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."
Ronald Reagan was trying to blow up an inflatable plastic elephant aboard the old Electra prop-jet, 30,000 feet above Pennsylvania. His wife had just asked him to; his efforts were fussy and ineffectual. “I can’t get the wrinkles out,” he said, handing the elephant back to Nancy Reagan, who handed it to an aide in a navy blazer and Topsiders. He blew deftly into the stem until the elephant was sleek and glossy, scrawled over with the autographs of those traveling with the campaign.
“Will you sign my elephant?” she asked me. She wore a bright red dress with a gold expansion belt, the radiant focus of an otherwise colorless entourage, and her smile seemed etched in place by the countless speeches to which she had borne witness.
I signed the elephant. Nancy Reagan’s personal secretary took it from me and handed her employer an open Whitman’s Sampler. Dispensing chocolates to the press corps had become a standard means of recognizing people she disliked or distrusted, without having to get closer than a nougat or a cherry in heavy syrup. It was May 1980, with Reagan just days away from collecting enough primary votes to assure the Republican nomination, the penultimate moment in a grueling process.
“Will you have one of my chocolates?”
I politely declined, not wanting to sit down to an interview with a mouthful of candy. Still smiling, Nancy Reagan took my measure and then moved resolutely toward the back of the plane.
I was introduced to Reagan by his press secretary, Ed Gray. Reagan sat alone in shirtsleeves in the forward most row of seats, facing the window, his shoulders hunched, diminished in close up.
He turned and offered me a surprisingly limp handshake. Reagan does not like being interviewed and he does not like deprived of his rest, and we were flying from Detroit to Long Island on a tight schedule that precluded his taking a nap.
We had already met, at a Republican convocation in San Diego six years before, but Reagan made no pretense of remembering me or the event. His hair, orange then, had been allowed or encouraged to take on the steely tones of a senior statesman, and was combed into the modified roach unchanged in half a century. His suntan obscured tiny burst blood vessels in his cheeks and nose. What appeared from a distance to be character lines were crevasses in the flesh about his mouth.
Before I could begin, an aide stepped forward to clip a microphone attached to a tape recorder to Reagan’s tie, and he stayed there, an electronic plug in one ear and wires protruding from his clothing. Ed Gray took a position behind our seats.
I had been allocated half an hour with the candidate, reduced first to twenty three minutes and then to something less, not a lot of time to assess a prospective President of the United States. I had been advised by my colleagues in the back of the plane—after the whistle-blowing at takeoff, and the placing of drink order—not to allow Reagan to go into a routine about reform or increased productivity through tax reduction that ate up the minutes. I was more interested in the man than his policies; I asked Reagan what he considered to be the greatest influences in his early life.
He asked me to repeat the question, leaning forward to hear. Ed Gray also leaned forward; the wired aide lowered his head to within eighteen inches of the candidate’s. The interview was not to be private, as was promised, but it was certainly intimate.
Finally Reagan said, in a hushed, almost frail voice, “My mother gave me my religious faith.”
I waited for some elaboration, but it didn’t come. I asked about the Depression. “There was a kind of drabness.” That was the worst thing he could think of to say—drabness, lack of light—and he shifted quickly to the upbeat. “We had the lowest crime rate then. I always think of that when people give poverty as an excuse for crime.”
Two hours before, Reagan had told members of the Economic Club of Detroit that the automobile represented America’s last great freedom, and that for too long the values of those staunch industrialists “have been mocked and ignored and exploited.” He didn’t say by whom, but he didn’t have to. The federal government, its minions and sympathizers, have been in Reagan’s rhetorical dock for more than thirty years, almost as long as the communists. Neither the message nor the delivery has changed. Reagan comes on stage moving his hands as if he were dribbling two basketballs simultaneously, apparently embarrassed by the applause. Then the shoulders come back, the chin rises, and the head bobbles as he speaks, habitual bits of body language learned at Warner Brothers that still translate into sincerity and good will. He is a professional political neophyte, the eternal tyro, and the best there is. He may talk about the thousands of General Motors employees hired to fill out government forms or the expanding window of Soviet military superiority, but his manner suggests that he would rather be mending fences or riding one of his horses high above the Pacific Ocean.
I soon learned that Reagan’s “niceness,” so apparent in public, is impenetrable in private. Even when I asked him if people in the West have some lesson for the rest of the nation, a comfortable question, he shifted uncomfortably. “The people who moved west were willing to pull up and go for more opportunity,” he said, apparently worried about his advocacy of a settled family life, and the inherent transience of the West. Only when I asked him to contrast himself and Carter as amateurs in the White House did he brighten.
“Before I thought about running for the presidency I spent a lot of time on the mashed potato circuit,” he said, words that I had just read in another interview, “speaking and campaigning for things I believe in. I took stands on national and international affairs … California is patterned after Washington, a microcosm … the most populous state. Being governor is the closest thing to being President … I appeared before committees with an international flavor … California as a separate nation would be the seventh ranking power on earth … ”
“Time’s almost up,” said the wired aide.
