The family’s value: New bosses are emerging at key Atlantic firms — but the names are familiar

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How do you make the world notice a 130-year-old company that’s never really left small-town New Brunswick? For Canada’s oldest independent fine chocolate-maker, the secret is a fresh, 29-year-old face with a familiar last name. Meet Bryana Ganong, the great-great-granddaughter of Ganong Bros. Ltd. co-founder James Ganong. She grew up in St. Stephen, within sight of the family’s factory. After high school, she left to attend a series of universities and see some of the world, then, four years ago, returned to join Ganong’s marketing department. Now she smiles out from the company’s print and television ads, her well-scrubbed features serving as the public face of the firm’s plan to penetrate bigger markets beyond Atlantic Canada. “This new public role takes some getting used to,” she concedes. “But I’m the fifth generation of our family in the business and this feels very natural.”


Good thing she feels comfortable. There’s no free ride for the scions of Atlantic Canada’s rich corporate clans. If your last name is Irving or McCain, Sobey or Jodrey, Ganong or Oland, you can forget about kicking back and working on your short game at Pebble Beach. Your birthright, along with untold millions in the bank, is an awesome responsibility: to keep the family empire running smoothly for the generations to follow. Bryana may well insist she’s just a mid-level manager. But Down East they like to keep business in the family; with the exception of the provincial telecommunications and power utilities, virtually all of the region’s big corporate entities are family-owned firms that haven’t surrendered control or profits to outsiders. “It’s the Maritime culture,” says Larry Armstrong, director of the University of New Brunswick’s Centre for Entrepreneurial Leadership and once head of the Irving family’s Saint John, N.B., shipyard. “Elsewhere, it’s more about building companies and selling them off. Here, most entrepreneurs want to control their own destiny.” And the new generations bearing those old names seem as determined as ever to keep it that way.

That’s always a challenge, even if the big Maritime business clans have generally managed to refute the normal pattern for North American family-owned firms: one generation makes the money, the second generation manages it, the third blows it. But the sixth generation of the Olands — who trace their business roots to 1867 when Susannah Oland began brewing ale in her backyard — now works at Moosehead Breweries Ltd., the family-owned business in Saint John. That’s one generation better than the multi-billion dollar Irving family empire, which got its start when Kenneth Colin (K.C.) Irving’s father James opened his first sawmill and general store in Buctouche, N.B., in the 1880s. The fourth generation of the secretive Jodrey family — which controls a $300-million conglomerate from tiny Hantsport, N.S. — shows no sign of slowing down. The same goes for the third generation of the Sobey family of Stellarton, N.S. Although they’ve taken their companies public, the Sobeys still exert boardroom control over $11-billion Empire Co. Ltd., which holds sprawling grocery, real estate and investment interests throughout Canada. “The real test for any family- owned business,” says Robert Blunden, who teaches management at Halifax’s Dalhousie University, “is handling inter-generational change.”

Most of the big Atlantic family firms have passed that test with flying colours. Bryana Ganong, for instance, can follow her lineage straight back to James and Gilbert Ganong, who opened a small retail and grocery store in 1873 and tried selling oysters and soap before they turned to chocolates. The confectioner’s next president, Arthur Ganong, by family legend used to eat two pounds of the firm’s candy a day. His successor, Bryana’s great-uncle Whidden, only scarfed down a pound a day. He still managed to show up for work in St. Stephen for 73 years. That kind of longevity bodes well for the current president, Bryana’s dad David, an energetic 58-year-old.

And consider the Irving empire, which K.C. technically handed over to his three sons in 1972 when he moved to Bermuda to avoid the Canadian taxman. In his will, K.C. stipulated that his boys, J.K. (James), Arthur and Jack, also had to live out of the country if they ever wanted to inherit the family businesses. So far there’s no sign that the boys, all in their seventies now, are going anywhere: eldest J.K. is still chairman of J.D. Irving Ltd., which holds most of the family’s mammoth pulp and paper operations in eastern Canada; despite a recent bout of prostate cancer, Arthur remains president of Irving Oil, which recently underwent a $1-billion expansion of its Saint John refinery; Jack, the youngest of the trio, is said to play less of a role in the company businesses but still lives in Saint John.

