The GE Years: What Made Reagan Reagan


Mr. Evans is an attorney and author. As an avocational politician, he has supervised a successful New Hampshire presidential primary and set up a national citizens organization. He has served as Adjunct Professor of Educational Administration and chair of the trustees at Teachers College, Columbia University. His books include The School in the Home and Mentors: Making a Difference in our Public Schools.

After November’s elections, Senator John McCain, former Congressman Dick Armey and others called for a return to the principles and policies of Ronald Reagan. At the time these policies were first advanced, many observers believed they constituted a revolution. But how did Reagan himself come to these views and where did he learn to translate them from one man’s vision into governmental policies and acts?

In my book, The Education of Ronald Reagan: The General Electric Years and the Untold Story of his Conversion to Conservatism, I trace Reagan’s evolution from liberal to conservative, from actor to politician. The changes took place during the time when he served as host of the General Electric Theater on television. His contract also called for him to spend  a quarter of his eight years (1954-1962) with the company touring the forty states and 139 plants of GE’s far-flung decentralized corporate domain, addressing 250,000 employees and their neighbors.

When he joined GE in 1954, Reagan was a Democrat and a self-described “New Dealer to the core.” One of the early photos in the book shows him at the White House – the Truman White House -- where he was thanked by the president for his strong support in the 1948 election. He had been a leader and organizer of California’s “Labor for Truman.” He was then serving as president of the Screen Actors Guild, which opposed “Right-to-Work” laws. Two years later, he supported Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas in her U. S. Senate contest against Republican Richard Nixon. In 1952, he backed the Republican candidate for president, but as a Democrat for Eisenhower.

However, on October 27, 1964, two years after he had left GE, Reagan delivered a nationally-televised speech in support of conservative Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate for president. Supporters and critics alike thereafter referred to Reagan’s remarks as “The Speech.” The dean of the Washington press corps referred to it as “the most successful political debut since William Jennings Bryan’s ‘Cross of Gold’ speech in 1896.” In 1966, Reagan was elected governor of California.

As Reagan later commented, he had been giving The Speech for years, in a variety of versions, in his role as GE’s “Traveling Ambassador.” But Reagan learned more in his GE years than a set of prepared remarks. He became familiar with such diverse thinkers as von Mises, Lenin, Hayek, and the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu. He read and reread the practical economics of Henry Hazlitt. He quoted Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton. He observed GE’s vice president Lemuel Boulware, whom many leaders in corporate America regarded as the most successful labor negotiator of all time, and Reagan himself sharpened his negotiating skills during this period when he served another term as president of the Screen Actors Guild. (An intriguing aspect of this process occurred in 1960, when Boulware was urging GE’s workers not to strike at the same time as Reagan, as SAG president again, took his members out on strike against the Hollywood producers. Incredibly, the situation worked out for the benefit of both GE and SAG.)

As one of Reagan’s “traveling aides” pointed out, “This was the period that brought into being Lemuel Ricketts Boulware.” When the nation was paralyzed by a seventeen-week strike in 1946, in which almost all of the country’s corporations were brought to their knees, the 16,000 workers who produced annual revenues of $150 million for the GE subsidiaries which did not use the corporation’s name (e.g. Hotpoint and  Carboloy), did not go on strike at all. They were managed by GE vice president Boulware. As a result, Boulware was placed in charge of all of GE’s labor, public and community relations.

In 1947, flushed with success of the national strike, Walter Reuther, leader of the United Auto Workers, proclaimed that “unions can no longer operate as narrow pressure groups concerned with their own selfish interests.” Trade unionism, he maintained, must now “lead the fight for the welfare of the whole community.” The gauntlet was down, and Lemuel Boulware issued a response. He saw a great gulf between the political ambitions of union officials and the economic interests of their members. This was a crucial contest, with “our free market and our free persons” at stake. But before battle could be joined, “every citizen had to go back to school on economics individually … to learn from simple text books … to study until we understand” our democracy and our free market system. In his call to arms, Boulware was describing what became the education of Ronald Reagan.

Boulware believed in “going over the heads of the union leaders” directly to the employees. He did this primarily through four publications and a series of book clubs. He also created a new position, Employee Relations Manager, and 3,000 of them joined with 12,000 supervisors to bring the company’s message home. The ERMs used skills that the company had developed in the manufacture and sale of its products to win the hearts and minds of its workers. Boulware called this “job marketing.”

