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."
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My last night in California I intended to see one of Reagan’s old films being shown at a local theater, part of a national revival of turkeys such as That Hagen Girl and Sergeant Murphy. I thought I might learn something from his early performance, if not from the glee of veteran campists watching the next President writhe beneath the shaft of the projector light.

First I had dinner, sitting next to a muscular blond in a Santa Monica sushi bar. He turned to me and said, “Hi, I’m Larry. Try the eel. You can grow fat on the eel.”

Larry is twenty-six, with a Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology. He wrote his thesis on “The Probability of Learning to Surf on a Long Board as Opposed to a Short Board.” On the stool next to him sat his pretty wife, a professional dancer. After a hard week at the Sahara in Las Vegas, she had spent the afternoon getting mellow with Coors on the beach, and the hot sake had put her over the edge. She kidded with the sushi chefs in a tipsy way while Larry told me about surfing a particularly dangerous stretch of Baja beach known as Rattlesnake.

I asked who he would vote for in November, and he said Reagan.

He added, “Hey, I like to hold the door open for my lady. Not that she can’t do it herself, I just like to. We need more respect in this country, and other countries ought to respect us.”

What about Reagan’s age? While Larry mulled over that one his wife tossed a hand towel at one of the chefs, and it landed in the vat of tempura batter.

“I’m comfortable with him,” Larry said.

Comfort, respect, a touch of class. Larry took his wife off to see Urban Cowboy in nearby Westwood; I dawdled over my raw fish. There was no point in going to the old Reagan film. The people in the theater laughing at it would be enjoying themselves; there was nothing for me to learn. I thought I knew what those young matrons at the Republican banquet had seen behind the podium that night in May. Reagan was no throwback, but something new in presidential politics—the public receptacle of fifty years of myth-making. Movies are the most nostalgic medium, infinitely comfortable. Our suspension of disbelief is so automatic that sitting for hours in a strange, dark place is considered perfectly normal behavior. The faces on the screen are touched with an archetypical quality shared by the best and the worst actors. Reagan’s performances are unimportant compared to his association with our most ubiquitous and powerful form of pleasure and relaxation. I think many people will vote for him because, when that curtain slides shut behind them, they can pull a lever for James Stewart, Robert Redford, and John Travolta.

The big green Braniff 707 sits isolated on the tarmac at the West Imperial Terminal. The press has been herded into a tight wedge behind metal barricades. A convoy of cars approaches, flanked by Secret Service agents; the black Cadillac offers up the candidate and his wife like pearls to the morning sun. Reagan wears a white linen jacket with padded shoulders, Nancy Reagan a white pleated suit and silk scarf—touches of formality for this, the triumphal voyage.

Reagan says a few words into the microphone and then he and Nancy leisurely approach the plane, arm-in-arm, without anyone but the phalanx of Secret Service to detract from their individual glory. As they mount the stairs to the front of the plane, the press rushes from its improvised pen and clambers up the stairs to the rear, bristling with cameras and notebooks. Already aboard are Reagan’s aides, some of whom have brought spouses and even children. The Reagans greet them all cordially, continuing their processional from first class to coach, where the press is now jammed into the aisle and between the seats. Everyone is beaming. Many people on the plane will benefit professionally, like the candidate himself, from their long association with what once seemed a boring and unpromising endeavor. “Morning, Governor … Mrs. Reagan … ” They move among their antagonists with a gracious, stately momentum, Reagan shaking hands all round, Nancy smiling. “Morning … How are you … Morning … ” They both look happy and ten years younger—a geriatric as well a moral victory. Flashes fire and minicams grind away. The Reagans reach the tail of the plane and reverse their sweep, back to first class.

The plane takes off to the raucous accompaniment of whistles and sirens in the press section. A cameraman brandishes a stuffed animal picked up somewhere on the campaign trail and covered with buttons. Nancy Reagan stands, one hand braced against a seatback as the plane roars skyward, and releases an orange into the aisle. It shoots through first class and coach and collides with the toilet door at the rear of the plane. A cheer goes up. No chocolates will be dispensed today.

The plane makes a circle over the hauntingly blue Pacific and heads north-northeast, toward the heartland of America, and Detroit. Stewardesses move up and down the aisle with open bottles of California champagne. After an elegant breakfast of steak and omelet I am taken forward to interview Nancy Reagan. She sits in the seat behind her husband. He is being interviewed by a reporter for a national newspaper chain, and I can see his head bobbling, an aide kneeling in the aisle next to the reporter, and Ed Gray hovering.

Nancy Reagan’s brittle stage presence is softened in person, just as her husband’s stature is diminished. Her head is large, her hair a kind of golden nimbus. People who know her say she badly wants to be First Lady, and final arbiter of the world’s most potent guest list. I ask her about her plans for the White House, and she smiles and touches my knee in a gesture of confidence. “I’m terribly superstitious. I don’t want to tempt fate by talking about it.”

She reads astrological predictions in the newspapers but says she forgets what they say. Stories of her and Reagan’s reliance on astrology have been denied by aides, but they keep cropping up, some from reliable sources. (A Reagan White House could be the first to have a resident astrologer.) Nancy Reagan was also a professional actor, a better one than is generally recognized. She seems more reflexive than her husband, and quicker on her feet in some of those confabulatory contests with reporters. She influences political decisions he seems incapable of making alone.

She has mixed feelings about having to give up the ranch, friends, children. The durability of their marriage, rather than its offspring, is Reagan’s claim on the prime issue of family unity. Their children are rarely featured, but then what American is unqualifiedly proud of sons and daughters? I ask how their marriage endured the early years, when she had no interest in politics and Reagan’s acting career had sunk to the squalid level of a Las Vegas proscenium. She seems to bristle a little. “I loved him,” she says, and in a flash I see Reagan’s alcoholic father, do-gooding mother, contemptuous football coach, unappreciative producers, indifferent public, scheming leftists, and independent first wife.

“He broadened my horizons. I lived in a much narrower world then, and I’m grateful. Politics is interesting and exciting, sometimes frightening. There’s meanness and bitterness. But Ronnie can handle it. I love him because he’s what he appears to be.”

Another interviewer is waiting. I stand in the aisle, touched by her admission, and scribble in my notebook. 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 …

I can see Reagan’s carefully grooved hair, but not his eyes. The newspaper reporter has been ushered away, and for a moment Reagan is alone, his face turned toward the window. In little more than an hour he will see dirty brown fingers of pollution reaching up for him, he will have to descend into an industrial matrix and deal with … politicians. Something is about to happen. After that, with help from a vast production apparatus, from ordinary people, and maybe from a nondenominational Someone, something else may happen of such magnitude as to outstrip all art and ambition. But I am willing to bet that Ronald Reagan is not thinking about the election, that he is seeing a place in the shade, and smelling the sun on eucalyptus boughs.

Ed Gray approaches, clipboard at the ready. “I’m afraid you can’t interview him. It’s his voice,” Gray adds, touching his throat in sympathy. “His voice is going.”

I argue for access, knowing that Reagan can’t be blamed for tactical decisions made by his staff, or for occasionally protecting himself from the insane process to which he is in thrall. Gray draws himself up in the aisle, and I catch a glimpse of the zealot.

“I’m going to take care of him, Jim,” he said to me.

You won’t be the first one, Ed.

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