True Reagan

What Made Ronald Reagan Great and Why It Matters


By James Rosebush

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WHAT MADE RONALD REAGAN TICK? What was the secret to his greatness, the source of his influence, the key to his character, the strength behind his leadership?

And why does it matter to the nation today?

Just the mention of his name still evokes deep admiration and affection among Americans of every stripe, on both sides of the aisle. Many have previously sought to capture the essence of this very public figure often called “mysterious and unknowable.” But now, as James Rosebush tells Reagan’s story from first-hand experience in TRUE REAGAN, we come closer to understanding the heart of this great American.

In his roles as the longest-serving Chief of Staff to Nancy Reagan and Deputy Assistant to President Reagan (his point man on philanthropy and public/private partnerships), James Rosebush had unrivaled one-on-one access to Reagan, observing his personality, his decision-making, his guarded nature. Rosebush’s revelations are moving and meant to inspire us to look to our 40th President for guidance now as we face the global challenges of a complicated 21st century.

Ronald Reagan was first and foremost an intensely private person, although the life he led placed him at the center of people’s attention from his earliest years. Small-town boy and college athlete, sportscaster and lifelong sports fan, actor and movie star, union leader and TV spokesman, Democrat and Republican, governor and president: what an incredible and extraordinary path. Rosebush tells how his center core was formed by his mother, who devoted herself to helping others even as the Reagans struggled themselves. The spiritual foundation she instilled in him by teaching him the Bible governed his thoughts, beliefs and actions all his life.

In a very real sense, his upbringing destined Reagan to become a global evangelist for American Exceptionalism – but importantly, as Rosebush learned first-hand, that did not mean Reagan thought Americans themselves were superior, as today’s pundits and politicians often preach. Rather, Reagan believed that the ideals of America’s founding were superior, enabling all Americans to live lives based on high ideals and spiritual principles, and thus achieve unparalleled success. Reagan was uniquely able to lead from true conviction and strength, his confidence stemming from an unshakeable fundamental belief system.

Better understanding the essence of this inspiring and principled leader is critical to our future. Journey back with Rosebush through the innumerable examples he recounts from first-hand observation and marvel once again at TRUE REAGAN.


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Where Is the Rest of Me?

He has been out of office for nearly three decades, and yet the name of Ronald Reagan is heard often today. Even as history fades and the precise details of his presidency become less distinct, many believe that the fortieth President of the United States would have answers to the complex and almost implacable issues we face today, or, at a minimum, he might have the bearing and strength of character to significantly improve global geopolitical conditions. In our extraordinarily disruptive world, Reagan is recalled as a leader who could verbally wrestle global agitators into submission. Some people look for his character traits to be represented in the voices of today's leaders. Few find them there.

In poll after poll, Reagan is referred to as a standard-bearer in leadership and communication. His public approval rating is higher now than when he left office. His overall standing has positioned him in the top ranking of those whom the public considers to be the greatest American leaders. This puts him in good company alongside George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. The force of his own personality and his acts as President were impressive enough to be enduring in the hearts and minds of American citizens. And yet we sense there is more to the man that we have yet to discover. Although Reagan is referred to in the media with regularity, I have also walked down city streets and been surprised to randomly hear people of all ages talking about Reagan—usually with some curiosity, typically with respect. When I encounter strangers who learn I worked for Reagan, they typically want to tell me how much they respected him and they want to know more of what he was really like as a human being. They want to keep him alive and not have him become a mere historical statue on public display. It is almost as if they want to think of him playing a continuing role in a still-unfolding story of the America he loved so much.

The plain reality is that Reagan is not alive today to unlock the secrets of how he achieved this iconic status in leadership and communication—nor is he available to propose a platform of legislative and policy proposals to solve the various problems in which the world has become mired in the post-Reagan era. But then he never revealed his secret to achieving success in these disciplines while he was alive, either. He eschewed public introspection and confounded most anyone who attempted to decipher the source of his winning ways. Few realized that beneath that quiet demeanor was actually a brooding long-term strategist with a grand plan. He was willing to let people think what they wanted to about him. Inside he was charting a course for himself and the world based on beliefs he established in his early life. He did not strive for personal popularity. He wanted American values to be popular. He attached himself to these values as if he were holding on to the horn of a saddle as he rode the uptick in public popularity because of his political horsemanship. It was a brilliant strategy that American leaders since Reagan have almost completely missed. It was his own genius. The Reagan way. Not found in any textbook, on any website, or in political training, and yet simple, direct, and accessible.

