An Inside Look at the Reagan Revolution, Part I

It’s an election year, and a fascinating one at that. How can it be anything else when Donald Trump is one of the candidates?

We recently sat down for a special interview with two critical figures from another remarkable election, the 1980 campaign that produced Ronald Reagan.

These two men, Elliott Curson and Jeff Bell, played a pivotal but little known behind-the-scenes role in Reagan’s election.  

During Reagan’s primary campaign, they produced his legendary campaign ads that vaulted him above the other Republican candidates. Reagan’s previous ads had flopped until he brought these two gentlemen aboard. In many ways, they rescued his campaign.

According to Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, two top political commentators of the day, “It is no exaggeration to say that those Curson-Bell spots… were indispensable to Reagan’s solution of his basic political and ideological problems — a solution necessary for him to win the presidency.”

Others have echoed that same sentiment. Former Treasury Secretary and Secretary of State James Baker among them. Another, Kathleen Jamieson of the famous Annenberg School for Communication, said about Elliott in particular, “For Reagan, Curson was a gift from the gods.”

Part I of our full conversation is below. Read on…

A conversation between Brian Maher, Elliott Curson and Jeff Bell

Brian Maher: I now have the pleasure of speaking to the two men who perhaps did more to help Ronald Reagan get elected in 1980 than anyone else. I’m talking about Elliott Curson and Jeff Bell. Theirs is a largely untold story, but an important one.

So, let me take this opportunity to welcome you both to The Daily Reckoning.

Elliott Curson: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Jeff Bell: Yes, I’m glad to join you today.

Brian Maher: By way of background, Elliott is head of Elliott Cursing Advertising in Philadelphia, which was first established in 1963. Elliott is, by all rights, a brilliant media consultant with decades of success to attest to that.

Jeff is a political consultant who was a former presidential speechwriter and aide to Presidents Nixon and Reagan. He’s seen it all. He’s also run for Senator from New Jersey, first in 1978, when he lost the election to Bill Bradley. But he shook up the Republican establishment by defeating the incumbent Republican senator, Clifford Case I believe it was, to win the party nomination. Jeff ran on a campaign of limited government and lower taxes, which in many ways prefigured Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign. And he recruited Elliott to run his highly effective campaign ads.

Jeff’s served as a fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics and as the DeWitt Wallace Fellow in Communications at the American Enterprise Institute, among others. He’s currently policy director at the American Principles Project in Washington, where he headed their “Gold Is Money” project, which advocates a return to the gold standard.

So, with these introductions out of the way, let’s talk about how you two gentlemen helped elect Ronald Reagan president of the United States.

Jeff, the Reagan campaign was failing as the 1980 primary campaign took off. The ads they had been running were falling flat. So the Reagan people contacted you, at a fairly late hour, and you suggested that Elliott should be their man, correct?

Jeff Bell: Yes. They showed me an ad that a firm from Madison Avenue had made. It was a terrible ad. They just had Reagan in front of a blackboard with a bunch of little kids. I guess this was to try to combat the age issue because he was running at the age of 69 and he wasn’t really saying anything.

It was just an image ad. I told the Reagan people what I thought of it. They said, “How about those ads you did when you ran against Bill Bradley in ‘78? Would you be willing to make something like that?”

Elliott, you might not even know this, but the other person who wanted to do my ‘78 campaign after I defeated the incumbent senator, Clifford Case, was Roger Ailes. I chose Elliott. Even though I like Roger Ailes and think he’s a very talented maker of television commercials, he’s out of that business now, obviously, having started Fox News.

I think they had seen my commercials during the ‘78 race. I knew all of them because we had all been involved in ‘76 when Reagan lost the primaries to Ford. I give them credit and Reagan credit for ultimately running on very contrarian ideas that the establishment didn’t like.

We lost the general election, but Bill Bradley was going to be a tough opponent to beat, being a very popular former basketball player with the Knicks with a lot of name recognition. That was when the Knicks were good!

Elliott Curson: Also, the ‘78 campaign was the forerunner to the 1980 campaign. It was basically the same principles.

