Reagan’s Newspaper

COMMENTARY Conservatism

Reagan’s Newspaper

Feb 5, 2011 8 min read

Former Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought

Lee Edwards is a leading historian of American conservatism and the author or editor of 25 books.

For more than 40 years, Ronald Reagan’s favorite newspaper was HUMAN EVENTS, which he said “helped me stop being a liberal Democrat.”

When he discovered White House aides were blocking its delivery, President Reagan arranged for multiple copies to be sent to the White House residence every weekend. He made clear HUMAN EVENTS’ importance to him by marking and clipping articles and passing them along to his assistants. 

Reagan relied on HUMAN EVENTS, he explained, for its “aggressive reporting, superb analysis and one of the finest collections of conservative columnists.”  He routinely sought its guidance on critical issues like taxes and strategic defense.

As early as 1964 in his seminal television speech for Barry Goldwater, Reagan sharply criticized the high taxes and large subsidies demanded by the welfare state. As governor of California, he strove to reduce taxes, even sponsoring a tax limitation amendment to the state constitution.

So in 1978, when Rep. Jack Kemp (R.-N.Y.), with the help of Jude Wanniski and economists Art Laffer and Robert Mundell, began popularizing the idea of supply-side economics—cut taxes to stimulate the economy—they found a receptive audience in Ronald Reagan, who was gearing up for another run at the Republican presidential nomination.

Kemp Speech in HUMAN EVENTS

In July 1979, Kemp delivered a major speech to the AFL-CIO in Miami, Fla., arguing that lower, not higher, taxes were the answer to the economic stagflation that afflicted America. “Afflict” is not too strong a word. By the end of that year, the inflation rate would stand at 13.3%, unemployment at 8%.

HUMAN EVENTS reprinted Kemp’s speech in full. Reagan was so taken with its theme that he wrote Kemp, saying: “You and I are certainly in agreement on the fact that wherever they have the courage to do it, proper tax reduction results in more prosperity for all…. You have a wealth of good research … which I shall be referring to.”

Allan Ryskind, HUMAN EVENTS’ longtime Capitol Hill editor, recalls that Jack Kemp gave the publication “credit in many of his speeches” for helping to secure Reagan’s support. The economic impact of the Reagan-Kemp collaboration is undeniable.

Reagan’s Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 cut all income taxes by 25% (Kemp had proposed a 30% reduction), reduced the top rate from 70% to 50% and indexed tax rates to offset the impact of inflation. The legislation resulted in the longest uninterrupted economic expansion in U.S. peacetime up to that point. 

Equally consequential was HUMAN EVENTS’ role in strategic defense.

Reagan had long favored an alternative to the policy of mutual assured destruction (MAD), under which the United States and the Soviet Union each retained the nuclear capability to retaliate and destroy the other in the event of a nuclear attack.

He apparently first encountered the idea of missile defense in 1967 when he visited Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Some day, said Teller, space-based lasers might be used to destroy nuclear missiles fired at the U.S.  Then-Gov. Reagan responded that history showed that “all offensive weapons eventually met their match through defense countermeasures.” But no one had come up with a viable anti-nuclear missile system.

In 1976, when he was challenging Gerald Ford for the Republican presidential nomination, Reagan often expressed his doubts about the MAD doctrine. Daniel O. Graham, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and a national security adviser to the candidate, recalled that Reagan put it this way: “Our nuclear policy is like a Mexican standoff—two men with pistols pointed at each other’s head. If the man’s finger flinches, you each blow the other’s brains out. Can’t you military people come up with something better than that?”

Gen. Graham had no immediate answer and spent the next several years developing what came to be called “High Frontier”—a system of existing missile systems and new laser-weapons that could intercept Soviet missiles as they were launched or while they were in space.

High Frontier, explained Graham at a March 1982 press conference, constituted a change of U.S. strategy from “the bankrupt and basically immoral precepts of Mutual Assured Destruction to a stable and morally defensible strategy of Assured Survival.” He asserted that a layered strategic defense could be accomplished in a remarkably short time if there was “a national commitment to do so.”

Firm on SDI

 HUMAN EVENTS enthusiastically endorsed the proposed system and later published an in-depth, five-page interview with Graham about High Frontier. According to biographer Richard Reeves, Reagan was “intrigued” and “fascinated” by the idea of a nuclear shield and a shift away from a MAD strategy.  

On March 23, 1983, President Reagan announced in a nationally televised address that development and deployment of a comprehensive antiballistic-missile system would be his top defense priority—his “ultimate goal.” “I call upon the scientific community in our country,” he said, “those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.” He called his plan the Strategic Defense Initiative

In every subsequent meeting with the Soviets, Reagan never wavered in his support of SDI, placing it at the very center of negotiations. At a critical point of the U.S.-Soviet summit in Reykjavik, when both sides were very close to agreement on the elimination of nuclear weapons, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev pressed hard for laboratory-only testing of SDI.

“I promised the American people that I would not give up on it,” Reagan responded, according to the official summit notes. If he did give in, he added, “the most outspoken critics of the Soviet Union”—and here he mentioned HUMAN EVENTS—would “kick my brains out.”

That would turn out to be unnecessary. More than any other strategic action he took, Reagan’s steadfast commitment to SDI convinced the Kremlin it could not win, or afford, a continuing arms race and led Gorbachev to sue for peace and end the Cold War at the bargaining table and not on the battlefield.