Two of the publications that emanated from Boulware’s operation were distributed weekly: one went into the local plant papers, side by side with bowling league results and coverage of the Miss GE competition, designed for consumption by GE’s blue collar workers; the other weekly was a newsletter to GE supervisors and to local “thought leaders,” who could influence municipal and state elections. A slick monthly magazine  often tied Reagan’s GE Theater news to ideological messages. And a defense quarterly, featuring GE’s efforts in the field, was enhanced by commentary from leading experts (e.g. well-known academics and occasional Cabinet officials) on military and geopolitical matters. The evidence is compelling that Reagan read all of these. The frequent question periods after his talks with GE workers insured that he would be asked about them. They influenced his foreign policy as well as his domestic views. An article in the defense quarterly presaged the Reagan Doctrine and contains the earliest mention of what later became the strategic defense initiative.

The subject matter of the publications ranged from narrow employment issues (“How Big Are General Electric Profits – Are They Too Big?” “Why the company can expect union officials to ‘demand’ a strike from them”) to broader economic concerns (“Let’s Learn from Britain”--which concerned the failures of socialism and a government-run medical profession--and “What is Communism? What is Capitalism? What is the Difference to You?”). The folly of many government programs and the negative consequences of burdensome taxation were frequent topics. The book clubs of employees and their spouses spent thirteen weeks discussing Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt or How You Really Earn Your Living by Lewis Haney and other conservative offerings.

 In time, Lemuel Boulware and GE CEO Ralph Cordiner mounted a national grass roots campaign, recruiting major corporate allies, creating schools where GE employees and others could learn the fundamental political skills to win elections, developing shareholder lists for political mailings, and turning GE workers into “communicators” and “mass communicators” (Boulware’s words) who could spread the message of free persons and free markets to a decisive number of local voters. In the course of this Ronald Reagan was taken out of the plants and put on what he called “the mashed potato circuit” of civic forums largely in the south and smaller states, often towns where GE dominated the economy, where he would be most effective. In due course, the “great communicator” was born. In today’s parlance, most of these states turned from blue to red.

Ronald Reagan developed a vision of America during his GE years. He learned to reduce his views to a few simple precepts and, as he entered politics, he went over the heads of party leaders, using the banquet circuit and television to present his powerful message. Opposition leaders often responded by coming to him to stop the flow of questions from their constituents. This was done between elections. When legislation was called for (e.g. California welfare reform and federal tax reform, both of which were revolutionary in scope), Reagan utilized his considerable negotiating skills -- honed as he observed Boulware and at the bargaining table over the Screen Actors contracts – as he later did with Mikhail Gorbachev in four dramatic summits.

It is impossible to set out in this short article the evolution and the entirety of Ronald Reagan’s development as a conservative and a politician during the years that he worked for General Electric. His methods of absorbing massive amounts of material, of writing and delivering his speeches, were unique. Perhaps the most persuasive statements  confirming his education during his General Electric years come from the Reagans themselves. In her autobiography, Nancy Reagan wrote that “If you believe, as Ronnie does, that everything happens for a purpose, then certainly there was a hidden purpose in Ronnie’s job for General Electric.”

Reagan referred to his GE years as his “post-graduate education in political science” and observed that “it wasn’t a bad apprenticeship for someone who’d someday enter public life.” He spoke of his “self-conversion” during these years, and that he ended up “preaching sermons” about his strongly-held beliefs. His speechwriters at the White House frequently admitted using the speeches of the GE years as the basis of their own efforts. The fact that he achieved so much of what he advanced as his goals, confirms the merit of his ideas. But it also testifies to the effectiveness of lessons he learned about how to turn his vision into political majorities and governmental acts.

The GE years provide an insight, to borrow Bill Safire’s phrase, as to “what made Reagan Reagan.” The question remains whether the political landscape today affords an opportunity to achieve a revolution and whether there is anyone on the scene to lead it.