People have asked me: What would Reagan do if he were alive today—about one of the many fearsome trouble spots in the world? How would he handle these conflicts? What answers would he have? What kind of Oval Office speech could he give to make us feel better about the situation? How would he manage U.S. bilateral and multilateral relationships? How would he take control and exercise the strength required to deter aggression against the U.S. and our allies? How would he unite us rather than divide us?

The only reasonable answer to this type of speculation is to look back at his record, practice, and principles. From these we could discern that since Reagan proved himself a brilliant strategist—though he was not heralded as one while in office—a fierce competitor on the verbal battlefield, effective in developing and maintaining useful personal relationships with other leaders, and an eager delegator of responsibility, he would have a powerful response to contemporary challenges. I believe Reagan would have offered a muscular deterrence to leaders who would encroach on the universal values he held to be most important and championed—individual freedom from oppressive and overreaching government control, and personal liberty. Whatever political leader and whatever system got in the way of these God-given rights, as Reagan saw them and referred to them, he targeted as the enemy or evil.

Yes, he protected Americans, but what's more, his efforts were designed to help individuals suffering under totalitarian regimes anywhere in the world. The facts bear this out. Reagan's political beneficiaries are found in many parts of the world. Reagan loved America and believed in its exceptionalism, but he also wanted everyone in the world to enjoy what Americans do. He wanted the light from the "shining city on a hill" he believed America represented to be shed around the globe. He knew that safeguarding and spreading democracy outside of the United States was the best way to protect Americans and the freedoms we enjoy. He never retrenched. He never yielded authority to anyone who did not operate in the best interest of the American people and American values. He loved his country and his countrymen too much not to keep them safe.

Since the time Reagan occupied the Oval Office, no one in American politics has been able to equal his oratorical ability and assume the mantle of The Great Communicator, as he was dubbed by the media. But earning this honor was due to more than being a mere thespian, effectively mouthing the sometimes grand and picturesque thoughts of others. Reagan wrote hundreds of his own speeches in longhand on yellow legal pads (which survive to this day), researched their content, and spoke from his heart and mind—long before there were any professional speechwriters on board. In actuality Reagan was the Great Communicator far before he moved into the "home above the store"—as he and other Presidents have called the White House. Starting in the early 1950s, Reagan was publicly explaining his vision for America everywhere he was invited and some places where he was not—most notably in Hollywood. His beliefs were not political contrivances suddenly concocted for his presidential campaigns. They were observable in his communications before he even dreamed of a run for the presidency.

People tend to think of Reagan as having had one career prior to reaching the White House—that of movie actor—and while that job experience proved useful in his ultimate and final position, it was in a much earlier homegrown role, growing up as the son of a preacher in small Midwestern towns, that gave Reagan his basic and most durable communication skills—as well as his personal principles. He learned early to copy and adopt the oratorical skills of his mother, who was a substitute minister and small-town actor, and to a limited extent he also mimicked his father, who was quick with Irish humor as well as a ready and picturesque storyteller himself. Reagan developed his capabilities and ideals for leading and communicating at home growing up; over his lifetime, he expanded and refined them in his jobs as lifeguard, radio sportscaster, film actor, union organizer and leader, corporate spokesman, Las Vegas nightclub performer, and two-term governor.

What I have written is based on what I saw and heard during my days working for the Reagans. I am also sharing what the President revealed to me personally, face-to-face. These one-on-one encounters shaped and informed my view of how he came by these strongly held beliefs or standards, as well as the uncommon courage to employ them boldly for the benefit of society. Until Reagan occupied the White House, the world had not seen these exact qualities in a twentieth-century statesman since Winston Churchill, nor have we seen them since. Like Churchill, Reagan's story is all about his values and character: how he developed and tested them; how he suffered to establish them; and finally how he created, affected, and delivered governmental policy based on them—and thereby changed history.

