Altered View, Lessons Learned
Convert Dick Wirthlin Shares Reagan’s Teachings
Few individuals had the opportunity to work with and consistently observe Ronald Reagan for a longer period of time than the late president’s pollster and strategist Dick Wirthlin.
The highlights of their 36-year relationship are retraced in Wirthlin’s recent book, “The Greatest Communicator: What Ronald Reagan Taught Me about Politics, Leadership and Life.”
As both the title and the opening line of the acknowledgments (in which Wirthlin asserts his life “was blessed because of Ronald Reagan”) make clear, this is a tribute book: a mixture of memoir and hagiography.
Culled from Wirthlin’s detailed memos of his encounters with Reagan — which noted everything from “what suit he was wearing” to “what jokes he told” — the book was in the works for roughly two years before Reagan’s death in June, says Wirthlin, who wrote the book with presidential scholar and speechwriter Wynton Hall.
Prior to their 1968 meeting, Wirthlin, a Berkeley-educated Ph.D., says he was by no means predisposed to join the ranks of the Reaganites.
Wirthlin, who by the mid-1960s had started the strategic opinion research and consulting firm Wirthlin Worldwide, was contacted by a mysterious political operative who asked him to do a survey of California voters’ attitudes on a variety of policy issues. “He asked me to come to California” once the report was completed and spoke “vaguely of a possible campaign but didn’t give me any details,” Wirthlin recalls.
Only after the two were speeding 80 miles per hour north from Los Angeles to Reagan’s Pacific palisades home did the operative mention the potential client’s name.
“Had he not been going that fast, I would have been tempted to get out,” says Wirthlin, adding that at that time he thought of Reagan as a “right-wing, narrow individual.”
It only took “one hour and 10 minutes” for Wirthlin’s preconceived ideas about then-Gov. Reagan “as nothing more than a B-grade actor to disappear,” he recalls of their initial poolside chat.
“As I began to have this closer association with Reagan … I did become more conservative in my point of view,” he says.
Over the years, the two would share many highs and lows.
Wirthlin points to the events preceding the 1976 New Hampshire GOP primary — when Reagan was locked in a tight battle with then-President Gerald Ford — as “the worst single event in my relationship with Ronald Reagan.”
Less than 24 hours before the all-important primary, Wirthlin learned that Reagan’s strategist John Sears had failed to show the candidate his polling memo indicating the narrowness of Reagan’s lead in the Granite State and instead had waylaid him on an unnecessary campaign stop in Illinois.
Moreover, Sears requested that Wirthlin inform Reagan of the misstep.
“It was a bit ironic to me that the man who had in a matter of 48 hours all but shattered Reagan’s chances at victory was now asking me to be the carrier of bad news,” Wirthlin writes, noting that Reagan ultimately lost the state by a mere 1,317 votes.
Four years later, Wirthlin — who along with David Gergen is credited with Reagan’s rhetorical question “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” — would find himself in the far more enviable position of informing Reagan on Election Day morning 1980 that his title was likely to change to the far more lofty “Mr. President” by the end of the day.
Of course, Reagan was legendary for his frequent polling of the American public. In addition to regular polls tracking issues every three weeks, Wirthlin set up a “quick response” polling “component that could be in the field in four hours and have results the next day.
“He understood from his early experience in Hollywood that you have to understand your audience,” says Wirthlin, emphasizing that “he never asked me to tell him what the polls are saying about an issue to take that position.”
Among the lessons Wirthlin attributes to Reagan are: Deal to your strengths; realize you can’t talk about every issue so pick the important ones; actively pursue not only your base, but also swing and opposition party voters; learn to disagree without being disagreeable; and demonstrate consistency and an ability to get things done.
Some might read that and say, “Duh.” But still, it’s a wise duh for both candidates to remember as the Bush-Kerry showdown heads into the final weeks of what Wirthlin, once described as “the prince of pollsters,” says remains “a dead-even horse race.”