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Lessons from Ronald Reagan’s Presidency with Dr. Donald Devine


What can new generations learn from Ronald Reagan? This week, Dr. Donald Devine, President Ronald Reagan’s civil service director and TFAS senior scholar, joins host Roger Ream for a discussion of his latest book “Ronald Reagan’s Enduring Principles: How They Can Promote Political Success Today.” Delving into his experiences working alongside the president, Devine shows the interconnectedness between Reagan’s morals and his vision for a balanced government. As one of the most prominent proponents of the philosophy of fusionism, Devine also discusses how he himself has applied the concept of balance to his own world views. Drawing from his distinguished career and time at TFAS, Devine traces how conservative and libertarian thinking has evolved and articulates the most important values for young conservatives to nurture.

Dr. Donald Devine served as President Ronald Reagan’s civil service director during the president’s first term. The Washington Post labeled him “Reagan’s Terrible Swift Sword” for his success in reducing billions in spending by cutting bureaucratic excesses. Devine was an associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland and a professor of government and politics at Bellevue University. He is the author of 10 other books, including “The Enduring Tension: Capitalism and the Moral Order.” Devine is a columnist and his work appears regularly in The American Spectator, The Imaginative Conservative and Law & Liberty.

Episode Transcript

The transcript below is lightly edited for clarity.

Roger Ream [00:00:02] Welcome to the Liberty + Leadership Podcast, a conversation with TFAS alumni, faculty, and friends who are making an impact today. I’m your host, Roger Ream. Today, I have the great privilege of welcoming back to the Liberty + Leadership Podcast, Dr. Donald Devine. Don is a colleague of mine and Senior Scholar at The Fund for American Studies in Washington, D.C. Don’s impressive career includes serving as director of the Civil Service during President Reagan’s first term. During that time, The Washington Post labeled him Reagan’s terrible swift sword for his success in reducing billions in spending by cutting bureaucratic excesses from government. Don also has an impressive career in academics, as a professor at the University of Maryland and Bellevue University in Omaha, Nebraska. Don’s a prolific writer as well. He’s written 11 books, including his most recent, “Ronald Reagan’s Enduring Principles: How They Can Promote Political Success Today.” His work regularly appears in The American Spectator, The Imaginative Conservative and Law & Liberty. I’m looking forward to this conversation on several timely and important topics. Don, it’s great to have you back as a guest.

Donald Devine [00:01:25] Great to be here.

Roger Ream [00:01:26] Well, let’s start somewhat toward the beginning. You began your career; I know it involved military service and graduate work and getting into the academic field. Did your study of government and politics inform your political and economic philosophy?

Donald Devine [00:01:41] No. I worked all the way through going to college. So, I worked at an insurance company for five years or so before I went into the military or the graduate school. And I learned the biggest lesson there. I was a claims adjuster in both the government program that they ran and in their own private one. I started out in the government one, but more mechanical and after working there, I figured out the private plan is much fairer than the government plan, even though we’re basically the same kind of thing. We were much more generous on the private side than the government, because on the government side, you just follow the rules.

Roger Ream [00:02:36] No discretion.

Donald Devine [00:02:38] It forced decisions you didn’t want or make really, that, you know, weren’t the right ones to make, but you had to do it because the law said you had to do it. So, I learned most about how the world works and economics through that experience. I was also very lucky at Saint John’s University to have a great professor, one for economics, another two for philosophy. So, I did get a lot from my academic career too, but it was really the practical dealing with it and recognizing that the government must set all these bureaucratic rules, whether they make any sense or not.

Roger Ream [00:03:22] We’ll get into some of whom your influences were on your thinking as we talked today, I think, but you perhaps are the most prominent thinker in the world today with regard to what is often called the philosophy of fusionism. Your recent books have explored that concept and deepened the thinking around it. Could you explain what is meant by fusionism?

Donald Devine [00:03:43] Fusionism is a horrible word.  All the people who helped develop it back in the 50s and 60s didn’t want to use it. Fusion is a progressive ideal, Hegel and his whole school of thinking, but we tried to make a distinction between fusion and fusionism. Fusionism is something very different. A synthesis is a better word, although Hegel messed that up too, but the idea really comes from the philosopher Friedrich Hayek. Hayek basically invented conservatism. They put a book out, an academic book in England, and it was picked up in America by a Reader’s Digest editor and sent to millions and millions and really turned a whole generation of conservatives around.

Roger Ream [00:04:38] And that was the road to serfdom.

Donald Devine [00:04:39] The road to serfdom in 1945.