Great leadership and communication carry and deliver a message and moral energy. The ability to achieve positive change is fundamentally dependent upon the values and character of the leader. Leaders are ultimately remembered by the effects or results of their work and the examples they leave behind. Often they are more completely understood after they leave office. That was what happened to Winston Churchill who, despite having led England to victory in World War II, was shockingly turned out of political office at the end of the war, but is now universally lionized for his outsized accomplishments, his soaring and inspiring oratory, and his character.

But Churchill, a more colorful character who was in public service far longer, defined himself much better than Reagan through his prolific published writings, his thousands of public speeches that included personal reflections and professions of his own fears and vulnerability, and his leadership of the British to victory in World War II. Though born in a palace, Churchill lived a life of public service and was often accessible to the average man—especially during the war. As a result he has been comparatively easier for biographers to write about and the public to understand than Reagan—although even in Churchill himself there also remains a degree of mystery.

Reagan, with a much simpler résumé than Churchill, made himself more difficult to understand because he was not publicly introspective, was relatively colorless, largely scandal free, left few genuinely interpretative writings or interviews, and did not lead a nation into or through a great war. Yet even though much of his private personality remains unmined, his public standing continues to climb. The fact is that although few really understand Reagan from the inside out, he has become a standard against which other leaders are now compared—that is, he set a standard, in some categories, of an ideal American President.

This book uncovers and defines some of these unique and vital, yet hidden, Reagan characteristics and draws a link between his leadership record and the human, moral, and spiritual values and belief systems on which he built a successful political career. In order to comprehend the standards and precepts by which he lived, led, and communicated, we need to begin by discovering more about the internal workings of the man. This helps frame and illuminate the unique background that formed Reagan's principles by which he lived and set his own unique creed as a leader. His life and his values are inseparable from what he was able to accomplish in public office, and that is the greatest Reagan leadership lesson of all. Reagan's beliefs provide a road map to his genuine core. Even though he had been a celebrity and in the media for decades, he could never completely escape the features of his upbringing, which extolled virtue and suppressed personality. In a way, he never left the Rock River in Dixon, Illinois, where he spent seven summers as a teenage lifeguard. During that time he saved seventy-seven swimmers threatened by rip currents and sometimes choppy waters. I believe he always saw himself as a lifeguard—ultimately on a much larger river—on a larger mission. Reagan the Lifeguard. It explains a lot.

Another apt and figurative role that fits Reagan was that of standard-bearer. Standard-bearers have, throughout history, literally and mythically led the charge into battle, always carrying the standard or flag of the advancing army. As a type of standard-bearer, Reagan was a warrior for his beliefs. He carried a proclamation of what he understood to be the best American values. He was courageous in his willingness to go to battle over ideals—when he thought it was warranted—for the cause of freedom and democracy in the world. Reagan carried that flag with clarity of purpose, with pride, and with love for the country he represented. He also almost sacrificed his life for this country as an assassin's target.

This is a book about the future as well as the past. There have been seismic shifts in American culture and global politics since Reagan lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but the moral, spiritual, and intellectual precepts of great leadership should not be locked up like quaint features of the past. They are elements required of every time and of any free society. This book is not so much a visit to the past as it is an examination of the components of leadership needed for the future—all based on Reagan's character and record.

People have their own views about what made Ronald Reagan great—or not great. However, my hope is that what I have written will at least stir a discussion about the essential components of great leadership and how they can become a more prominent part of our current and future global community. What actually made Reagan great—and he would have been hardly as great otherwise—was his character, which was furnished and nourished by his inner convictions, standards, and beliefs. Reagan's life and leadership provided a useful example of the depth of thought and personal commitment, deployed in an impersonal and humble way, that are needed in local communities as well as on the world stage.

Reagan was called aloof, friendless, cold, and uncompassionate by his opponents, in just the way that Abraham Lincoln was caricatured. Reagan was also portrayed as intellectually inferior because of his prior profession, just as Lincoln was for his lack of formal education. Reagan was even derided by conservatives as not being conservative enough. Some of these labels were political fabrications. Some merit consideration. In this book, a discussion of his inner character will address some of the lingering doubts and questions about his leadership ability. This book will expose where his gift for leadership came from, how he prepared for it, how hard he actually worked at it, how competitive he was, and ultimately why he is attaining a higher stature in world opinion where many of the traditional features of leadership he bore are rapidly disappearing.