Jeff Bell: That’s right. Elliott was very familiar with these issues. He knew that they could work, if they had a genuine appeal. In ‘78, these problems had not gotten severe. The inflation that year was about 5% or 6%. By 1980, we were on our second year of double-digit inflation.

Anyway, I called Elliott and we flew out to California. This was January, 1980, a turnaround situation for the campaign. We made the ads after Reagan had already lost to George H.W. Bush in the Iowa caucus. So, the campaign was in some trouble.

We shot the ads over the course of several hours in Santa Monica. Elliott was just absolutely superb, as was Reagan. We did 11 different ads, and Reagan got most of them on the first take. Wouldn’t you say, Elliott?

Elliott Curson: Yes, he was very good. He had a star quality and he was a good actor. He felt very comfortable with the copy we’ve showed him.

It was just the three of us and our crew. Reagan came with his secretary, who left after 20 minutes. Don Regan, who went on to be Reagan’s Treasury Secretary and White House Chief of Staff, was also there for a while. But it was mostly just the three of us sitting there casually talking about policy. And nobody interfered.

Jeff and I shot the commercials and Jeff sent them off to Reagan when we were done. Reagan said, “Yup, they’re fine.” And that was it. There was no committee. There were no meetings. We just shot the ads and that was that. That will never happen again.

Brian Maher: Reagan’s previous ads weren’t working, as Jeff described. And your ads were widely credited with turning the Reagan campaign around. What did you do turn that changed things so dramatically?

Elliott Curson: Well, essentially,we just let Reagan be Reagan. We cut out all the corny gimmicks that had dominated the previous commercials. No walking along the beach or kissing babies or anything staged. We just put him in front of the camera, wrinkles and all. We didn’t use any filters or flattering lighting. We let people see Reagan as he was, and he just spoke from the heart.

Also, we didn’t use any slogan for the campaign. We don’t need a slogan. Every commercial had Reagan delivering a strong line. It was so strong that I just put the word Reagan on the screen because it was so powerful. There was one ad on leadership. It had an introduction, then Reagan completed the commercial by saying, “We have the talent. We have the drive. We have the imagination. Now what we need is a leadership.”

Then we shot one on defense, which opened with footage of the Russian May Day parade. Reagan had a strong program for the military, and he closed with, “It’s nice to be liked, but it’s more important to be respected.”

Then we did an ad on tax cuts. Reagan said, “I didn’t always agree with President Kennedy, but when he came out with a 30% tax cut, everybody benefited, even the government gained, since they generated $54 billion in unexpected revenue. If I become president, we’re going to do that again.”

Each commercial left people with something to think about.

Jeff Bell: We had very little money. I think Elliott did a great job with the lack of money that we had to get some pretty solid production values. We filmed 11 ads for a total of something like $18,000. That’s inconceivable today.

But it was all about the messaging. It was pure issue messaging. That’s what we wanted to get across. It was the complete opposite of the Madison Avenue ad that they have made, which was all about image. We had Reagan just looking directly at the camera and saying what he believed in. Like Elliott said, we just let Reagan be Reagan.

And the tax ad Elliott mentioned identifying with Kennedy was excellent. It drew in independent voters that weren’t necessarily crazy about a right-wing Republican, so identifying with Kennedy was a great thing to do to bring in a lot of Democrats and independents.

Elliott Curson: Focus groups showed that Reagan was the favorite particularly among Democrats. I think that was the first sign that Democrats were crossing over, that there would be a lot of Reagan Democrats.

Here’s a funny little story I’d like to mention that says something about Reagan, the man. At one point during the commercials, I told Reagan, “I think a red tie would work better for TV.” I happened to have one on, so I gave it to him. Anyway, we wrapped up the shoot and Reagan left. Nancy had called to say they were having company at home or something to that effect.

About 20 minutes later, a Secret Service agent came back to the studio, and I felt, “Oh my God. What’s the problem?” He said, “Elliott, I got halfway back and I told Reagan, “Governor, you’re wearing Elliott’s tie.” Reagan then said to him, “Turn around.”

