Everyone knows that Ronald Reagan was once a Democrat--a "bleeding heart, hemophiliac liberal," as he liked to put it. Everyone also knows that, by the 1960s, he was a conservative. What fell in between and why is the dark continent of Reagan studies. Biographers invoked dubious explanations: his visit to a dreary postwar London under Labour Party rule; his encounters with Hollywood communists; his conservative father-in-law; his frustration at finding himself in the highest tax bracket. These may leave over a decade unaccounted for, but they just speak to the same inscrutability that led Reagan's authorized biographer, Edmund Morris, to throw up his hands in despair and write fiction instead of history.
In truth, though, Reagan wasn't that inscrutable. Scholars just never figured out where to look. Now, a most unlikely figure has pointed the way to a breakthrough. When I peer-reviewed Thomas Evans's The Education of Ronald Reagan: The General Electric Years and the Untold Story of His Conversion to Conservatism, published this week by Columbia University Press, I thought it an odd coincidence that the author, whom I hadn't heard of, had the same name as one of the partners at Richard Nixon's 1960s law firm. (As part of the peer-review process, I learn the author's name but nothing else.) It turns out that it's the very same person. The Case of the Conservative Conversion, appropriately enough, has been cracked by a retired corporate lawyer. As Evans demonstrates, the key was a corporate encounter.
There's something else everyone knows about Reagan: In the 1950s, with his career on the skids, he took a job hosting a TV anthology program, General Electric Theater, and giving motivational speeches at G.E. factories around the country. That leads to another swing-and-a-miss theory on the great communicator's great conversion: It started when he noticed that factory workers were frustrated by out-of-control taxes and runaway government.
It's a theory to flatter a favorite conservative prejudice--that other things being equal, middle Americans naturally agree with them. The scenario is at least half-true. G.E. workers were concerned with out-of-control taxes and runaway government. But there was nothing natural about it. It was the product of one of the most remarkable p.r. campaigns in American corporate history. It was run by Reagan's most important but most obscure ideological mentor: Lemuel Ricketts Boulware.
Labor historians, but few others, know what "Boulwarism" is. In 1946, the passing of unions' wartime no-strike pledge ushered in the greatest wave of walkouts in history. General Electric suffered terribly. But, when not a single one of G.E.'s subsidiary manufacturing companies struck, G.E. brass promoted the obscure marketing executive in charge of them, Lem Boulware, to vice president for employee relations. Boulware arranged for his title be changed to "vice president for public and community relations." It spoke to his vision of labor relations as guerrilla warfare. "Boulwarism," one labor relations text defined it, was the "attempt to win and hold the loyalty of the workers so as to counter-balance the power of the union."
It was partly a way of thinking about negotiations. Boulware claimed that G.E. offered its unions a "truthful" first offer based on objective data. If the union bosses refused it, that was only evidence of their venality. The company, on the other hand--as depicted in hundreds of pathbreaking Boulware-supervised internal newsletters, magazines, and bulletins--was represented as inherently benevolent. Some were warm and fuzzy, such as "How General Electric Keeps Trying To Make Jobs Better." Others, however, betrayed Boulware's deeper, subtler agenda--propagandizing workers into thinking that liberal-labor ideas were disastrous for the health of the nation. They had titles like "Why employees can expect their union officials to 'demand' a strike from them," "should pay be equal everywhere?," "how big are general electric profits? are they too big?" (no: it turned out they were just right--a rising tide that lifted all boats), and "the why and how of inflationary settlements" (the union might promise you a raise, but you'll only end up spending it on more expensive groceries). Managers were encouraged to read National Review. For workers, there were book clubs, which pored over laissez-faire primers like Louis Haney's How You Really Earn Your Living. Boulwarism was about inculcating in blue-collar workers what conservatives took to be self-evident: that the free-enterprise system created a virtuous circle harmoniously joining labor, management, customer, and community--to which unions were a mere irritant.
He called this propaganda "job marketing" and compared it to G.E. salesmen selling turbines to plant foremen. The point was to convey "informational guidance that should cause the latter [a plant foreman] of his own free will to do what we recommend." But the "free will" was in the eye of the beholder. The message was that a benevolent businessman's republic was the natural order of the universe, and it was crafted using propaganda techniques that would be cutting edge even now: formal surveys, focus groups of both employees and employees' wives, and even push polls ("Who Told You These Fairy Tales--Do You Still Believe Any of Them?" asked one survey about the effects of those "inflationary settlements.") By the 1950s, G.E. didn't just make appliances. Its VP for public and community relations made it America's preeminent manufacturer of virgin conservatives. His most important convert, Evans argues, was Ronald Reagan.
The actor's role with G.E. wasn't originally so ideological. "The staple was Hollywood patter and enthusiasm for company products," Evans writes of Reagan's early tours. But "Reagan realized that the employees in his audience were receiving a constant stream of Boulware's message," and, as Reagan's G.E. handler put it, he "didn't want to be at a loss to discuss it, if they wanted to discuss it." Reagan began reading Boulware's "books, articles, periodicals, pamphlets, flyers, and instructional guides." (He had plenty of time; long before he enjoyed the comforts of Air Force One, Reagan feared flying and traveled everywhere by train.) You can see how Reagan was convinced. I've read some of Boulware's speeches--and plenty, of course, of Reagan's. Sometimes the echoes are uncanny.
When Reagan ran for governor of California in 1966, he inspired crowds of factory workers into foot-stomping Reagan frenzies. Right-wing populists do that routinely now. Then, it was an astonishing novelty--one liberals were entirely unprepared for. A secret was Reagan's tutelage beside a man who had spent decades figuring out how to purvey conservatism to blue-collar audiences as simple common sense. By the time he won the presidency, Reagan had been honing the manufacture of Reagan Democrats for over 20 years.
Boulware, Evans writes, "was reputed to understand blue collar workers better than anyone in the country." But his "sophisticated survey techniques were not used to find out what workers wanted." His objective "was to present the company's position in the most favorable way." The point was to get them to identify their interests with the defeat of liberalism. (Boulware's favorite student imbibed it too well: He lost his job with G.E. when he started lecturing against the Tennessee Valley Authority as "socialism." G.E. sold the TVA its turbines.)
Nixon's former law partner has excellent scholarly manners. His is a slim book, leaving plenty for future researchers to fill in. The possibility that conservatism from the bottom up came from the top down revives Reagan studies at its weakest link. Other scholars should get on the case.