His Beliefs Were His Arsenal, and Words His Weapons

On September 1, 1983, two years into his first term as President, while Reagan was vacationing at his beloved Santa Barbara, California, ranch, the Soviet Union decided to awaken a drowsy world with its terrorist downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007. The Boeing 747 was a passenger jet flying from New York to Seoul, South Korea, carrying one member of the United States Congress and 268 other passengers and crew members from various countries. After stopping in Anchorage, Alaska, for refueling and after a change of routing, the plane mistakenly veered into Soviet airspace and, after a short volley of radio communication, was shot down by a Russian fighter pilot over the Sea of Japan. This jarring and deliberate act on the part of the Soviets came on the heels of Reagan's now iconic, but fiercely controversial at the time, "Evil Empire" speech. That speech had been delivered a few months before in Orlando, Florida, on March 8, and it was the perfect oration to presage and frame this incident. The Soviets had now handed irrefutable evidence to Reagan and the rest of the world that they were in fact an evil empire. This incident helped to verify the charge in Reagan's speech.

Mike Deaver, his longtime closest aide and friend, related to me afterward that he pressed an unhappy Reagan into an early retreat from his wood splitting and brush gathering at his small adobe-style ranch house high in the picturesque Santa Ynez Mountains, back to the grave and serious dark-paneled and windowless White House Situation Room—located in a bunker in the West Wing basement. Once there Reagan, in surprising opposition to the impatience of his advisors, was not quick to approve any orders for immediate and specific retaliatory action. Reagan typically took the long view of history while making short-term policy decisions. He frustrated the assembled officials—who were urging decisive and immediate action by the American leader—by suggesting a better course was to wait and assess how the rest of the world recorded and responded to this violent act and to then determine the retribution, if any, from other quarters before he took any bold action himself. The trigger-happy hawk, as he was regarded by some, took his own turn onto a course of using other countries and multilateral voices around the world to convey his own shock and alarm—but not for long.

He was strategic in taking this measure of global response, because he saw this deliberate act of terror as an opening to not just condemn this specific action but to link it to the broader evil of communism. He used his political capital to take another whack at what he had characterized as an evil system and make a worldwide schoolroom lesson from it. He preferred to look at this incident in the context of his long-term plan to defeat communism—or, better said, let it defeat itself, with some help from him, his government, and a small group of other world and religious leaders.

But the world did not have to wait long to hear from him about this incident, nor did he parse his words when he spoke directly to the nation for sixteen dramatic minutes from the Oval Office. In his remarks he drew a vivid picture of the recklessness and immorality of this shocking act. Reagan had felt that way about what the Soviets did from the moment his national security advisor reported it to him. He waited, though, for the right moment to respond, when other leaders were mostly done speaking, to launch his verbal salvo of disgust. There was no disguising how he felt when he went before the cameras, in the Oval Office, to sum up what he thought.

He appeared sober and concerned. This was not a watered-down, rambling statement. His words were like heat-seeking, confrontational missiles. His words, but more his beliefs, locked onto and hit the target. The verbal strikes were specific and unequivocal. He included a substantial list of actions he was taking and actions he was asking the United Nations and allies the world over to initiate as a result of the downing of KAL 007. His presentation to the American people on September 5 reflected his view that standards of human behavior had been broken, standards that he supported unwaveringly. He also cleverly played the tape of the pilots in the Soviet attack plane, which showed they had clearly executed a deliberate act while describing it in detail to an alarmed ground crew.

It was critical that Reagan played that tape in the wake of continual Soviet denial of their complicity in the tragic downing. Again, he was attempting to let an evil system destroy itself by dramatically unmasking and exposing it in plain sight to the world. He was betting on widespread moral repudiation from a moral audience. He let the Soviet downing be prosecuted in the court of global public opinion. Importantly, Reagan believed in empowering his constituency through his oratory, because he respected them. He was a uniter. He attempted in every talk to bring Americans together to project a position of strength to the world. He knew he needed more than the power of his words to win his way in the theatre of global opinion. He needed the American people behind him and with him.