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Patrick J Hogan - 1/14/2007

Max doesn't want to pick through the so called tangled mess because he has no answer for them. Like many on his side of the debate. They throw out arguments against President Reagan. But when they're called on it and have to defend their position they can't. So they'll try and deflect the message by trying to pick at MINOR grammatical errors rather than try to answer in reply because they have no answer. As for the Balanced Budget comment your right the GOP did control the Senate for 6 years. If you recall I did blame both parties for the deficits of the 80's but from Reagan's desk to final authorization those budgets didn't go down they went up, and for that you can look to the Congress as the ultimate source of the massive spending increases. In the end, I might have made some errors in grammar or syntax, but for me SUBSTANCE means a whole lot more than style. Max my friend all you could do was try and deflect my arguments by nitpicking at how I wrote something. You spent very little time answering to WHAT I wrote, and thats because you couldn't. Hope your day goes..................RIGHT

Patrick Hogan Troy, NY

Max J. Skidmore - 1/14/2007

I cannot resist adding a question as a postscript (and I promise that this ends it for me): just how many balanced budgets did Reagan submit to the Congress (which for six of Reagan's eight years included a Republican Senate)? The answer, of course, is not one.

Max J. Skidmore - 1/14/2007

It's not even worth sorting through this tangled mess--and no, all you have to do is look over the postings to see that the invective in this exchange didn't come from me.

My last comment on this is, if you cannot get someone literate to edit your fulminations (I know, it must be hard to find someone who would), at least please look up the difference between "your," and "you're."

Patrick J Hogan - 1/13/2007

Dear Max,
I read your latest rejoinder to my posting. Those weren't bombastic assertions they were "FACTS". The reason I reply in this manner is that revisionist history buffs are constantly trying to discredit what Ronald Reagan did because they disliked his political ideology and I decided that if ever I have the chance to defend him I will. As for the comment about fearing those communist loving liberals under my bed, I don't fear them but when they held positions of power and thought that Ronald Reagan was more of a threat to world peace than the Soviet Union then the whole country had reason to fear because they failed to see the peril we faced. Fast forward today to those same weak in the knee Liberal Democrats who shamelessly put party in front of country for political gain, and YES your damn right I fear for our country because these so called leaders fail to understand that there is a mindset alive and well in certain circles which wants to eliminate the United States. But instead of focusing on that threat they deem our current Republican President to be the real threat to peace and freedom. While I'm at it, let me comment on your other remarks about astronomical deficits. Feel free to lump Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Congress in the mix. Every year President Reagan would submit a budget and every year we would hear the same old song from Tip, Robert Byrd, et al. This budget is DOA. The power of the purse rests with Congress, we had record setting revenues under Reagan it was a DEMOCRATIC Congress who spent, and spent that shares a large chunk of the responsibilty for the deficits of the 80's. Both parties can take the hit for that one.As for cutting and running in Lebanon, I really take issue with that one. I spent 6 months in Beirut and lost friends in the Barracks bombing. We didn't cut and run so much as the same thing happened there that is happening now. Tip O'Neill and the Democrats again played politics rather than support us while we were in harms way. They continually criticized the mission. The terrorists elements saw this and exploited that wedge by escalating the attacks against us. If instead of hearing the constant drumbeat from the Democrats saying get out, get out, they heard that America was united and standing at the waters edge in support of our President and our Marines then maybe they wouldn't have felt that targeting the Multi-national force would have led to a withdrawal. But just like today the Democratic party led by Liberals decided that political gain was more important that allowing a Republican administration to have a successful military campaign lest it hurt their political standing. As a result America's enemy seeing Democrats constant criticism of the President realized that if they stepped up attacks they could hope to achieve their goal of a withdrawal of American troops. Sadly we did withdrawal before completing the mission. Fast forwarding to today, The same scenario is being played out yet again. An American President has committed troops, who are engaged in armed conflict. But when our enemies look to this country to gauge the sentiment among those elected officials in positions of power what do they see. Unlike Germany & Japan who saw a united front determined to win and giving unfliching support to our men & women in harms way. They see a President with resolve, who understands the stakes and is striving to defeat an enemy who seeks to destroy our way of life. While at the same time they see an opposition party so thirsty to regain power that they will compromise the security of the country in order regain the power they covet. In closing I'll simply add that like most Liberals when you have nothing to say or can't come back with facts to back your argument you simply revert to name calling in an attempt to discredit your opponent. Alas I'm not surprised you aren't the first nor will you be the last to try and divert attention from the issue by throwing out your silly little invective. I'm guessing you'll go with the old favorites let me guess. A conservative, knuckle dragging, racist, homophobic, sexist, hatemonger. Did I forget any. Ahh you'll probably fill in any I forgot. Hope your day goes ............Right.