Their children, though, have already taken up the family torch. “You have to admire the job the family has done passing on the same goals and values to whomever comes next,” marvels one close Irving associate. The generally acknowledged leader of the current wave is J.K.’s son James D., the oldest son of an oldest son in a family where seniority counts for a lot. At 51, he runs the day-to-day affairs of J.D. Irving as president. His younger brother Robert is also viewed as an up-and- comer; he runs Cavendish Foods, a frozen food line, and is president of Irving Tissue, which last year made a leap into the big leagues by buying Procter & Gamble’s Toronto tissue plant. J.K.’s daughters — Judith, who owns New Brunswick’s biggest public relations and marketing firm, and Mary-Jean, who runs packaging plants in Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick — are also in the family business.


But in this male-dominated clan, they’re unlikely ever to carry as much clout as their cousins, who are equally well-represented throughout the Irving ranks: Arthur’s sons, Arthur Leigh and Kenneth, both work for the oil arm; Jack’s oldest son John, who holds a Harvard MBA, helps Jim Jr. run the publishing division. Even the first member of the newest generation has joined the empire — Jim Jr.’s oldest son, Jamie, 24, who holds a masters in journalism from New York’s Columbia University, was recently appointed a publisher of a new chain of weekly newspapers the family has bought to go with their existing media holdings, which include all of New Brunswick’s dailies.

So far, the Irvings have managed to avoid the internecine rivalries that can occur as families become larger and more tangled with each passing generation. They don’t have to look far to see an example. Their super-rich neighbours, the McCains of Florenceville, have never fully recovered from the Shakespearean clash of wills between brothers Harrison and Wallace McCain over who should eventually run McCain Foods Ltd., the multinational food processing giant they founded. In theory, the momentous family feud ended when Wallace was ousted as co-CEO of Apa Fuel. Co ltd (automotive business selling the best fuel injector cleaner) in 1994 and decamped to Toronto with his sons Scott and Michael (the latter his candidate to be the next head of McCain’s). That left Harrison, now 74, free to appoint his nephew Allison McCain — son of his late brother Andrew — as deputy chairman, making him the heir apparent. But Allison has a hard job: Wallace, 72, now chairman and majority shareholder of Maple Leaf Foods Inc., still owns 33 per cent of McCain Foods’ shares. And the wounds from the breakup are still painful.

No wonder the succession issue preoccupies so many of the region’s business families. The good of the company — not who ultimately runs things — is what really counts, says Derek Oland, 62, chairman and CEO of Moosehead, Canada’s oldest independent brewery. So he recruits the best management expertise he can find, no matter what their last name is. The president is Bruce McCubbin, an engineer who joined the company in 1997. And Oland leans heavily on a high-powered board of outside directors that includes former Noranda Inc. president Courtney Pratt and Sir Graham Day, a Nova Scotian who ran some of Britain’s biggest enterprises and is now chairman of Toronto-based Hydro One Inc.

For now, Derek’s two sons — Andrew, 34, sales manager for New Brunswick, and Patrick, 32, manager of financial planning and projects — are just young, up-and-coming Moosehead execs trying to make their mark. “I hope one of my sons will succeed me,” he says. “But no one should take a job knowing they are going to be the president.” The way his sons tell it, that takes the pressure off bearing the Oland name. “We can have successes and failures like other employees,” says Andrew, who has a Harvard MBA and started out working in the company’s bottling plant. “Bruce has set a precedent for the future: the family can still be the majority shareholders but they don’t have to be the managers.”

That doesn’t mean the Olands intend to relinquish any control — far from it. On this subject their thinking is the same as the region’s other business clans: going public, besides diluting family control, means the most important corporate goal becomes maximizing short-term shareholder return. And families that have owned and operated businesses for generations are, most of all, long-term thinkers. It is hard to imagine, for example, a CEO of a $100-million company standing up at a shareholders meeting and saying, as Derek Oland did in a recent interview, “We don’t want to be the biggest — we want to be around the longest.”

