Publicly, President Ronald Reagan faced foreign policy crises with dignity and diplomacy and used his words to solve insurmountable problems. He was the “Great Communicator.” He solved problems from the White House Situation Room and from the podium under the watchful gaze of the public.
Privately, President Reagan faced personal crises and health scares that had the potential to negatively impact his Presidency. The 2016 election is quickly approaching and the question of the age and health of some of the candidates is a topic that is in the spotlight of national discussion. During the conference “When Life Strikes the White House: Death, Scandal, Illness and the Responsibilities of a President,” hosted in-part by the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, Karen Kiron gave a talk about President Reagan called “The Benefit of Age, if Wisdom Prevails.”
WHAT I FIND INTERESTING ABOUT RONALD REAGAN IS THAT WE KNOW THAT HE WAS NEARLY 70 WHEN HE BECAME PRESIDENT. NEARLY 80 WHEN HE LEFT WASHINGTON. WE KNOW THAT HE HAD A NUMBER OF HEALTH ISSUES THROUGHOUT HIS LIFE, DESPITE THE FACT THAT HE WAS SEEN AS ROBUST AND HEALTHY AND MOST OF HIS LIFE HE WAS…. BUT WHAT’S INTERESTING ABOUT RONALD REAGAN IS THAT HIS AGE ACTUALLY HELPED HIM DEFEAT THE EFFECTS OF HIS HEALTH IN TERMS OF PUBLIC POLICY, AND I’LL TRY TO USE THIS TALK TO TELL YOU WHAT I MEAN…. BY THE TIME RONALD REAGAN BECAME PRESIDENT… HE BEGAN TO STUDY EVERY MAJOR DOMESTIC AND FOREIGN ISSUE FACING THE UNITED STATES. AND SO WHEN HE WAS PRESIDENT, HE HAD BASICALLY WORKED OUT IN WRITING [BY] HIMSELF AND IN A NETWORK THAT HE HAD DEVELOPED ALMOST BY HIMSELF OF HUMAN CAPITAL OF PEOPLE AND RESOURCES THAT HE COULD TAP INTO, IT WAS SO WELL WORKED OUT AND SO INFUSED IN THE NATIONAL SECURITY DIRECTIVES THAT GUIDED THE ADMINISTRATION AND THE VARIOUS EXECUTIVE ORDERS AS WELL, AND THEN THE OVERALL STRATEGY OF THE ADMINISTRATION THAT HIS ABSENCE DUE TO HEALTH OR HIS INABILITY TO OFTEN COMMAND DECISION MAKING IN THE MIDDLE OF MAJOR CRISES LIKE IRAN CONTRA, DIDN’T STOP THE TRAIN THAT REAGAN HAD TAKEN, HAD PUSHED FORWARD.
In 2006, President George W. Bush directed the White House Situation Room be renovated and updated. The Situation Room Complex was used by nine sitting Presidents including Ronald Reagan. Two of the key rooms, the Main Conference Room and the Secure Video Transmission Site were preserved and reinstalled in the George W. Bush and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Libraries, respectively.
To harness the power of these rooms the National Archives and Records Administration created the Situation Room Experience simulation for high school field trips. These profoundly significant rooms provide an exceptional educational opportunity for students who will form teams to assume the roles of the Executive Office of the President and the President’s Cabinet in order to manage a constitutional crisis. Their fellow classmates will become members of the news media scrambling to cover the story as it unfolds before them. The students must work together in a high stakes environment to examine a multitude critical sources and make important decisions about developing events.
Part of our mission at all of the NARA Presidential Libraries is to educate the public on how leadership, management, and team work are essential in the Executive Branch. The Situation Room Experience provides a completely immersive firsthand simulation of crisis management from the highest offices in the land. But, what happens when a crisis can’t be solved in the Situation Room? What happens when the crisis is personal? How does it shape national politics?
What can we learn outside the Situation Room?
We encourage you to learn more by watching the video above or clicking the link.
Questions for further discussion:
- What leadership qualities do you find important in a leader?
- How does this discussion shape your view of the upcoming November election? Has your opinion of any of the candidates changed as a result?
- What experiences in life have tested your ability to handle a crisis? What skills did you use to get through? How were leadership, management, and teamwork part of your solution?
- Why might leaders want to keep parts of their life private? How far does the public’s right to know extend into the lives of elected officials?