The Intersection of Politics and Communication
As Air Force One touched down at Los Angeles International Airport on Jan. 20, 1989, Ronald Reagan prepared to disembark. Earlier in the day, he had relinquished the presidency to his successor, George H. W. Bush, and the expectation was that the former president would now unobtrusively resume his life as a private citizen.
Longstanding aide Fred Ryan ’77, now Reagan’s newly appointed chief of staff, had other plans.
As the former president emerged from the plane, the Spirit of Troy — waiting on the tarmac to welcome America’s 40th president home to California — struck up the stirring first notes of “Fight On!”
“He was very touched because after the fanfare in Washington, he thought it would just be a quiet arrival, so he was really surprised and delighted to see the USC Trojan Marching Band there to greet him,” said Ryan, who organized the welcome tribute.
Such loyalty is characteristic of Ryan, who served Reagan at the White House for seven years after joining the successful Reagan/Bush campaign in 1980. In 1987, Reagan appointed Ryan assistant to the president, a senior staff position in the White House, before making him his chief of staff, a position he held from 1989–95. Ryan was instrumental in creating the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and currently serves as chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and chair of the White House Historical Association.
In 2014, he became chief executive officer and publisher of The Washington Post. “It’s amazing — I was a double major in political science and speech communication, and decades later, here I am in a job that is at the intersection of communications and politics,” Ryan said of his new role.
Born in Tampa, Fla., Ryan’s father was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force. This meant a peripatetic childhood that included a stint in Italy before the family eventually settled in L.A., where Ryan attended high school and became “an uncontrollable USC fan.”
His lifelong passion for politics was sparked by family conversations around the dinner table.
“Neither of my parents were office holders, but they were both interested in politics and knowledgeable about it,” he said. “I was able to participate in conversations about politics from my early years. It’s something that just fascinated me and encompassed my interest then, just as it does today.”
After being accepted to USC — his top choice for college — he drew inspiration from faculty, who combined an academic background with the rich experience of engagement in the political arena.
“They were able to give us the substance and theories of politics as well as real insight into the day-to-day engagement of what political campaigns or political process were all about. I felt that was very useful.”
Ryan paid tribute to USC’s “unique, competitive spirit” and to his “stellar” professors, in particular the late William Lammers, professor of political science. “Many were leaders in their field and that really added to my USC experience,” he said.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in political science from USC Dornsife and in speech communication from USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and then graduating from USC Gould School of Law in 1980, Ryan first considered pursuing elective office but took a staff position at the White House instead.
“I found being part of the White House staff gave me the experience I originally sought in office,” Ryan said. “It was an exciting time of positive change. America was going through a transition and moving in a very positive direction and it was great to be a small part of that.”
Asked why Reagan selected him to be his assistant, Ryan laughs.
“Boy, I don’t know,” he said. “I’m just glad he did. I enjoyed working for him and with the team he put together, which included a number of Californians, several from USC.”
Ryan, who traveled extensively with Reagan after his presidency, drew great personal satisfaction from observing people’s response to his boss after two successful terms in the White House. One overseas visit that stood out was Reagan’s trip to Germany.
“He went to Berlin and got a hero’s welcome as the wall was coming down. That was an amazing trip.”
In 1995, Ryan’s career took a new turn when he became vice chair of television, cable and internet company Allbritton Communications. As president and chief operating officer, he managed its multiple broadcast and cable properties.
In 2007, Ryan co-founded Politico, a politically focused website and newspaper, serving as its president and CEO. Then, seven years later, Jeff Bezos, owner of The Washington Post, named Ryan to his current position, signaling a new, digitally focused direction for the publication.
Ryan says he is excited to be a part of the rapidly evolving fusion of media and technology. “Journalists know that because of the increasing role of technology, they should expect their entire career to be one of unprecedented change. Anyone in media today realizes it’s not a profession for the timid. It’s one that attracts people who are willing to seek, embrace and shape change.”
If Ryan has learned one lesson from his career — one he says applies equally to politics or journalism — it’s to come armed with a thick skin.
“President Reagan was always able to keep it positive and respectful, even with political opponents. Today, as we’re witnessing in this campaign, that’s changed. But you can’t look at one election cycle in isolation and let it color your perspective on the political system. You have to take a long-term approach.” And in the reigning climate of political cynicism, Ryan remains optimistic that the American people will make the right long-term decisions.
In a Washington, D.C., career spanning almost 30 years, Ryan has seen administrations come and go, but one constant is his satisfaction at watching USC’s prominence blossom.
“When I first came to D.C., USC was certainly known and respected, but in the last few years, its presence here and the appreciation and admiration for what the university does has grown enormously,” Ryan said. “As a proud Trojan that’s been great to see.”