Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

There has long been a tendency to dismiss Ronald Reagan's years at GE as a period when he did little more than host a tv show, his movie career having washed out. One problem with this view is that it makes his famous Time for Choosing speech, on October 27th, 1964, appear as if it came out nowhere. Longtime Republican operative, Thomas W. Evans has a far more interesting story to tell about those years, one that explains how a non-politician could have emerged "overnight" as the singular political orator of the second half of the 20th Century. Mr. Evans reclaims the reputation of GE executive Lemeul Boulware and establishes him as one of the primary influences on The Gipper.

Boulware was in charge of public and employee relations at GE at a time when the end of WWII had triggered new union demands and strikes throughout American industry. He believed that if working men understood how economics and government worked that they would be more inclined to work co-operatively with management, less likely to take an adversarial approach to business, and more supportive of America's Long War against the various forms of statism. He recognized in Ronald Reagan an ideal conduit for his message and hired him to visit plants and spread the word. In the process, he conducted the "education" of the book's title, although Mr. Evans makes it clear that in Reagan he had an already intellectually curious pupil, one who had already begun his drift rightwards.

While it can be difficult to disambiguate the degree of credit Boulware deserves for exposing Reagan to certain conservative/capitalist writers--like Henry Hazlitt--it is unquestionably the case that the job opportunity itself prepared the future governor and president as no man had been readied before or since. Reagan got to meet and hear the concerns of GE's tens of thousands of working men and women. He got to try out ideas and lines on them, rewriting "The Speech" to weed out clunkers and add bits that scored. And, most of all, the years and years of giving such public talks made him supremely confident in his ability to get ideas across in ways that listeners would respond to. Taken together with the series of letters, diaries, speeches, etc that have been assembled by Kiron K. Skinner and Annelise and Martin Anderson, this book presents a Ronald Reagan who was far more than an amiable mouthpiece for the ideas of others. Instead we get a portrait of maybe the best prepared politician in American history, a man who had honed his craft to a sharpness that made his electoral successes seem more inevitable than surprising. Unlike other actors and celebrities, he was not just trading on his name when he entered politics, under Boulware's guidance, he had served a long apprenticeship that was to serve him, and us, well.


Grade: (A)


Thomas Evans Links:

    -OBIT: Thomas W. Evans, early backer of Nixon in 1968, dies at 82 (Matt Schudel June 18, 2013, Washington Post)
    -BOOK SITE: THe Education of Ronald Reagan (Columbia University Press)
    -GOOGLE BOOK : The Education of Ronald Reagan
    -Rendezvous with Destiny : The Ronald Reagan Centennial (General Electric)
    -ESSAY: The GE Years: What Made Reagan Reagan (Thomas W. Evans, 01/08/07, HNN)
    -ESSAY: Sue OPEC (THOMAS W. EVANS, June 19, 2008, NY Times)
    -LECTURE: The Education of Ronald Reagan: The General Electric Years and the Untold Story of His Conversion to Conservatism (Thomas W. Evans, Jan 19, 2007, Heritage Foundation)
    -ESSAY: GE Fondly Recalls Its Own 'Reagan Era': General Electric's Obama-backing CEO Jeffrey Immelt celebrates Ronald Reagan. (JOHN FUND, April 4, 2010, WSJ)
    -ESSAY: Enemies of State (Rick Perlstein, Winter 2011, Democracy Journal)
The ambit and ambition of such thinking would grow wider and wider across the decades. Consider the career of perhaps the most important injector of such ideology into the bloodstream of Americans who were not businessmen and did not work under them in factories. He bears the obligingly Dickensian name of Lemuel Ricketts Boulware, and he is perhaps the most influential American most Americans have not heard of. Beginning in the late 1940s, he was General Electric’s “vice president for public and community relations,” a job title that spoke to his globalizing ideological ambitions. His main job was merely negotiating labor contracts, but he understood the work as political guerilla warfare: figuring out ways to speak directly to workers, over the heads of their unions, in, as Boulware’s best historian, Thomas W. Evans, explains, “a constant campaign, going on each day for years.” Boulware compared the job of his 3,000 “Employee Relations Managers” to that of General Electric salesmen “giving a turbine customer the information and guidance that would cause the latter of his own free will to want to do what we recommended as to the selection of the equipment and the signing of the order.”

