Ronald Reagan's Presidential Radio Addresses: Themes of Unity

By Alexander E. Hopkins
2013, Vol. 5 No. 04 | pg. 1/6 |

When U.S. President Ronald Reagan left office in 1989, he enjoyed a reputation as one of the most rhetorically dynamic Presidents of the twentieth century. His remarkable speaking ability was not surprising because, before his transition into politics, most people remembered his career as a Hollywood movie star. By the time of his 1981 inauguration, his half century of public speaking allowed him to captivate audiences around the globe just like he did as an actor.

In 1982, Reagan began a series of Saturday radio addresses. During these addresses, he would informally address the nation on current events. Not since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats had an incumbent President spoken to his constituents over the radio. Initially conceived for only nine talks, the addresses’ popularity ensured that he would stay on the air for the rest of his Presidency. Like Roosevelt, Reagan was socially-inclusive in order to strengthen partisan identity against the media while gaining constituent groups through the use of humor and allusions.

Ronald Reagan’s public speaking career began in 1932 at the age of 21. By this time, the recent Eureka College graduate was hired as a sports radio broadcaster. The following year, Franklin D. Roosevelt became President and began the Fireside Chats radio series. According to political historian J. Jeffrey Auer (1992): “Each listener received the impression that Roosevelt was talking directly to him. Millions of Americans sat at their radios and agreed that they “could practically feel him physically in the room.” His voice communicated his expansive personality; it registered what was in him and what he wanted other people to grasp—conviction, sympathy, humility, gravity, humor—in harmony with situations as he saw them” (Auer, 100).

Reagan, who was a Democrat until 1962, was among those influenced by Roosevelt’s manner of speaking. Years later, Reagan recalled (1992): “I soon idolized FDR. He’d entered the White House facing a national emergency as grim as any the country has ever faced and, acting quickly, he had implemented a plan of action to deal with the crisis. During his Fireside Chats, his strong, gentle, confident voice resonated across the nation with an eloquence that brought comfort and resilience to a nation caught up in a storm and reassured that we could lick any problem. I will never forget him for that” (Reagan, 66).

When Ronald Reagan was hired as a sports broadcaster, he prepared for each occasion when he spoke over the radio. Since sports announcers had to give up-to-the-minute accounts of popular sports games, Reagan had to speak quickly and clearly, as well as carefully observing fast-paced events and employing descriptive language to convey imagery. He recalled (1992):

“Once I was on the air, I tried to make the most of my opportunity and chose phrases and adjectives I hope would give listeners visual images that would make them think they were in the stadium, and I laced my descriptions about the players and teams that I hoped would demonstrate that I knew what I was talking about” (Reagan, 66).

In 1937, Ronald Reagan debuted as a Hollywood actor in the film Love is on the Air. During his acting career, he developed the important rhetorical skills, political ideas and public identity in the film world that transcended the real and imaginary (Cannon, 37). Unlike radio, Reagan’s audience could visually see him on-screen. When audiences heard his radio-friendly voice, they could also see his confident manner for themselves. From 1937-1965, he was a popular actor, appearing in 77 films (Internet Movie Database, 2011). In an acting career that spanned nearly three decades, he laid cornerstone for his Presidential rhetoric. Like movie-goers paying to be entertained, he could appeal to a wide audience crossing nearly every socio-economic boundary. As Lou Cannon writes (1991): “These [skills] made it possible, no matter how divisive his rhetoric, to win personal approval” (106).

Upon the release his last film, 1964’s The Killers, Reagan was asked by a reporter about entering politics. “I’m an actor, not a politician…I’m in show business” he replied. When the question was asked later on, he thought for a moment and cleverly quipped, “I don't know—I’ve never played a governor before” (Auer, 95). When he left acting and ran for Governor of California in 1966, he possessed an enviable resume that was brimming with speaking experience. This familiarity undoubtedly helped him to beat two-term incumbent Edmund G. Brown in January 1967.

Ronald Reagan served as the 33rd Governor of California from 1967 to 1975. Toward the end of his second term, his “Viewpoint Commentary” radio series began to take root. He recalled his idea for this series when he wrote: “Although the Democrats controlled the legislature, it occurred to me that I had an opportunity to go over their heads. Franklin D. Roosevelt gave me the idea with his Fireside Chats, which made an indelible mark on me during the Depression. By going on television or radio and telling the people what was going on in Sacramento and what we were trying to do about it, I thought I might be able to get public opinion on my side” (Reagan, 169). Although his addresses as Governor were more formalized than his addresses as President, the philosophy was the same. First and foremost, when Reagan addressed the public over the radio, he wanted to connect to them. One of the most effective ways to accomplish this was to build partisan support for the Republican Party.

After his tenure as Governor, Reagan busily worked on his “Viewpoint Commentaries.” The addresses were, for the most part, un-interrupted between 1975-1979. The only year that he did not broadcast was in 1976, when he was campaigning for the Republican Presidential nomination. Although he was defeated by incumbent-President Gerald R. Ford, Reagan focused on building a political rapport through his radio talks.

Reagan’s hand-written notes for his “Viewpoint Commentaries” reveal a keen awareness to then-current domestic and foreign policy issues. Staying aware of these issues required hard work (Airoldi, 503). Nancy Reagan remembered her husband poring over his speaking drafts in their home. According to the former First Lady, Reagan had a unique work ethic. She recalled: “He worked a lot at home. I can see him sitting at his desk writing, which he seemed to do all the time. Often he’d take a long shower because he said that was where he got a lot of his thoughts. He’d stand in the shower and think about what he wanted to write. And then, when he got out, he’d sit down and write” (Skinner, xv). Given that a great deal of effort was spent organizing his thoughts, Reagan clearly cared about the image he conveyed in his discourses. By not rushing the process, Reagan could ensure that his addresses were always concise, yet with enough flexibility to be candid.

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