Donald Devine [00:04:40] It’s basically the idea that normal, progressive, rational thinking is too simplistic. Find some motivating principle and everything else drives it. Hegel was probably the best, Marx was one of his students, not in the classroom. What Hayek is so dramatic because he just took on that whole way of thinking, and he challenge the whole thing. There is some first principle, but it’s very vague that there’s some order to life to a human being. There are two sub principles the principle of freedom and the principle of tradition, and you can’t only have one of them, you need to balance them in a practical way. Some people look at fusionism or Hayek or Meyer as some kind of freedom only. It’s not. It’s both ideals in tension. Meyer made it very clear that freedom was only an opening principle, and it had to be balanced against prudential things. You come into different situations, you give freedom, some influence here, all influence there, some balance here, both the Western tradition and the concept of freedom basically comes from Western civilization too.

Roger Ream [00:06:01] So, this tension uses that word as the title of your previous book, “The Enduring Tension,” and I think you’ve said Meyer didn’t like the word he used the word fusion or fusionism. It was really a national review that this all kind of developed. Right?

Donald Devine [00:06:15] Well, listen, I grew up there. I mean, that was the greatest experience of being in New York City were these people were inventing modern conservatism. I mean, they used to have forums around the city. They go to them, debate. I was standing out there at 1:00 in the morning with Ayn Rand one time. I mean, it was just so alive and feeling good. Unfortunately, I had some background as we talked earlier, and we read. Everybody had a book with they were going to these things that you and I were in a meeting recently where one of the students, not me, but another professor was talking about books, and this guy said: “You know, the difference between your generation and mine is you read books,” and it’s true.

Roger Ream [00:07:09] We listen to sound bites now on our phones. You wrote another book, your newest book, which I have here, “Ronald Reagan’s Enduring Principles: How they Can Promote political Success Today.” It’s a very intriguing title. As I said in the introduction, you worked for Ronald Reagan. You were at his side when he made a lot of important decisions, especially in that first term when he had you overseeing the civil service and reduced by, I think, over 100,000, the number of government employees. What inspired you to write the book? Is there a lot we can learn from those enduring principles of Ronald Reagan today?

Donald Devine [00:07:46] It’s more to me, Ronald Reagan, rather than those principles. Principles are the important part of it, but Reagan is just such an incredible person, and he had the most important attribute of a human being can have, and that’s courage. That’s the thing to learn most about him. He read books too. He was only a B student, but he read. Some modern presidents, I won’t name names, they had to get an assistant in the white House to get them to start reading some serious books. When they’re in the white House, it’s a little late. The great thing is to go to the Reagan ranch and see Ronald Reagan’s bookshelf, and to see what he took to read.

Roger Ream [00:08:33] Don, I remember, reading a book about Reagan’s G.E. years, forgotten who the author was, but he told the story of Reagan was afraid to fly at that time, in the 1950s and early 60s, I guess. So, he’d take the train everywhere and he’d bring a pile of books with him, and he’d read books on those long train rides across the country when he went speaking at GE plants. The evidence has come out more of it even after he died, that he was just an avid reader and had read the people you’re talking about, Henry Hazlitt, Hayek, read National Review, and that is incredible and important for you to be highlighting.

