Reagan and Teddy Roosevelt: Two Great Presidents

Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with James Strock, author of Reagan on Leadership and Theodore Roosevelt on Leadership. Following is our conversation.

Thank you for taking the time to visit with us.  As you know, I’m a big fan of your work.  I owe you a lot for mentoring me through books, before I even knew you.

JAMES STROCK: Thanks, Matt, it’s a pleasure to be with you. I am so pleased you like the Reagan and Roosevelt books, and I am a big fan of your book, Teaching Elephants to Talk.

You’ve written very good books about Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.  Why did you pick them — and what similarities did you see in these two leaders?

STROCK: Ronald Reagan is increasingly recognized to be one of the most consequential American presidents of the 20th Century. James MacGregor Burns, author of an outstanding biography of FDR and himself a traditional liberal, acknowledges that Reagan and Roosevelt are likely to be regarded as the greatest presidents of their century, focusing on accomplishments rather than ideology. It is easy to forget now, but Reagan was very unconventional.

The notion of a non-politician—much less an actor!—becoming a successful governor of our nation’s most populous and complex state, and then becoming a successful president—was difficult for many people to imagine much less accept. Similarly, many of Reagan’s views were at variance with the conventional wisdom of many of his time—certainly at odds with elites in media, academe, Hollywood and many Washington observers. Ultimately and ironically, his very success has meant that many people take for granted what he stood for and accomplished—looking at it from our vantage point today, it seems much more “obvious” than it was seen at the time..

Believing Reagan to be underestimated, I intended to examine and relate many of his approaches and techniques. I also believe that Reagan’s unconventional aspects make him particularly instructional for people who find themselves somewhat out of sync with expectations. With such rapid demographic changes occurring in America, one hopes that his example is studied by many, many others to apply in their own lives.

If Reagan got many of his ideas of how to lead from FDR—which he did, and of course he voted for FDR four times for president—FDR modeled himself in many ways on Theodore Roosevelt. In a sense, then, FDR is a bridge between TR and Reagan.

TR established the modern presidency and many of our ideas of what leadership means. He was also, despite his wealth and privilege, in many ways a self-made person. He wrote extensively about his ideas on leadership, the one area in which he felt he had a gift approaching genius. It was my good fortune that no one had written a leadership study of TR previously. Relying to a great extent on TR’s writings as well as those of his contemporaries, I felt that I was gathering a harvest in just the way Roosevelt intended.

A historian himself, TR was ever focused on how he could serve future generations, and through his writings and actions he was often speaking to us. As with Reagan, so many of his ideas have taken hold that it is useful to look at the history, to consider how things looked in the eyes of he and his contemporaries, to fully appreciate the scope of his achievements.

It seems to me that most leaders go through troubled times.  Can you speak to the importance of enduring losses on your way to success?

STROCK: After Prime Minister Winston Churchill was defeated in the General Election of 1945, his wife Clementine, seeking to give him solace, suggested that it might be a blessing in disguise. Churchill responded, “If so, it must be very effectively disguised.”

All of us have had numerous setbacks and errors and failures—and I am quite sure I have had more than my share! Much of the impact of setbacks depends on one’s own mind, how one chooses to understand the situation, how to learn from it, incorporate the lessons and move on.  

Setbacks, errors, disappointments are best used as lessons for the future. That said, I don’t dwell morbidly (as TR might say) on the negative, and I certainly don’t define my views of myself or others based on the worst moments; I strive to focus on the best. 

You’ve been successful in business, politics, and as a writer.  So far, your books have examined the lives of other leaders.  What personal leadership or success tips do you use personally, that you could share with us?

STROCK: My books include the best information I have to impart! I hope that my personal experiences serve to make the discussion of leadership more immediate and accessible than purely academic work. I am currently working on another leadership book that is based on questions I have had from people in my speaking. It is based on a small number of lessons that have made a great difference for me and others, and I hope it will be of immediate and ongoing use to readers.

