Nov. 17, 2011
A glittering panel was assembled this week on Washingtons EYE Street, the home of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). They had come to discuss Ronald Reagans career in the movies and how that influenced his political life. Before Reagan, people asked: How can an actor be president? After Reagan, people recognized his joke: How can you be president if you havent been an actor?
The panel was chaired by Politicos John Harris. He led off by telling the 40-50 attendees that he graduated from high school in 1980 and cast his first presidential vote in 1984. Mr. Harris was too tactful to mention that it probably wasnt cast for RR. Thats OK, 59% of the votes cast that year were cast for the Gipper; he carried 49 states.
The panelists included NBC News Andrea Mitchell, ABC News Sam Donaldson, former White House Chief of Staff Ken Duberstein, and, of course, former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) Dodd left the Senate in January to assume the presidency of the MPAA. I counted one likely vote for President Reagan of the five panelists. Fair and balanced.
Sen. Dodd was most charitable. He spoke of having gone to the White House early one morning for a meeting. The night before, President Reagan had lost the Louisville debate to challenger Walter Mondale. Fritz even got a baseball bat from his admirers in the press titled The Louisville Slugger. Dodd expected to find Reagan down in the mouth, or at least tired.
Not at all, Dodd said. The president was bright-eyed and chipper, greeting him by name and offering him coffee and Danish. It was then, Dodd said, that he learned in politicsas in the moviespresentation is everything. Indeed.
Andrea Mitchell described going to the De-Militarized Zone in Korea with Reagan.
There, at one of the flashpoints in the Cold War, North Korean Communists had built a phony village with happy peasants supposedly enjoying the good life in the Workers Paradise. (All those workers villages were so paradisiacal they had to have barbed wire around them to keep out the starving stooges of Wall Street.) She tweaked one later famous GOP president when she said Reagan looked over the DMZ with binoculars, from which he had carefully taken off the lens covers. What do you see, reporters wanted to know. It looks like a Hollywood back lot, but not as important, Reagan jibed.
Ken Duberstein said it was true that Reagan learned lessons in the impact of taxation on economic activity in Hollywood. It was not just that it didnt pay him--the king of the B moviesto make more movies when he was taxed at the rate of 91 cents of every dollar he earned. Reagan was a wealthy man. He could afford not to make another oat burner Western.
Reagan realized then that when he passed up more movies, the ticket sellers, ushers, popcorn vendors, cameramen, make-up ladies, and a host of other workers lost work, lost opportunities to realize their dreams.
Most of the members of the Screen Actors Guild are people youve never heard of and who may make one or two movies a year. They are the thousands of non-stars who love being a part of Hollywood. These folks elected and re-elected Ronald Reagan president of the Screen Actors Guild seven times. He was genuinely loved by the SAG members.
And it was for them that he went to bat when Communists tried to take over Hollywood in the 1940s and 50s. (Ronnie! Come back! Theres no term limit for SAG president!)
Sam Donaldson was almost glowing in his praise of Reagan the Performer. Sam looks wonderful. Tall and narrow as a rake, he still has that same foghorn baritone with which he used to bellow hostile questions as President Reagan. He described Reagans classic putdown of President Jimmy Carter in their only 1980 debate. Carter unleashed a withering attack on Reagan the Right Wing Reactionary, grimly reciting a barrage of charges against his affable, smiling opponent. Instead of a Dan Quayle, rabbit-in-the-headlights look, Reagan aw shucks-ed him. There you go again. Yes, by this time, the country was very tired of the increasingly shrill Carter.
Sam didnt mention his famous trip to the Kremlin with President Reagan in 1988. In Saint Catherines Hall at a grand state luncheon with Gorbachev and the entire Soviet politburo, Sam glowered at the president.
Who eez zat man, ze one looking at Reagan wiss such an evil look, one Russian asked author Edmund Morris. Oh, thats just Sam Donaldson. Hes a reporter, a thorn in Reagans flesh. The atheist Russian asked for a translation of that unfamiliar term. Ach! We wood say hes a splinter on Reagans a__.
Ken Duberstein noted that President Reagan never put his nose in his briefing books when traveling in the limousine. He knew it meant a lot to people who had come out, sometimes waiting for hours, just to see him. He made a point of making eye contact and waving with them all.
One older lady in Connecticut carried a sign: We loved you in the Knute Rockne Story, but more in the White House. She was referring to Reagans most famous movie, where he played dying football hero, George Gipp. Two hundred thousand people had come out to Notre Dame to see Reagan and Pat OBrien when that movie was first released.
Thats my second favorite sign, the President told Duberstein. The Chief of Staffs question, inevitably, was: OK, Mr. President, what was your favorite sign?
Reagan winked: The one that young cheerleader at Ohio State held up: Hes old but hes cute!
He was more than that: He was old but courageous. When he visited Moscow, he jumped out of his limousine and waded into the crowd at the citys famous shopping district, the Arbat. The Secret Service nearly had heart failure. The Russian people mobbed Ronald and Nancy. The KGB began pushing, shoving, and kicking their own people away. This was the same outfit that had arranged the shooting of the Pope, that had doubtless supplied the plastic explosive the IRA used in their attempt to kill Margaret Thatcher.
Here was President Reagan fearlessly moving among them.
I drafted a letter for President Reagan one time when I worked for him at the U.S. Department of Education. I wrote if we dont teach phonics to our children, I fear that the rising generation will lack the essentials of literacy. Barely an hour later, the approved draft was back on my desk. Circled in red was that phrase: I fear that...
In the margin was this note: This president has concerns. He has no fears.
That was twenty-five years ago. Those words inspire me still.