To place this incident in a global context, which was typical of his strategy with most issues, Reagan said that night from the Oval Office in the following excerpts I have reordered to emphasize their importance:

"And make no mistake about it, this attack was not just against ourselves… This was the Soviet Union against the world and the moral precepts which guide human relations among people everywhere. It was an act of barbarism, born of a society which wantonly disregards individual rights and the value of human life and seeks constantly to expand and dominate other nations…

"Let me state as plainly as I can: There was absolutely no justification, either legal or moral, for what the Soviets did…

"But despite the savagery of their crime, the universal reaction against it, and the evidence of their complicity, the Soviets still refuse to tell the truth… Indeed, they've not even told their own people that a plane was shot down."

During his remarks he referred to the U.S. Congress with respect as "that distinguished body" and continued his bipartisan reach by quoting from former Democratic Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson (D-WA) and also from President John F. Kennedy. Finally, seeking to draw the listeners up close and to unite them, he ended this way:

"Let us have faith, in Abraham Lincoln's words, 'that right makes might, and in that faith let us to the end dare to do our duty as we understand it.' If we do, if we stand together and move forward with courage, then history will record that some good did come from this monstrous wrong that we will carry with us and remember for the rest of our lives."

Who was this President who had the uncommon ability to stake a position so boldly and with such conviction? Few people understood the man captured by the camera lens sitting behind his massive oak desk, but they could agree he did have the ability to engage an audience with his message.

Reagan has remained in death as he was in life: a uniquely compelling and extraordinarily gifted world leader on the outside, but with an enigmatic interior. His life—that is, his personality—was unsettling and incomprehensible to some biographers. His mostly quiet inner character seemed out of bounds for them. For most people, including even some who worked for him and had known him for years, he was just plain hard to figure out. It wasn't that he was unusually complicated; it was that he was usually uncomplicated. The trouble arose from the fact that he never really talked about himself, especially in ways that might have revealed what he was thinking. He did not lead a personally interpretative life—at least as much as we know from hints about what he was thinking and the things he shared with me individually, in official meetings, and in what he said to his wife in my presence. He kept a mental distance, cordoned off from and frustrating his long-suffering official biographer, Edmund Morris, who threw up his hands in exasperation over a subject he described to journalist Lesley Stahl as "one of the strangest men who's ever lived. Nobody around him understood him. I, every person I interviewed, almost without exception, eventually would say, 'You know, I could never really figure him out.'" This was despite Morris's having conducted thousands of hours of interviews and research that resulted in an equally strange eight-hundred-page book on the fortieth President.

My experience with Reagan and my interpretation of his character was decidedly different from that of Morris and some other well-meaning and scholarly writers. Because I had the responsibility for starting the domestic policy program most reflective of Reagan's personal values, he took an extraordinary amount of time to explain to me what those values were. Because I also traveled the world with the President and First Lady, had an opportunity to engage them at certain reflective points, and to ask him, especially, about his personal and sometimes unofficial views on various topics, his guarded and complicated persona seemed more plainly accessible to me.

Reagan rarely reflected publicly upon or discussed what was going on inside his discreet mind, and even today he is known not so much for who he was but rather by what he accomplished. And that was just the way he wanted it. The reason, however, that it is crucial to define the interior of the man is that this is where his principles originated—from carefully adopted precepts, learned and acquired in early boyhood, adolescence, and college, then refined, tested, revised, and put to work over a lifetime. These principles informed and shaped the decisions he made as an American and a global leader that affected millions of people. To complete the picture of Reagan as a leader, we need to knit these two sides of the man together.

While some heads of state are measured solely by their actions, politics, or intellect, it was Reagan's personal character and particular belief systems that account for his success as President. He would have been a failure at political leadership without them. And yet, even with these character elements so critical to his success, little is still known about these rock-solid pillars of his thinking, to which he was so irresistibly committed. This inside look—defining Reagan by his principles, and defining his principles by understanding his inner character—is the type of Reagan assessment that has been largely missed, even by many who knew him and worked with him. Reagan himself was of little help to others who could have defined him. Even Mike Deaver, who knew him for thirty-five years, titled his book about Reagan A Different Drummer.

I will never forget the initial unveiling of the official White House portrait of the President—a large oil painting. Sadly it had to be sent back to the artist, rejected because of its obvious unlikeness to the real Reagan. In fact the Reagan Library has a gallery of Reagan portraiture that attempted but often did not capture the accurate likeness of the President. Good portrait painting usually conveys something of the character of the subject in addition to an accurate or representational physical resemblance. Many artists have had a difficult time painting Reagan with success. He is as challenging to depict in physical reality as in metaphysical topography.

