Ronald Reagan's Dress Rehearsal

Ronald Reagan's Dress Rehearsal
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Edited from Reagan's 1968 Dress Rehearsal: Ike, RFK, and Reagan's Emergence as a World Statesman by Gene Kopelson

July, 1964: Goldwater is Nominated

As Reagan watched intently and listened to Eisenhower speak at the convention, the general repeated, in some sections almost verbatim, the message of their joint 1962 G.O.P. publicity record, Mr. Lincoln’s Party Today, “In all those things that the citizen can better do for himself than can his government, the government ought not to interfere [...] Our party’s programs have reflected concern for the individual [...] All public responsibilities (should) be carried out wherever possible by local and state governments (and) by the federal government only when necessary.” It was his and Reagan’s exact 1962 message repackaged for 1964.

October, 1964: Reagan’s A Time for Choosing Impresses Ike

One person who did watch Ronald Reagan deliver “The Speech” on national television was Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower watched Reagan praise Eisenhower’s troops during World War II, then quote Eisenhower’s friend, Churchill, and twice call for freedom in Eastern Europe. Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander, judge of character, men and nations, immediately liked what he saw and heard from Reagan’s speech.

Immediately thereafter, on Friday, October 30, 1964 at 10:15 am, he called his former attorney general and political advisor and told him it was a “fine speech by Ronald Reagan.” At 3:00 pm, Eisenhower talked with his former special assistant and was even more enthusiastic: “Reagan’s speech was excellent.”

Almost in the same breath as praising Reagan, Eisenhower ended his talk by discussing rebuilding the party after the likely loss by Goldwater the following week, and Eisenhower then sent such a message to Republican leaders. Clearly Eisenhower had continued to feel that he had a new responsibility in the world of politics following his vice president’s loss in November 1960 to JFK. 

July, 1965: Ike’s First Advice to “Dutch” Reagan

But now he himself actually was contemplating running for political office and was being urged by his backers to seek the top executive job and top political and party job in the nation’s biggest state. Ronald Reagan needed mentoring on how to enter politics and how to become an effective Republican Party candidate and leader.  To whom could Reagan turn for guidance? He needed a wise, elder, experienced statesman who would be discrete.

Reagan turned to the most experienced leader in the nation: former president Dwight D. Eisenhower. Reagan contacted Eisenhower through a mutual friend in July, 1965, forging what would become a years-long friendship. This relationship would have critical effects upon Reagan’s political future in 1968, extending through future President Reagan’s years in office.

While Eisenhower was thinking about Vietnam and what Johnson would do, suddenly Eisenhower heard from friend Freeman Gosden about Ronald Reagan. It was a little more than eight months after Eisenhower had phoned his aides to tell them what a fine speech Reagan had delivered on behalf of Goldwater. On July 14, 1965, Gosden, who lived in Beverly Hills at the time, phoned Eisenhower asking what Eisenhower had thought of various speeches and statements that actor Ronald Reagan had been making and asked Eisenhower for advice on how Reagan could enhance his image as a relatively new Republican Party member.

Eisenhower answered Gosden the next day, producing a seven-point plan on how Ronald Reagan should enter the political arena. Eisenhower recommended first that Reagan should declare he was a loyal and faithful Republican; second that Reagan should state clearly that in 1964 he had done his utmost to help his party and its candidates, but that in 1964 he was a party worker thus not responsible for policy or platform; third, Eisenhower urged Reagan to point out that the Republican Party, could, in seeking “common sense solutions to problems, accommodate men of quite different views concerning details.”

March 1967: Reagan’s Second Campaign Trip Searching for Delegates

It was in late December when Eisenhower had written to Reagan asking to meet with Reagan to discuss foreign affairs in more depth. Their first in-person meeting had been at Gettysburg the prior June when Eisenhower had discussed Vietnam, had endorsed Reagan for governor, and had certified him as presidential timbre. Just before their upcoming March meeting, Eisenhower was becoming more and more distressed at Johnson’s mishandling of the war. Eisenhower could not “believe America would cut and run.”

They met from 11:15 am until 3 pm. Eisenhower gave Reagan specific and detailed military strategic and tactical lessons. Their private luncheon lasted a full two and-a-half hours. A lot of significant ground was covered. Eisenhower mentored Reagan to use the tactics that had worked so well for the general in winning World War II and in ending the Korean War.

Eisenhower then changed from giving Reagan specific critiques of current administration policies to what might seem to be tactics that a future Commander-in-Chief Reagan might order come January, 1969. Here was Eisenhower not just prepping a new politician, but also mentoring a protégé who might in fact become his political heir at the White House.

A Future Transformed

Just as Eisenhower had seen himself as the Citizen-Soldier, Reagan had continued on as the Citizen-Candidate to Citizen-Governor and had come full circle to being one of Eisenhower’s major political heirs. Reagan got his 1966 campaign theme of common sense directly from Eisenhower. In his farewell, President Reagan reflected, “Common sense told us that when you put a big tax on something, the people will produce less of it. So we cut the people’s tax rates and the people produced more than ever before.” He continued, “Common sense also told us that to preserve the peace, we’d have to become strong again after years of weakness and confusion. So we rebuilt our defenses,” and added that the superpowers had begun to “reduce their stockpiles of nuclear weapons.” Maybe Eisenhower was behind him somewhere, smiling approvingly on the abundant promise of a new generation’s conservative leader.

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