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."

“He isn’t the cerebral type, but he has good visceral qualities. He has a philosophy. What liberals don’t understand is that if a man believes in a few moral and economic values, then he doesn’t have to waffle.”

The speaker was Henry Salvatori, an oilman and one of the original backers of Ronald Reagan the politician. By the time General Electric Theater had folded and Reagan had spent two seasons with Death Valley Days, and had appeared in one last turkey, The Killers, he had established himself as an eloquent spokesman for right-wing causes. In 1964 he gave a speech in support of Goldwater in which he told people across America, “We can preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we can sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness.”

That speech galvanized a group of wealthy Californians who picked him up and became his benefactors and closest friends. They are tough, wily old birds who do not have facelifts and whose wives do not get their fingernails Julietted. Most of them came to southern California about the time Reagan arrived, from the East and Midwest, and made fortunes in oil, real estate, and America’s last great freedom (there are 12 million cars in Los Angeles) and by providing later immigrants with loans and mouthwash. They live in neighborhoods famous for their Tudor mansions, Palladian villas, and twenty-room Sussex cottages, environments that sound schizophrenic but have a certain beauty, and are deeply soothing. That effect is not lost on the tour operators who send their vans creeping through streets verdant with palms, leafy topiary, and manicured lawns, and it wasn’t lost on Reagan, either.

These men have insulated Reagan from the harsher realities of the spectacular capitalistic engine that is California. Three of them manage the Ronald Reagan Trust, set up when Reagan first ran for governor. They are Justin Dart, owner of Dart Industries, who keeps a wide-mouthed jar of peanut brittle in his sunbaked office in his own Beverly Hills plaza (”Have you tried our new Kraft peanut brittle? We just merged with Kraft. Take two pieces, young man”), William French Smith, a silver-haired former Bostonian and Reagan’s personal attorney, and William A. Wilson, who runs an investment business out of his home in Bel Air. The trust was not disbanded after Reagan’s second term as Governor because he did not want to be bothered. “We usually do something [with Reagan’s assets],” Smith told me, “and tell him about it later.”

Reagan has made millions in his ranch dealings alone. He speaks of his “dream” of owning a ranch even bfore he met Nancy. Indeed, he seems to have been looking forward to retirement in rural California since before puberty, when he discovered a box of bird’s eggs and butterflies in his Illinois attic. “I got my first scent of wind on peaks, pine needles in the rain and sunrise on the desert.” Smith managed the sale of his Malibu Canyon ranch to Twentieth Century-Fox for a profit of a mere $1.8 million on an investment of $65,000. Reagan and his friends and advisers invested in speculative ranchland, and then during his last year as governor he instructed the trust to buy Rancho del Cielo, close to 700 acres near Santa Barbara. “It was his dough,” said Dart, with a shrug.

These men and others like them are too smart to let ideology in the way of profits and growth. They are pleased that for decades Reagan has stood up on his hind legs and given voice to their own fears, anger, and frustration. But in general they want practical things from him: tax reduction; a lessening of government regulation in the private sector, where they have witnessed the debilitating effects of bureaucracy; and an end to American genuflection toward what Goldwater calls “the half-assed nations of the world.” Inherent in that wish is military manufacturing on a grander scale, and inherent in that is economic stimulation.

Reagan’s new backers thought he was an electable commodity in 1964, and they were right. His subsequent decision to run for governor of California was treated with the same scorn in some sectors as his present aspirations; he won almost effortlessly. For years packagers had been trying to make consummate actors out of their political fodder. Reagan reversed the process by being an actor first and a “concerned citizen” second. He was, and is, the perfect blend of image and ideology.

Reagan’s record as governor is discussed elsewhere in this magazine. The general perception of his tenure as one of moderation can be attributed to his passivity, learned in or accentuated by his previous career. There are few more boring processes than film-making. A film actor must be able to sit for hours in a canvas chair, shooting the bull, smoking, day-dreaming. “So much of our profession is taken up with pretending,” he wrote in Where’s the Rest of Me?, “with interpretation of never-never roles, that an actor must spend at least half his waking hours in fantasy.” He must be able to do what he is told when he is told. He leaves the particulars—lighting, makeup, lines—to others, for that is not his responsibility. If the film or, presumably, the bill, the foreign policy, or the war is unsuccessful, then the tendency is to dismiss it as a “turkey.”

His staff, or production team, assumes paramount importance. The sacking of Sears put Reagan’s California faction, always suspicious of their eastern colleagues, firmly in control. The disarray I observed was no doubt attributable to the relocation of campaign headquarters and the approaching convention, but I did detect an absence of central authority and what seemed to be an extreme gingerliness in dealing with the candidate.