Now, for the first time, there is an entire generation for whom Reagan is only an archetypal historical figure or an icon. For them he is not recognizable through direct experience. Since the private Reagan was left largely unnarrated by him throughout his life and he was almost totally silent about it during his presidency, it is more difficult to grasp what he was really like. However, this quiet disposition provides indispensable clues to the interior principles he lived by and that directly affected his exterior actions. This is why I am so frequently asked: "What was Reagan really like?"

Like most public servants, Reagan left a trail of documented official evidence—records that detail his actions as well as those that speak to his character; however, he did not fit the puzzle pieces of his character together, nor did he reveal, directly or interpretively, much about his private identity or his rationale for making decisions. He never painted a particularly discerning literary self-portrait, although he did write autobiographically about the facts of his life—out of necessity, in campaign-styled volumes. He left it for us to attempt to create a more complete picture of the personal qualities that defined his character—and these features, assembled together with his official record, result in a total picture of the man. Few leaders are ever one-dimensional—Reagan included. However, what some historical figures accomplished in public life and left in the public record satisfies an appetite for biographical portraiture.


  • Jim Rosebush brings special perspective to the subject of Ronald Reagan. He enjoyed the unique position of having worked for both the President and First Lady. Jim is a natural communicator and, as such, has the capacity to reach a wide audience on a topic of great national interest.—Susan Eisenhower
  • I doubt that anyone had more time with the Reagans than Jim Rosebush---As Nancy Reagan's Chief of Staff, Jim was indispensable both in Washington and when they traveled abroad. In my job as Chief of Protocol, I had many occasions to be grateful to Jim for his empathy and efficiency and he was always a delight to work with.—Selwa "Lucky" Roosevelt
  • Jim captures the wit, wisdom, and warmth of President Reagan. He was there as Reagan set out to change America and wound up changing the world. Jim had a unique perch to understand the character and leadership attributes of our beloved 40th President. He also was a keen observer of the real, not Hollywood, love affair between the President and Nancy and the impact that had on Reagan's achievements.
    Kenneth M. Duberstein, former White House Chief of Staff to President Reagan
  • No one was in a position to observe and understand the unique character of Ronald Reagan better than Jim Rosebush, who interacted with the President and his family as a trusted professional. His judgement on White House matters public and private is authoritative.
    John Lehman, former Secretary of the Navy and member of the 9/11 Commission
  • Jim Rosebush's insights are firsthand, close-up, and reliable. His is a fine addition to the growing canon about our greatest modern President.
    Mitch Daniels, President, Purdue University, and former Governor of Indiana
  • This book leaves no doubt that Ronald Reagan was the most consequential President of the second half of the twentieth century. He was my model as Mayor of New York. The book should be required reading for all presidential candidates and voters.
    Rudolph W. Giuliani, former Mayor of New York City, and Associate Attorney General and U.S. Attorney appointed by President Ronald Reagan
  • Rosebush understands Reagan-what motivated him and what made him great. We need a whole lot more of Reagan's powerful moral courage and Jim Rosebush has shared what the President revealed to him on this subject during the years he worked in the White House. A must-read for anyone who loves Reagan and wants to understand him better. A blueprint for our current and future leaders. They could learn a lot from this book.
    Larry Kudlow, CNBC Senior Contributor, Radio Host of the nationally syndicated Larry Kudlow Show
  • This up-close, personal account by a real White House insider gives us the best insight yet into who Ronald Reagan really was and what made him tick.
    Bob Schieffer, CBS News
  • This book fills an important space in the Reagan literature. It gives readers an exciting understanding of the pace and texture of life in that dynamic President's White House.
    George F. Will, Syndicated Columnist

On Sale
Apr 18, 2017
Page Count
288 pages
Center Street

James Rosebush

About the Author

James Rosebush was a Deputy Assistant to President Reagan, the Chief of Staff to First Lady Nancy Reagan, and a Senior Advisor at the White House. For over twenty years he has been CEO of an international consulting firm, GrowthStrategy, Inc., advising on management strategies, finance, marketing, and communications, throughout the world. He lives in Washington, DC, with his wife, Nancy.

Learn more about this author