A television reporter stood in the aisle waiting her turn, backed by a technician with hands full of more recording gear. Behind him stood a Secret Service agent, his jacket pulled back to reveal the sculpted handle of his revolver and a waistband radio. A stewardess carrying a tray of sandwiches and pickles wove among them.
I quickly asked Reagan about his reading habits. What was his favorite book, or books? His eyes grew large. “Oh, I’m not sure I can answer that.” The wired aide’s knees were jammed against mine; Ed Gray hovered impatiently overhead, a mortician’s smile on his lips.
“The Bible,” Reagan ventured. “The Bible is my favorite book. If I was alone on an island I would want the Bible, not just in the religious sense but because you can read new meaning there … ”
“Anybody want a pickle?”
Earlier in the interview I had asked Reagan what he was afraid of. He said he was afraid of the designs of the Russians, but I had pushed for something more personal. At last he had said, “Well, I have a touch of claustrophobia.”
“Wasn’t that exciting?” asked one of the reporters, when I returned to the back of the plane. He was laughing. “There’s no lust in Ronald Reagan’s heart. What you see is what you get.”
That night I watched Reagan charm a ballroom full of heavily dressed Nassau County Republicans. He was relaxed and diffident, a changed person from the guarded old man I had talked to on the plane. He told a story about his and Nancy’s being mistaken for Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and I would have sworn he was telling it for the first time if I had not heard him tell the story a few hours earlier, in Detroit.
During the speech that followed, I watched the young women at the tables around me. They nodded in grim, bright-eyed agreement, whether Reagan was denouncing an administration that prevented farmers from “putting their crops in the ground,” “phony economists in Washington with Phi Beta Kappa keys at one end of their watch chains and no watches at the other,” or the fact that the federal government “does not know as much about raising kids as mom and pop.” Few of those sparkly young women would have readily identified themselves as half of a mom and pop team, and they sure as hell didn’t empathize with farmers. Something was going on that transcended age and the usual politics of resentment.
I returned to Washington, where I live, the city so despised by the people in that ballroom and the last place in America to accept the real possibility that Ronald Wilson Reagan could be President. Jimmy Carter did not deserve to be re-elected, but the idea of his Republican counterpart in the White House was more than the press could bear. Carter would portray him as an ideological loon, no doubt with plenty of help from Reagan, who would lose in November with nothing more than a grinning hank of hair for an opponent.
Meanwhile, Reagan continued to rise in the polls. Republicans on and off the Hill were preparing for another sort of inevitability. When I talked to Roger Stone, Reagan’s campaign coordinator in the Northeast, he was wearing loafers without socks in sympathy with the mellower sartorial habits of those Californians already winging their way toward the Potomac. “Ronald Reagan is a very nonpolitical person,” Stone said, a curious description of a man who had been involved in politics for longer than Stone had been on earth. “I’m afraid you don’t have much to write about,” he added, sipping Perrier in the Mayflower bar. “What you see … ”
“ … is what you get.”
That had become the conventional wisdom, a nice bit of campaign strategy in an age when billions must be spent making things appear to be what they are not. But the Reagan phenomenon was full of paradox: a septuagenarian riding the shoulders of a youth-worshipful culture, a bundle of ancient verities from the fountainhead of trend and illusion, a professional role-player in a final tryout for the weightiest office. Reagan’s foreign policy adviser, Richard V. Allen, a former member of the National Security Council and what is usually referred to as “an old Washington hand,” spoke publicly of Reagan’s “voracious” reading, even his “deep” thinking. The adjectives seemed to contradict the notion of the candidate’s lack of complication—what you see is what you get—and I asked Allen about Reagan’s motives and thought processes.
“It’s a calling,” Allen said. “What Burke meant by obligation. Not that Reagan’s ever heard of Burke. I mean, I don’t know if he’s actually read Burke. But he has a great accumulation of knowledge. He’s a voracious reader of clippings and memoranda; he appoints people to read books for him, and if they don’t, they’re in trouble. He’s very conservative with regard to words. Sometimes he’ll read a position paper and say, ‘Tell me what all these words mean.’”
More paradox. An eighteenth-century moralist who prefers Little House on the Prairie or most any television production to the pages of a book; celebrated individualist whose ideas and information are digested by other minds; an anti-politician whose only successful career has been political. Was Reagan simple or smart, a cynic or an innocent, a throwback or something quite unprecedented?
“He’s a genuinely nice guy,” said John Sears, Reagan’s chief political adviser before he was fired on the eve of the New Hampshire primary. “He’s not a great original thinker but he can get to the heart of things … I don’t know how much he’s learned. There’s been no real suffering in his life.”
Who is Ronald Reagan, then? It was a difficult question for a man who makes his living in the political twilight zone between appearance and reality. Sears takes his time answering, gazing through the gritty panes of his office and down into the traffic along Connecticut Avenue.
“At rock bottom, Reagan is still a boy from a small in Illinois. He’s managed to retain his roots while surrounded by rootlessness. But his idea of success was formed in California. Success in California is the same as anyplace else, only bigger.”
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.
“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.
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.