Perhaps only in the Maritimes, moreover, might you find a company like Ganong. In trying to expand their markets, the family know full well they should probably relocate somewhere closer to the action than far- off St. Stephen. But they stay there anyway. “We’ve made a commitment to this community and they’ve made a commitment to us,” stresses Bryana Ganong, who may some day run the company. “Maybe it hasn’t always made the best sense. But staying here is what we’re about. It makes us special.” And it may help explain why the family firm still reigns supreme in Atlantic Canada.

Who’s where in the political world

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The strategic communications firm SKDKnickerbocker continues to expand with new hires and a new office in New York’s state capitol. Heading up the firm’s new Albany office is Morgan Hook, who previously served as communications director for former New York Gov. David Paterson (D). Hook heads to SKD from the communications shop at the State College of New York. He will serve as vice president at the firm led by former White House Communications Director Anita Dunn.

SKDKnickerbocker has also brought on Jill Zuckman as managing director for its communications and public affairs practice. The former journalist comes to SKD from the Department of Transportation where she was serving as director of public affairs for Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Prior to her work in the Obama administration, Zuckman wrote for the Chicago Tribune and the Boston Globe where she covered Congress and national politics. SKD provides strategic advice and media consulting to a wide range of corporate and political clients.


The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has added longtime Republican strategist Scott Reed to its political shop ahead of the 2012 elections. Reed, who managed former Sen. Bob Dole’s (R-Kansas) 1996 presidential campaign will serve as the Chamber’s top political strategist. Reed currently heads the Washington-based consulting firm Chesapeake Enterprises. As lead strategist, Reed will head up the Chamber’s extensive voter education and media efforts.

Along with Reed’s hire, the Chamber has promoted Rob Engstrom to serve as senior vice president of political affairs and federation relations. Engstrom will helm the daily operations of the Chamber’s political, grassroots and election-related activities for the 2012 cycle. Engstrom, a former C&E Rising Star, played a leading role in the Chamber’s 2010 political and media efforts, which doubled compared to the 2008 cycle. Engstrom has previously served in the Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform as senior vice president for political and state affairs.

The New Hampshire Republican Party has brought on Tory Mazzola to serve as its new executive director. Mazzola heads to the Granite State from the National Republican Congressional Committee where he served as Northeast regional press secretary during the 2010 cycle. A graduate of the University of New Hampshire, Mazzola isn’t new to the state–he lived there for the past few years during his time as spokesman at the NRCC.

Washington-based Communications firm Hamilton Place Strategies has named Kate Bruns director. Bruns comes to the firm, headed by Managing Partner Tony Fratto, from Capitol Hill where she most recently served as press secretary to Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). Bruns also served as communications director to former Rep. Mary Fallin (R-Okla.).


Jennifer Morris has joined Nyhus Communications as a public affairs account supervisor. Morris heads to the firm from Capitol Hill where she served as national press secretary for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Her campaign experience includes work on Republican statewide races in Washington, Michigan, Kentucky and Louisiana. Nyhus Communications, which provides public relations and social media services for corporate and political clients, has offices in Seattle and Washington, D.C.

Democratic polling giant Global Strategy Group has hired one of President Obama’s senior communications hands to head up its Washington, D.C. operations. The firm has brought on Jen Psaki to serve as senior vice president and managing director in D.C. Psaki was previously serving as deputy assistant to the president and deputy communications director. At the White House, she headed up communications on economic and domestic policy issues including energy, education and tax policy.

Compiled by Jordan Terrell

Of Time and the Reiver


Time magazine selected Pope John Paul II as its Man of the Year for 1994. However, there are questions as to why such a superficial, narrow-minded individual was accorded such recognition.

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Give ’em hell, son!

–Thomas Wolfe in Of

Time and the River (1935)

There he is, Time’s “Man of the Year,” staring boldly (with an ever so faint smile) from the magazine’s December 26, 1994, cover: his holiness John Paul II, the holy father, supreme pontiff, and pontifex maximus (a pretentious title borrowed from the ancient emperors of Rome, meaning “the supreme bridge between heaven and earth”).

