Looking at Reagan

"Why can't an actor be as good a President as a peanut warehouseman, a hustling attorney, a schoolteacher? It all depends upon the quality of his fantasies between takes."

In his autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me?, Reagan affirms that the small town of Dixon, Illinois, where he lived between his ninth and twenty-first years, “shaped my body and mind for all the years to come after. Sitting in the Family Theatre, watching the marvelous flickering antics of Tom Mix and William S. Hart … Weeping and laughing boisterously from the second balcony at the touring plays like What Price Glory?...waiting for the winter freeze so that we could go skating … picnics in the summer, the long thoughts of spring, the pain with the coloring of the falling leaves … It was a good life. I have never asked for anything more, then or now.”

Reagan wrote those words in 1964. At the time he owned a ranch in Malibu Canyon worth close to $2 million and a house in costly Pacific Palisades, and he had no plans for moving back to the Midwest. He was living the good life—though one no Dixonian would recognize—on country club patios and thousand-acre spreads, and in the gathering political glare on the far edge of America. Reagan had the book ghostwritten, but was unhappy with the product and rewrote it himself. He took the title from his favorite movie, King’s Row, in which Reagan portrayed Drake McHugh, a playboy whose legs are removed by an unscrupulous surgeon. Drake wakes up in the hospital, looks down at himself, and delivers the most memorable line in Reagan’s acting career.

Where’s the Rest of Me? is surely the most unusual autobiography ever written by a potential President, just as Reagan is the most unusual candidate. His staff suggested that the book was impossible to find, and that it was without significance. I read it with fascination. It is the only firsthand access to what is becoming a closed part of the public trust, a book notable for its unabashed sentimentality, and for its omissions.

“Ours was a free family that loved each other up to the point where the independence of each member began.” They were poor, and Reagan was largely on his own. His father, an Irish Catholic and a Democrat in a bastion of WASPish Republicanism, was a failed shoe salesman, and a drunk. Reagan speaks only of his father’s “weakness.” His mother spent a lot of time organizing readings for women’s groups and visiting jails. Reagan was “a scrawny, undersized, underweight nuisance” to his older brother, a football star.

“Football was a matter of life and death,” although Reagan never excelled at it. He also acted in high school, and was a lifeguard in the summers. He saved seventy-seven people, most of whom accused him of showing off. “I got to recognize that people hate to be saved.” He wanted to go to a nearby Christian college known as Eureka because his high school sweetheart was going there, and one of his football heroes had attended. Reagan lacked the money but was given a partial scholarship for his devotion to athletics, and a job washing dishes. His sweetheart’s family arranged for him to pledge a fraternity. “As it happened, things went my way.”

Eureka had only 250 students; it was a narrow, parochial institution by most standards, but the embodiment of its name to Reagan. “I fell head over heels in love with Eureka.” He sat on the bench, and participated in a strike protesting a reduction in courses. “I’m afraid I get a bit smug when I contrast that collegiate strike to some of the ‘panty raids’ and fevered picketing of these more modern times.” He took part in campus life, but with a certain forebearance. “There was the custom of ‘kegging.’” Reagan says he preferred picnics with his girl at the local graveyard. In 1929 “the only crash Eureka was interested in was that of body against body,” a sportive rather than an amorous allusion. Reagan finally got to play right end, but without distinction. He appeared with Eureka’s “thespians” in a dramatic contest at Northwestern, as a shepherd in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Aria da Capo, strangled by a fellow jock. “No actor can ask for more. Dying is the way to live in the theater.”

Reagan never mentions an intellectual occurrence, or even his course of study (an aide says it was economics). Alter graduation, he settled upon “show business” as a vocation, an odd choice in the Midwest. His sweetheart for all those years fell between the boards. “Our lovely and wholesome relationship did not survive growing up,” though he does not say why. That elegiac theme is repeated often in Where’s the Rest of Me?, where people are pushed around by forces beyond their control—rather benignly in the narrator’s case—and things are rarely anyone’s fault.