I couldn’t believe it. Here you have the former California governor and future president, already halfway home to host a dinner party, when he turns around just to return the tie to me. He could have just had someone else return it later on or have someone mail it to me. But he turned the car around. I doubt that would happen today. But that was just the type of person he was. He was just a really decent guy.

Brian Maher: That’s amazing. And you’re right, I doubt that would happen today. Gentlemen, we talk a lot about gold here at The Daily Reckoning. I don’t know how many people remember today, but Reagan wanted to return to a gold standard. In fact, I believe you shot a commercial of him calling for a return to gold. But it never ran, correct?

Jeff Bell:That’s correct. And no, it never ran. Reagan believed in the gold standard. He was very interested in it. It was an issue for the first year or two on his administration, when he conducted a Gold Commission. The majority of the Gold Commission recommended against returning to the gold standard. Reagan was able to fix the economy and stop most of inflation without one, but he was very interested in it.

What he said in the ad, which is something I think he always believed, was that we’ll never have stable prices until we get back to some form of gold backing for the dollar. He didn’t blame labor for inflation. He blamed the government.

Reagan said, “We’re never going to get price stability until we return to some form of gold.” He didn’t say that it was only inflation that was a problem. He said, in effect, that the uncertainty of paper money is a problem in itself, even at times when the dollar is strong. It winds up disrupting the world economy, disrupting the terms of trade. Reagan’s message holds up very well to this day.

And here’s a little tidbit I think our listeners might find interesting. I don’t think too many people know about it. About an hour after he got home after shooting the gold ad, Reagan called me and said, “You know that gold ad, put that off to one side. We’ve got some people here in California who might be upset about it. But don’t erase it.” He was clear not to erase it. I never did.

Elliott Curson: He was hesitant about that ad.

Brian Maher: That seems odd. Reagan asked you to hold off on the release of the gold ad because of certain people in California. What was that all about, Jeff?

Jeff Bell: Well, he didn’t mention anyone by name, but I think he was talking about Milton Friedman, who was at the Hoover Institution at Stanford at that time.

Friedman was the founder of monetarism who’d won the Nobel Prize in economics. He was a Reagan supporter, but he’d argued that the gold standard was at least partly responsible for the Great Depression. So Friedman would not be in favor of returning to any kind of gold standard. And I don’t think Reagan wanted to rock the boat at that time. So he asked me to hold off on it.

Brian Maher: Reagan’s lost campaign ad, the one that never aired. I’d love to see that one. And it’s still around, right?

Jeff Bell: Yes, it’s still around. It never ran until earlier this year when it did appear in ad Elliott did with Ted Cruz. I thought it was an excellent ad, but it didn’t get any reinforcement from the Cruz campaign. I give Cruz enormous credit for understanding that the Fed is kind of a Wizard of Oz, standing behind the screen not knowing what they’re doing, but he didn’t really relate it to the economic situation. He didn’t make a strong connection.

Brian Maher: Please tell us a little more about that Cruz ad, Elliott.

Elliott Curson: Well, it opened with Ronald Reagan talking about inflation and going back to the gold standard. Then it said, “Cruz can do it.” Then, Cruz talked about monetary policy and it ended with a slide that said, “Finish the Reagan Revolution.” It’s like Reagan coming back and saying, “Here’s my philosophy,” and Cruz saying, “That’s my philosophy.”

We did have a presence in New Hampshire with radio about gold. But Cruz didn’t spend anything, an error on his part, not realizing that the early primaries set the tone for the rest of the election.

Brian Maher: So,Reagan had strong feeling about gold, but very few people in the Republican establishment wanted anything to do with it. He couldn’t afford to step too far out of line, I suppose. You mentioned Reagan’s Gold Commission a second ago, Jeff. Could you talk a bit about that?

Jeff Bell: There was never going to be a chance that the Gold Commission would endorse the gold standard. The establishment prefers not debating to debating, and I think for a good reason on this particular issue.

Donald Regan appointed the committee members. Ron Paul and businessman Lew Lehrman were the only two real gold backers on the gold commission out of 17 members. Most listeners are probably familiar with Ron Paul and his strong belief in gold. Fewer know Lew Lehrman. He probably would have been a great Treasury Secretary, but the establishment sidelined him due to his strong advocacy of gold. He never received an appointment of any kind.