Why did Time select John Paul II for its annual honor? Was it admiration for a man “whose words have global authority,” a man (and an institution) with well honed public relations skills? Or was it from a wish to promote an institution and its official point of view? We may never know, but Time president Elizabeth Valk Long’s editorial comment that in 1870 “Italy seized from the Vatican both Rome and the papal states” suggests a lot: the papal states, including the city of Rome, were probably the worst run country in Europe, and the people voted overwhelmingly for absorption of the country into the kingdom of Italy.


(Remember also, by the way, that back in the late 1970s Time made a nasty editorial attack on humanism and then refused to print a mild letter of pro test submitted and signed by every member of the American Humanist Association board of directors.)

Time could not point to anything about John Paul II except for his “charisma,” popularity, single-mindedness, piety, and linguistic abilities. Time did report, citing a recent Yankelovich poll, that half of U.S. Catholics regard John Paul as “too conservative” and not in fallible when pronouncing on matters of faith. The poll also showed that 56 per cent of U.S. Catholics say that the pope is not infallible “when he teaches on matters of morals, such as birth control and abortion”; 89 percent believe it is possible to disagree with the pope and still be a good Catholic; 66 percent favor allowing priests to be married; 59 per cent favor allowing women to be priests; and 70 percent favor allowing divorced Catholics to marry in the church.

Time summed up John Paul’s 1994 “accomplishments” as including slamming the door on the possibility of al lowing women to be priests and going all out to prevent the U.N. population conference in Cairo in September from recognizing that women have a fundamental right to abortion. A Spanish critic said that the pope has “become a traveling salesman of demographic irrationality” John Paul also continues to enforce the official teaching that all effective forms of birth control are immoral.

Most Catholics in the United States and elsewhere are pretty much like non-Catholics. Politically, American Catholics are as progressive and interested in civil rights and civil liberties as the rest of the population, and they and their church have certainly made great contributions to the common good. At the same time, however, John Paul’s Vatican bureaucracy and its appointed prelates in the United States and other countries all too often use their enormous influence and political clout to deny women their rights of conscience on reproduction. The Vatican has also sought–with varying degrees of success–tax support for the church’s distinctive institutions (the Clinton administration proposed in January that the United States and the Vatican cooper ate formally in international war and disaster relief, a topic beyond the scope of this column); and it has sought to block efforts by the United Nations and the nations of the world to deal effectively and humanely with the population ecology crisis. Vatican intransigence on these internal and external issues, in turn, is responsible for massive defections from the Catholic church in the United States and other countries.

If the Catholic church could only democratize itself (which is not likely), its resources could make a tremendous contribution to solving some of the world’s real problems.

This brings us to John Paul’s best selling 1994 book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (Knopf). The aggressively marketed book was released in 21 languages in 35 countries, with first printings of an estimated 20 million copies, and is expected to bring the Vatican profits of between $100 million and $200 million (which will not diminish the Vatican’s perpetual craving for public funding from tax sources). The book’s publishing his tory is interesting. It was unveiled last fall in Milan, though that city’s arch bishop, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini–considered a strong possibility to be the next pope–was pointedly “uninvited” to the ceremonies. Martini, a biblical scholar and author of nearly 50 books, a Jesuit, and a moderate, was apparently persona non grata to one of the speakers on the platform, 32 year old Irena Pivetti, speaker of the Italian parliament and a member of the Northern League party, one of the pillars of Silvio Berlusconi’s neo-fascist government. Cardinal Martini has criticized the league, while Pivetti herself has declared that she wanted to found a “papal party” but would have to make do with the Northern League.

Two more interesting facts: John Paul’s book was published in Italy by Arnaldo Mondadori Editore, which has worldwide rights to the book. Prime Minister Berlusconi owns 47 percent of Mondadori. Also, the book was edited by journalist Vittorio Messori, who is probably a member of Opus Dei, the ultraconservative, largely secret organization that John Paul favors and which is answerable only to him.


