Listen Up!


by John Tyler Connoley

June 22, 2004


Of the many tributes and eulogies to Ronald Reagan, I thought the most fitting came from Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan's partner in taking down the iron curtain. While many in the west remembered Reagan for his Evil Empire speech and his willingness to stand up against Soviet Communism, Gorbachev in a New York Times editorial remembered Reagan as a man who listened and with whom he developed a personal rapport. Though the two men came at the world from extreme ends of the political spectrum, they sought dialogue as a means to peace.


Gorbachev said, "I think that the main lesson of those years is the need for dialogue, which must not be broken off whatever the challenges and complications we have to face. Meeting with Ronald Reagan in subsequent years I saw that this was how he understood our legacy to the new generation of political leaders." Gorbachev titled the eulogy "A President Who Listened."


The cartoonist David Horsey ran consecutive Reagan tributes on June 10 and 11. The first is titled The Reagan Conservatives Don't Want to Talk About. It shows a bust that reads, "Raised Taxes Repeatedly - Expanded Social Security - Negotiated with Communists to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons." The second cartoon, titled The Reagan the Left Won't Acknowledge, shows two liberals shouting about how Reagan had nothing to do with the end of the Cold War. "It would have happened on its own. Reagan was a warmonger!" they shout, but a man in a hat disagrees. The man turns out to be Mikhail Gorbachev.


Whatever else Reagan was, he was a man willing to change course (though sometimes more slowly than we might have liked). Yes, he cut taxes and brought about a huge deficit in his first term. But, he also raised taxes when it was necessary during his second term. Yes, he gave the Evil Empire speech during his first term and rattled the saber of a Star Wars program at Brezhnev. And during his second term, when a new Soviet leader took power, he negotiated and signed a sweeping nuclear disarmament treaty. Yes he remained silent about AIDS for his entire first term, but he proposed $2.79 billion for AIDS research, education, and prevention in his second term, declaring AIDS “the highest public health priority of the Department of Health and Human Services.” In today's political climate he would be called a flip-flop, and a politician (the worst epithet). I prefer to think of him as a President who realized that leadership involves adaptation.


As I mentioned in last week's column, Rob and I have been raising an orphaned puppy we adopted from the vet. To help us during the difficult first nine months, a good friend gave us the book The Art of Raising a Puppy, written by the Monks of New Skete. In that book, the monks talk about obedience training as learning to listen to your dog. The monks say it's not possible to study one obedience technique and then apply it to every dog, and they say any trainer who tells you her technique is the best is suffering from pride. Instead, it's necessary to listen to your dog and adapt your obedience training to fit its personality. It's also necessary to adapt the training as the puppy grows -- what works in the seventh week won't necessarily work in week twelve, when the puppy has reached adolescence.


Training a puppy involves creative energy. It involves a deep kind of listening, which the monks call "inseeing." The trainer must be the leader, while also following the needs of the dog. The trainer must see the world from the dog's perspective and learn to dialogue with the dog in terms it understands. Of course, the same is true for any leader, because true leadership is about give-and-take, dialogue and adaptation.


Working with my puppy while I listened to the eulogies about Ronald Reagan gave me a new perspective on his legacy, and on the kind of person I want in the White House. I want a President who dialogues -- someone who listens to our enemies as well as our friends. I want a president who's willing to change course when new circumstances demand it. Like a puppy, I also want a cheerful leader who gives me the confidence to follow, not a President who makes demands or declares me unpatriotic when I disagree with his policies. In short, I want a President who knows that leadership is about listening. I want a leader with the ability to "insee."


I recognize that Reagan didn't always fit this bill, but I think he did listen more than most Presidents. I also recognize that the Reagan of his second term looked quite different from the Reagan of his first term. But then that's the point.


Much has been made of President George W. Bush's admiration for Ronald Reagan. He styles himself as a successor to the Reagan legacy. If Bush does get reelected for another term, I hope he remembers the full Reagan legacy. It's not a weakness to listen, dialogue, and adapt. It's the sign of a real leader.


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