Professor James H. Broussard teaches American history and historiography at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania. His research and publications concentrate on the Jefferson-Jackson era, the South, and American politics. He formerly served as executive director of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic.
In addition to writing many articles and book reviews, Dr. Broussard has previously wrote the book, The Southern Federalists, 1800-1816. He is currently working on another book, Cracking the Solid South, 1961: Social Change, the New Frontier, and a Two-Party Texas. He has an undergraduate degree from Harvard University and a Master of Arts and Ph.D. from Duke University.
Jennifer Williams: Why did you decide to write Ronald Reagan: Champion of Conservative America now?
James Broussard: The editor of the series (“Routledge Historical Americans”) is a rabid left-winger & has known me for a long time, & apparently I’m the only Republican historian he knows. He called me & said I was the only logical person to do the Reagan bio. He also knew me well enough to tell the publisher, “Broussard will never actually finish the book, but we should assign it to him out of respect,” or words to that effect. So, just to mess with his mind, I decided actually to write the thing.
Jennifer Williams: Did anything in your research of President Reagan surprise you?
James Broussard: I knew nothing about his early life & practically nothing about his Hollywood career. I did know he was a liberal but had no idea how far left he was in Hollywood. For a while he was even on the FBI list of possible Communists. That was pretty surprising. I knew nothing at all about his work for General Electric, touring the country speaking at plants for eight years, during which he moved from liberal to conservative. I was also surprised at how pragmatic (or squishy) he was as governor.
Jennifer Williams: As a history professor, what are some of the major achievements that you have found your young students to know or not know about President Reagan?
Jennifer Williams: As America gets older and more and more voters will not have first-hand memories of Ronald or President Reagan, what would you suggest parents teach their children about him? Kids may not learn much about him in their schools.
James Broussard: I think the most important things to pass on about Reagan would be a) that he combined a firm adherence to basic principles with a pragmatic ability to bend when necessary to get the things he wanted done; b) he realized long before most people that the Soviet Union was internally weak, and he was not afraid to work with Gorbachev to end the Cold War on his own terms; and c) he agreed with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and FDR that the US was the greatest force for good in the world.
Jennifer Williams: Do you think the Republican Party will ever be as competitive in California as it was during Governor Reagan’s time in office or even while President Reagan led our country?
James Broussard: Once the immigration issue is settled and the Hispanic business & professional class grows over the decades, it will be possible for Republicans to be competitive in CA with good candidates.
Jennifer Williams: Where do you see the opportunities for the Republican Party going forward?
James Broussard: The best way to maximize Republican opportunities is to emphasize Reagan’s themes: economic issues, a strong foreign policy, and learning to express conservative ideas in pleasant, un-threatening language rather than angry dogmatism.
Jennifer Williams: What lessons can readers take away from your book?
James Broussard: The best recipe for success in your endeavors is to have clear, consistent principles; exude optimism and friendliness [Reagan had no “enemies list”], and be willing to accept half a loaf when you can’t get it all.
Jennifer Williams: Please tell us about the challenges of writing such a book and telling President Reagan’s story in such a fresh way.
James Broussard: The biggest challenge was keeping the thing within the allotted limit of about 185 pages of text. You really need about 400 pages to tell the Reagan story as fully as it should be told. Along with that problem was the difficulty of wading through the several hundred good books on aspects of Reagan’s life & distilling the essence of the story.
Jennifer Williams: Do you have a favorite moment or story about President Reagan?
James Broussard: I have two favorite moments. First, early in his Hollywood career, Reagan did four movies about “Brass Bancroft,” a young, eager, two-fisted Treasury agent who fought crooks & spies. The series was a big hit with kids, especially boys. One of them was so enchanted with the Brass Bancroft stories that he swore he’d become a Secret Service agent when he grew up. He actually did, and in March 1981 he saved Reagan’s life.
Secondly, in his first meeting with [Soviet Premier Mikhail] Gorbachev, Reagan got to Geneva early & was waiting in the villa when Gorbachev arrived in a big black limousine. He got out wrapped in a big overcoat, big scarf, & big hat–looked like Charlie Brown all wrapped up to go outside. Reagan bounded down the steps in his blue suit–no coat, no hat, no scarf–and effusively welcomed Gorbachev & then sort of led him up the steps almost like “here, old fellow, let me help you.” You’d never know Gorbachev was younger by 20 years. Gorbachev knew he’d been had, and when they got inside he said to Reagan, “next time we meet, will it be coats on or coats off?”
The other great story that ends the book is this: In 1960, Nikita Khrushchev came to the US and delivered an angry anti-American rant to the UN. He got to fired up that he raised his hand and banged his shoe on the table. He used to say “Communism if the wave of the future” and “we will bury you.”
Four decades later, Nikita Khrushchev’s son came to the US, raised his hand, and took the oath of allegiance as an American citizen. Reagan had told the students at Moscow State University that “anyone, from anywhere in the world, can come to America and be an American.” Now Sergei Khrushchev had proved his point. Anyone from anywhere–even the son of a dictator from the heart of a formerly Evil Empire. Reagan said in 1989 that “we meant to change a nation, and instead we changed the world.” And he had.
Jennifer Williams: How would you recommend that Conservatives today explain Ronald Reagan’s coming to Conservatism and his leadership to young people today?
James Broussard: Like many young people, Reagan began life as a starry-eyed liberal who believed that government could cure all ills, but he was open-minded enough to become convinced, by his personal experiences as an adult, that government power could just as easily threaten liberty and undermine individual opportunity as it could do good deeds. He concluded that, if liberty is to be kept safe, government must be kept within strict limits.
Jennifer Williams: If Ronald Reagan were to run in 2016, what do you think he would run on and how do you think he would fair in the age of Facebook/Twitter and 24-hour cable news?
James Broussard: Reagan would easily master these new circumstances as he did the Age of Television. But actually, if he ran today many conservatives would denounce him as a RINO. As governor he pushed thru the biggest tax increase in his state’s history, signed the most liberal abortion bill in the country, and protected forests and rivers over economic development and subdivisions. He also single-handedly defeated a voter initiative to keep homosexual teachers out of the classroom. No Republican governor with those things on his record could possibly be nominated in 2016. And of course, as president, he gave amnesty to millions of illegal aliens and doubled the national debt.
Jennifer Williams: Can any parallels be made about the America and world in which Ronald Reagan ran for the Presidency in 1980 and the America and world we have today?
James Broussard: The fundamental needs of the country are the same as they were then: economic prosperity, a strong defense, and an effective foreign policy. There are some very fundamental differences, too, partly as a result of Reagan: he helped to kill inflation, and we have benefitted from that for nearly 30 yrs; he helped to kill the Soviet Union, and the world is safer today because of that; and he helped bring the Republican party from a permanent minority to a position of equality with the Democrats in voter loyalty.
Jennifer Williams: What are you working on now and do you have another book in mind for the future?
James Broussard: Right now I am working on a really boring book on “Parties & Politics in the Early Republic,” but I also realized that there is no good mid-length (400 pages or so) life of Reagan. There’s a good 1600-page life, and a couple of 800-pagers, and my little 200 pager. But there’s nothing in the middle & I wonder if some good publisher might be convinced there’s a market for one.