“For Reagan, politics is a necessary evil,” I was told by a former staff member. “He thinks that if God put him here to lead this nation out of darkness, that’s fine. But he’s above the nitty-gritty. If a conflict develops, he doesn’t want to hear about it. He’s inclined to define loyalty by the ability of those around him to keep conflict away … Whoever protects him—from tough questions from the press or from arguments among the staff—is seen as the most valuable.”

In Hollywood there are many people “looking for a deal,” a perfectly acceptable form of existence. The intimation of money, talent, or access to a “property” is often sufficient to bring the deal off, assuming that custom is observed: a leased Mercedes, a leased house in the canyons, an agent, a business manager, a publicist, a psychiatrist, a psychic, and a Spanish maid. Henry Kissinger would soon come to Detroit looking for a deal, and almost get one, wearing the mantle of Nelson Rockefeller instead of Ralph Lauren’s bleached denim, and buttressed by his own considerable abilities. Kissinger and others bargaining on behalf of Gerald Ford would propose a new concept of the vice presidency that arrogated to itself radical responsibilities and to its authors whatever appointments they wanted, all at a convention of supposedly strict constructionist conservatives that Reagan had wrapped up in advance in his own ideological bailing wire. Kissinger et al. would have been a credit to any old-time Democratic machine, their efforts an enduring footnote in the sweaty art of political opportunity. The fact that they were able to come so close says a lot about Reagan’s famous steadfastness, about his crew’s resistance to the presumptions of power, and their collective resolve.

I wonder what would happen if the Russians in all their presumptive panoply came looking for a deal in, say, Central America. I suspect that, after all the slapping of leather against the polished hides of our ICBMs, President Reagan would dismount. Those who love him love him most—and those who fear him fear him most—for his Cold War whoops; yet he is temperamentally unsuited for the red-hot alternative. Reagan opposes changes in the existing order, and the initiation of a world war would be the biggest change of all. Reagan was known as a compromiser as governor, a surprise to everyone who paid attention to his rhetoric. He learned to cut deals with a hostile legislature, a proverbial clothespin attached to his nose all the while. Democrats—inherent suckers—and politicians in general were located on the far side of the social gulch from Reagan. He reveled in the confrontations with students at Berkeley—the jangling of his dress saber calculated to please his wealthy backers and smaller-scale entrepreneurs, all calling out for the humbling of the university. But in the end he compromised. The university got most of the funds it sought; Reagan got the students to pay fees, symbolically elevating them from freeloaders to participants in the system. And the Free Speech movement didn’t even have the Bomb to conjure with.

There is no reason to believe that Reagan’s global view is any less statist: the world, like California, is divided between the left and the right. The only difference is numbers and, of course, hardware. I think that if our most powerful adversaries gave him room, Reagan would cut a deal rather than risk a thousand years of literal darkness, for which we may all be thankful. We might expect some harassment of pinkos at home and appeasement of the real thing abroad. Despite his tough talk, Reagan is deeply respectful of the tranquillity and the sanctity of existing investments, including prime American real estate. If the Russians can nuke Washington, D.C., they can nuke California. They can nuke Rancho del Cielo.

The ideologues in the Reagan camp are the economists. Alan Greenspan and Martin Anderson, author of The Federal Bulldozer and a member of the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, belonged to an informal group of conservative intellectuals who used to gather at the midtown Manhattan apartment of Ayn Rand. Among them was Edith Efron, the guiding hand in the writing of William Simon’s best-selling A Time for Truth. Rand was a proponent of pure, transcendent capitalism, not a popular position among New York’s intelligentsia.

“We gathered round her like poets at the feet of Victor Hugo,” according to another participant. “There was a siege mentality. We all knew we would be socially ostracized if it became known.”

The speaker, a screenwriter, is a man of principle. He once told Otto Preminger that he thought Roosevelt was a moral sewer, an assertion that cost him his job. We were talking in The Ginger Man, a sleek den of actors in Beverly Hills where softly molded cowboy hats dip over piña coladas and the bartender told a disconsolate patron, “If your act goes bad, find Jesus!” It may seem a strange place to discuss laissez-faire capitalism, but then California, too, is paradoxical.

The Objectivists, he said, believe in the moral propriety of a free market, and the almost total absence of government from the affairs of people. Rand turned the metaphorical concept of reaction into a political credo: the government must never initiate force. Therefore a peacetime draft is not permissible, but neither is the printing of money. It gets trickier. A military buildup can be sanctioned only if it is in reaction to a buildup by one’s clearly perceived adversaries. The pushing of the holocaustal button would involve a fine distinction indeed between action and reaction.

The screenwriter said, “Some of the people giving Reagan advice see him as a kind of beachhead landing for their principles. He’s expendable.”

I am not implying that Reagan’s advisers are all closet Objectivists, but simply that he is getting doctrinaire and no doubt in some cases apocalyptical input.

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