This week’s Ronald Reagan retrospectives have given only passing notice to the fact that he was a labor leader. Yet his service as a union president is at least as important in understanding his unparalleled impact on our world as his years as an actor.
Take this story that Reagan used to tell about his days heading the Screen Actors Guild: Negotiations with the studios had just finished. Before signing the final agreement, he and his team retired to assess the results. “We looked it over and decided that some of what we’d got would be bad for the industry, so we returned to the room and gave it back.”
It sounded like a Boy Scout’s good-deed-of-the-day tale, but no Reagan story gives a clearer window to his amazing effectiveness on the world stage.
Think of the dynamics of a labor negotiation. The union starts with three lists: 1) the must-haves, 2) the nice-but-not-essentials and 3) the there-to-give-aways. Against the ruthless studios, Reagan had worked so far into the “give aways” that he had reached a fourth list, the “we’ll ask, but we don’t want under any circumstances” list.
This was the man that congressional Democrats such as Tip O’Neill and Soviet leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev initially considered such easy pickings.
From the first, Reagan approached the presidency like a labor leader — as a platform for negotiations. One Soviet official summed his style up saying: When you bargain with Ronald Reagan, he takes you by the arm, leads you to the edge of the cliff, and then invites you to take a step forward for the good of humanity.
But there was more to it than that.
Like a labor leader, he sought to enter talks with the strongest possible hand and to weaken that of his opponent. This meant aggressive initial offers that also, as was often said inside the administration, “seized the moral high ground.”
His opening and ultimately successful bid on intermediate-range missiles in Europe was that we would not build such weapons if the Soviets would junk those they’d already deployed. It had the unanswerable moral appeal of eliminating a class of weapons but was so unbalanced that his chief negotiator, Paul Nitze, protested: How could he, Nitze, seriously table such a one-sided offer?
Reagan replied: Just tell them that you work for one mean SOB.
The President used public opinion as a bargaining lever, also like a labor leader. Just as he appealed the nation to back his tax cuts, he appealed to the people of Europe to stand up to the Soviets. Finally, standing before the bust of Lenin at Moscow State University, he appealed to the Soviet people to join the community of normal nations.
His public-diplomacy campaign included broadcasts directly to Europe as well as the now widely-replayed pair of Normandy speeches in 1984.
After they walked out of the Intermediate Nuclear Force talks in his first term, the Soviets launched a massive European campaign against the U.S.-led deployment, much as they had against the proposed neutron bomb deployment of Reagan’s predecessor. Had they forced a second retreat, they would have established an effective veto over new NATO weapons systems, crippling the alliance and setting the stage for a very different world than we know today.
Reagan’s effectiveness in arguing for staying the course helped produce wins for the pro-NATO party in the British, German, Canadian and, of course, U.S. elections that followed. Only after those victories did the Soviets return to the bargaining table.
Time after time, in classic labor leader fashion, President Reagan marshaled popular support, then held out to the last moment before coming to terms. And although during actual negotiations he would stand behind the curtain as much as possible (another classic parleying technique), he stepped forward when necessary to drive deals to a close (as with his moves just before passage of the ’81 tax act) or to jump-start stalled talks (as at Reykjavik).
Reagan once said that, after negotiating with the great moguls of Hollywood, the Soviets were a snap. Perhaps so. But the U.S.-USSR negotiations of his term were among the final Cold War battlefields, central to the strategy that produced the Evil Empire’s collapse.
Like so many commentators today, the Soviets never figured out that it was not just an actor they faced across the bargaining table. It was an American labor leader, perhaps the most experienced and skilled negotiator ever to sit in the Oval Office.