Anna Schwartz, who co-wrote Milton Friedman’s book on the monetary policy, was the Executive Director of the Gold Committee in 1981–82. She obviously wasn’t a fan of the gold standard. She also wrote the final report. So there wasn’t too much hope that that final report was going to do much to change the monetary system.

I think you can also say that George Schultz, who was Treasury Secretary towards the end of the Nixon administration, was also a factor in opposing Reagan’s interest in the gold standard.

Under a gold standard, it becomes much more difficult for political elites to run budget deficits. It’s interesting to me that the founders never put a balanced budget in the constitution. What they had instead was Article 1 Sections 8 and 10, which mandated gold and silver coins as the final money.

Brian Maher: You mentioned Donald Regan. I dug up a quote from Robert Novak’s 2007 autobiography, recounting a conversation from 1986 involving Regan and the president.

Novak asked Reagan: “What ever happened to the gold standard? I thought you supported it.”

“Well,” the president began and then paused, “I still do support the gold standard, but — “ At that point, Reagan was interrupted by his chief of staff, Don Regan. ‘Now, Mr. President,” said Regan, “we don’t want to get bogged down talking about the gold standard.”

“You see?,” Reagan said to Novak, his palms uplifted in mock futility, “They just won’t let me have my way.”

I think that says it all.

Jeff Bell: Yup, it sure does. I was involved in the efforts after the campaign to try to get Reagan to do something along the lines of gold. He decided not to do it, which I think was a mistake. But it wasn’t just the party establishment that’s to blame. I also blame our side.

We, the people who were advocating gold, didn’t really have our act together. We had disagreements on how we’d get back at gold. We had disagreements on how much of a convertibility element you needed.

I remember Lehrman told me about a conversation he had with Reagan in the early ‘80s. It might have been 1982. Reagan asked him, “What should the price of gold be?” In other words, what should be the gold dollar parity? Lew didn’t give him a direct answer.

I’ve always felt that was a turning point. If we provided Reagan a clear answer about the right parity, he may have pressed ahead.

The people who were against the gold standard thought it was dangerous or premature. And they definitely had the upper hand among Reagan’s advisers. But I believe to this day that Reagan might have overruled them as he did on many other issues if we’d made a more compelling case for gold.

When Reagan truly believed in something, he stood his ground. When the air traffic controllers went on strike, for example, none of his advisers said, “You should fire every air traffic controller who is on strike.” They all wanted to water it down, to give the controllers a little more time to come to terms. But Reagan did it anyway because he thought it was the right thing to do. I think he would have done the right thing on gold if he had more confidence on the part of those of us who favored it. I just don’t think we made a strong enough case for him to get behind.

Elliott Curson: It goes back to the initial event with Lew Lehrman not having a concrete, specific answer he could use to sell Reagan.

Jeff Bell: I think Reagan was scared about going back to the gold standard. And I think we were all frightened to some extent about getting it wrong. Would gold be discredited if we got the price wrong? When you have a chance to do something big, you’re concerned about getting it wrong. I don’t have that view now. I’m much older. I realize that even getting it a little bit wrong would be better than the Federal Reserve system we have now.

But the 1970s-era inflation was ending due to Paul Volcker and prices were decreasing. There was a commodity deflation that was killing the Farm Bill, for example. The conventional wisdom was you don’t advocate gold during deflation. You only advocate it during inflation. That certainly didn’t help the case for gold.

In retrospect, and I’ve done polling on this with my organization the American Principles Project, indicating that the average person is strongly in favor of gold. People know it holds its value over time. There are peasants in Bangladesh that keep it under their mattresses rather than keep their wealth in the paper currency. Coming flat out for gold would have been a better political tactic than talking about half-measures and interim steps.

Tomorrow, we’ll return with part II of our conversation with Elliott and Jeff. We’ll further discuss Reagan’s dealings with the Republican establishment, David Stockman’s role in the Reagan White House, Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton and more. Tune in tomorrow.


Brian Maher
for The Daily Reckoning

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