March 11, 2016

Jacob Weisberg, a onetime political reporter who is now chairman of the Slate Group, visited SIPA on March 7 to discuss his newly released biography of the late Ronald Reagan.

Joined by Professor Ester Fuchs, Weisberg focused in part on the former president’s influence on the 2016 presidential campaign. But he began the conversation by considering how Reagan’s early life impacted his career as a politician.

“Ronald Reagan had to move at least 10 times as a child,” he said. “This resulted in the ability to disassociate. He could ignore the reality of what was happening around him.”

In seeking to scale back the role of government in American life, Reagan as president pursued reductions in services that were perceived by many to hurt African-Americans. But he readily recalled examples in his own life when he had opposed discrimination, Weisberg said, and “genuinely believed that government could do no good and business could do no bad.”

Weisberg highlighted a number of intering paradoxes that surround the former president.

In the 1970s, Reagan often used the term “welfare queen”—a slur seen now and perhaps then as racially biased—but the famous case he tended to cite involved a white woman. (Indeed, Weisberg noted, “most people on welfare were actually white Americans.”)

Another paradox: Reagan sought to cut taxes and reduce the size of government, but as president he actually signed six tax increases, and government remained about the same size.

Weisberg also underscored the interesting shift in Reagan’s politics around the Cold War. Hard-line and hawkish in his first term, Reagan in his second term pursued “a radical shift in opinion, towards peacemaking and disarmament.”

Immigration is an area that especially distinguishes Reagan from today’s leading Republicans.

While most look to Reagan as the “modern successful Republican,” Weisberg said, “in terms of immigration, [they] could not be more off from Reagan: he was very pro-immigration and even sympathetic to illegal immigration.”

Weisberg suggested that the Reagan would not necessarily see himself in the Republicans who pursued the Oval Office in the current cycle.

“Reagan was funny, gracious, and polite—a very likeable person,” he said, “unlike the candidates we have today.”

Reagan, said Weisberg, “would be shocked and appalled by the current elections. There is no down from this point,” referring to the most recent Republican debate in which candidates made lewd and disparaging comments to each other.

The author noted another way that presidential politics have changed. In years past, presidential candidates were expected to produce book-length policy memos on their different stances.

“Today, it is all personality and zero content,” he said.

Speaking as a biographer, Weisberg noted that Reagan left an extensive body of writing that proved to be a significant resource.

“Reagan was a reader and a writer,” he said. “He wrote every day of his life. He wasn't an intellectual, but he was definitely an original thinker.”

The event was sponsored by the SIPA Urban and Social Policy Concentration and the United States Specialization.

— Kristen Grennan MPA ’16

Pictured (from left): Ester Fuchs, Jacob Weisberg