October 23, 2017
onald Reagan is the subject of more books than any other modern President. Reagan historiography is not a cottage but a village industry. Historians of all political persuasions debate how a one-time Hollywood actor in mostly “B” films could have restored America’s self-confidence, directed an economic recovery that set a peacetime record, and ended the Cold War at the bargaining table rather than on the battlefield.
There have been full-scale biographies of Reagan’s life and times by Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon, Texas academic H.W. Brands, and conservative historian Steven Hayward. There have been memoirs by Reagan aides Michael Deaver, Lyn Nofziger, Martin Anderson, and Ed Meese; and detailed accounts by Cabinet members George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger. There have been books about Reagan’s campaigns by publicist-turned best-selling historian Craig Shirley and political operative F. Clifton White. There have been books about Reagan’s close relationship with Margaret Thatcher by British journalist John O’Sullivan and with Pope John Paul II by noted biographer Paul Kengor.
One might think that Reagan has been plumbed to the depths. But none of the above historians, biographers, and other political experts has devoted more than a line or two, if that, to the close relationship between Reagan and our 34th president, Dwight David Eisenhower. In the years leading up to Reagan’s successful 1966 campaign for governor of California and his first try for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968, Ike was a constant behind-the-scenes adviser and mentor to Reagan, whom he regarded as a possible future president.
We are indebted to Gene Kopelson, M.D., amateur historian, trustee of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, and Holocaust educator, for discovering the little-known and significant connection between Reagan and Eisenhower. In a 939-page opus, Reagan’s 1968 Dress Rehearsal: Ike, RFK, and Reagan’s Emergence as a World Statesman, Dr. Kopelson carefully traces the “hidden mentor-protégé relationship” that began with Reagan’s celebrated television address, “A Time for Choosing,” in the 1964 Goldwater campaign—Ike was so impressed he asked for a copy—and culminated in Reagan’s failed attempt to capture the presidential nomination at the 1968 Republican national convention.
In these three short years, there were four extended private meetings and dozens of phone calls and letters between the two men, as well as specific advice from Eisenhower to Reagan delivered by intermediaries. In the summer of 1965, for example, when he was traveling up and down the state considering whether to run for governor of California, Reagan asked Eisenhower for advice. Eisenhower responded with a long letter in which he recommended that Reagan declare he was a loyal and faithful Republican; emphasize that in 1964 he had “done his utmost” to help his party and its candidates; and adopt a “common sense” approach to problems and accommodate “men of quite different views concerning details.” As Kopelson points out, Reagan adopted “common sense” government as a slogan in his gubernatorial campaign.
Kopelson’s three years of scrupulous research and writing included time at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Kansas, where he dug deep into Ike’s post-presidential papers. Kopelson also spent many hours listening to the audiotapes of Reagan’s gubernatorial speeches and news conferences. (The archivist at the Reagan Presidential Library told Kopelson that in his twenty years, no one had ever previously asked for the audiotapes.) Kopelson interviewed dozens of political aides and staffers who had worked on the 1968 presidential campaign, which was far more organized and funded than most historians realized (an exception was the political historian Theodore White). Reagan was not just an 11th-hour, favorite-son candidate from California. In the months leading up to the national convention, he often met with political aides Tom Reed, Clif White and others about delegate counts, the latest polling figures, and possible public appearances in key states.
Eisenhower went so far in his briefings of the rising Republican star as to suggest that the two devote a March 1967 private meeting to foreign affairs. The former commander-in-chief took a hard line regarding the Vietnam War, revealing he had urged President Lyndon Johnson for months to mine Haiphong Harbor. Eisenhower told Reagan that there should be no safe sanctuaries in adjoining countries, and there should be “hot pursuit of troops or aircraft into havens”—a course of action that Richard Nixon would follow. Eisenhower’s principle of using overwhelming force, writes Kopelson, would become “a new theme” for Reagan in his 1968 bid and a central theme of his presidency when he put off talking to the Soviets until the United States had achieved overwhelming strategic superiority.
Dress Rehearsal ends at the 1968 Republican National Convention, where Reagan was unable to persuade senators like Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and John Tower of Texas to shift from Nixon to him—a fellow conservative. Nixon had already secured their support—as well as Barry Goldwater’s—and they stood by their word. Thurmond reportedly told the youthful-looking Reagan (fifty-seven at the time), “You’ll get your chance, young man, just not this time.”
In fairness to the historians who overlooked the Reagan-Eisenhower relationship, President Reagan rarely quoted Eisenhower (even in his “Time for Choosing” address) and made only passing reference to Ike in his autobiography. According to Kopelson, however, Reagan made more public references to Eisenhower than to any other previous president. And longtime Reagan aide Michael Deaver recalled a photograph of Reagan and Eisenhower that was in every Reagan office “since I’ve known him.” A three-foot-high painting of a stern-looking Dwight D. Eisenhower, personally selected by the president, hung in the Cabinet Room of the Reagan White House.
Kopelson has every reason to be proud of his impressive scholarly achievement. That said, Reagan’s 1968 Dress Rehearsal could be trimmed by at least 200 pages. In particular, the book tells too much about the contentious relationship between Robert Kennedy and Reagan, who was convinced that the attorney general had pressured General Electric into cancelling the long-running television program “GE Theater,” which starred Reagan. Also, Kopelson is prone to unqualified statements like “Eisenhower became Reagan’s political mentor,” when Ike was by no means the only adviser to Reagan. But there is no denying Kopelson has uncovered a critical relationship between a former and a future president that, in biographer Kengor’s words, “flatly eluded history and most biographers.”