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How Ronald Reagan’s Hollywood Role in WWII Helped Launch His Political Career

How Ronald Reagan’s Hollywood Role in WWII Helped Launch His Political Career

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Ronald Reagan always thought World War II had cost him his chance at reaching the top of the marquee of Hollywood stars. His best performance came in a film, Kings Row, that premiered just as the movie business was following other industries in converting to wartime production. By the end of the war, Reagan’s moment had passed, and it never came again.

In truth, there was more to the story than bad timing. Reagan simply didn’t have the dramatic chops of Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart. Reagan was a fine supporting actor, but he couldn’t carry a film. Jack Warner, Reagan’s boss at Warner Bros. studio, understood. Told in 1965 that Reagan was running for California governor, Warner reportedly quipped, “No—Jimmy Stewart for governor; Ronald Reagan for best friend.”

Yet whether or not World War II derailed Reagan’s movie career, it put him on the path to another career, in which he reached greater heights than he ever could have in Hollywood. Reagan entered the military and was informed that he could do his country the most useful service by continuing to make movies. His eyesight was too poor to risk assigning him to any active theater of the war. “If we sent you overseas you’d shoot a general,” an examining doctor told him, as Stephen Vaughn writes in Ronald Reagan in Hollywood. “And you’d miss him,” the doctor’s colleague added.”

READ MORE: Why Ronald Reagan Had a Record Eight Shutdowns

So Reagan reported to Culver City, California, where Jack Warner had set up the U.S. Army’s First Motion Picture Unit. Actors and technicians in uniform made promotional and instructional films, chiefly for the Army’s Air Forces. Reagan had played a pilot in earlier films and was a natural for an airman. He’d been a radio announcer before becoming an actor, and his voice was perfect as the narrator for inspirational documentaries about America’s heroes of the air.

Reagan’s wartime roles caused audiences to see—and hear—him in a new light. Though he never came under enemy fire, to many Americans he was the face and voice of those who did. Newsreel footage of actual battles left most of the participants too distant or blurry to be recognizable; the studio-quality films Reagan appeared in showed his camera-friendly looks to admirable effect.

More important, the war changed Reagan’s perceptions. He paid increasing attention to politics—first the politics of the film industry, then the politics of the country. Before the war he had never thought seriously about America’s role in world affairs, or the nation’s place in world history. Now he did.

As president of the Screen Actors Guild, and later as a representative of the General Electric Co., he embarked on a program of self-education. Increasingly he spoke out on the challenges facing the United States as the World War II struggle against fascism segued into the Cold War confrontation against communism.

By the time he entered elective politics, in the race for California governor, he had a grasp of public affairs that belied the popular perception of him as a washed-up actor who simply read scripts written by others. In fact, during his White House years, Reagan probably wrote more of his own lines than any president since Woodrow Wilson.

Several postwar presidents had been in uniform during World War II. But none were more eloquent than Reagan in conveying the lesson of the “greatest generation”: that democracy required defending, and that America was the country the world depended on to do it. None felt more fully than Reagan that America’s struggle was one of good against evil, and that America was the “shining city on a hill”—an image he invoked again and again during his presidency.

Reagan wasn’t on the front lines in the war, but he had a front row seat. As a member of the First Motion Picture Unit, he saw unedited footage of the liberation of the Nazi death camps at war’s end. The images made such an impression on him that he saved a reel, against a time when people might deny that the Holocaust had ever happened.

Significantly, while Reagan encountered undeniable evidence of the atrocities committed by America’s enemies in the war, he had no experience of the evils done by Americans. Real soldiers recognize that war is the hell William T. Sherman, the Civil War general, declared it to be, and that not all the hell comes from the other side. From Reagan’s perch in Southern California, America’s participation was sanitized and consistently heroic.

READ MORE: How the U.S. Ended Up With Warehouses Full of Government Cheese

Watch a preview of the two-night event Presidents at War, premiering Sunday, February 17 at 8/7c.

Reagan’s Hollywood version of war gave him a view of the world that was clearer than truth. During his presidency he applied this view to the Cold War. The Soviet Union was an “evil empire” that required defeating, not merely containing. “My theory of the Cold War is: We win and they lose,” Reagan said. Not for him the equivocation of détente and the stalemate of peaceful coexistence.

Luckily for Reagan and the world, he entered the White House at a moment when Soviet communism had reached a crisis of legitimacy. The pressure he employed helped push the Russian system over the brink. Had Reagan been president when Stalin or even Khrushchev had been in charge in Moscow, the results might have been ominously different.

But timing is everything—for an actor, and for a president. That was one lesson Reagan got just right.