Reagan’s father worked for the federal government handing out surplus food, and later for the WPA. “There was no bureaucracy,” Reagan is quick to point out, and the people who stood in line in Dixon were not “bums or strangers.” Jobs were scarce, but Reagan had a vision of the future: radio. He hitchhiked to Chicago seeking a place with a major station, but was advised to make a name for himself in the sticks. WOC in Davenport, Iowa, hired him to broadcast football games for five dollars and bus fare. He was lackluster; he forgot to mention sponsors. He was to be fired, but “fate stepped in” when his replacement demanded a contract. The station reluctantly decided to keep Reagan on, and he “was not about to kick a miracle in the face.” He moved to Des Moines, to broadcast baseball games. There he joined the reserve 14th Cavalry Regiment to learn to ride a horse at the sufferance of the government, because he “loved horses.” He doesn’t say much else about what must have been a feckless period in his life. Then he persuaded the radio station to send him, on his vacation time, to southern California with the Chicago Cubs for spring training, a pivotal event.

In Hollywood, Reagan visited the agent for the Oklahoma Cowboys, a Des Moines band hired by Gene Autry for one of his movies. The agent introduced Reagan to a casting director who agreed to listen to him read. “There have been a few moments in my life when I have known … that something would happen.” What happened was that he found a better agent, one with the brass to call up Max Arnow at Warner Brothers, and tell him, “Max, I have another Robert Taylor sitting in my office,” when it wasn’t true.

Reagan took off his glasses for the screen test, but his crewcut was “about four inches shorter than Hollywood was wearing its actors’ hair.” He didn’t wait around for Jack Warner to see the film but returned to Des Moines. “I had done, through ignorance, the smartest thing it was possible to do. Hollywood just loves people who don’t need Hollywood.” He was offered a seven-year contract at $200 a week, good money in 1937. “There was a Spanish Civil on,” Reagan writes, “the Japanese were again fighting in China, and Hitler repudiated the Versailles treaty—but I wasn’t mad at anyone. I … headed west in the pride of my life, my first convertible.”

Reagan’s early years in Hollywood were happy, uncomplicated ones. He wasn’t wealthy enough to avoid “doubling”—wearing the same suit at the end of a film that he had worn at the beginning—but he was a professional, part of Warner’s stable of handsome young men. He socialized in the commissary with Cagney and Powell, Ann Sheridan and other “love interests.” He supported a number of better known actors such as Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart, and starred in B pictures where he was cast in roles of comely mediocrity. Reagan was amiable and accommodating, but overly scrupulous. When the director of Dark Victory tried to get him to portray “the kind of fellow who could sit in the girls’ dressing room dishing the dirt,” Reagan refused. “I want to think if I stroll through where the girls are short of clothes, there will be a great scurrying about and taking to cover.”

He lacked that distillation of passion that supposedly made a star. King’s Row was to have established him as a box-office draw, but World War II intervened. Disqualified from active service by poor eyesight, he joined the First Motion Picture Unit of the Army Air Force, established to make military training and propaganda films, and by the time the war was over there existed a new generation of moviegoers who had never heard of Ronald Reagan. He continued to look for the vehicle that would carry him to the top; it would never arrive, at least not in the form of a movie script.

Reagan is remarkably sanguine about the quality of the films in which he appeared. He did his job, said his lines, and blamed the studios for their inanity, or for failing to invest sufficiently in promotion. He finds sociological significance in Bedtime for Bonzo, in which Reagan cavorts with a chimpanzee, but admits that some of the films were “turkeys.”

Reagan characterizes himself as a “staunch” liberal up to and during the war. He had a sentimental attachment to the New Deal because it saved his father from real poverty, but he scoffed at unions and had to be persuaded by an actress to join the Screen Actors Guild. He organized the Hollywood chapter of the American Veterans Committee, a rival to the American Legion, but was more interested in pensions than in liberal dogma. He had been placed on the SAG board in 1938. SAG was no typical union. It improved working conditions and salaries of actors, but the relationship between the board and the producers became very close indeed while Ronald Reagan served as president.

