Frank Johnson

There was nothing slow about Ronald Reagan. He spotted me for an Englishman right away

There was nothing slow about Ronald Reagan. He spotted me for an Englishman right away

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Ronald Reagan fascinated me from the moment he became governor of California in 1966. He was a right-winger who had won office. In those days right-wingers never won anything. Every office-holder or potential office-holder in every democracy — Labour, Tory, Democrat, Republican — seemed to be a liberal or a centrist. All the authorities said that that was the only way democracies could be governed.

I had only just become interested in politics, and was bored by the subject already. If no one could do anything differently from anyone else, when would I witness any of the great clashes that I had just started reading about in books?

Then came Reagan. He was apparently a fading actor, and a former Democrat who had for some years been making a living out of pro-capitalist and anti-communist speeches for various institutions which were that way inclined. He then made a stirring television speech in support of the hopeless Goldwater candidacy in 1964. Immediately afterwards, some southern Californian multimillionaires paid for him to run for governor. The Democrat incumbent, Pat Brown, patronised him. Reagan won overwhelmingly. This was interesting.

Pieces began appearing in the broadsheet British press warning against this dangerous man. That made him even more interesting. Neither I, nor the British broadsheet press, was to know that in truth, as governor, he had not done anything particularly right-wing. He had staged a quarrel with the Californian universities for letting New Left students run riot about Vietnam. But the welfare budget was just as big as ever. He talked right-wing. He did not do right-wing. This was to be the pattern of his career and the explanation for his success. He was good at stringing right-wingers along.

In 1969, he came to London to address the Institute of Directors in the Albert Hall. I hurried there in my capacity as a London reporter for a northern English daily. He had come to elective office late, and must already have been nearly 60. He looked 40. Magnificently, he assured the assembled directors that they were entrepreneurs yearning to breathe free if only government would throw off their shackles of regulation and punitive taxation. Most of them were doing perfectly well out of the Wilsonian, soon to be Heathian, corporate state, in league with the unions. But Reagan seemed somehow to make them wish that a more heroic destiny was possible for them.

I next set eyes on him about ten years later when he came to Europe in an effort to establish ‘foreign policy credentials’, having decided to contest the Republican nomination against President Carter. I was one of a group of Tory journalists invited to have breakfast with him at his hotel. He was late. Mr Bill (now Lord) Deedes complained in my ear that he could well go off this governor fellow because he (Lord Deedes) was not a man who liked being kept waiting for his brekker; my own sentiments entirely.

The governor arrived after about an hour. More importantly, so did the brekker. A young man from the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) — the first and greatest of the London free-market think tanks — asked the first question. Could the governor explain how he had privatised garbage collection in California? A Reagan aide took it upon himself to answer: ‘The governor began with a pilot scheme in Santa Barbara.’

Reagan intervened: ‘No, it was Santa Monica.’ The aide corrected himself: ‘Excuse me, Governor, you’re right. We had some problem with the bigger trash bins we needed, and we got on top of that at our next pilot in Laguna Beach.’

The governor: ‘No, we only got on top of the bigger trash bins once we tried them out in Palo Alto. Then we went statewide with the whole programme. That was the year we changed those road signs from steel to rubber, figuring that we’d rather have the signs crushed than the motorists hitting them get killed. It sure cut down on fatals.’

Who said this man had no grasp of detail? The IEA stalwart pressed for further and better particulars on that garbage. As a result, we touched only briefly on the Soviet threat.

My next sighting of him in the flesh was when reporting the New Hampshire Republican primary for the first time, in 1980. He had just lost the Iowa caucus to George Bush Sr. Most of us thought that he was too old now (69) and that Bush would win the nomination. But I and a couple of other British reporters still thought that it would be more fun first to follow Reagan. We asked one of his staff where the governor was campaigning that day. The reply was ‘Berlin’. This worried my compatriots. No wonder his campaign had gone wrong. But I remembered Theodore H. White, the first journalist to evoke the New Hampshire primary, in his book on the 1960 Kennedy campaign. I knew that in the south of the state, where it was, the towns have names like, speaking from memory, Bedford and Plymouth; but in the north, Hanover and Berlin. We drove north through beautiful snow. ‘Could you tell us the way to Berlin?’ we frequently stopped to ask. No one knew where it was. Eventually, a policeman asked us to write it down. ‘You mean, Buuurln,’ he said. Soon we saw the sign: ‘Berlin’. We just had not known how to pronounce it.

We found the governor walking down the main street. It was all but deserted. He heard us talking behind him. In lieu of anyone else to talk to, he turned around: ‘Am I right in thinking that you guys are from England?’

‘Yes, Governor Reagan,’ I replied. (Though no longer a governor, American political etiquette dictates that he still be thus addressed.)

He put his hand on my shoulder, and sighed, ‘My films were never really big in England. Something about that innate English good taste.’

Me: ‘No, no, Governor. I saw one only last evening on late-night New Hampshire television.’

He sighed again, and in that husky voice confided, ‘I know. I know. My opponents will stop at nothing.’ Then he nudged me with his elbow and inquired, ‘D’you think I should demand from the television company the right to reply?’

As he himself said of the soldiers who stormed Omaha beach, ‘Where do we find such men?’

But he was not what the liberal intelligentsia claims he was, and I hope to say why in another column, and to show that he bore no resemblance to today’s President. President Reagan used the neo-conservatives to his advantage. President Bush has been used by them — perhaps to his ruin.