Hollywood wonders if Arnold Schwarzenegger will be back

In the recently released trailer for “The Expendables,” the action movie directed by Sylvester Stallone about a group of aging mercenaries on a rebel mission in South America, big-screen graybeards such Stallone, Bruce Willis, Dolph Lundgren and Mickey Rourke (along with the more youthful Jason Statham and Randy Couture) are plotting a coup when an unexpected face suddenly materializes.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, apparently taking a break from the budgetary troubles that have dogged him during his governorship, appears on screen with Willis and Stallone, utters a crisply satirical line (“Give this job to my friend here -- he loves playing in the jungle,” he says about the “Rambo” star) and, as quickly as he appeared, turns and walks away.

As the governor prepares to beat a retreat from Sacramento at the end of the year, the scene dangles a tantalizing possibility. Forget low approval ratings, tax hikes and an education crisis -- fans and entertainment-business insiders are asking more pressing questions. Is the appearance in the Aug. 13 release “The Expendables” -- a testosterone-drenched shoot-em-up summer movie, if testosterone-drenched shoot-em-up summer movies were cast in action-film retirement homes -- an acting swan song before Schwarzenegger stalks off to a new political adventure (a post in the Obama administration, perhaps)? Or is it a trial balloon for another foray into Hollywood?

Since landing in the governor’s office nearly 6 1/2 years ago, Schwarzenegger has taken on a task that can seem as mercenary as any in “The Expendables.” In fact, after all the political powder kegs, legislative trench warfare and spray-and-pray news coverage, he may have wished they’d given this job to his friend. (Or his enemy.)

But Schwarzenegger is unlikely to let his work in the Capitol serve as our lasting impression of him. “When politicians leave office, they almost always try to re-ingratiate themselves with the public they’ve inevitably disappointed,” says pundit and Time magazine columnist Joe Klein, a frequent chronicler of the politics-celebrity nexus.

In Schwarzenegger’s case, that could mean a humanitarian role à la the one inhabited by former President Bill Clinton. Or it could mean an actual movie role.

Schwarzenegger, after all, has shown a remarkable capacity for reinvention over his more than three decades in the public eye. The Austrian immigrant made the unusual transition from bodybuilder to B-movie star before ascending to the A-list, then recast himself as a comedic actor, before finally making the leap from dominating the multiplex to running the biggest state in the union. Along the way, he’s incorporated parts of his earlier self as governor, he’s put his show business experience to use by relying on catchy sound bites right out of a studio marketer’s playbook.

Since America loves a comeback, what would be a better move, for a man famous for promising he’ll be back, than a return to the big screen, especially as he’s been edged further out of a Tea Party-minded Republican mainstream? As Klein puts it: “Acting would be a way for Schwarzenegger to restore himself in the eyes of the public.”

For years, celebrities who crossed from entertainment into politics ( Ronald Reagan, Sonny Bono) didn’t boomerang back to their former profession. And politicians who leave elected office to dabble in television celebrity are often just holding their place until they can return to the public sector (the Sarah Palin way, if she indeed returns).

More recently, however, entertainers who made the jump to politics leaped back when their political run ended. Jesse Ventura (Schwarzenegger’s costar in “Predator,” “The Running Man” and “Batman & Robin”) left the Minnesota governor’s mansion to become a radio personality and indie-film actor. After an ill-fated presidential run in 2008, former Sen. Fred Thompson returned to TV and movies and launched a radio career.

A radio career may be a stretch for Schwarzenegger, who has been mum on his post-gubernatorial life. (He declined to be interviewed for this piece and declines to talk about the subject generally -- possibly because, as some in his inner circle say, he doesn’t know his plans.) But those who’ve gone from politics back to acting say it can be rewarding.

“Leaving politics and getting back into the business is kind of liberating,” Thompson says. “You’re used to dealing with a lot of people on your staff, and then you get to a situation where you’re on your own and it’s your own deal. And at the end of the day you can go home and forget about work until the next day.”

With that in mind, we scoured some of the brightest minds inside and outside the entertainment business and beyond to determine the options for an Arnold reentry into Hollywood, how it could be executed and how it would be received. We offer six possibilities:

A starring role in a big action movie

The most tempting option. It takes Schwarzenegger back to his roots and takes us back to how we best remember him. In the 1980s, when guns, biceps and cheesy one-liners were bursting off the screen, no one burst bigger than Schwarzenegger, who in a remarkable five-year stretch starred in eight action movies. “In today’s world we need heroes, which means we need Arnold,” Aaron Norris, a film producer and brother of ‘80s action star Chuck Norris, says (before adding that we also need his brother). “Who are the kids quoting? It’s Chuck and Arnold. We need to bring them back. Our action movies have gotten too artsy.”

But it may be more than machismo-fueled nostalgia that gets Arnold strapping on the AK-47 again. Several A-list Hollywood producers point out that he’s one of the most recognizable stars in the world, and action remains one of the most reliable genres overseas. Plus he’s a lot more on our minds now than he was before he took office.