Reagan speaks of being disillusioned after the war by the discovery that “the rich had got just a little richer and a lot of the poor had done a pretty good job of grabbing a quick buck.” He reacted by going on vacation and renting a speedboat “twenty-four hours a day.” During high-speed meditation he decided to help “bring about the regeneration of the world.” He began to speak against fascism at AVC banquets. “It fed my ego, since I had been so long away from the screen … I was being spoon-fed and steered,” he adds mysteriously, without revealing how or exactly by whom he was manipulated. “The American Communists were high on the Hollywood hog.” Then one night he denounced fascism and communism from the podium, and “the silence was ghastly. I stumbled off the stage,” into a new political awareness.

That version is too pat. For once something was happening to Reagan that was not benign, a complicated personal evolution that profoundly affected his view of himself and the world.

I flew to Los Angeles in July, a week before the Republican convention in Detroit. The Reagan for President headquarters was located in the Marriott airport complex; during the short drive from the Hertz office I passed signs advertising Las Vegas in forty-eight minutes, Total Live Nudes, and Paintings of the World, Inc. I learned from the radio of the birth of Pat Boone’s grandchild, the Cowboy Church, the Hip Hypnotist (”You can do the things you have to do in life . . . through self-hypnosis”), and ladies’ mudwrestling night at a club in Pasadena. “All the gold in California’s in a bank in Beverly Hills in someone else’s name,” a singer proclaimed in nasal vibrato. “California’s a brand new game … ”

Calls were stacked ten-deep at the switchboard, behind the paneled door with a peephole where Reagan’s national sweep was initiated and managed. The candidate beamed out of a big color photograph in the foyer, one hand resting on pristine Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia. A peddlar in sandals sold vegetarian sandwiches out of a wicker basket to the harried staff. They were in the process of moving the headquarters to Washington, elated with their success, but apprehensive about the prospect of life outside of California. “We’re giving up a lot,” said Ed Gray. “We can go to the beach through December here. The weather’s awful in Washington. And those White House salaries! The only saving grace is that it’s temporary.”

Lyn Nofziger, Reagan’s director of communications, is one of the few Reagan staffers with experience in Washington. He has known Reagan for a long time and has suffered in the internal campaign squabbles, at least partly because Nancy Reagan is not fond of Nofziger. He has a gap-toothed grin and a stomach like a soccer ball, and is a discordant sight among the neatly attired, blown-dry Reagan operatives. He is also candid: “California’s a microcosm of the United States—people, industry, geography, a little of everything, including bullshit. We’re the melting pot of the country. The great American adventure after the war was going to California, and Reagan was part of that. He’s moved the state and the country rightward.”

I asked about Reagan’s intellectual credentials. “He may not be a genius,” Nofziger snapped, “but he’s smart enough.”

As I traveled around Los Angeles talking to people who had known Reagan, I was struck by the felicity of Nofziger’s metaphor. California is still a melting pot. The constant sun and constant motion engender excitement as they must have in the young Ronald Reagan arriving in his convertible. There is a tangible sense of shared good fortune in just being there, and of possibility in an infinitely expanding landscape, a mutual consideration most evident when you are making a highspeed feed from one freeway to another and the driver of, say, a restored ‘52 Porsche waves you into line.

I found another, startling similarity between the present and the years just after World War II. People who knew Reagan then are afraid to talk about him. I was unable to find—with the assistance of the Screen Actors Guild—a single person still active in the business who was willing to discuss him. I was only marginally more successful with writers. One who was blacklisted during the 1950s offered an explanation: “People lived in terror then. Careers were ruined by rumor and innuendo, and many of those people are just now getting work. Those not materially affected by the anti-communist crusade remember how volatile and simplistic it was. Reagan was an ardent anticommunist, and now it looks like he might be President.”

