Dutch’s switch

There’s no single explanation for what carries people from the political left to the political right, but for the people whose identities are most entwined in politics, there tends to be a catalytic event—a shock to the system—that shakes them loose from their old allegiances.

What’s unusual about former President Ronald Reagan’s realignment, which Thomas Evans chronicles in The Education of Ronald Reagan: The General Electric Years and the Untold Story of His Conversion to Conservatism, is how smooth it was. No lightning bolt or betrayal. Just the slow evolution (or devolution, depending on your perspective) of one man’s understanding of the world.

Evans, a retired corporate lawyer who served in low-level symbolic capacities in the Reagan and elder-Bush administrations, begins his persuasive if amateurish history with an account of the early Reagan. “The Reagans were Democrats,” he writes. “Dutch’s father worked hard as a volunteer to defeat Herbert Hoover in 1932, and the family often huddled around the radio to listen to their candidate, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”

As an adult, Reagan continued to revere Roosevelt. He campaigned for Harry Truman in 1948, worked to defeat Nixon’s bid for the Senate in 1950, and was such an effective leader of the Screen Actors Guild that he was elected its president seven times.

The times were a changin’, however. Reagan, whose liberalism was always more contextual than it was ideological, was about to find himself in a very different context. In 1954, his film career having declined to the point where he was working as an emcee in Las Vegas, he was amenable when General Electric asked him to be their corporate spokesman. For eight years, from 1954-62, he hosted CBS’ General Electric Theater, and in between his Sunday-night spots he toured the country, visiting every one of GE’s 139 plants, giving hundreds of speeches and chatting up thousands of workers, managers and Rotarians.

His speeches, at first, were anodyne. He told Hollywood stories, and he just generally used his celebrity and affability to make the workers feel good about themselves and their company. Soon, however, Reagan began to read from the steady stream of literature that Lemuel Boulware, GE’s brilliant minister of propaganda, was sending out to the company’s employees to propagate a simple set of messages. Gradually, he found himself agreeing with the Boulware philosophy—that GE was benevolent, unregulated capitalism was a blessing and big government was a threat to American values. His speeches grew more political and more conservative.

“One day I came home,” writes Reagan in his autobiography, “and said to Nancy, ‘You know, something just dawned on me … all these things I’ve been criticizing about government being too big, well, it just dawned on me that every four years when an election comes along, I go out and support the [Democrats] who are responsible for the things I’m criticizing.”

By 1960, Reagan considered himself a Republican. In 1964, he announced his own political ambitions with the televised speech—“The Speech,” as it’s become known—he delivered on behalf of Barry Goldwater. He was elected governor of California two years later. And so on.

The Education of Ronald Reagan isn’t a hoot to read, and its naive establishmentarianism can be grating, but it does its job well. It fills a hole in Reagan’s biography; it reminds us of the significance of Boulware, who was one of the architects of corporate America’s successful ideological campaign to co-opt the American worker; and it says something disturbing about the nature of belief—that it can change without us even quite realizing it.