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The GE Years: What Made Reagan Reagan

After November’s elections, Senator John McCain, former Congressman Dick Armey and others called for a return to the principles and policies of Ronald Reagan. At the time these policies were first advanced, many observers believed they constituted a revolution. But how did Reagan himself come to these views and where did he learn to translate them from one man’s vision into governmental policies and acts?

In my book, The Education of Ronald Reagan: The General Electric Years and the Untold Story of his Conversion to Conservatism, I trace Reagan’s evolution from liberal to conservative, from actor to politician. The changes took place during the time when he served as host of the General Electric Theater on television. His contract also called for him to spend  a quarter of his eight years (1954-1962) with the company touring the forty states and 139 plants of GE’s far-flung decentralized corporate domain, addressing 250,000 employees and their neighbors.

When he joined GE in 1954, Reagan was a Democrat and a self-described “New Dealer to the core.” One of the early photos in the book shows him at the White House – the Truman White House -- where he was thanked by the president for his strong support in the 1948 election. He had been a leader and organizer of California’s “Labor for Truman.” He was then serving as president of the Screen Actors Guild, which opposed “Right-to-Work” laws. Two years later, he supported Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas in her U. S. Senate contest against Republican Richard Nixon. In 1952, he backed the Republican candidate for president, but as a Democrat for Eisenhower.

However, on October 27, 1964, two years after he had left GE, Reagan delivered a nationally-televised speech in support of conservative Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate for president. Supporters and critics alike thereafter referred to Reagan’s remarks as “The Speech.” The dean of the Washington press corps referred to it as “the most successful political debut since William Jennings Bryan’s ‘Cross of Gold’ speech in 1896.” In 1966, Reagan was elected governor of California.

As Reagan later commented, he had been giving The Speech for years, in a variety of versions, in his role as GE’s “Traveling Ambassador.” But Reagan learned more in his GE years than a set of prepared remarks. He became familiar with such diverse thinkers as von Mises, Lenin, Hayek, and the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu. He read and reread the practical economics of Henry Hazlitt. He quoted Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton. He observed GE’s vice president Lemuel Boulware, whom many leaders in corporate America regarded as the most successful labor negotiator of all time, and Reagan himself sharpened his negotiating skills during this period when he served another term as president of the Screen Actors Guild. (An intriguing aspect of this process occurred in 1960, when Boulware was urging GE’s workers not to strike at the same time as Reagan, as SAG president again, took his members out on strike against the Hollywood producers. Incredibly, the situation worked out for the benefit of both GE and SAG.)

As one of Reagan’s “traveling aides” pointed out, “This was the period that brought into being Lemuel Ricketts Boulware.” When the nation was paralyzed by a seventeen-week strike in 1946, in which almost all of the country’s corporations were brought to their knees, the 16,000 workers who produced annual revenues of $150 million for the GE subsidiaries which did not use the corporation’s name (e.g. Hotpoint and  Carboloy), did not go on strike at all. They were managed by GE vice president Boulware. As a result, Boulware was placed in charge of all of GE’s labor, public and community relations.

In 1947, flushed with success of the national strike, Walter Reuther, leader of the United Auto Workers, proclaimed that “unions can no longer operate as narrow pressure groups concerned with their own selfish interests.” Trade unionism, he maintained, must now “lead the fight for the welfare of the whole community.” The gauntlet was down, and Lemuel Boulware issued a response. He saw a great gulf between the political ambitions of union officials and the economic interests of their members. This was a crucial contest, with “our free market and our free persons” at stake. But before battle could be joined, “every citizen had to go back to school on economics individually … to learn from simple text books … to study until we understand” our democracy and our free market system. In his call to arms, Boulware was describing what became the education of Ronald Reagan.

Boulware believed in “going over the heads of the union leaders” directly to the employees. He did this primarily through four publications and a series of book clubs. He also created a new position, Employee Relations Manager, and 3,000 of them joined with 12,000 supervisors to bring the company’s message home. The ERMs used skills that the company had developed in the manufacture and sale of its products to win the hearts and minds of its workers. Boulware called this “job marketing.”

