Ed Rollins Discusses 'Reagan at 100' at Sacred Heart University Forum

News Story: April 1, 2011
Ed Rollins speaks on 'Reagan at 100"

For many years, Ed Rollins was as close to the center of power as you could get in the United States: a trusted confidant of President Ronald Reagan and manager of his 1984 re-election campaign that won the president 49 out of 50 states. Today, he is a senior political analyst for CNN and a principal of the Dilenschneider Group in New York City, a nationally respected public relations agency.

Although his early life included stints in a Catholic seminary and a successful run as a boxer, he is best known for his political savvy over several decades. He was, in fact, a campaign aide for Robert F. Kennedy before turning his attention to Republican politics and, eventually, to Ronald Reagan. The president was enormously affable, as everyone knows, famous for his sense of humor and quick wit. He was not, in Rollins’ judgment, a show-boater who needed all attention to be on him: he did his duty as he understood it, no matter what the polls said or what the consequences were.

Certainly, the turning point in his presidency came just 30 years ago this past week when the president nearly died from a gunshot wound. His poll numbers were slipping, and the country was beset by enormous difficulties, but as he rallied, the people – including the Congress – rallied behind him. Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill – his political opposite – visited his bedside, kissed him and prayed with him. The two became close friends – even when differing in their strategies for the government. Rollins offers this vignette as a sad contrast to the present atmosphere in Washington, where civility and compassion are in scarce supply.

When asked to compare today’s political atmosphere with that he experienced only a generation ago in the Reagan White House, Ed Rollins put it this way: “It used to be that citizens surveyed about the government would say, ‘I dislike Congress, but I admire my congressman.’  Today, too often, they are saying, ‘I dislike Congress, and my congressman is a big part of the reason for the failure.’” There are no easy fixes for this problem, but a return to an earlier sense of courtesy and decorum would be a good stating place.

Rollins characterizes the president as a fiercely intelligent man, despite cynical assessments to the contrary. He was such a voracious reader, in fact, that the First Lady told his aides to discontinue the practice of putting books on his desk because he would read until 2 A.M. He felt himself a man of destiny, especially after his near-death experience, and judged that God must have spared his life for a reason. That reason, he came to believe, was to make the world a safer place by an accommodation with the Soviets whose empire cracked into pieces under his watch.

“Reagan at 100” was full of remarkable anecdotes and observations that could only come from intimate knowledge of the man. Ronald Reagan had never met his future vice president, for example, until it was already agreed that George Bush would be his running mate. Of the thousands of speeches he delivered over the course of his presidency, almost all had his personal stamp on them, especially the 64 major addresses. He wrote 10,000 letters to friends around the world but was known to have few close relationships: for a “natural” politician, he was remote and distant – self-possessed to a fault.

The Reagan presidency was studded with memorable moments that crystallize his unique style and broad appeal – even for those who didn’t share his philosophy. After being shot and heading into surgery, he quipped to the surgeons, “I hope you’re all Republicans!” They are an actor’s lines delivered with great ease – and perfect timing. Memorable for a different reason was his declaration, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” spoken at the Berlin Wall in 1987. If the Reagan legacy could be summed up, it has most to do with his returning the presidency to its earlier stature. After what Ed Rollins called five failed presidencies, Mr. Reagan gave Americans a renewed reason to be proud of their government and its top leader.

This talk was sponsored by General Electric, WSHU Public Radio and Sacred Heart University’s Human Journey Core Colloquia Series.