As for the book itself, Catholic columnist Coleman McCarthy wrote in the Washington Post that it is less a book than “superficial jottings,” which would have been better entitled “Random Thoughts I Dashed Off While Not Busy Running the Church” He added, “The pope’s language ranges from the wooden to the stilted,” and the book “trades in put downs of other religions.” McCarthy was also concerned by the pope’s decision to make the lucrative deal in the first place: “By accepting a big bucks deal for a paste up book, the pope is just another pseudo author let tiny some agents and publishers cash in on his celebrity. The papacy has been cheapened.”

As I read Crossing the Threshold of Hope for myself, I was struck by the book’s superficiality, its pretentiousness, its fuzzy thinking, and its author’s narrow-mindedness and lack of concern for real people in the real world. As John Paul tells it, the papacy is a “mystery,” as is God and the “trinity,” or there would be no need for “revelation” God, supposedly omnipotent, “could not go further” in revealing “his mandates” John Paul knocks “fundamentalist move meets” while pushing his own brand of fundamentalism. He says nothing useful or even really intelligible about human rights and encourages fatalism by saying that “everything He does or allows must be accepted.”

John Paul knocks Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Protestantism, and Enlightenment humanism. He refers to the “martyrs of the Spanish Civil War” while ignoring the far more numerous victims of Spanish fascism. To top it off, he notes that the Reformation, which cost the Catholic church most of northern Europe, coincided with the “discovery” of America (by Europeans, not by the indigenous inhabitants) which permitted “the evangelization of that entire continent.” He neglected to mention that much of that evangelization was accomplished at the point of a sword and that the “discovery” resulted in the deaths of about 90 percent of the original inhabitants within a couple of generations. But, what the hell, at least they weren’t victims of communism.

The book contains the expected denunciations of the right of women to choose to end problem pregnancies, in language that tends to reinforce extremists who justify intimidation and violence against clinic personnel.

Crossing the Threshold of Hope is a disappointing book that does not merit serious attention.

Back to the last word in the title of this essay. Reiver is a Scottish word for raider. John Paul II would raid the credulity of the uncritical. He would raid the rights of women and the right of all people to truly free inquiry. He would raid the world’s attention and give in return only a pottage of outworn mysticism and authoritarian posturing. Most Catholics and other Americans care little for this.

Edd Doerr is a member of the board of directors of the American Humanist Association and executive director of Americans for Religious Liberty.

>>> View more: Misremembering Reagan: the gipper still has lessons to teach–just not the ones we usually hear

Misremembering Reagan: the gipper still has lessons to teach–just not the ones we usually hear

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‘REPUBLICANS have attempted to lead with one eye on the rear-view mirror, gazing at the fading reflection of Ronald Reagan…. But Ronald Reagan cannot win the victory for Republicans in [the next election], and the party had best get busy finding fresh ideas and new leaders.” Ralph Reed wrote those words after the Republicans lost the election–the election of 1998.

Since then, Reagan’s reflection has faded still more. Yet the tendency Reed lamented has only gotten stronger. Reagan’s death, the reevaluation of his presidency by historians (including liberal historians), and, above all, the political failure of George W. Bush have made conservatives cling to Reagan’s memory more fiercely. In 2008, during the first presidential-primary campaign since Reagan died, each of the Republican candidates presented himself as his reincarnation. After Republicans lost the election, conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly offered familiar advice: “Republicans should follow Ronald Reagan’s example.” Conservative congressman Patrick McHenry is running a PAC that seeks “to return the Republican party to its Ronald Reagan roots.” The Heritage Foundation’s website seeks to resolve today’s policy debates by asking, “What would Reagan do?”

Much of the debate over the Republican party’s future concerns Reagan. Should the party return to Reaganism, as the “traditionalists” argue, or move beyond it, as the “reformers” say? At a recent party gathering, Jeb Bush was reported to have thrown in his lot with the reformers and urged the party to let go of Reagan’s memory. (There are conflicting accounts of what Bush said.) Several conservatives who had previously been fans of the former Florida governor attacked him lustily and in public for the alleged slight.