The elephant in the room? Action heroes generally don’t fly with audiences after they hit their 50s. (Schwarzenegger will turn 63 this summer.) And for all the curiosity that a return to tank tops and bullet belts would bring, Schwarzenegger may not bring crowds into movie theaters. Apart from the third “Terminator” in 2003, he hasn’t had an action hit since 1994’s “True Lies” -- despite half a dozen attempts that included clunkers “Collateral Damage” and “The 6th Day.” And that’s to say nothing of whether he can still go shirtless " Twilight’s” Taylor Lautner, after all, has upped the six-pack ante.

in a smaller action movie

The biggest problem with Schwarzenegger starring in a franchise action picture is that few financiers would be willing to spend $100 million making a movie with a risky quantity at the center. Budget that movie more modestly, however, and you could be in business.

“Until there’s a young crop of actors that can fill the gap left by the testosterone brigade, there’s going to be a lot of interest [from financiers] for movies from Stallone and Schwarzenegger,” says Stuart Ford of IM Global. “But they wouldn’t buy it at a $90-million budget. At $20 [million] or $30 million, on the other hand, they’d take a bit of a gamble.”

Stallone is the model: He made 2008’s “Rambo” and “Expendables” at midrange budgets outside the mainstream studio system. (Stallone also declined to comment for this piece.) But Ford cautions that the role Schwarzenegger takes would still need to build in plenty of self-knowing irony. And to get a buzz among younger audiences, he warns, “it would probably still need to be a good movie.”

A supporting role in a big action film

If it’s tricky for Schwarzenegger to carry a movie, he could pair himself with a younger actor, someone who could bring in a youthful crowd and also handle the jumping-off-the-building stuff (think the coupling of Harrison Ford and Shia LaBeouf in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”).

“I’d be hesitant to cast him as the lead,” says Mike Medavoy, the veteran Hollywood producer and studio executive who oversaw the release of monster Schwarzenegger hits such as “The Terminator.” “But if you get a terrific director and a young star and put them together, I think the combination would work.”

A role on reality television

It sounds funny, but there’s a precedent for politicians doing reality TV. Especially Republicans with shaky political futures (see “Dancing” star Tom DeLay). Besides, if you’re going to launch your political career on late-night, as Schwarzenegger did, what better way to give your post-political career a jolt than with an appearance in prime time?

“The characteristics that make a politician connect in terms of charisma are the exact same characteristics that help you connect to a reality-television audience,” says Chris Coelen, the veteran producer behind reality shows such as “Don’t Forget the Lyrics” and " Shaq’s Big Challenge.” “ ‘Dancing With the Stars’ would be a great platform since it’s high-profile and quick,” Coelen adds. “But I wouldn’t be closed to building a series around him. Schwarzenegger can do an upbeat brand-building show after he leaves office and it would be a huge ratings draw. And there would be no tarnish for him.”

A lead comedic film role

OK, so “Junior” wasn’t a high-water mark in modern film history. But with the trio of comedies Schwarzenegger made with Ivan Reitman (“Twins” and “Kindergarten Cop” were the others), he has proven appeal in the fish-out-of-water comedy. And in office he’s shown a flair for the deadpan.

“I don’t see him playing an arrogant action hero,” Klein says. “But I can see him coming back in a self-deprecating role.” Or as Thompson says, “I think the public is much more tolerant these days of seeing different sides of public figures.”

If Mike Tyson can mock himself in “The Hangover,” Schwarzenegger can do the same in a Todd Philips or Judd Apatow vehicle. Of course, there is the question of gravitas: It’s one thing to mock yourself when you’re a former boxer who’s had deep-seated financial trouble it’s another when you’re a former governor who’s overseen a state with deep-seated financial trouble.

It’s been a long time since Schwarzenegger has done something more character-driven or worked with a top-flight auteur. So long, in fact, that Jimmy Carter was in the White House when he last tried it.

But the guy began his acting career in a Robert Altman noir (“The Long Goodbye”) and a Bob Rafelson film (“Stay Hungry,” for which Schwarzenegger won his only major award, a Golden Globe).

True, his cameos while in office would hardly pave the way for an Oscar run (they include " The Kid & I,” “Around the World in 80 Days” and the Oscar contender that was “Terminator Salvation”). But there would be a neat closing-of-the-circle in any post-gubernatorial film role: Movies helped launch his political career, and the prominence he maintained while in office could help put him back in movies.

And even his political detractors might have reason to buy a ticket. If he’s gainfully employed in Hollywood, they might reason, maybe he won’t run for another political office.

Ronald Reagan Paved the Way for Donald Trump

Watching the four-part Showtime docuseries, The Reagans, is an interesting form of leftist self-punishment for all you masochists out there. You may be familiar with most of the Ron and Nancy horror show laid out here in traditional documentary form through lavish photos, clips, and talking-head interviews.

