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Political Persuasion

A college student's perspective on the two crazy worlds of PR and politics

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Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” Analyzed

This post appeared yesterday in the National Constitution Center’s blog, “Constitution Daily.” http://blog.constitutioncenter.org/ncc/featured/reagans-tear-down-this-wall-analyzed/

Twenty-one years ago today, East German authorities opened their border to West Berlin. The Berlin Wall served as the symbolic divide between democracy and communism during the Cold War. For 28 years, East and West Germans were prohibited from communicating with one another. The collapse of the Berlin Wall led to Germany’s emotional reunification, and reversed, as Winston Churchill described—”the iron curtain.”

As a student of public relations and history, I am fascinated by the media’s perception of certain events and its impact on public opinion. For many, Reagan’s infamous “Tear Down this Wall” speech a few years earlier on June 12, 1987, represented a new era—a profound turning point in history with the power to unite a world once divided.

In my opinion, simplicity is often the most effective characteristic of a well-crafted speech. In his speech, Reagan said:

“General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Reagan also alludes to Kennedy’s renowned “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a citizen of Berlin) speech on June 26, 1963, when he said,

“…President Kennedy spoke at the City Hall those 24 years ago, freedom was encircled, Berlin was under siege. And today, despite all the pressures upon this city, Berlin stands secure in its liberty. And freedom itself is transforming the globe.”

Although Kennedy and Reagan were of different political parties, both emphasized the importance of freedom and liberty. Both had simple, authoritative and optimistic communication styles. They instilled a sense of confidence among the American people and established a firm stance on democratic values domestically and abroad.

Surprisingly, Reagan’s “Tear Down this Wall” speech did not receive extensive media coverage initially. Several opinion columnists criticized Reagan for being too naïve and idealistic. According to an article in USA Today, the speech itself did not impress East Germany’s hardline communist rulers either. Former Politburo member Guenter Schabow said on Deutschlandfunk (a German national news radio station) that “we were of the opinion that it was an absurd demonstration by a cold warrior — but also a provocation that fundamentally weighed on Gorbachev’s willingness to reform.”

When Reagan’s powerful words became a reality, the media began praising his bold stance on human rights and a firm U.S. foreign policy. Sometimes I wonder how Reagan’s speech would have been perceived if new media was part of the equation. In 1987, the traditional media outlets of television, radio and newspapers controlled the messages that were disseminated to the public. Today, everyone is a journalist—the web is filled with millions of conversations, opinions and comments. With YouTube, blogs and Twitter, people all over the world can share information and create communities.

In spite of the changing dynamics of public opinion and the influx of new communication technologies, we cannot deny the power of words. Reagan’s speech defined a generation, and even though his speech was not covered as extensively at first, his words will be used as inspiration for years to come.

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It’s Morning Again in America

Thirty years ago yesterday, Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States.  Whether you agree or disagree with Reagan’s distinct political ideology, I think it’s important to acknowledge his power as a communicator. Before becoming President, Reagan was an actor.  Reagan refrained from any roles that portrayed him as “the bad guy.”  As President, he took a similar approach–often preaching “wholesome American values” domestically and abroad.

So what does this all mean in the context of political campaign advertising? For one, Reagan was generally able to instill a sense of confidence among the American people.  This was evident in his “It’s Morning Again in America” advertisement.  Not many incumbent Presidents would dare to ask:

“Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?”

The commercial captures the essence of Reagan’s communication style–simple, optimistic and relatable.   The narrator suggests that it was Reagan’s effective policies that contributed to an improved economy and a lower unemployment rate.  He nonchalantly asks why voters would want to return to the policies of the Democrats.  There was an authenticity in the narrator’s voice that many people would argue, mirrored the authenticity in Reagan’s voice. The montage of images further reiterates an America at peace.  People are back to work, inflation has decreased significantly and families are able to buy new homes.

Was it really morning again in America? That question is debatable, but it was evident that many people were content with Reagan’s public policy agenda.  Charisma and a consistent communication style are key to a successful presidency. Reagan wanted people to recognize that with him, the country was “prouder and stronger and better.”

Ronald Reagan: The Politics of Symbolism

When I was a press intern on the Hill, I was asked to direct VIP tours of the US Capitol building. I had certain tricks to remember my route.  I knew that in order to exit the Rotunda, I would have to find the bronze statue of President Reagan.  With each day, I became more curious about this man behind the statue.  What motivated Reagan’s unique ideology? How was he able to captivate audiences throughout the nation?  One of my former Professors recommended that I read Ronald Reagan: The Politics of Symbolism by Robert Dallek.  I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in politics, psychology and the compelling story behind the Reagan administration.

Okay, so here are some points I found interesting:

Reagan, Dallek argues, is a “contradiction in terms—a hero of the consumer culture preaching the Protestant ethic.”  Throughout the book, Dallek references Reagan’s father whose “uncontrolled behavior placed an exaggerated premium on self-mastery in the former president’s own life and in the life of the nation.” Dallek examines the psychological impetus behind the “Reagan ideology,” and argues that the administration relied heavily on symbols rather than on reality.

Reagan feared the prospect of being the “bad guy,” and when he was an actor, he often took roles that preached morality and wholesome American values. Reagan was also claustrophobic. At the age of three, he crawled underneath a train to reach an ice wagon on the other side of the train tracks.  His mother picked him up and “larruped” him, Dallek describes.  A few years later, Reagan was riding in an old Ford touring car that had tipped over mid-trip.  He was nearly smothered, but was saved and did not suffer any serious injuries.  To Reagan, it was better to be the rescuer than the rescued.  These events transformed into symbolic manifestations that guided much of Reagan’s conservative anti-communist ideology.  He perceived the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”—an atheist and immoral state where the people were entirely dependent on the government.  Regan believed it was his duty to “rescue” these oppressed Soviet people and instill moral “American values.”

It’s interesting how one’s personal past can affect an entire political ideology.  Each politician has a story–a different path with unique motivations.  I often find myself drawing parallels between President Obama and President Reagan.  Both lacked stable father figures.  Both promoted change and instilled a sense of confidence among the American people.  Both are portrayed as heroic figures, with the difficult task of saving the nation.  I think sometimes we forget that these Presidents are not statues–they are people too, with their own stories, struggles and opinions.

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