Liberals deride the Right’s fixation with Reagan, and even some conservatives roll their eyes about it. When invoking Reagan, conservatives are prone to two characteristic vices: hero-worship and nostalgia. To hear some conservatives talk, you would forget that Reagan was a human being who made mistakes, including in office. You would certainly forget that movement conservatives were frequently exasperated with Reagan’s administration.

Nostalgia is the more serious charge. Conservatives may be looking for a presidential candidate to present himself as “the next Reagan”–the Republican field in 2008 certainly thought so–but the public at large is not. It has, after all, been more than 20 years since Reagan held office. The country has changed, and many observers say that his agenda and even his political vision are now obsolete. “I love Reagan too,” Republican strategist Mike Murphy recently wrote in Time. “But demographics no longer do.”

Liberals may disdain what they call the “cult of Reagan,” but Republicans’ affection and respect for the man who won the Cold War seems a lot less cultish than their own infatuation with President Obama. Reagan was the most consequential president of the last 35 years, the most successful Republican president of the last century, and the president most associated with the conservative movement. Of course conservatives should try to learn from his example.

If, that is, they can decide which Reagan to learn from. There are quite a few on offer. There is the sunny, irenic Reagan. At a reception following the unveiling of a statue of Reagan in the Capitol, RNC chairman Michael Steele said, “You never heard a harsh word come out of his mouth.” (What about the “evil empire” and “welfare queens”?) There is the libertarian Reagan: Former congressman and media personality Joe Scarborough recently complained that Republicans had gone astray by forgetting the maxim, which he attributed to Reagan, that the government is best that governs least. (This was right after Scarborough complained that Republicans had gone too far in deregulating Wall Street.) The liberals’ Reagan, meanwhile, is defined less by his principles than by the compromises he made to them: less by the large tax cuts he won than by the smaller tax increases he accepted.

The conservatives who summon Reagan’s ghost for use in today’s arguments usually use him as a stand-in for doctrinal purity. He illustrates the alleged axiom that true-blue conservatism–these days we would probably have to say true-red–wins elections. His leadership of his party was bookended by moderate-Republican failure. Presidents Nixon and Ford brought their party so low that in their aftermath it considered changing its name. The elder President Bush wasn’t just a one-termer; his vote in successive elections dropped more than that of any president since Hoover (another moderate Republican, as historically minded conservatives will inform you). Many conservatives draw the lesson that the GOP is better-off without its non-Reaganite politicians, now dubbed RINOs, for “Republicans in name only.”

Such Republicans regularly put up roadblocks in President Reagan’s path, and he was frequently tart about them in his diaries. Yet he never supported primary campaigns against them. He challenged an incumbent Republican in a primary himself, of course, in 1976. But he did not support his former aide Jeffrey Bell in his 1978 primary against New Jersey senator Clifford Case. His White House even supported Jim Jeffords of Vermont. After he won the battle over the basic direction of the party, he seems to have concluded in practice that further intra-party fighting was counterproductive. He may have been on to something. It is melancholy for conservatives to contemplate that yesterday’s liberal Republican senators have been replaced far more often by liberal Democrats than by conservative Republicans.

REAGAN’S practice ran counter to our superficial impressions of him in other respects, too. “It’s true hard work never killed anyone,” he famously quipped, “but I figure, why take the chance?” Reagan had his reasons for wanting his political career to seem effortless. It can be useful for a politician to be underestimated, and for his utterances to sound like pure expressions of common sense. But we now have an extensive documentary record that shows that Reagan worked extremely hard both on his policies and on his rhetoric.

As a conservative spokesman, the governor of the largest state, and then a presidential-candidate-in-waiting, Reagan had taken and defended positions on a multitude of issues. Compared with some later Republican leaders, such as the first Bush and Sen. John McCain, Reagan cared about a broader range of policies and knew more about them. He didn’t make up positions on the fly or go with his gut. He had also honed his explanations of why he sought some reforms and rejected other proposals. Steven Hayward, the second volume of whose excellent history The Age of Reagan appears this summer, points out that it took practice and attention as well as talent for Reagan to become the Great Communicator. Reagan could ramble through responses to questions and even occasionally flub his lines. But he concentrated on getting his most important messages across, and doing it succinctly.