Memories, how they linger — from calling in the National Guard on peaceful student protesters in Berkeley as governor to breaking the Air Traffic Controllers’ strike as president, to forcing disastrous tax cuts, massive military escalation, corporate deregulation, and “trickle-down economics” upon us. There’s even the story about how Reagan got the idea for the delusional and costly “Star Wars” missile defense system from a ray gun he carried in one of his old B movies — it’s all here!

But some of the details that you probably forgot — or maybe never knew — will make you groan aloud in pain that this man was unleashed upon the country at such a pivotal moment. And that his legacy, sadly, is seen everywhere today.

You doubtlessly recall Reagan’s notorious attempt to undermine support for the welfare program while president — the fantasy of black “welfare queens” rolling up in Cadillacs to collect their checks. But have you ever heard Reagan’s racist talk about life in California in the 1960s, such as the city streets that become “jungle paths after dark”? That’s the kind of racist dog whistle Reagan first used to get himself elected governor of California in 1966, defeating beloved two-term progressive Democratic governor Pat Brown.

The material covered in the second hour-long episode of the series, titled “The Right Turn,” is the most important in the series, according to director Matt Tyrnauer in a recent interview with Jacobin. It covers Reagan’s early political career, backed by a powerful consortium of California millionaires who raised the money for his gubernatorial campaign “over lunch,” after Reagan’s turn from a New Deal Democrat to a rigidly conservative Goldwater Republican made him their perfect candidate. This early era of Reagan’s political career is less well known to mainstream America. Thankfully, the docuseries is helping to change that, exposing Reagan’s aggressive use of “institutional racism” to win over white voters frightened of civil rights gains and the newly proposed fair housing laws.

Tyrnauer says that if he’d had to make only a one-hour documentary on the Reagans, instead of the four-hour series commissioned by Showtime, he’d choose this episode for the way it draws a straight line between Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump for those who would deny the connection:

How is it possible that even never-Trump Republicans can still say Ronald Reagan is their hero? He practiced the same kind of demagogic racism [as Trump]!

The refusal to recognize the similarities between Trump and Reagan is characteristic of centrist Democrats as well, who consistently represent Trump as a horrifying anomaly instead of a fairly standard Republican when it comes to policy. As a result of the attitude that Trump is a monster the like of which we’ve never seen before, there’s been a bizarre whitewashing of George W. Bush’s heinous reputation. Now, pre-Trump Republican presidents are suddenly regarded as fine, statesmanlike, “decent men” by comparison.

“I like to quote Gore Vidal, who said ‘We live in the United States of Amnesia,’” as Tyrnauer puts it.

To Tyrnauer’s chagrin, some American film reviewers are failing to connect those dots between Reagan and Trump, however strongly they’re emphasized in the docuseries. The obvious indicators include Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign motto, “Let’s Make American Great Again,” which made an abbreviated reappearance on millions of pro-Trump MAGA hats.

Like Trump, Reagan’s landslide victory in 1980 came as a shock to most liberals. His entire career, as Tyrnauer puts it, seemed to “rise invisibly through the 1960s.” Just as liberals mocked Reagan for being a “middling washed-up ex-actor” in 1980, Trump, too, was dismissed at first as nothing more than a vulgar TV star. The same Dr Anthony Fauci who tried and failed to reason with Trump about the urgency of the COVID-19 epidemic once tried and failed, as a much younger man, to reason with Reagan about the urgency of the AIDS epidemic.

It’s ironic, Tyrnauer says, that the primary complaint about the docuseries is that when it comes to the Reagans, we’ve simply seen it all before: “Because you haven’t.”

In fact, much of the footage in The Reagans has been seen rarely or never. In the crucial second episode, for example, we see Nancy Reagan being interviewed in her new post as First Lady of California. She relentlessly complains on camera about the supposedly unlivable governor’s mansion — complaints she would repeat when she got to the White House and began angling for expensive remodeling of the private rooms. That documentary video was only shown once, and was sufficiently unflattering that Nancy Reagan asked to have it destroyed.

Tyrnauer begins and ends the series with Reagan’s claim, “If you’re not a good actor, you can’t be a good president.” At the start, from behind the scenes, we’re shown Reagan delivering a presidential speech for the cameras, holding a dignified pose and never fluffing a line. This kind of image construction seems very familiar by now, but for Tyrnauer it’s still an urgent issue, because of a tendency in the general public to watch political performances uncritically. “People need to be grabbed by the lapels and shaken: ‘You’re not looking at reality!’”

Ronald Reagan on horseback.

And indeed, Reagan was notoriously as far from reality as he could get. There was so much filmed evidence of Reagan’s confusion with fantasy role play versus reality that Tyrnauer had to pick and choose among countless examples. As the late Michael Rogin laid out in pitiless detail in Ronald Reagan, the Movie, Reagan consistently confused his reel life with his real life in a way that dangerously determined presidential policy.

