What Today's Leaders Can Learn From Reagan

It was as if he was born with the instinct to be a transformational president.

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The celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of President Ronald Reagan brings to mind my first revealing encounter with him. It was the result of the 1986 seizure by the Soviet KGB of the Moscow bureau chief of U.S.News & World Report, Nick Daniloff.

I went to Moscow to try to secure his release, but it became obvious he had been arrested on a trumped-up charge and would be a hostage until America released a real spy. Only a week before, the United States had seized an employee at the Soviet mission to the United Nations who had been caught red-handed trying to buy secret weapons technology relating to heat-resistant metals for rockets and jet engines. Nick was in jail as trading bait.

On my return to the United States, I worked in the White House with the president and his senior staff. We met virtually on a daily basis for the better part of a month, as the White House struggled to work out an acceptable basis on which Daniloff could be repatriated.

This was how I came to have firsthand experience of President Reagan in private action. He attended many of the almost daily discussions organized by the White House team. He had an unfailing optimism, an unending, self-deprecating sense of humor, and a calmness and charm that were totally devoid of any conceit. He was totally engaging at all times and spoke in plain language, both privately and publicly. He was also a marvelous storyteller. We shared a love of jokes, and he and his wonderful wife, Nancy, were kind enough to invite me to Washington to share dinner with them a number of times, always with the admonition from the president to save, for him, my best jokes. [See photos of Reagan's life.]

But what struck me most of all, and has remained in my mind all these many years, was just how effective Reagan was. He had an instantaneous grasp of the main issue or the true problems, and he was decisive in his responses. The team working to free Daniloff was glad to follow his lead. Thereafter, I was always amused (and maybe irritated, too) to contrast how effective he had been in real time, as compared to the way he was portrayed in some political talk and by some of the press.

Reagan provided what Americans wanted most: a strong leader who could and would lead in a principled way. To refresh a phrase once used about former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, this man was "not for turning." He made that clear early on, to the gratified astonishment of the nation, when he fired the striking air traffic controllers—who quickly learned that this commander in chief was not to be taken casually.

Reagan had come into office when the United States was mired in an economic and even psychological downturn, reflecting the doldrums of the Carter years and the perception of his administration as feckless and naive. Reagan was determined that more of the same would not do. Shortly into his presidency, he set about convincing the American public that there had to be a decisive change in direction. His map was stereoscopic: He created a vision of where we'd been and where he intended to take us, unafraid to spell out what was to be feared, unabashed in the evocation of dreams for the future. He personified Harry Truman's definition of a leader—a man who had the ability to get other people to do what they don't want to do and to like it. It was never easy, even when he made it look so. [See editorial cartoons about the economy.]

As if born with the instinct to be a transformational president, Reagan knew how to instill confidence in a nation that felt it had lost its way. Add to that his transparent likability, and you can understand why Americans felt so good about him and better about themselves when they listened to him. In the process, he earned an enormous presumption of credibility, affection, and support from the American public, even among those, like myself, who hadn't voted for him.

How much we miss that quality of leadership today, when it is the political system itself that raises disquiet. Much of our contemporary leadership passes off tough decisions to some other body (the perpetual commissions!) or, worse, to some future generation. The resulting political vacuum has created a sense of government in disarray, unable to make the wise and tough decisions required.