Values and the Rhetoric of Ronald Reagan

Lately, I’ve been reading a book called The Greatest Communicator: What Ronald Reagan Taught Me about Politics, Leadership, and Life, by Dick Wirthlin, Reagan’s chief strategist and pollster from 1968 to 1988 and unofficial member of his inner circle. Wirthlin gives some interesting insights into Reagan’s personality, beliefs, style, and skills. Of course, it is Reagan’s oratory and rhetorical talents that come to the fore. What was it that made Reagan such an effective speaker? Obviously, he was able to deeply connect with his audience. But, how?

Reagan at the mic“[One] key component of Reagan’s ability to persuade through reason by motivating through emotion, and an incredibly effective means of conveying core values in personally relevant ways, was his integration of stories in his communications. Stories work because they don’t raise the red flag of the ‘hard sell,’ and indeed, Reagan used them to let the audience link the rational to the emotional for themselves.”

But, the aspect I want to highlight here is that of “core values”.

“What put Reagan in a league of his own was his intuitive but sure understanding that values are the strategic linchpins of effective persuasion. I define values as the measures by which individuals determine the worth or importance of matters of concern in their lives. For example, ‘freedom’ is a value. If a person cherishes freedom, that value becomes the yardstick by which he or she can measure the importance of relevant public policies. A president might argue that a given military action is necessary to protect our ‘freedom.’ The presence of that value communicates that the speaker treasures an insight that exists within the individual members of his or her audience. Put another way, if persuasive communication skills are precious jewels, then values are the showcase used to display them.”

Well put, I think. Later, Wirthlin continues his appraisal of the “values” component in Reagan’s communications:

“What was it about the Greatest Communicator that made people love him so?

After conducting hundreds of studies on President Reagan’s leadership, and after having spent a quarter century at his side analyzing his every communicative move, I believe I can answer that question in that one word I raised earlier in talking about his communicative strength: values.

The reason Ronald Reagan continues to engender such a deep emotional response is that he communicated universally these shared values. While issues change, values endure. I defined values earlier as those beliefs that give life its meaning and worth. They are the ‘anchors’ that order the world around us. We don’t often think in terms of our values, but that is precisely why they wield such power. Like gravity, these invisible forces order the way we live, the choices we make, and the things we hold dear. Values are unchanging, transcendent, timeless. Politicians who speak about ‘issues’ come and go. But that rare breed of leader whose rhetoric embodies broadly shared values in the context of issues represents an individual who will likely stand the test of time.

Reagan smilingThis fundamental truth of communicative leadership goes a long way toward explaining the depth of commitment and passion people feel when they talk about Ronald Reagan. I once told a reporter I would walk over hot coals for Reagan. Okay, so maybe that was a tad overstated, but the fact is Reagan struck powerful chords when he spoke. And it wasn’t just with me. Listen to the language people use when talking about his legacy. I mean, honestly, can you imagine anyone referring to the Johnson Revolution, the Nixon Revolution, the Ford Revolution, the Carter Revolution, or the Clinton Revolution?

Me neither.

But the Reagan Revolution?

It fits.

‘The Gipper’ made you want to join his revolution.”

You may not be or have been a huge Reagan fan. But, you have to admit that his abilities as a speaker to really connect with his audience, gain their trust, and even infect them with his optimistic enthusiasm was amazing. I think Wirthlin was able to identify some very significant factors for why that was.

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