Another writer who was assigned to the First Motion Picture Unit during the war remembered Reagan as a gregarious adjutant who wore riding breeches and ignored protocol. “If you tried to salute, he’d say, ‘Cut out that crap and sit down.’” Reagan’s liberalism seems to have been a kind of post-adolescent optimism. “The loss of the American Veterans Committee after the war to the leftists shocked and embittered him.” That was just one part of a belated coming-of-age. Reagan has suggested that his acting career suffered because of time dedicated to SAG, but his activities there provided the excitement and prestige missing from his professional life. His wife since 1940, Jane Wyman, disagreed with and was bored by his politics. She was more dedicated to acting than he, and better at it, and when guests came over would say, For God’s sake, don’t talk politics.” He badgered her to attend meetings with him, although he doesn’t say so in Where’s the Rest of Me? He doesn’t mention Wyman at all until, in passing, he says she suffered a miscarriage while Reagan was himself in a hospital with viral pneumonia, described in detail.

Still considered a liberal in 1946, he credits actor George Murphy, past president of SAG, with showing great patience while Reagan behaved as though he ‘was red as Moscow.” Murphy had played Reagan’s father in the film This Is the Army, and was an influence in Reagan’s awakening. They and Robert Montgomery, SAG president, attempted to resolve the strike in Hollywood by the Conference of the Studio Unions, without success. Reagan seemed to believe that the organization was dominated by communists. He was elected SAG president a year later, and maneuvered it into line with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees in opposition to the CSU. He began to carry a Smith & Wesson revolver to protect himself against union members who thought they had been betrayed, an unnecessary precaution. The same year he testified as a friendly witness, along with Gary Cooper, Robert Taylor, and other actors, in the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings that divided Hollywood and polarized national politics. Reagan’s appearance put him squarely in the hands of the anticommunists. He and others testifying had no real information to impart; their appearance added a patina of acceptability and glamor to the hearings.

He returned home from Washington “only to be told I was leaving,” by his wife. “I suppose there had been warning signs … but small town boys grow up thinking only other people get divorced.” His self-pity matches his egocentricity. “Fate knocks some of us Hollywoodians kicking … if you hit us we bruise, if you cut us (forgive me, Shakespeare) we bleed … I have never discussed what happened, and I have no intention of doing so now.” He speaks of the “bewildered pain” of their two children, his oldest daughter, Maureen, and their adopted son, Michael, both introduced and excused in a single compound sentence, their only appearance in an autobiography that contains whole pages dedicated to Reagan’s horses, dogs, houses, and physical ailments.

I think Reagan’s political conversion was closely tied up with the parallel failures of his marriage and career—rejection by one woman and by a whole nation of them—and the loss of some hazy ideals. It shaped him and his subsequent views. His denunciations of godless communism and then of big government seemed, at times, to hold those monoliths responsible for more than political designs, for some personal hurt. John Cogley wrote in his Report on Blacklisting, published by The Fund for the Republic, that Reagan believes he had been “used by certain people he later discovered were Communists. ‘I was their boy!’ he recalled bitterly.”

There is still an element of irrationality in his rhetoric that disturbs, and a tendency to lump opponents in a single immoral heap that goes back to the fifties. Liberals are either dangerously, pathetically naive, or fraught with deception. Before his conversion, Reagan was not just a liberal, but “a near-hopeless hemophilic liberal.” He was also “white-eyed” while being in a “daze,” unaware of “the strange creatures crawling from under the make-believe rocks in our make-believe town.” These strange creatures, and Reagan’s opponents within SAG, were “Communists, some were knowing fellow-travelers, and many were innocent dupes … I’ll relate their words and deeds, but not whether they were of the party, the fellow-traveler, or the sucker group.”

There were certainly communists in Hollywood, though not nearly as many as Reagan claims. Their efforts to take over political action groups were singleminded and often effective, but “the Communist Putsch for control of motion pictures” is overdrawn and simplistic. Had they prevailed they would have dealt with their opponents as ruthlessly as the anticommunists dealt with them and their perceived allies, probably more so. But Reagan’s view of the period remains white-eyed, and his analysis is self-serving. His self-proclaimed rise from the ranks of the suckers was not accompanied by a similar elevation in reason. He accepted uncritically the notion that anyone who refused to declare himself an anticommunist was, ipso facto, suspect; he suggests that there was no such thing as a blacklist.

