Ronald Reagan, Firing Line, and the Triumph of the Right

President Ronald Reagan and conserative author/commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. at President Reagan's birthday party, White House Residence. Wikimedia Commons/The White House

An excerpt from Heather Hendershot's new book on William F. Buckley.

Editor’s Note: The following was adapted from Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line by Heather Hendershot. Copyright © 2016 by Broadside Books. Used by permission.

Almost thirty years after completing his two terms as presi­dent, Ronald Reagan remains the left’s archvillain and the right’s shining hero. To many of those of a younger genera­tion who did not live through the 1980s he is simply known, for better or for worse, as a tax-cutting cold warrior, the “great communicator” of the “greed-is-good” decade. The elements of the Reagan myth are easy enough to pinpoint. He was the smil­ing, mild-mannered, apple-pie guy, a fellow who, as Buckley pointed out in his commemorative column when Reagan left office, earnestly used words like Hades and keister. It was hard for interviewers to get past Reagan’s G-rated surface. Buckley did not succeed where others had failed. That is, Reagan’s Fir­ing Line appearances did not reveal the man beneath the cold warrior. But then that was never Buckley’s intention.

Journalist George Packer once observed, “It is notoriously hard to write about Reagan.” Allowed “unprecedented access to the President while he was still in the White House,” Packer continued, his biographer Edmund Morris “was so defeated by Reagan’s opacity and quips that he resorted to fictionalizing.” An uncharitable reader of Buckley’s final (second posthumous) book, The Reagan I Knew, might also perceive some fictional elements therein—the product, arguably, not of imaginative spirit but of selective memory. But whether you come to the book as a friend or enemy of Reagan (or of Buckley, for that matter), there is no denying that Buckley never found it “noto­riously hard” to write about his old chum.

Of course, Buckley was not interested in psychologizing. His Reagan book includes a bit of newly written material, but it is mostly a selection of correspondence revealing Reagan as personable and—more important—showing his political posi­tions. We also see a bit of Buckley’s flirtatious correspondence with Nancy Reagan, though this is kept on the tasteful up-­and-up. For the most part, The Reagan I Knew is a straight-up homage to the man who brought the right-wing conservatism that Buckley had been promoting for so many years—in his columns, in his speeches, in his books, on his TV show—to the White House. By the time Reagan left office, in fact, “right­wing conservatism” had become “conservatism” tout court.

Reagan himself appeared as a guest on Firing Line seven times over the years (and was featured in clip reels on four addi­tional episodes). And, of course, Reaganism suffused the show throughout the 1980s. Put another way, Buckleyism infused Reaganism, and Reaganism infused Firing Line; for let us not forget that Buckley liked to say he had been advocating “Rea­gan’s” policies back when Reagan was still a liberal. On a 1981 episode with John Kenneth Galbraith, the question is raised as to whether or not Buckley will approve of Reagan’s plans to increase military spending. Buckley responds, with both hu­mor and irritation, “Now the question is: will the Reagan ad­ministration agree with me? I started it all. . . . I came out for rearmament when Reagan was a member of the ADA [Ameri­cans for Democratic Action], so cut that out!” Buckley may have been conservative before Reagan, but Reagan obviously caught up—in part by being a charter subscriber to National Review.

Looking back, at first glance it seems to make sense that Reagan and Buckley would become friends. Reagan had once described himself as “a near-hopeless hemophiliac liberal,” re­ferring presumably to his early sympathy for FDR, his ADA membership, and his status as a registered Democrat until 1962. He had never really been any kind of raging left-winger. But he had been a liberal who had gone right, and Buckley’s circle was amply populated with such converts.

Reagan had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the 1940s and ’50s, and he had been a friendly HUAC witness, but the notion that he would become a full-time politician did not come into focus until a few years later. His movie career stalled, Reagan began doing more TV work in the 1950s. By 1954, Reagan was on General Electric’s payroll, hosting their General Electric Theater TV series, appearing in GE advertise­ments, and giving speeches on free market conservatism to GE factory workers.

Lest it sound as if Reagan was floundering, I hasten to add that his GE salary was $125,000—that’s worth $1,100,000 in 2015 dollars, though in the spirit of Reagan I should proba­bly add that the 125K from GE was his pretax income. Soon, his audiences expanded to include Rotary club men, Elks club members, Chambers of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and so on. As one historian sums it up, “Reagan went to General Electric as a failed movie actor tired of working the Las Vegas circuit. He left poised to begin his political career.” And, indeed, he would hit the big time with his half-hour “A Time for Choosing” TV speech for Goldwater in 1964, which positioned him to become governor of Califor­nia a few years later. National Review assessed the speech as “probably the most successful single political broadcast since Mr. Nixon’s Checkers speech of twelve years ago.”