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A lesson from Ronald Reagan

Mark Mardell | 17:16 UK time, Tuesday, 26 October 2010

A snappy new documentary on Ronald Reagan underlines one of the most important skills for successful politicians. They have a thousand voices in their head every time they open their mouths.

If the Tea Party had a patron saint, it would be "St Ronnie", so it's timely that General Electric has put out this eight-minute plus documentary about the conservatives' hero.

Sure, it's hagiography, but that doesn't make it bland or worthless. Instead, it hammers home one of the key components of President Reagan's success, and underlines a lesson for all politicians. From 1954 to 1962, the former life guard, radio sports announcer and Hollywood actor became host to a Sunday evening programme, General Electric Theatre.

He also spent 10 weeks a year talking to GE workers all over the country. A quarter of a million of them every year. He later did much the same thing on the "rubber chicken circuit" for the Republican Party. Although Edmund Morris's controversial biography, Dutch, suggests as president he wasn't much of a listener, indeed glazed over when the subject wasn't himself, Reagan did listen then.

He got straight from the horses' mouths the preoccupations and prejudices of white, middle-class America, night after night, for weeks on end. Absorbing and articulating the views of these people, understanding the pulse of America, was critical to his political rise.

Although Bill Clinton is a very different politician, he is also someone who loves to talk and listen to people, although he probably parses and incorporates their views rather than adopting their thoughts as his own. It is a skill and an enthusiasm I suspect Barack Obama lacks. It is rather too late for him to take a tour on the General Electric circuit, but taking a leaf out of St Ronnie's book wouldn't have done him any harm.

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