In 1951, when Reagan, Murphy, and Montgomery were on the board together, SAG issued a statement that “all participants in the international conspiracy against our nation should be exposed.” The Guild, they said, would oppose a secret blacklist but added the caveat, “If any actor by his own actions outside of union activity has so offended American public opinion that he has made himself unsaleable at the box office, the Guild cannot and would not want to enforce an employer to hire him.” SAG was not about to help actors publicly accused of being communist, or those who invoked the Fifth Amendment when called upon to testify, whatever their reasons. And it was not going to stick its neck out in cases of mistaken identity, either.

The struggle remains fresh and unambiguous in Reagan’s mind. “Perhaps Communism may become fashionable in the Hollywood intellectual sets again … Perhaps, like measles, it will always be with us … Measles may be deadly without an antitoxin.” His prescription: “It may be that each American generation must be re-educated to the precariousness of liberty.”

The crisis closed off some essential part of Ronald Reagan. He remained a nice guy. I didn’t find a person in California or elsewhere who disliked him. William Boyarsky, who wrote The Rise of Ronald Reagan, had a similar experience when he covered Governor Reagan in Sacramento for the Associated Press: “I talked to half a dozen people who should have thought he was a prick. No one thought he was a prick. I decided he wasn’t a prick.” (The biography outraged Nancy Reagan, but her husband shrugged it off.) Neither did I talk to anyone who seemed to really know him. His best friends spoke of him with a kind of rehearsed formality. Reagan, they said, likes “chopping wood and horsemanship,” “sawing wood and horseback riding,” “mending fences and sitting astride a horse,” jelly beans and fine wine, and telling and retelling a funny story. His daughter Maureen told a Newsweek reporter in a tearful moment, “I don’t know him any better than you do. The man you see is the same man I know.”

One person knows him. An actress named Nancy Davis, the daughter of a wealthy surgeon with social connections beyond the reach of the divorced Reagan, came to him with a problem. Her name kept appearing on the rosters of “communist front or bleeding heart” organizations, and she wanted it removed. The confusion of names was a common occurrence during the blacklist period, and often led to difficulties with producers and studios, and to the ruin of innocent and quite apolitical people. Reagan avoids discussing what was obviously a real fear in the woman he was to marry. His mention of the episode is a tacit admission that he was well aware of the danger and the gross injustices done in the name of anticommunism; his treatment of it is somewhat less than courageous, like his advice to the young actress about her name: “Why not ask the publicity department for a new one?”

Reagan was soon dividing his time between Nancy and SAG, traveling to New York for the negotiations involving actors’ television rights and “doing everthing which could have lost her if Someone up there hadn’t been looking after me.” They were married in private because of Reagan’s “obsession with the press”—never explained—and honeymooned accompanied by Reagan’s new in-laws.

Nancy propped him up during the most difficult period. Reagan was almost finished as a screen actor, and he owed money. A note of new resentment creeps into Where’s the Rest of Me? “The tragic fact of life in this evil day of progressive taxation is that once behind, it is well-nigh impossible to earn your way out.” He tried to reverse his fortunes by appearing in a Las Vegas nightclub act, the nadir.

Then … something happened. Reagan was approached by MCA with an offer to host General Electric Theater. Suddenly he was earning good money again for a minimal amount of work. GE wired his house with every available electronic gadget, free, and sent him out on the road as a banquet speaker and proselytizer for the company. Antigovernment rhetoric replaced that of anticommunism, tailored to the needs of his employer. The response from those audiences gave Reagan “an awesome, shivering feeling that America was making a personal appearance for me, and it made me the biggest fan in the world.” He had found something that he was really good at. He was receiving the adulation that he had dreamed of as an immigrant to California, and had given up hope of ever achieving.

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