When you were in DC, we got to talking about the importance of ethics and morals in politics.  In lieu of the recent political environment, I’m wondering if you can share your thoughts on these areas with us?

STROCK: So many people forget history! It is particularly disappointing to see some of our conservative and Republican friends succumbing to the seductions of power politics. The fact is, that ethics and morals in politics are not an option or somehow a reflection of not being hardheaded. Retaining ethics and morals is eminently practical, as Theodore Roosevelt reminds us. In politics, as in business, it takes little skill to drive up the score or profits, cutting corners for a short period. It takes much more skill to maintain superior performance into the future, and ethics is a necessary foundation.

More basically, cutting corners in ethics and morals reflects, at a basic level, thinking of oneself rather than others. Even methodical calculation of one’s prospects, seeking advantage while not breaking rules per se, is unlikely to work over time. One of my credos is: No one knows enough to usefully calculate one’s interest—but each of us knows enough to do our duty.

As a youngster, you were very active in College Republicans.  A lot of today’s leaders started off as CRs.  How big of an influence do you think this was in your life?

STROCK: I entered college the month after Richard Nixon resigned. It was not an easy time to be a young Republican! Those of us who attended schools where liberalism was conventional in and out of the classroom had an additional set of challenges. Yet it strikes me in retrospect that there were many good aspects to being in that situation; it toughened us up a bit and certainly gave us opportunities to have our ideas challenged. I think that was an advantage in later life. Grover Norquist of American for Tax Reform, and Hugh Hewitt, the fine author, radio host, lawyer and blogging pioneer, were active in the CRs at that time. So too, famously, was Karl Rove.

That said, the most important part of CRs, or for that matter any other organization with which I have been affiliated, has been the people one gets to know, learn from, become inspired by.

Which of our contemporaries do you most admire in terms of leadership?      

STROCK: Despite the high profile disappointments—corporate scandals, White House and other political scandals, the crisis in the American Catholic church and so on–today is a golden age of leadership! I admire so many people for their leadership roles. Nelson Mandela of South Africa is at the top of everyone’s list for contemporary political leadership. Met Whitman of Ebay…. Bill Gates (for all is faults and controversies, he has enabled millions of people to better reach their potential)…. Bono (turning a platform in show business toward value added work for others—unconventional in its beginnings just as Ronald Reagan was forty years ago)…. I have purposely left out current political leaders because it is too early to evaluate them clearly, though I will say that I don’t feel that we are meeting the high standards of some other times in our history. As Roosevelt would say, one cannot blame that entirely on the officials, because they are a reflection of all of us.

I am optimistic about the future because of the strength of the American character in general. The people whom I admire most are those I come across on a daily basis, who live their lives with courage and commitment to their families, communities and country. I have a photograph in my office, cut out from a magazine, of Staff Sgt. Hilbert Caesar, born in Guyana, who earned American citizenship fighting in Iraq, where he was severely wounded. Sgt. Caesar is a hero, already having a much greater positive impact on more people than he could know.

Who mentors you?  What I mean is: Who motivates the motivator?

STROCK: I have been blessed to have a number of wonderful mentors, including Pete Wilson and Bob White, Bill Reilly, Alan Simpson, Bill Ruckelshaus, Connie Horner, Doug Bailey and John Deardourff, Ken Khachigian and others. One can also obtain the lessons of so many others through learning, not only books, but from listening and observing in a focused way.

What advice would you recommend to young conservatives who want to be leaders?  Any tips or book recommendations would be greatly appreciated.

STROCK: In addition to studying and being trained in leadership, I would strongly recommend reading history. It provides perspective, gives reason for hope, and enables one to learn from the lives of so many outside of our own experience. It can lead us to hold higher standards for ourselves and others. 

What are you working on now?

STROCK: I am currently writing a new leadership book that I am not quite ready to talk about! But when it is ready, I hope, Matt, that you will be among the first read it in draft and provide me feedback. I hope it is a book that will be of practical value to my fellow conservatives, especially young ones coming up!

Thank you very much for allowing me to interview you.

STROCK: You’re most welcome!