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GE and Ronald Reagan: The Mutual Gift That Keeps On Giving

5 years ago
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As part of a one-year celebration to honor the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's birth, General Electric will run ads honoring the 40th president's legacy -- and will donate $10 million to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library, along with an additional $5 million in scholarships.

This is fitting. In a very real way, General Electric was the vehicle that Reagan rode in his journey from film star to politician. It was a symbiotic relationship, too: Although GE paid Reagan $150,000 in the mid-1950s -- when his movie career had stalled and such a salary was worth more than $1 million in today's dollars -- GE had a reputation for working its people hard. Reagan was no exception. For eight years, he was the host and sometimes star of "General Electric Theater," a Sunday night program that aired on CBS, and a prolific "corporate ambassador" who traveled the country speaking at GE factories. There were a lot of them: Under chief executive Ralph J. Cortiner, a pioneer in decentralization, GE had 139 plants in 38 states, according to Lou Cannon in "Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power" -- and Reagan spoke at most of them, delivering as many as 14 speeches a day.

"GE just has had this great affinity and association with President Reagan, really for 50 or 60 years, and so this is just a small way that we could play a part in this great celebration," Jeffrey R. Immelt, GE chairman and chief executive, told me in an exclusive interview Tuesday. "President Reagan said that the second most important eight-year job he ever had were the eight years between 1954 and 1962, when he was GE's spokesman."

During those factory visits, Reagan met with, and took questions from, blue-collar workers and mid-managers alike.

"GE was invaluable to Reagan," Cannon told Politics Daily on Tuesday night. "It gave him an opportunity to practice speeches and answer questions to sympathetic, but demanding, audiences. He learned how to polish his speeches and incorporate the events of the day into every talk he gave."

The experience served as a kind of widespread focus group for a man whose political opinions -- and ambitions -- were changing. "When I went on those tours and shook hands with all of those people, I began to see that they were very different than the people Hollywood was talking about," Reagan later explained to GE public relations executive Edward Langley. "I was seeing the same people that I grew up with in Dixon, Ill. I realized I was living in a tinsel factory. And this exposure brought me back."

If Sarah Palin had used understated language like this, instead of talking about "the real America," she might not have engendered so much hostility. In any event, what eventually emerged during Reagan's long stretch on what he called "the meat and potatoes circuit" was a well-crafted and a well-received stump speech that formed the basis of a fateful, nationally televised address in support of Barry Goldwater's 1964 candidacy for president. Goldwater lost that election in a landslide, but "The Speech," as it came to be known, propelled Reagan into the California governor's mansion, and ultimately into the White House.

In addition to donations to the Reagan Foundation and Library, GE also plans to run TV, radio and print ads to honor the man and celebrate the centennial. The TV ads will feature photos from Reagan's GE days as well as his presidential years, accompanied by the words "Because long before he changed the world, or led a nation, or governed a state, he inspired our company."

These days, if GE is thought of in political terms at all, it's as the parent company of NBC -- and MSNBC -- and thus the employer of outspoken Democrats Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow. More than attempting to make amends, GE's nascent campaign suggests that, like Harry Truman and a handful of other presidents, Ronald Wilson Reagan has transcended partisan politics; now -- as was said of Abraham Lincoln -- he "belongs to the ages."

"I think in some ways, the [Reagan] brand does stand above just the party," Immelt told me. "This is a transcendent name and person, and I think both in the traits of leadership, but also how he conducted that leadership, is what makes him so unique.

"When I think about President Reagan, it's optimistic, tough-minded, confidence, growth-oriented -- those are things that I think can suit all of us."

General Electric's donation will support a state-of-the-art museum at the Reagan Library. In addition, GE will contribute $5 million to launch and support the GE-Reagan Scholars Program, and will donate 208 episodes of "General Electric Theater" in which Reagan hosted or appeared from 1954 to 1962.

The episodes, many of which were thought to be lost, were recently uncovered in GE/NBC Universal archives and restored to broadcast quality for showcase in the Reagan museum.

Immelt, a Republican who has found himself assailed by some conservatives for the liberal-leaning antics on MSNBC, compared his leadership of GE with that of a previous chief executive, the visionary who hired Ronald Reagan: "Ralph Cordiner . . . gave President Reagan this assignment and said, 'Go out and say what's on your mind, and there's no censorship,' and you know what? . . . I say the same thing to the people at NBC and MSNBC: 'Go say what's on your mind; there's no censorship,' and I think that's always been the spirit of the company."

But just as Reagan's storied run at General Electric Theater came to an end -- Cordiner agreed to his axing when the program's ratings fell under the onslaught of NBC's "Bonanza" -- even the most ardent free speech proponent in Hollywood pays attention to the bottom line. Such is the case with Jeff Immelt: NBC is in the process of being sold. Meanwhile, more information regarding GE's campaign to honor Reagan can be found at Immelt will speak at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., later this week.

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