It was a syndrome that began early in life, as the docuseries demonstrates, and was shared by Nancy, a fellow actor who was also scarred by an unhappy childhood. Unable to deal with his own precarious youth, with a failed traveling salesman and alcoholic for a father, Reagan cast himself early in the role of hero in a fantasy life he made as real as he possibly could every day.

The closest Reagan could come to grappling with the harshness of his early life was recalling that, at an impossibly young age, he once dragged his dead-drunk father out of the snow, where he would’ve frozen to death, up many steps into the family home. It was like a heroic scene out of a nineteenth-century melodrama about demon rum, and Reagan’s son Ron Jr admitted it could never have happened as described because “I saw the steps.”

Reagan played football, badly, because he felt it was a heroic sport, but then got to play the title role in Knute Rockne – All American and quote “the Gipper’s” lines from it for the rest of his life. Asked by a reporter what his dog’s name was, Reagan answered, “Lassie,” the name of the most famous dog star in Hollywood history. His dog’s name was actually Millie. Perhaps most notoriously, Reagan couldn’t seem to remember that he wasn’t allowed to go into combat in World War II because of his terrible eyesight — a perfectly honorable reason to spend the war “fighting the battle of Culver City” under the command of Jack Warner, making propaganda films for the war effort.

But he couldn’t live with that idea of himself, not when fellow actors like Jimmy Stewart went off to fight and became real war heroes. Instead, Reagan told anecdotes about battles that were actually from war movies he’d starred in and made absurd claims about how much combat had changed him.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan on the day of his first inauguration as president in 1981.

During the 1950s, when Reagan became General Electric’s television spokesperson, he and Nancy were given a gadget-packed GE home and filmed in extensive advertisements as idealized Ward and June Cleaver parents raising their perfect children in a perfect house. The reality was quite different in ways they couldn’t hide so easily in the White House, though Ron and Nancy did their best to “stick to the script.” Daughter Patti and son Ron Jr became liberal Democrats and outspoken critics of their parents’ policies.

In this regard, Tyrnauer said that of all the material he might’ve included on Reagan and regretted he didn’t have room for in the series running time,

I’d probably have most liked to include a section about the relationship between Ronald Reagan and Walt Disney, who were highly conscious of one another as figures representing the same values. Reagan carried them from movies into politics while Disney carried them from movies into a mass media empire and experiments in social engineering.

Both men were old-fashioned, rock-ribbed Republicans — pro-business, anti-union, hysterical about the “threat of communism,” desperate to overcome miserable, impoverished working-class childhoods by inventing a society designed around a sanitized fantasy of a white suburban family life that they themselves never experienced. Reagan was even chosen for the emcee team hired to drum up enthusiasm for the opening day of Disneyland in 1955, with its sentimental vision of an America that never existed outside of popular fiction, the first of nearly a dozen such Disney theme parks now spread around the globe.

Though it might seem as if the premiere of The Reagans shortly after the election indicates that Showtime intended it to be received as a commentary on it, Tyrnauer says the initial release was actually scheduled for next year. Instead, “a hole in the schedule created by the pandemic” led to the earlier release. According to Tyrnauer, several of his friends said, “Don’t you wish it had aired two weeks before, so you could persuade people?”

Though persuading people to vote for Joe Biden can hardly be seen as saving us from Reagan’s legacy.

Tyrnauer’s docuseries is a visceral reminder that America has always been — and likely will always be — fertile ground for reactionary showmen like Trump and Reagan. Both were celebrities savvy enough to recognize the gap between the American middle-class dream on TV and the dashed dreams of those same people struggling for their slice of the pie in reality. And once in the White House, both presidents did everything they could to redistribute wealth upward, further enshrining a ruling class deeper in the halls of power even as they made the working man the hero of their political vision.

And with the further retreat of a political left in America, and widening inequality since the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s only a matter of time before the next Gipper takes the stage. God help us all.

For further discussion of The Reagans, listen to this episode of Eileen Jones’s podcast Filmsuck here.

55 Years Ago, “The Speech” That Launched Ronald Reagan’s Political Career

On Oct. 27, 1964, Reagan delivered a nationally-televised speech, endorsing Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. It may have not been enough to lift Goldwater to victory, but a star had been reborn.

Robert Mann is a professor at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication and author of Becoming Ronald Reagan: The Rise of a Conservative Icon.

When he burst into national politics 55 years ago this month, Ronald Reagan was known primarily as a washed-up movie actor. The man who would become California governor two years later, and U.S. president 14 years after that, was famous for a few decent movies in the late 1930s and, more recently, for serving at the avuncular host of NBC’s popular half-hour, Sunday night drama series, “General Electric Theater.”

But that show had been off the air since 1962 and Reagan had shown up recently on syndicated television as host of the long-running syndicated western series “Death Valley Days.”