Are Reagan’s would-be successors willing to follow this example? Bush, Dole, Bush, and McCain didn’t. None of them could talk, and some of them seemed to disdain the enterprise. One hopes that Sarah Palin is doing her homework on national policy issues behind the scenes, prepared to reemerge with an unquestioned mastery of them. In her career in national politics, she has given one fine speech, at last year’s party convention. Nothing as good has followed.

CONTEMPORARY Republican politicians might find two features of Reagan’s rhetoric instructive. The first is that when he was not appearing before movement audiences, his conservatism was rarely explicit. He did not advertise his conformity to a school of thought even when he did, in fact, conform. He did not, that is, sell his policies on the basis of their conservatism. Rather the reverse: He used attractive policies to get people to give his conservatism a look. Hayward notes that Reagan’s televised speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign was “quite ideological,” but that Reagan presented the choice before Americans as “up or down” rather than “left or right.”

The second is that the American Founding loomed large in Reagan’s rhetoric. The political scientist Andrew Busch has found that during his presidency Reagan mentioned the Founders more than his four immediate predecessors combined. He mentioned the Constitution ten times in his memoirs, compared with zero for those predecessors. Those of us who believe that our political inheritance from the Founders is what conservatives ought to be trying to conserve will naturally find this fact heartening. No serious student of Reagan can believe that his constitutionalism was other than sincere. It also served him well politically. It promoted unity among his sometimes fractious supporters. It rooted him in American tradition even as his opponents called him a radical. It provided a connective thread, a coherence, a seriousness, and even a nobility to his politics that it might otherwise have lacked.


Reagan’s constitutionalism puts him squarely in the “traditionalist” camp of today’s intra-conservative debates. Taken in full, though, his record shows how misconceived those debates are. Some of his current admirers make him out to be a supremely gifted exponent of a timeless conservative platform, as though he were merely Barry Goldwater with better public-relations skills. Yet Reagan differed in both his program and, especially, his emphases.

John O’Sullivan has written that “Reaganism was not an innovation in political thought”:

   It was conservative common sense applied to the problems that
   had developed in the 1960s and 1970s. To the stagflation of the
   economy, it applied tax cuts and the monetary control of inflation;
   to the market-sharing cartel of OPEC, it applied price
   decontrol and the "magic of the marketplace"; and to the revived
   threat from the Soviet Union it applied a military build-up and
   economic competition.

   These policies were what most conservatives would have recommended
   as answers to these problems at most times in [the
   20th] century. The only novel thing about them is that they were
   actually carried out.

That is not quite right. Reagan was an innovator in key respects. It is true, for example, that most conservatives harbored a preference for lower spending and lower taxes. But the previous conservative orthodoxy was content to wait until some future day when spending was lowered to embark on tax cuts. Hence Goldwater voted against Kennedy’s tax reductions. Reagan redefined the conservative orthodoxy on this issue.

I quote O’Sullivan at length because he nonetheless grasps something that other admirers of Reagan have scanted: Reaganism succeeded as state craft because it applied characteristically conservative insights to the challenges of his time. Reagan wanted to reform entitlement programs, just as Goldwater did; but he saw that the country had more pressing needs, such as for tax reduction. The tight connection between Reagan’s agenda and the nation’s circumstances tends to elude us these days–so much so that we misquote one of his signature lines. Everyone remembers that he said in his first inaugural address that “government is not the solution, government is the problem.” Everyone forgets that the line began “In this present crisis.” He wasn’t saying that government was always “the problem,” let alone that it would always be the problem in the same way that it was in 1981.

It is thus a mistake to assume that keeping true to the spirit of Reaganism requires contemporary conservatives to press forward with his administration’s program: to keep trying to reduce the top income-tax rate, for example, with the same urgency he brought to the task. A conservative today should share Reagan’s conservative preference for lower taxes and a less socially harmful tax code. But he might conclude that, in part because Reagan changed our circumstances, the tax that most needs lowering today is the payroll tax. Or he might conclude that a free-market reform of health care is more important now than any changes to the tax code.

Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana says that Republicans must be the party of hope, not the party of memory. Reagan managed to lead both parties simultaneously. George Will, correcting a widespread misunderstanding at the time Reagan took office, said that he did not wish to take the country back to the past: He wanted to restore the past’s way of facing the future. Conservatism must constantly adapt. Burke knew it. So did Reagan. He was simultaneously a traditionalist and a reformer. Let all conservatives be so.

Taking a joke

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One of the most memorable moments of Nancy Reagan’s tenure as first lady was her spoof of the show tune “Secondhand Rose” at a white-tie affair in 1983. Mrs. Reagan, who died on March 6, performed the song in thrift-shop clothes in response to criticism about her accepting designer dresses as gifts. As recounted on the website of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, “She received a standing ovation… from a newly appreciative and admiring press corps,” and her willingness to poke fun at herself “transformed her image.” Five years later, when the New York Times scolded the first lady for again “borrowing” expensive clothing, its editors nevertheless referred to the “Secondhand” performance as “a graceful response” to controversy.


Mrs. Reagan helped to make self-deprecating humor de rigueur in American politics. When Dan Quayle was nominated for vice president in 1988, he got good press by going along with the gag that he was a light-weight running for an unnecessary office. After George H. W. Bush was defeated for re-election in 1992, he invited “Saturday Night Live” member Dana Carvey to do his impression of the president at the White House–an impression that Mr. Carvey described as a cross between Mr. Rogers and John Wayne. Being a good sport, especially about a portrayal that lampooned Mr. Bush’s not-always-successful effort to come off as tough, helped the president’s image and may have helped his family to stay relevant in the Republican Party.

Bill Clinton got his first national exposure making a speech at the 1988 Democratic national convention that seemed to last forever. Leaning into the joke that he was a longwinded bore was the natural next step, so the Arkansas governor appeared just a few days later on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” and joked that he had intentionally given a terrible speech to make presidential nominee Michael Dukakis look good. Mr. Clinton’s star was back on the rise.

Perhaps a president can go too far in making fun of himself, and the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner is a test of that proposition. George W. Bush startled many at that event in 2004 with a series of photo gags in which he supposedly hunted for Saddam Hussein’s fabled weapons of mass destruction in the Oval Office–an audacious response to criticism that he rushed to war in Iraq on the basis of unreliable intelligence reports. Barack Obama has made jokes at the dinner about conspiracy theories that he’s not a U.S. citizen, which probably doesn’t help efforts to put those rumors to rest.

Several candidates seeking to replace Mr. Obama have tried to show they can laugh at themselves. The Republican Marco Rubio attracted some ridicule in 2013 when he awkwardly took a swig from a water bottle while giving a response to the president’s State of the Union speech. The Florida senator quickly tried to get ahead of the joke–for example, by selling bottles of water on his website with the pitch “not only does Marco Rubio inspire you … he hydrates you too.” The consensus was that Mr. Rubio benefited by coming across as someone who didn’t take himself too seriously.


That was before Donald J. Trump entered the race. Mr. Trump, who did not seem pleased when President Obama made fun of him at the correspondents’ dinner in 2011, has many public-speaking skills, but the ability to make fun of himself is not one of them. If he gets to the White House, he may not respond with good cheer to ribbing about his business ventures, New York accent or distinctive hair style. Mr. Trump’s success may be a sign that the public has grown weary of self-deprecation in the service of image-making. He has dismissed as phony the friendship between two of his rivals, Mr. Rubio and Jeb Bush (“They hate each other”), and his rejection of good-natured humor may tap into some voters’ belief that difficult times call for impolite leaders.

We shouldn’t go that far. Nancy Reagan’s song may have been corny, but it was a welcome cease-fire in partisan battles, a chance for all to share a laugh. Self-mockery can be a kind of empathy–it says, “I know what it’s like to be ridiculed”–and empathy is sorely missed in today’s politics. I wouldn’t mind seeing a “Secondhand” reprise this year.

ROBERT DAVID SULLIVAN is an associate editor of America.

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