Speechwriting for President Reagan

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(Host) Commentator John McClaughry joins us today with his own fond memories of former President Ronald Reagan.

(McClaughry) There’s no better way to get yourself a speechwriting job than to write your prospective employer and point out mistakes in his speeches. No, wait – actually that’s the worst way to get a speechwriting job – but it worked for me with Ronald Reagan.

In 1979 I had been writing radio scripts for former Governor Reagan for two years, some 46 in all. As he began his quest for the presidency again, I wrote him and asked to move up to a full time speechwriting job. To show him how valuable I would be, I cheerfully pointed out two factual mistakes in his all purpose stump speech.

He was fond of speaking of John Winthrop’s sermon to his little band of pilgrims, on the ship Arbella off the coast of Massachusetts, envisioning a shining “city on the hill.” Winthrop however was not addressing the Pilgrims, who had arrived ten years earlier and forty miles downcoast.

He also was fond of quoting Thomas Paine, who in the dark days of Valley Forge said “we have the power to begin America anew”. Paine actually said that in 1775, two years before the awful winter at Valley Forge.

I pointed out these inaccuracies to show how valuable I could be. Reagan in his kindly way replied that he was referring to “pilgrims” with a small p – although nobody else ever referred to Winthrop and the Puritans as pilgrims. With respect to Paine, he said, “well, maybe he said that again during the Valley Forge winter.”

I was lucky. A few months later the campaign did hire me, and I spent most of 1980 as one of the future President’s two primary speechwriters.

Another episode showed me that same side of Ronald Reagan, at a cabinet council meeting to discuss a possible grain embargo against the Soviets. He could be tough as steel negotiating with the movie studios, the opposition in Sacramento, or the Soviets at Reykjavik, but when differences of opinion arose among his loyal lieutenants, Reagan just hated to hurt any one’s feelings. Instead, he spent an hour looking for a way to give everyone something – even at the risk of producing a statement that gave no policy guidance whatever.

I loved Ronald Reagan for his character, his kindliness, his sunny optimism, his courage, and especially for his passionate commitment to liberty. I loved him for saying, in 1978, “The issue is not one of left and right. The real issue is how to reverse the flow of power to ever more remote institutions, and to restore that power to the individual, the family, and the local community.” As President, he wasn’t able to reverse that flow of power, alas. But I still cherish the hope that some day new leaders, inspired by Ronald Reagan’s passion for liberty, will lead America on toward his shining city on the hill.

This is John McClaughry – thanks for listening.

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