The techniques Boulware developed to achieve his goals were extraordinary and innovative. He convened what would later be known as “focus groups,” not only of the union members he was seeking to reach but their families, non-union workers, and community leaders like ministers and teachers. He was a craftsman and connoisseur of persuasion, dispensing the fruits of his research in an extraordinary volume of internal publications designed for easy memorization, frequently enunciating the rudiments of Austrian laissez-faire economics; their titles included “How Big Are General Electric Profits–Are They Too Big?” and “The Fallacy of Using ‘Ability to Pay’ as a Guide to Wage and Benefit Levels” and “Who Told You These Fairy Tales–Do You Still Believe Any of Them?” The goal was redolent of the ideological warfare at the heart of the famous William Kristol memo: present the company as generous protector. Boulware instructed his Employee Relations Managers, “Be sure we are supplying–are credited with supplying [my emphasis]–the basic material rewards, the extra human satisfaction, and the assurance that good jobs with good pay and other attractions and rewards are the result of our diligent efficiency.” Don’t tell ’em, sell ’em: in this case, a total identification not merely with the corporation but the entire system of competitive enterprise itself.

This was ironic. The high tide of Boulwarism coincided, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, with a series of indictments of General Electric executives in the biggest antitrust conspiracy in the twentieth century. In its essence, the scandal was a series of interlocking schemes to fix the prices of everything from $2 insulators to those selfsame multimillion-dollar turbines. It arose out of an economic atmosphere, during America’s postwar boom, when the great industrial giant was facing genuine competition in its various business lines for the first time in company history. The men who ran GE, according to one of their historians, took “a dim view of competition.” They also, at the very same time, took a dim view of what GE CEO Ralph Cordiner called “fantastically growing federal government,” “excessively high taxes,” and–that word again–“demagogues” in government “who are hunting for votes regardless of the economic and social consequences.”

The droit du seigneur thus revealed is highly significant: subverters of competitive enterprise arrogating themselves the right to define the meaning of competitive enterprise. The size of General Electric’s activist ambitions, meanwhile, radiated outward over time: reaching deeply into the culture of the cities in which its plants were emplaced (Boulware’s title, recall, was vice president for public and community relations); politically educating stockholders (Cordiner and Boulware were credited with coining the term “investor relations”); and guiding the entire citizenry responsible for creating, through their wise political behavior, a favorable “business climate” (another General Electric coinage) as against the socializing tendencies of government in cahoots with what Boulware artfully called (excluding the rank-and-filers he was aiming to reach) “the upper-crust of labor.”

And, of course, they hired Ronald Wilson Reagan in 1954. While hosting “General Electric Theater” on television, Reagan traveled to GE factory floors across the country, giving speeches that evolved from Hollywood stories to Boulwarite ideological folk tales: “We have so many people who can’t see a fat man standing beside a thin one without coming to the conclusion that the fat man got that way by taking advantage of the thin one!” As Reagan converted GE’s rank and file to his folksy brand of conservatism, Boulware began in the late 1950s to organize monthly meetings with executives at other corporations on Gasparilla Island, Florida, with the aim of recruiting them, in the quintessentially Boulwarite formulation, “to go to work in their own and the rest of the public’s interest” by promoting “economic education, proper moral conduct under freedom, and political maturity that proofs people against the demagogs.” The spelling–“demagogs”–was borrowed from the anti-FDR ideologue, press baron, and English-spelling reformer Colonel Robert McCormick, who disseminated the political culture of government-hating across the Midwest. Conservative newspapers like McCormick’s Chicago Tribune served as a bridge between the 1928 Chamber of Commerce zealot who led off this essay and the executives who, in the wake of the popular radicalism of the 1960s and oil shocks of the 1970s, followed Boulware in organizing into ever more aggressive anti-activist-government lobbies like the Business Roundtable and American Council for Capital Formation.

-REVIEW: of The Education of Ronald Reagan by Thomas W. Evans (Nicholas Wapshott, NY Sun)
    -REVIEW: of Education of Ronald Reagan (Steven F. Hayward, Claremont Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Education of Ronald Reagan (Robert A. Schadler, The American)
    -REVIEW: of Education of Ronald Reagan (DG Myers, Commonplace Blog)
    -REVIEW: of Education of Ronald Reagan (Rick Perlstein, New Republic)
    -REVIEW: of Education of Ronald Reagan (The Washington Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Education of Ronald Reagan (George Trefgarne, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of (Alan Snyder, Breitbart)
-REVIEW: O Lucky Man!: The diaries of Ronald Reagan. (NICHOLAS LEMANN, The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW: of Reagan's Secret War: The Untold Story of His Fight to Save the World from Nuclear Disaster by Martin Anderson and Annelise Anderson (Conrad Black, American Spectator)
    -WIKIPEDIA: Boulwarism
    -OBIT: Lemuel Ricketts Boulware, 95; Headed Labor Relations for G.E. (JOAN COOK, November 8, 1990, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Boulwarism: Ideas Have Consequences (WILLIAM H. PETERSON, 4/01/1991, The Freeman)
    -REVIEW: of Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan (Paul LeBlanc, Monthly Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Truth about Boulwarism by Lemuel Boulware (Emerson P. Schmidt, Intercollegiate Review)

Book-related and General Links: