, and Richard Darman, and others at lower levels, especially in the State Department-was often at the center of their fire. This, they felt, typified a sell-out to the establishment. Some went so far as to label the administration's efforts as "neo-Carterism."

These critics from the right sensed a presidential weakening on tax cuts, the Communist threat in Central America, and aggressive Soviet conduct. And there truly were moments in 1981 and 1982 when such concerns seemed justified. The administration did seem to wallow, to ebb and flow with its convictions.

But those who became unduly alarmed had not really understood Reagan the man or Reagan the politician. They had missed a key fact: He is a man of principle, but he is a gradualist. He has on more than one occasion spoken variations of "it took the liberals fifty years to get us where we are and we won't get where we want to go overnight."

Again, it was the law of perseverance. Reagan did a lot of accommodating in 1982, and he did a lot of learning, but he remained confident that he would move his principles forward. The athlete in him often reflected that being president was like running a race -- start strong, ease up a bit in the middle, and finish strong.

One television reporter was blunt in his assessment of this: "Reagan is a lot smarter than most politicians. He takes the long view. ... He has that uncanny ability to know just what impact his actions will have. ...That's why he can compromise."8

At any rate, the strong criticism of Reagan and his leadership diminished somewhat among the hardline conservatives, despite a loud hiccup over the appointment of Henry Kissinger to head a task force on Central America, as the administration ploughed into the final third of its term.

Part of this was attributable to an altered perception of Reagan, and part was due to the fact that matters did, indeed, change. But, again, it might have been that Reagan was simply picking up steam as he prepared to finish the race strong, having first begun strong and then eased up a bit.

The most obvious change was that the president no longer functioned only as the chairman of the board, although he did definitely remain the chairman. He also appeared to be serving increasingly as chief operating officer. He resisted the sort of attention to minute detail that many believed caused his predecessor to bog down and lose his idealistic thrust. But he became the central spokesman again-the articulator of the vision and the one who told how it was to be executed. In short, he became natural again. And he became more aggressive.

He also broadened his field of contact. He opened himself to more advisers. The most visible change was a steady increase in the influence of William P. Clark within the White House inner circle, which will be examined in detail in chapter 10. As national security adviser, Clark, described as one who knows the heart and mind of Reagan, gradually grew in stature and clout. Soon the Big Three of advisers-James Baker, Edwin Meese, and Michael Deaver-were the Big Four. Reports persisted that the group might have become narrowed to the Big Two-Baker and Clark-but that trend was not expected to last.

Whatever the case, Reagan's apparently increased firmness and vigor, especially in foreign affairs, might trace back to the office of Clark, who was known to think that Baker and others were at times too quick to compromise goals in order to govern. Clark, a fourth-generation rancher from California, with a reputation as a hard-liner, had the support of Reagan loyalists who distrusted Baker.9 He would be one of those whom Reagan wanted at his side as he prepared to finish the race strong.

These White House modifications produced a crisper Reagan. Despite occasional lapses, he generally handled himself better in press conferences, although the mainstream newsmen seemed to deepen in their disrespect for his presidential leadership. He seemed better informed and more comfortable. His speechmaking, always more effective than the spontaneous give-and-take of press conferences because of the opportunities to prepare, showed greater poise and confidence. A national news magazine assessed these changes as follows:

At times Reagan has seemed unfamiliar with important matters of state, and this has played into his critics' hands. An aide acknowledges that in the early months of his presidency, "issues were coming at him that he wasn't familiar with. His advisers may have been overprotective and too restrictive in the amount of information he received."

Insiders insist that this is no longer so -- that Reagan today is more deeply involved than ever before in day-to-day decisions -- particularly in foreign policy.

On domestic matters, the president had developed enough confidence that he no longer relied fully on staff recommendations. .'He created his own options," said an aide.10

Still, the questions persisted. No amount of exposure seemed able to erase all doubts. How did this amateur citizen-politician, very different in every way from American leaders of the last fifty years, really think? Was he simply lucky? Was he really changing the tone and direction of the country? How were we to assess his rough-hewn faith in God? Was it significant for the rest of us?

Related stories:

Reagan Inside Out: The Prophecy

Reagan Inside Out: The Call for Renewal

Order your copy of Reagan Inside Out

More from Bob Slosser on


Chapter 2:

1. Reagan, Lou Cannon, G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, p. 188.
2. Ibid., p. 240.
3. The Real Reagan, Frank van der Linden, William Morrow & Co., Inc., New York, p. 27.
4. The Reagans, Peter Hannaford, Coward-McCann, Inc., New York, p. 302.
5. "White House Invokes 'damage-control' policy to protect Reagan," David Broder, Washington Post, 15 November 1981.
6. Reagan, p. 348.
7. The Secret Kingdom, Pat Robertson, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, p. 138.
8. Drew Parkhill, CBN economics specialist, 1 June 1983.
9. U.S. News & World Report, May 23, 1983, p. 21.
10. Ibid., p. 20.

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