Two of the publications that emanated from Boulware’s operation were distributed weekly: one went into the local plant papers, side by side with bowling league results and coverage of the Miss GE competition, designed for consumption by GE’s blue collar workers; the other weekly was a newsletter to GE supervisors and to local “thought leaders,” who could influence municipal and state elections. A slick monthly magazine  often tied Reagan’s GE Theater news to ideological messages. And a defense quarterly, featuring GE’s efforts in the field, was enhanced by commentary from leading experts (e.g. well-known academics and occasional Cabinet officials) on military and geopolitical matters. The evidence is compelling that Reagan read all of these. The frequent question periods after his talks with GE workers insured that he would be asked about them. They influenced his foreign policy as well as his domestic views. An article in the defense quarterly presaged the Reagan Doctrine and contains the earliest mention of what later became the strategic defense initiative.

The subject matter of the publications ranged from narrow employment issues (“How Big Are General Electric Profits – Are They Too Big?” “Why the company can expect union officials to ‘demand’ a strike from them”) to broader economic concerns (“Let’s Learn from Britain”--which concerned the failures of socialism and a government-run medical profession--and “What is Communism? What is Capitalism? What is the Difference to You?”). The folly of many government programs and the negative consequences of burdensome taxation were frequent topics. The book clubs of employees and their spouses spent thirteen weeks discussing Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt or How You Really Earn Your Living by Lewis Haney and other conservative offerings.

 In time, Lemuel Boulware and GE CEO Ralph Cordiner mounted a national grass roots campaign, recruiting major corporate allies, creating schools where GE employees and others could learn the fundamental political skills to win elections, developing shareholder lists for political mailings, and turning GE workers into “communicators” and “mass communicators” (Boulware’s words) who could spread the message of free persons and free markets to a decisive number of local voters. In the course of this Ronald Reagan was taken out of the plants and put on what he called “the mashed potato circuit” of civic forums largely in the south and smaller states, often towns where GE dominated the economy, where he would be most effective. In due course, the “great communicator” was born. In today’s parlance, most of these states turned from blue to red.

Ronald Reagan developed a vision of America during his GE years. He learned to reduce his views to a few simple precepts and, as he entered politics, he went over the heads of party leaders, using the banquet circuit and television to present his powerful message. Opposition leaders often responded by coming to him to stop the flow of questions from their constituents. This was done between elections. When legislation was called for (e.g. California welfare reform and federal tax reform, both of which were revolutionary in scope), Reagan utilized his considerable negotiating skills -- honed as he observed Boulware and at the bargaining table over the Screen Actors contracts – as he later did with Mikhail Gorbachev in four dramatic summits.

It is impossible to set out in this short article the evolution and the entirety of Ronald Reagan’s development as a conservative and a politician during the years that he worked for General Electric. His methods of absorbing massive amounts of material, of writing and delivering his speeches, were unique. Perhaps the most persuasive statements  confirming his education during his General Electric years come from the Reagans themselves. In her autobiography, Nancy Reagan wrote that “If you believe, as Ronnie does, that everything happens for a purpose, then certainly there was a hidden purpose in Ronnie’s job for General Electric.”

Reagan referred to his GE years as his “post-graduate education in political science” and observed that “it wasn’t a bad apprenticeship for someone who’d someday enter public life.” He spoke of his “self-conversion” during these years, and that he ended up “preaching sermons” about his strongly-held beliefs. His speechwriters at the White House frequently admitted using the speeches of the GE years as the basis of their own efforts. The fact that he achieved so much of what he advanced as his goals, confirms the merit of his ideas. But it also testifies to the effectiveness of lessons he learned about how to turn his vision into political majorities and governmental acts.

The GE years provide an insight, to borrow Bill Safire’s phrase, as to “what made Reagan Reagan.” The question remains whether the political landscape today affords an opportunity to achieve a revolution and whether there is anyone on the scene to lead it.