Patrick Hogan Troy, NY

PS Keep up the hooked on phonics work.

Max J. Skidmore - 1/12/2007

Dear Mr. (Dr.?, Professor?) Hogan:

That's an intemperate reply to a mere comment that this space is better used for argument than for bombastic assertion. Perhaps it's fear of all those "communist-loving liberals" who must live under your bed--I've never met one, never known anyone who has met one, and hope never to meet one.

I'm tempted to point out that balance is important, that your "facts," even when correct, are less straightforward than they seem, and should be seen alongside the creation of astronomical deficits, "cutting and running" in Lebanon, deliberately providing weapons to known enemies of the United States (None Dare Call it Treason), flouting laws, and the like.

But I won't. My old grandpa years ago warned me against pissing contests with skunks.

I therefore shall merely point out that one does not form a normal plural with an apostrophe, and of course, I send you my best wishes.

Patrick J Hogan - 1/11/2007

Dear Max,
You want some facts. Here are the facts. During the REAGAN years, 19 million new jobs created, a foreign policy with a "SPINE" which would in 1989 lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Probably a sad day for communist loving liberal lap dogs. Median family income rose 12% for the period 1981-1990, while 1971-80 it rose 0.3%. When Ronald Reagan took office the top tax rate was 70% when he left it was 28%. Again probably a bad thing in the eyes of Liberals. But lets look at total tax revenue. 1977-81 total tax revenue 1.7 trillion, 1981-85 2.5 Trillion, 1985-89 3.2 Trillion but how could that be if we cut taxes. You want facts, you got facts. One more intangible when Jimmy Carter left office we were a nation unsure of ourselves aimlessly wandering, and hoping that there wouldn't be any more Nicaragua's Afghanistan's or Iranian Hostage debacles.8 years later when Ronald Reagan left office we had once again gained the respect of the world, eliminated a whole class of intermediate range Nuclear missiles put our economy back on a good footing with the longest peace time economic expansion in the nation's history. So there are your facts, To quote a line from a famous movie, " You want the Truth, You can't handle the truth" Because the truth hurts especially when your a Liberal who can't handle the fact that Ronald Reagan was a GREAT PRESIDENT. Hope your day goes.................RIGHT

Patrick Hogan Troy, NY

Max J. Skidmore - 1/11/2007

Opinions, however strongly expressed, without support count for little (even less when they contain words spelled incorrectly).

Patrick J Hogan - 1/9/2007

I read Lorraine's comment and had to laugh. She sounds like all those other elitist,ivory tower intellectuals who never got it and thought Ronald Reagan was a simpleton. Thats what made him so successful. The left took him for granted and never realized how smart he really was. THANKFULLY 97 MILLION AMERICANS recognized how great a leader he was and gave him two OVERWHELMING victories (Another source of Liberal angst). Ronald Reagan was a great leader because he understood the greatness within the American people and his inspirational message and leadership helped motivate the country. His stedfast adherence to his principles even in the face of non stop criticism from the media and the left was what made him GREAT he led, he didn't ask what the opinion polls said. As a result he is now remembered as a GREAT LEADER, a GREAT PRESIDENT and a GREAT AMERICAN. And his detractors like Lorraine can't stand it. Patrick Hogan Troy, NY

Greg Ransom - 1/8/2007

Reagan as President mentions Hayek in several of his speeches. Did you look in Reagan's library and see what books by Hayek were in his library and what yearsof publication were on those books? What year did Reagan read _The Road to Serfdom_? Did he read _The Constitution of Liberty_? (which is very likely).

Did Reagan put notes in the books in his library?

Did Reagan keep a file of articles he liked, or note cards from his reading?

Lorraine Paul - 1/8/2007

I can see now where Reagan got his simplistic world view and why he would rather get his information from Reader's Digest than his advisers.

As for Gorbachev, Reagan merely stood there while Mikhail did all the work!

Reagan and Thatcher! Ugh!