"Until Next Week": The Saturday Radio Addresses of Ronald Reagan. (Articles)

Article excerpt

There are two competing camps concerning the rhetorical legacy of Ronald Reagan. The dominant interpretation in the media and also among academic scholars is that Reagan was a skillful presenter of other people's speeches, a master at using often maudlin stories to oversimplify complex issues in support of an extremely conservative agenda (Schaller 1992, 51; Schieffer and Gates 1989, 177-80; Edel 1992, 264, 267, 268, 279). Revisionists argue in contrast that Reagan's rhetoric was quite substantive, that it skillfully mixed together various themes to appeal to the widest possible audience, and that Reagan himself played a key role in the creation of his rhetoric. Some revisionists also argue that in his rhetoric at least, Reagan took far more moderate positions than has been recognized. In this article, we use an analysis of the 330 brief radio addresses that Reagan delivered every Saturday for more than seven years of his presidency to support the revisionist interpretation.

Reagan's Rhetorical Legacy

The dominant interpretation of Reagan's rhetoric among both academics and the media has been to treat Reagan as simply a skillful announcer for the conservative cause. In this view, Reagan mouthed an essentially unsubstantive rhetoric, focusing on happy narratives about the greatness of America to support an extremely conservative political agenda (Lewis 1987; Weiler and Pearce 1992; Erickson 1985; Leyh 1986; Johnson 1991). Advocates of this perspective can be quite harsh in their assessment. For example, Richard Pious argued that for Reagan, "personalities became more important than issues; metaphor, analogy, and storytelling become more important than inconvenient facts; emotion displaced reason in political argumentation" (1991, 507). In a review of Edmund Morris's biography of Reagan, Steven R. Weisman referred to Reagan's "habitual denials of reality" and "eccentric standard of belief" as if these positions were universally accepted (1999, 7). In addition, those who uphold what might be labeled the conventional wisdom concerning Ronald Reagan treat him as either captured by or a representative of the most conservative wing of the Republican party. In this view, Reagan's views were essentially indistinguishable from far-right politicians of the late nineties and the early years of the twenty-first century such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Dan Quayle, and so forth. Put most simply, the conventional wisdom is that Reagan's legacy could be summarized as extreme conservatism, showmanship, and a rhetorical practice empty of serious ideas.

The competing revisionist view of Reagan is quite different. Advocates of this perspective argue that Reagan was not an empty suit, that he was in fact the primary author of the core ideological positions of his administration. Revisionists also argue that Reagan was an adaptable rhetorician, not the simplistic teller of false stories depicted in the work of many who take the dominant perspective (Busch 1997; Hoekstra 1997; Hantz 1996; Mervin 1989; Sloan 1999; Darman 1996; Noonan 1990). Some revisionists go so far as to argue that Reagan himself was a skilled wordsmith and one of his most effective speechwriters (Satire 2000, 38; Skinner, Anderson, and Anderson 2001; Medhurst 1998; Schultz 1993).

Some but by no means all of the revisionists also argue that Reagan was not a far-right extremist. Rather, in their view, he supported his agenda by assuming the role of a practical reformer who wanted to rein in excesses in Washington and often took moderate and even progressive positions. For instance, Gary Woodward noted surprising parallels between Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt, including "their attitudes ... that government can act in predictable and decisive ways" (1983, 54) to improve the nation. Woodward particularly emphasized Reagan's use of the phrase, "there's nothing wrong with America that together we can't fix"; and he added that "this liberal article of faith was preached many times along the campaign trail, leaving conservative thinkers such as George Will with the conclusion that Americans today are more conservative than Reagan" (ibid. …