According to Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, HUMAN EVENTS helped shape President Reagan’s understanding of events in Nicaragua and U.S. policy toward the Marxist government of that Central American country.  

In August 1981, HUMAN EVENTS reprinted a speech of Jose Francisco Cardenal, a businessman who had fled Nicaragua in 1980 “when I realized that the Sandinista policy was to eliminate private enterprise from Nicaragua and to establish a Cuban-style, Marxist-Leninist dictatorship in my country.” In March 1982, HUMAN EVENTS published a front-page editorial headlined, “The Sandinista Government Should Be Overthrown.” If we fail to oust the present rulers fairly quickly, warned the conservative weekly, Nicaragua is bound to become “another strong Soviet-controlled base.”

Was it just coincidence that CIA director William Casey proposed covert U.S. aid for the Contras shortly after HUMAN EVENTS’ grim warnings about the revolutionary ambitions of the Sandinista government?      

As a veteran observer of Washington politics, HUMAN EVENTS understands that people are policy. And so it helped place conservatives in key positions in the Reagan Administration, including Donald Devine, head of the Office of Personnel Management; Ken Tomlinson, editor in chief of the Reader’s Digest and a former HUMAN EVENTS intern, as director of the Voice of America; and Cuban-born Otto Reich who eventually became ambassador to Venezuela.

The President personally told Ryskind that as a result of a HUMAN EVENTS exposé of the National Endowment for the Humanities—revealed to have subsidized left-wing unions and Marxists—he was going to fire its McGovernite chairman, Joseph Duffey. Reagan also confirmed that he would give Robert Carleson, who headed his successful welfare reform effort in California, a key appointment in his administration.

The Carleson appointment recalled one of HUMAN EVENTS’ most satisfying victories: the defeat of Richard Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan (with its guaranteed annual income scheme). HUMAN EVENTS waged a jihad against the proposal by (1) promoting the success of the Reagan/Carleson welfare reform in California; (2) persuading many Republican members of Congress that federalization of welfare, as a result of that success, was unnecessary, and (3) exposing the contradiction between Nixon’s promise of a New Federalism and his decision to federalize welfare.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D.-N.Y.), who concocted FAP while serving in the Nixon White House, singled out HUMAN EVENTS as critical to FAP’s demise.   

Notwithstanding its special relationship with Reagan, HUMAN EVENTS did not hesitate to criticize the President when warranted. When it did, a concerned Reagan quickly took note.

White House Meeting

 In February 1984, a HUMAN EVENTS cover story charged that President Reagan was not controlling federal spending. Almost immediately after it appeared, White House aide Mike Deaver called HUMAN EVENTS from Air Force One to say that the President wanted to talk to the editors the very next day because of “this terribly twisted piece.”

Allan Ryskind explained that was not possible because they were going to print and would be tied up in last-minute editing and production. In that case, said an obviously angry Deaver, you will never get to see the President again.

To which Ryskind replied, regretfully, “Well, Mike, we wouldn’t like that, of course, but so be it. We just can’t see you tomorrow.”  The editors were left with the impression that HUMAN EVENTS was facing a presidential boycott—by their favorite President.

However, within 24 hours, there was another call: President Reagan and his aides could meet with the editors the following week. And so Ryskind, Editor Tom Winter and the redoubtable M. Stanton Evans, a frequent HUMAN EVENTS contributor, walked into the White House, slightly nervous about what might happen. Had they gotten some of the numbers wrong?   

They first ran into David Stockman, the “dazzingly bright and knowledgeable” director of the Office of Management and Budget, who displayed a multi-page memo about the HUMAN EVENTS article.

However, instead of any pummeling, Stockman said there was little wrong with the HUMAN EVENTS story and its statistics except that it had not accounted for the reforms whose impact would not be felt right away. The HUMAN EVENTS delegation was then moved into the Cabinet Room, where they were greeted by nearly every top White House aide, including Ed Meese, James Baker, Mike Deaver and Richard Darman, a few of whom intensely disliked HUMAN EVENTS.

After several minutes of somewhat stilted discussion, highlighted by a disagreement between Stan Evans and Dave Stockman over whether OMB was “cooking the books,” the President came into the room.

Well, Reagan said, looking at the HUMAN EVENTS editors and smiling a little mischievously, “did the fellas straighten you out?”  Ruefully, he admitted, “I am reading you more but enjoying it less.”

He then proceeded to take any sting out of his comment by teasing Winter and Ryskind about that week’s edition of HUMAN EVENTS. For the first time ever, the printer had produced a badly smudged, almost unreadable paper with the copy so messed up that articles that were supposed to be continued on a certain page wound up on a different page.

Warming to his story, the President described how he and Nancy had desperately tried to read the paper, holding a smeared article up to the light and trying to find the end of a story that said “continued on page 7” but wound up on page 3.
The message was clear to all: Even when HUMAN EVENTS was nearly unreadable, Ronald Reagan wanted to read it.

Mr. Edwards is the distinguished fellow in conservative thought at The Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in Human Events

More on This Issue

COMMENTARY 11 min read

Unhyphenated Conservatism

COMMENTARY 27 min read

Louisiana’s Lesson on Liberty