Bob Mann isn’t the most likely person to offer a compliment to Ronald Reagan. A former political aide to several Democratic Louisiana politicians, including John Breaux and Kathleen Blanco, Mann has taught for years at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication. His reliably liberal commentaries and tweets routinely ruffle feathers on the right.
But in what many might regard as a minor miracle, Mann has written a book about Reagan that throws the Gipper a few bouquets. In “Becoming Ronald Reagan,” Mann traces the GOP icon’s rise from a nearly broke actor to a figure destined for the presidency. The turning point, Mann suggests, was the period Reagan spent as a corporate ambassador for General Electric, a professional phase that began in 1954.
“When Reagan began his work for General Electric,” Mann tells readers, “he was a liberal Democrat and the former head of the Screen Actors Guild, the AFL-affiliated union that represented Hollywood actors. In 1948 he had campaigned for President Harry Truman and Hubert Humphrey, the liberal Democratic mayor of Minneapolis seeking a U.S. Senate seat. Although he had supported and voted for Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1952 presidential election, Reagan did so only after urging the retired general to run as a Democrat.”
But by the late 1950s, Reagan’s politics had changed, Mann reminds readers. “By 1960,” he writes, “Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon admired Reagan’s influence among conservatives so much that he invited the actor to campaign for him in his race against John F. Kennedy.”
Reagan would eventually run for office himself, becoming governor of California before entering the White House. In researching Reagan, Mann admits, he developed a grudging respect for some of his superior qualities.
“I had always viewed Reagan as an incurious, befuddled man who relied on a team of speechwriters to tell him what to believe and what to say,” Mann writes. “Studying Reagan from the 1950s and early 1960s disabused me of this.”
Mann is still no Reaganite. “This does not mean,” he adds, “there is little about Reagan to admire. One can disagree with his policies … and still applaud his immense love for the United States. I respect his faith that he could persuade, not coerce, people to see issues his way because of a belief in the innate goodness of people.”
Mann cites some virtues of Reagan that those of any political stripe should embrace today: “Reagan believed in the power of words to inspire and persuade. He believed leadership involved wooing, not bullying. And he did not make his politics personal. In almost every way, I found that Reagan was a decent, charismatic, and likable man with whom I disagreed on almost everything politically. In other words, he was like many of my friends and neighbors.”