Donald Devine [00:09:10] The thing that knocked me over: I a college professor, I’m sitting at a conservative political action conference just after Reagan was elected president, in 1980, and he goes up there and he gives a speech about what he believes, what is conservatism to him, and he mentions Frank Meyer, one of the main thinkers of our thing, and he told us what conservatism was. It was this balance between freedom and tradition. He used the term synthesis. Sitting in the audience, I said to the people who lectured me: “Did he really used a word synthesis? A politician, a governor and going to be president, using this formal word, and they all said: “Oh, no, it wasn’t him. It was one of his speechwriters or something.” I know 3 or 4 of them, and were there and I went over to him, and I said: how did that thing fusion get in there?” They said: “Fusion? What is that?” I mean, he understood it better than they did, so-called academic writers. It was just such an amazing man. His experience when he was shot, Ronald Reagan comes out, he’s shot outside of a hotel after giving a speech in Washington. The Secret Service picks him up, puts him in the car, and they take him to the hospital, and he says: “Hey, we’re not heading off to the white House.” They said: “No, sir, you’ve been shot. We’re taking you to the hospital.” He says: “No, America doesn’t want their president to be in the hospital. They want to be active running the country.” Thank heaven they didn’t pay any attention to him, and they took him. So, still, when he gets to the hospital, the president tries to get up out of there. There’s a gurney out there waiting for him. He cries, he takes two steps, and he falls, and they take him inside. He wakes up inside and the nurse is taking his pulse and he looks at her and he says: “Does Nancy know about this?” Nancy, his wife. He goes blank again. Next time they must artificially wake him up and give him a thing and they said: “You have to sign this.” The president says: “What is it,” and they say: “You are passing a power over to your vice president, because we don’t know if you’re going to make it through this thing.” He looks at it and says: “I’m not signing it.” They said: “You’re just being told you may not come out of this.” What is he doing? He looks around the room at the doctors and nurses around the table, and he says: “I sure hope all you guys and gals are Republicans.” Once in his life he was overdone. The head doctor said: “We all are today, Sir,” and he was a Democrat. So, he goes in 2 or 3 days, who knows if he’s going to make it or not. His wife, who is a big fancy dresser, it’s been three days without changing clothes, looks horrible. He comes out, he sees her, and he says: “Sorry, honey, I forgot the duck.” I mean, this is a man you got to admire. He’s a man you mentioned that was in government. I’ve been in Washington, most of my life here, and it’s been a long one, as you can tell. I used to give a thank the personnel coming into the government. You want to be successful in Washington? They all say: “Oh, yeah,” I say: “Don’t do anything. Well, if you do something, somebody is going to complain about it. You don’t do anything, nobody will complain.” And I’d say 80, 90% of people who go into the government think that way, maybe more.

Roger Ream [00:12:53] Let’s get back to the book and the principles. Why do you write the book? Because it seems like that among conservatives today, some, not many, but some have in a sense disparaged Reagan or said: “That’s the past. That was 50 years ago. Time to move on.” You’re writing a book here saying: “No, wait a minute. There’s some important things here that we got to focus on.” What would you say are about his enduring principles that we need to rally around today, or how can they help us today?

Donald Devine [00:13:23] The two principals: freedom and tradition. Meyer’s, I think he put it best. We’re talking about Western civilization and understanding Western civilization and why it’s different. So many people on the left today, they want to change the whole world. You can’t do it that way. This took thousands of years to develop this. The principle that makes it different is the principle that defends freedom, and that is the principle that this is a creator. According to this tradition, the Judeo-Christian tradition, it came from God even allowing him to disobey him. No other tradition has that kind of thing that you’re supposed to fear God, and they don’t want you to do anything they don’t want you to do. And if they do, they go to war with you. It’s a different way of looking at the world. That’s why our founders put creator right in the Declaration of Independence. It’s having some kind of base. Principles aren’t just floating around in all directions, and they aren’t rigid first principles to last principles. It’s this creative tension that the West has seen. Why it so much more successful than anybody else, and what I want with the book is to realize that those principles have been there a long time, they work. Reagan brought them back for a while, and it basically lasted from him until 2008 with the big recession, and we’ve gone much further down that road. The only way we’re going to get back, if we understand how we got there. It’s going to have a different application, and even some of the critics, I mean, it may need some rebalancing between tradition and freedom, although it’s really freedom that’s suffering more than the tradition, in my opinion. Freedom, I mean, the government just makes every major decision today and has got to change, and if it doesn’t, Western civilization is going to be gone.

Roger Ream [00:15:34] One discouraging thing I saw last week, a reporter for Politico, Heidi Przybyla on MSNBC said: “The problem we have today is we have these nationalist Christian conservatives who believe our rights come from God, instead of that, our rights come from the government, from the Supreme Court and from the Congress.” I mean, when you have prominent political reporters thinking our rights are ours because of government and the Supreme Court and not because of God, they’re just rejecting, as you said, the Declaration of Independence and our founding ideals. Reagan anchored himself on those ideas.

Donald Devine [00:16:08] Oh, he did. Reagan, some people are trying to make him out as a cold warrior around, always looking for a fight. It’s in my book, Navy Research Library, I don’t remember the exact name of it, did a study of all the presidents from George Washington, considering some of the size of the country and things. But Ronald Reagan had one of the lowest uses of American troops outside of America. Of course, the shortest period, when he made mistakes, like he got too involved in the Middle East, they took him out of Lebanon. He went in and picked on a little puny country in South America. He knew he couldn’t get in trouble, but he came right out, he said in his final speech in London. He says: “We’re not here to start a war with Russia. We’re here to beat the moral strength and courage.”

Roger Ream [00:17:04] Don, describe your experience working side by side with President Reagan? He appointed you the head of the Office of Personnel Management, which is a very important agency, and you took it under your wings there and made tremendous successes for the president, carrying out his agenda. What were some of the challenges you faced? Talk a little bit about that experience.