But now, on the night of Oct. 27, 1964, Reagan was on national television, speaking for Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. For thirty minutes that evening, millions of Americans watched the former actor present the campaign’s most eloquent argument for Goldwater in his race against President Lyndon Johnson.

Reagan’s speech was a lightning bolt of political theater. His commanding presence and the ease and poise with which he spoke about national issues stunned some viewers.

Hundreds of citizens sent telegrams to Reagan at his home or in care of the campaign. “It was thrilling, the best speech of the campaign,” a viewer from Lake Forest, Ill., wrote later that night. A Brooklyn, New York, man wrote the next morning: “Greatest political speech we’ve heard. You are the strongest thing going for Uncle Goldie.” A viewer from Baltimore told Reagan his was the “most thrilling and spellbinding speech I have ever heard.”

Many of those who didn’t send telegrams sent checks. Reagan would help raise more than $700,000 in contributions, a remarkable sum for 1964.

Overnight, the former actor was a national political sensation. His new acclaim would propel Reagan into the 1966 California governor’s race, which he would win by a million votes. By 1967, national political reporters would consider him a possible presidential nominee.

It was all so sudden. And to many national reporters, it was a disorienting transformation. Some detractors denigrated Reagan as nothing more than a lightweight who traded on his former fame to launch a new career since the old one no longer paid his bills. But these insults and slights wouldn’t effect Reagan. His remarkable political skills and his attractive, optimistic message easily overrode doubts about his abilities.

But the underestimation of Reagan never stopped. From the first day of his presidency to the last, many critics saw him as little more than an “amiable dunce,” as former Defense Secretary Clark Clifford once called him.

This is how I viewed Reagan for decades. And that ended when I began researching his early political career for clues about how this struggling actor–a former liberal Democrat– remade himself so quickly into a conservative politician. And not just any politician, but one with skills and instincts superior to most of the seasoned political professionals of his day.

What I learned was that far from bursting onto the political scene in 1964 with this one remarkable speech for Goldwater, Reagan had prepared for this moment for years. Since late 1954, when he began hosting “General Electric Theater,” Reagan had traveled the country by train, visiting each of GE’s 135 manufacturing plants as the company’s goodwill ambassador. In almost every town, he spoke to the local chamber of commerce or a civic club. He gave interviews to reporters. He greeted employees on factory floors like a seasoned politician.

At first, the former Screen Actors Guild president had talked about Hollywood, but he soon pivoted to his favorite topics, politics and policy. He spoke about the threats posed by communism, socialism and big government.

Every speech to every group was a work in progress. He had no prepared text, only a stack of index cards on which he wrote the prompt for an anecdote or fact to illustrate a point. If a story or joke fell flat, he tossed the card and tried a new one.

Because he had a photographic memory and required no text, Reagan always observed his audiences when he talked. He watched them closely for their reactions to everything he said. He knew when a line landed powerfully. He knew when he had persuaded them that the federal government really was out of control. He could see it in their eyes.

Most national reporters hadn’t noticed that a future political star was quietly acquiring the skills that would earn him acclaim as the most gifted politician of his generation. That’s because most of his early speeches were in backwater towns. They had gone unnoticed. He was just an actor, a television host and a goodwill ambassador. There was no reason to pay him much mind.

Reagan’s remarkable speech for Goldwater didn’t influence the election much, if at all. Goldwater lost in a landslide. Reagan, however, emerged a winner in the eyes of those Republicans who recognized his enormous potential as a political leader.

What his new fans did not recognize, however, was how hard Reagan had worked to prepare for this moment. In the decades prior, he had read widely about economics, education, agriculture and foreign policy. He was no policy expert, but he was no mindless amateur. He had done his homework.

As one who held Reagan in low esteem, I was surprised by what I found. I had assumed Reagan’s success as president was largely a result of his acting ability. In other words, he was simply playing a role and reading a script that others wrote for him.

This may have been the case once he reached the White House and employed a company of speech writers, but in his early days, what Reagan told audiences was the product of his own reading and thinking.

This is not to say that his stardom and acting abilities were not inconsequential to his success. His movie fame gave him opportunities to talk about political issues. His ease in front of the movie camera translated into the same kind of ease before a crowd. And his ability to retain facts, figures and stories allowed him to closely watch his audiences and learn the craft of speechmaking from their responses.

More than anything, however, it was Reagan’s willingness to put in those long hours on the road, fine tuning his message and honing his political skills in the minor league of small-town America. By the time he burst into the big league, in October 1964, his ability to deliver a political speech was nearly perfect. He appeared as a fully formed politician. All he lacked was a campaign from which to launch his political career. Within months, he found his race–and the rest is American political history.

