Opinion

Was Reagan the entrepreneurs' president?

6 min read

04 July 2011

How great a president was Ronald Reagan? Granted not a question that I ask myself that often, but I've found myself asking it today.

Because today – Independence Day – I was a guest at the US Embassy for the unveiling of a new statue in Grosvenor Square that commemorates the contribution to global freedom made by the former US president.

It was a superb occasion, and speeches by Foreign Secretary William Hague and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were frankly brilliant. Sitting in the heat of the mid-morning sun I was carried away by the rhetoric of admirers to a man who made quite a contribution to the life of our planet.

Then I read the BBC’s report of the same event and I wonder if somehow they had attended something else. Perhaps the Ilie Ceausescu memorial or a Colonel Gaddafi fundraiser? 

Mean-spirited and sour, the article on the BBC website paints a picture of a warmonger and economy wrecker.

I guess the truth lies somewhere in between the eulogies of the morning and the words of the liberal left who have always had it in for the two pinups of the right, President Reagan and Baroness Thatcher.

The traditional analysis of the life of Reagan majors on his contribution to world peace, with specific reference to the collapse of the iron curtain. Rightly so, but it may be that it was his role as an entrepreneurial president that is the more interesting.

Now I was a child of the 1980s; yes, I confess the guilty but sublime pleasures of Johnny Hates Jazz, Top Gun, Teen Wolf and black polo necks. Ok, perhaps too much information, but I was there.

I remember an America that seemed to have many of the same challenges that it has today. Strangled by debt, weakened by bureaucracy and wallowing in low self-esteem.

Then came along a person with the unshakeable belief that America’s best days lay ahead and not behind it. In many ways, the battles he fought mirrored those we face today between the forces of optimism and pessimism.

A lot of people used a lot of brainpower to write him off, but he did something extraordinary that defied their defeatism – he gave the States back its self-respect. 

He faced a mountain – perhaps even higher than the one the world has to climb today – but he climbed it.

It was entrepreneurs that flocked to him as the new shock troops ready to tear down the status quo, to adopt the spirit of the pioneer, and to revel in the possibilities of massive disruption.

Reaganomics can be summed up in the belief that a rising tide catches all boats. That the success of business will find its way to everyone. 

It remains one of the most divisive and contentious elements of his presidency. Not least because it didn’t work out the way he had hoped. The cost of the success of a new generation of entrepreneurs was the social deprivation of many stratas of American society.

But while the liberal elite scoffs at this, no-one really has an answer for what the alternative might have been. 

The 1980s were a period of phenomenal economic renewal for the States, and while I’m making the point, for this country also. It created new wealth, new opportunity and a new lease of life. Rather than be ashamed of that we would do better to celebrate it for we need that same spirit now.

Reagan was the great communicator; a man who could speak with princes and paupers alike – and the world loved him for it. Sitting there today you realise how easy it is to forget the huge debt of gratitude that people across Europe, within business, and in many areas of life still feel for him.

Today also made me realise that Reagan embodied the special relationship between the US and the UK. As Churchill allegedly once said, the only thing worse than fighting with your allies is fighting without them. We may have our differences but the bonds between the nations are special indeed.

But it is to the cause of freedom that President Reagan will find his true place in posterity. Away from the dramas of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, he preached a message that you really should be able to get on with what you want to do, live the life you want to lead, be free of the chains of government. Little surprise then that this is a man who spoke the language of entrepreneurs.

But for me I will always remember a quote attribute to him. Speaking of his wife Nancy, he said she was the only woman he had ever met who could make him lonely by just leaving the room. 

It is not his presidency as much as his humanity that makes Ronald Reagan great and I hope I can be a fraction of the human being and husband that he turned out to be.

Michael Hayman is co-founder of the public relations consultancy Seven Hills. You can also follow Michael on Twitter.