Donald Devine [00:17:24] Actually, I was so lucky. It’s unbelievable. I walked in the first day and there I walked into the outgoing Democrat, who is the head of the Office of Personnel Management, and I walk and he says: ” You, ***, I’m not allowed to say that here, here I am, I fixed up the whole civil service to make it workable again, and you’re walking in and implement it because it’s taken me this long to get it ready.” It only is a couple more months to go. Who was it? He was my former professor at the Syracuse University. We used to call it the Syracuse agency.

Roger Ream [00:18:06] He was appointed by President Carter.

Donald Devine [00:18:08] President Carter.

Roger Ream [00:18:09] He pushed reforms of civil service.

Donald Devine [00:18:11] And he did reform the whole thing. He, in fact, taught me what government was about. It’s not about what any Republicans or almost every Republican thinks, and that is that you run it like a business. It’s totally different than running as a business. It’s a political operation. And you don’t need businessmen. You need savvy political people or people who understand politics. So, he taught me about it. I was with President Reagan in 1978 when he lost, and I was lucky that that whole next year, guy named John Sears set me up to put together a whole transition project of over four years, and I really learned what government was about and how to make it work. Great opportunity. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it, and the administration and I did, and the personnel, I was in the transition team, and we got so much of it done even before we walked in the office. And then I walked into the office and all I had to do and fight. Well, mostly people in the Reagan administration who worked from the earlier forward administration trying to stop us doing anything substantial. But the great thing about Reagan is he had me, and I was 3 or 4 times in to talk to the cabinet, to tell them to take the care of their personnel. We promised to cut back, 100,000 employees, and every time after it was over, one time, he was out of the room and then came back into the cabinet room and all said: “Get those bureaucrats, make them work.”

Roger Ream [00:19:53] Were you involved in the whole issue with the air traffic controllers going on strike right early in his administration? They were going to shut down our airline system by going on strike.

Donald Devine [00:20:05] Well, that was an opportunity. No one else, of course, wanted to defend that thing except him.

Roger Ream [00:20:12] His decision was to fire them, right?

Donald Devine [00:20:13] All of the other people that the Aviation Administration and transportation which is under them, they wouldn’t want to go out. Nobody in the white House wanted. So, I was the pincushion everybody was going after.

Roger Ream [00:20:27] And the decision was, do we give them a big raise that they’re demanding if they don’t go on strike? Or do we fire them?

Donald Devine [00:20:33] Well, what happened was the FAA, and Transportation Department, first, they get paid more than off the general schedule. They get paid extra to begin with. We had to give more money to them, and that was fine because we didn’t need to pay them more. My final offer, they turned down, but then the transportation secretary and FAA gave it to them. They got it passed. It didn’t go up to the president. But anyway, they gave in to that, but they were too greedy. They wanted it even more. So, they threatened to go on strike, and we had a big meeting in the white House with them and me, the only one defending fire, it was me and him and the president.

Roger Ream [00:21:19] They had taken an oath to not strike, right?

Donald Devine [00:21:21] One of assistants was there and he asked: “Don’t they have to sign something they won’t go on strike?” A smart guy, Joe Morris, you know him. He came out with the actual thing we handed to him. That was the end of it. It just showed that they had to sign right on the documents. So, he said: “They’re gone.”

Roger Ream [00:21:43] They’re violating their agreement.

Donald Devine [00:21:44] Actually, I even wanted to hire him back after a while because if there was one airplane crash and two years or so, we were undermanned, there would have been the end of the Reagan period, but he was even tougher than me. Told me to stop what I was trying to work with the unions in the back as it got into the stupid union told the papers about it. But any event, everybody thinks I was so tough out there. I was only the second by far Reagan. He’s just courageous. Really amazing guy. Very, very few people are so well read, tough, willing to make compromises too. When he did one of the big treaties limit the arms, one of the Republican, the conservative leaders, you know well, he’s dead now, called him I forget the word was something terrible traitor or something close to that for making this deal with the Soviet Union. He wasn’t a rigid, always go to fight. He was very balanced guy. Very rare kind of thing in politics. It was kind of a fluke. He couldn’t have made it until today’s thing if it wasn’t for a bunch of intellectual, smart Californians, who supported him, economically, and his political things, which you couldn’t do maybe through some other reason, but you couldn’t do it directly.