Reagan would never persuade some of his detractors that he was anything more than a former actor playing the role of a politician. But he was more. To study Reagan’s early career is to discover a well-read man of substance and considerable intellectual curiosity.

True, he did not possess a towering intellect he was not a policy innovator and much of his knowledge and ideas were derivative.

He was not, however, an “amiable dunce,” as his enemies claimed. For decades, these detractors underestimated him and they often paid a price for that misjudgment. Whatever he lacked in policy expertise, Reagan more than compensated with a rare ability to connect with people and explain his ideas in ways they could easily understand and believe.

Reagan’s sudden appearance on the national political scene on Oct. 27, 1964, should be remembered as a significant day in American political history. But, more useful in understanding his rise as a conservative icon is studying his assiduous preparation for that moment. Reagan’s toil in the political minor leagues in the 1950s and early 1960s was not only largely unnoticed, it was is one of the more interesting and significant periods of his remarkable life.

SoCal's Presidential History: Nixon, Reagan, and. McAdoo?

The 37th and 40th Presidents of the United States are buried within 45 miles of downtown Los Angeles at their respective presidential libraries. As the country's only metropolitan area to host two presidential libraries, Southern California boasts a wealth of presidential history--and contemporary presidential drama like the recent the September 7 G.O.P. bout at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley. And yet the region of more than 17.8 million residents—more populous than all but three states—has not produced a major presidential contender since Richard Nixon exited the political stage in 1974.

Raised in Orange County and Whittier, Nixon was a recent World War II veteran when he won election to the U.S. House in 1946, representing Los Angeles County. The young politician rose quickly: Californians elevated him to the U.S. Senate in 1950, and in 1952 Dwight D. Eisenhower made Nixon a national figure by choosing him as his running mate. He served as Eisenhower's backup from 1953 to 1961, but his political fortunes had turned in 1960 John F. Kennedy defeated him for the presidency, and in 1962 he lost his bid to unseat Edmund "Pat" Brown, Sr., as California governor.

Nixon eventually won the presidency, of course, serving from 1969 until 1974, when he resigned and retired to the Western White House, La Casa Pacifica, in San Clemente. Dedicated in 1990, Nixon's presidential library is located at the site of his birthplace and childhood home in Yorba Linda.

Unlike Nixon, Ronald Reagan was not a Southern California native. Born in Illinois, the Midwesterner arrived in 1937 as a newly signed actor for Warner Bros. Pictures. Although Reagan never broke into the top echelon of film stars, he worked as a screen actor until the 1960s, when he left the entertainment industry for a new role: politician. Reagan first appeared as an enthusiastic Barry Goldwater supporter in 1964 and then as California governor from 1967 to 1975.

A champion of conservative causes, Reagan made two unsuccessful presidential bids, first losing the Republican nomination to Nixon in 1968 and then narrowly losing to the incumbent president, Gerald Ford, in 1976. With his third attempt, in 1980, Reagan found success. He defeated George H.W. Bush for the Republican nomination and then unseated Jimmy Carter as president. After leaving office in 1989, Reagan retired to Bel Air. His presidential library opened in Simi Valley in 1991.

On Saturday, October 22, archivists from the Reagan Library and the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda will discuss some of the unique materials that link their collections with Southern California history at the 6th-annual Los Angeles Archives Bazaar.

Nixon and Reagan are household names, but Southern California's first serious presidential contender—a lawyer and traction magnate named William Gibbs McAdoo, whose papers are housed at UCLA's Young Research Library—is largely unknown today.

Born in Georgia during the Civil War, McAdoo oversaw two major rail transit projects in his early career. First was the conversion of Knoxville, Tennessee's street railway to electric streetcars, which bankrupted the company and prompted McAdoo to move to New York City in 1892. Second was the completion of the rail tunnels under the Hudson River, which McAdoo oversaw as president of the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad. The tunnels, completed in 1907, continue to shuttle PATH commuters between New York and New Jersey to this day.

McAdoo's success as a New York railroad executive helped launch his career in politics. He became vice chairman of the national Democratic Party in 1912 and from 1913 to 1918 served as Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of the Treasury. It was a role in which he excelled his actions during a 1914 financial crisis transformed the United States from a borrower to a creditor nation and, according to some, helped the United States wrest the world's economic leadership from Great Britain.

Although he did not permanently move to Los Angeles until 1922, McAdoo's Southern California story begins in 1919, when he helped found United Artists. The new film studio, the brainchild of Hollywood stars Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, D. W. Griffith, and Mary Pickford, was owned and operated by actors and directors instead of financiers. McAdoo joined the new company as general counsel and, along with the four founding stars, assumed a 20 percent ownership stake in the studio. His tenure was short lived, however by April 1920 he had resigned and sold his shares.

Leaving United Artists allowed McAdoo to reenter national politics. After months of denying interest in a bid, in June 1920 McAdoo entered the field for the Democratic nomination for president. At the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, McAdoo received the most votes on the first ballot but did not secure a majority in subsequent ballots his support waned, and the nomination went to Governor James Cox of Ohio.

