In October 1964, Ronald Reagan gave a televised speech in support of Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. "The Speech," as it has come to be known, helped launch Ronald Reagan as a leading force in the American conservative movement. However, less than twenty years earlier, Reagan was a prominent Hollywood liberal, the president of the Screen Actors Guild, and a fervent supporter of FDR and Harry Truman. While many agree that Reagan's anticommunism grew out of his experiences with the Hollywood communists of the late 1940s, the origins of his conservative ideology have remained obscure.
Based on a newly discovered collection of private papers as well as interviews and corporate documents, The Education of Ronald Reagan offers new insights into Reagan's ideological development and his political ascendancy. Thomas W. Evans links the eight years (1954-1962) in which Reagan worked for General Electric—acting as host of its television program, GE Theater, and traveling the country as the company's public-relations envoy-to his conversion to conservatism.
In particular, Evans reveals the profound influence of GE executive Lemuel Boulware, who would become Reagan's political and ideological mentor. Boulware, known for his tough stance against union officials and his innovative corporate strategies to win over workers, championed the core tenets of modern American conservatism-free-market fundamentalism, anticommunism, lower taxes, and limited government. Building on the ideas and influence of Boulware, Reagan would soon begin his rise as a national political figure and an icon of the American conservative movement.
Evans respectfully traces Reagan's change from New Deal liberal to economic conservative to his eight-year stint (1954 1962) as spokesman for General Electric, when he hosted GE's Saturday night television show, General Electric Theater, and toured GE plants nationwide. It was on tour that Reagan delivered early drafts of the 1964 pro-Goldwater "time for choosing" speech that would eventually thrust him onto the national political scene. As the mouthpiece for GE policy, Reagan was immersed in a free market ideology that stressed limited government and low taxes, explains Evans, an attorney who chaired the Reagan administration's national symposium on partnerships in education. The most intriguing chapters explore the tensions between Reagan's leadership of the Screen Actors' Guild which went on strike in 1960 and his role as the public face of a company determined to prevent its unionized employees from striking. In the last chapter, Evans explicitly connects some of Reagan's presidential decisions his insistence on restructuring taxes without cutting military spending, for example, and his oversight of the National Labor Relations Board with his GE education. This fascinating study sheds new light on Reagan's ideological evolution.