Interview by Karen Floyd
Surrounded by elegance in the toney Washington, DC, meeting room, Ambassador Faith Whittlesey stands gazing out the large windows of her condominium. Dazzling in vintage Oscar de la Renta palazzo pants and an embellished silk tunic ensemble with very small rhinestones and pearls interspersed, she is headed to the “Liberty Ball” at the Library of Congress Building.
Ambassador Whittlesey is known for projecting a certain elegance and bright, positive image of the Reagan Administration. She served on the international scene as President Reagan’s Ambassador to Switzerland and then in a senior leadership position at the White House as Director of Public Liaison. She also is known for having popularized a quote about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire: “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels.” An early supporter of President Trump, Ambassador Whittlesey has written several articles comparing President Reagan to President Trump.
Taking the pomp and circumstance of the inauguration as emblematic of similarities between the two Presidents, we were privileged to interview Ambassador Whittlesey.
Karen Floyd: Can you tell us about your formative years in the theater?
Ambassador Whittlesey: I became involved in all aspects of high school musicals with great enthusiasm, performing solos, singing, and tap dancing. And I entered elocution contests. I was a piano teacher, too. By the time I was 16, I had 21 piano pupils. In college, I was the producer of our college musical. So, I developed a sense of the importance of staging and backdrop. Later, when I went into politics, I realized that my theatrical experience could be very helpful. When I went to work for President Reagan, first as Ambassador in Switzerland and later in the White House, I was conscious of how best to present him to his audience. He understood the power of words to move men and nations. He used language brilliantly and had a keen sense of overall presentation.
Q: Did President Reagan understand image and brand?
A: Very much so. He was conscious of everything and aware of his surroundings. For instance, speaking about a military matter, he would think about and take into account the backdrop and how it related to the content of the speech.
Q: And President Trump?
A: President Trump has a strong sense of theater, too. Reagan was and Trump is extremely charismatic. Coming into a room, they dominate the room. Reagan was a large man. He had been a movie star. He had been a sportscaster. He was an athlete, and he had a natural grace of movement. Donald Trump is much the same. When President Trump enters a room, all heads turn. I enjoy his playful and easy sense of humor, even his sarcasm, and I enjoy talking to him. He has always been extremely respectful to me as a woman but full of fun, and he is always charming, one-on-one. Like Reagan, he naturally likes people.
Q: Both men understood the theater and performing to audiences. Do you see this played out in the inaugural festivities?
A: The inauguration has many similarities to theater. But as a performance, it’s for the nation — to give the nation a sense of pride, cohesion, history — and hope and confidence in the future.
Q: The glamour of the Reagans and Trumps, from where does that emanate?
A: Respect for the office and confidence in holding it. Nancy Reagan was conscious of her demeanor and believed it important for a First Lady to project glamour and grace. Clearly, the Trumps are glamorous, attractive people. It affects those around them. My granddaughter Catharine O’Neill worked in the transition where everyone had to be very well dressed because the Trump family set a high standard. You couldn’t come into the Transition Team looking like you were wearing yesterday’s jeans and a rumpled shirt! That you look your best for the job conveys respect for the office. Donald Trump understands the high honor of service in his position and wants to look his best at all times.
Q: Mrs. Reagan and Mrs. Trump, are there similarities?
A: Yes. Nancy Reagan loved fashion. She loved furniture and beautiful things. She decorated the White House in a way that reflected her exquisite good taste. Melania is from Eastern Europe and brings to her role as First Lady an awareness of the rich history of Eastern Europe, a place where they respect beauty in all things — beautiful music, art, cathedrals, castles. I think Melania will be a tremendous asset. The public will enjoy getting to know her better as they observe her in her official activities as First Lady. She has an extensive background in fashion and is highly poised.
Q: Why is presentation or personal appearance important?
A: In politics you have to persuade, all the time. You’re constantly trying to convince people of your point of view. Even when the sound is turned off for an audience, people have to be able to look at you and like what they see. Even though they may not agree with everything you’re saying, it’s easier for them to accept your message if you’re well dressed and you look like you’ve made an effort to make yourself the most attractive you can be for them in your public role.
Q: What about these men made them Populists?
A: In both cases it was their upbringing rather than strict economic conditions of birth. Ronald Reagan came from a very humble background. He worked his way through college. His parents were people of modest means. But he had an intact close-knit family with strong values, even though they had their share of sorrows, with his father and alcoholism apparently. But Ronald Reagan never forgot the people he knew when he was a young man, and he had a natural affinity for ordinary people. We never left a hotel with President Reagan until he had lined up all the cooks, and the maids, and the waiters in the garage so he could go and shake every hand before he got into his limousine, and he insisted on doing that in every meeting that I participated in with him. Donald Trump grew up in Queens and learned at an early age to respect men and women who work hard. He has never been a member of the exclusive clubs of New York. He comes from a working class borough, and he went to a military school. He didn’t go to Choate or St. Paul’s or St. Mark’s. He spent his weekends with his father on construction projects. And he developed there a deep respect for the men and women who work with their hands. He has an easy, natural connection with working people. Thus, his communication skills with them are very much like Reagan’s. Like Reagan I also would say Trump identifies with ordinary people – he considers himself “one of them.” Trump like Reagan wants the United States to have strong, capable leadership. President Trump is concerned that our country has been slipping, that too many jobs have disappeared, and the future does not look bright for American children as it once did. Trump inspires people by his perseverance and determination. He speaks in plain language without the affectations of the American elite. His gift is that he can speak to the American people like a working man from Queens.
Q: And President Reagan?
A: President Reagan worked hard on his speeches, and he was constantly refining the presentation of his political ideas. Donald Trump has practical instincts which he’s gained in his business dealings, and he has a businessman’s sense, too, of what constitutes ideal conditions for economic growth and prosperity. He wants a project to be successful, be completed quickly on time, and within the budget. In my presence, he has always talked about subjects very directly in terms that businessmen would use, and I found him always to be interested in politics.
After the Liberty Ball, I asked the Ambassador about the event.
Q: How was the evening?
A: I found it joyful, exhilarating, a perfect finale to the glorious pageantry of the day. E
About Ambassador Faith Whittlesey – Faith Whittlesey was appointed U.S. Ambassador under President Reagan from 1981 – 83 and again from 1985 – 88. In the interim years, she was named Assistant to the President for Public Liaison in 1983. She focused on the core Reagan agenda during her White House tenure.
Faith Whittlesey passed away on May 21, 2018 at the age of 79.