Roger Ream [00:23:19] In your book, you cite a research article that shows that Republicans still have a very high view of Reagan as one of the country’s best presidents. Why do you think Reagan’s presidency was so successful?

Donald Devine [00:23:31] Well, it wasn’t just Republicans. When he’s named by everybody, he comes up on the top and lastly, just asks professors of history and stuff like that, then he’s way down the bottom.

Roger Ream [00:23:44] He was anchored with principles that he believed in.

Donald Devine [00:23:47] He had courage. Courage is a very rare thing, and it’s understandable. People want to be successful. There’s no guarantee of success if you’re courageous. In fact, in my book, I mentioned 4 or 5 agency heads that were all courageous, and none of them lasted through eight years. Not one of them. I’ve mentioned a bunch of senators. It was only one Senate vote in my four years as head of OPM, and we only got maybe 12, 15, I don’t remember the exact number of senators who voted for, and almost all of them lost the next time they ran. So, the courageous one doesn’t last. You got to have some kind of courage to say: “No, I’m going to do what’s the right thing to do rather than the right thing for me.” It goes against you in nature.

Roger Ream [00:24:43] Well, Don, as a Senior Scholar at The Fund for American Studies (TFAS), what advice would you give to past, present and future TFAS Fellows and Scholars?

Donald Devine [00:24:53] Read.

Roger Ream [00:24:54] Read books.

Donald Devine [00:24:56] Right. Especially books. Again, to go out to the Reagan Ranch, Young America’s foundation, you and I have both been to, and just look at his bookshelf and see what he read. You read that; you’re never going to go wrong. And the other thing I’d say, especially of the students and young people, if you’re listening to this, you’ve come a long way, you’ve gotten through or at least part of college. You survive somehow to be willing at least to listen to what the positions are on the conservative right. We have a set of programs, what we call continuing education. I think that is the solution. We want to drag the people that are tough enough to have gotten through universities in America, as far left as they’ve gone, and narrow views of life, and politics, and get them to be a group of leaders for the future. We have several different programs for that. We tend to think that you need a bunch of people, when you don’t. You only need a relative few. Remember that communism, which ran the whole 20th century, started by a dozen people under Lenin. They changed the world. Jesus had 12. In fact, the only 11 that stuck with them all the way through, and that’s what we need to do, is to build a group of future leaders that understood the world somewhat, as did Ronald Reagan, and why we have been the greatest civilization, since the beginning of the world. What we can do to keep it, not to change the whole world, necessarily, but at least to get us back on the right track.

Roger Ream [00:26:52] Well, that’s great sentiment to end this on, because even as you touched on in the previous question, Reagan, with a small group around him in California, really boosted his career and led to the changes. Is that we saw that gave us tremendous prosperity for decades. And these programs that you touched on there, I was talking to someone on the telephone today who supports us about the fact that you’ve got a luncheon discussion group with 20 to 25 young people that come to our office, and they sit down with people that they read. You give them articles to read and to talk about. They get a chance to ask questions of key opinion molders in our world today, you’ve got the evening Fusion Society meetings you hold with young people who are conservative and libertarian, and everything in between getting together to debate and discuss important ideas and articles. We’ve got the Public Policy Fellows program that’s been out to Mecosta to look at the ideas of the Constitution Center to study the Federalist Papers and read Hayek. And these things I think that you’re touching on are just so important, and you take that base of ideas that you have that Reagan and Frank Meyer have, and you infuse them into young people and then give them the courage to act on those that can really change the world.

Donald Devine [00:28:04] That’s the hope.

Roger Ream [00:28:05] Yes. Well thank you, Don, it’s been great to have a conversation with you. It’s a privilege for all of us at TFAS to work with you to perpetuate these ideas for future generations to come. Thank you.

Donald Devine [00:28:16] Thanks for having me.

Roger Ream [00:28:20] Thank you for listening to the Liberty + Leadership Podcast. If you have a comment or question, please drop us an email at podcast@TFAS.org and be sure to subscribe to the show on your favorite podcast app and leave a five-star review. Liberty and leadership is produced at Podville Media. I’m your host, Roger Ream, and until next time, show courage in things large and small.


TFAS has reached more than 49,000 students and professionals through academic programs, fellowships and seminars. Representing more than 140 countries, TFAS alumni are courageous leaders throughout the world forging careers in politics, government, public policy, business, philanthropy, law and the media.

Liberty + Leadership is a conversation with TFAS alumni, faculty and friends who are making a real impact. Hosted by TFAS President Roger Ream ’76, the podcast covers guests’ experiences, career stories and leadership journeys. 

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