McAdoo again sought the Democratic nomination in 1924, this time as a California resident. Endorsed by the then-resurgent Ku Klux Klan, McAdoo controversially declined to repudiate the racist group's endorsement. McAdoo's chief opponent was Governor Al Smith of New York, a Catholic and an opponent of the Klan.

At the national convention in Madison Square Garden, McAdoo again finished atop the first ballot but never could secure a majority thanks to the strong opposition of Smith's backers. The nomination eventually went to a compromise candidate, former Solicitor General John W. Davis.

Column: He helped make Ronald Reagan president. Now he's had it with the Republican Party

Recently, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library launched a lecture series titled “Time for Choosing,” a name consciously echoing the famous 1964 speech that launched Reagan’s political career and put him on a path to the White House.

The concept — marquee names, history-rich backdrop — is a throwback to a time when politics involved ideas and philosophies and wasn’t just about riling “the base” or “owning” the opposition. The program also gives Republicans a chance to paint their visions while wrapping themselves in the mantle of one of the GOP’s most beloved and sainted figures.

But the title is something of a misnomer. Many Republicans have already chosen: It’s Donald Trump’s party and will remain so until and unless someone pries it from his fisted fingers.

Of those invited, the first to appear, former House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, is one of the few who have dared to openly suggest Republicans ditch the retread who not only cost them the White House but control of the House and Senate — a losing trifecta unmatched in a single term by any president since 1932. Ryan’s reward was a nasty-gram from Mar-a-Lago.

Stuart Spencer has already seen enough.

In November, he voted for Joe Biden for president — the first Democrat he’s supported since Harry Truman in 1948. “I was in the Navy, on the way to invade Japan, when he stopped the war,” Spencer said, then laughed heartily. “I figured I owed him one.”

Apart from Nancy Reagan, there may be no one more responsible for Reagan’s political success than Spencer, who spent decades as a campaign strategist helping steer the former B-movie actor and long shot to the California governorship and then two terms as president.

Funny, profane and irrepressibly blunt, Spencer was more than a hired hand. He was someone Nancy Reagan and others turned to when Reagan needed prodding or a little straightening-out behind the scenes, and Spencer repaid that intimacy with a code of honor he’s kept ever since. He’s one of the few people close to Reagan who never cashed in by writing an insider account tell-alls, Spencer said, aren’t his style.

But he doesn’t hold back when it comes to Trump, whom Spencer denounced as “a demagogue and opportunist” utterly lacking in core values or convictions. “He sees an issue,” Spencer said, “and no matter what he believes, he goes where it gets him the most votes.”

(In 2016, Spencer couldn’t bring himself to vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton, so he cast his ballot instead for Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor who ran as a Libertarian.)

It’s impossible to know what someone else might think, so when Spencer was asked what Reagan would make of Trump, there was a long pause. “Oh, boy,” he said. The air conditioning whirred in the background it was 95 degrees where he lives, in the desert outside Palm Springs, en route to a high temperature of 105.

“He would be sick,” Spencer finally said, offering his best guess. “Not just the issues out there, but the personal things [Trump] has done. The way he treated women. All those people he robbed of money.” (As a developer, Trump was notorious for stiffing contractors.)

“He couldn’t fathom that stuff,” Spencer said of Reagan. “[Trump’s] behavior would have upset him the most.”

Spencer has been a Republican his entire professional life, ever since he began working in political campaigns in Los Angeles more than 60 years ago. The last few decades have seen him play the role of Cassandra, telling truths many in the party preferred not to hear.

In 1997, in the roiling aftermath of Proposition 187, the ballot measure aimed at thwarting illegal immigration, Spencer wrote an open letter to fellow Republicans.

“Our party has a sad (and politically self-defeating) history of alienating immigrant groups and new voters,” he said. “The GOP closed the door to the Irish and the Italian immigrants in Massachusetts and New York in the last century. We did the same to Poles and other Eastern Europeans in Chicago and other urban centers.”

With the Latino share of the electorate growing rapidly, the choice was simple, Spencer wrote. The GOP could change, toning down its harsh rhetoric and becoming more welcoming to immigrants, or consign the California Republican Party to minority status.

His advice was largely ignored, but proved prophetic.

Now he sees the national party in need of a sharp course correction, away from Trump’s grievances and reckless assault on democracy and the truth. Away from unbending certitude, from seeing the world only in black-and-white with no gray, and from treating politics as a zero-sum, all-or-nothing proposition.

“I’m a great believer in moderation,” Spencer said. “That doesn’t mean you can’t have strong ideas. But you need to understand there are two sides to every question. Whatever your philosophy, you apply it to the situation and take what you can get.”

Negotiation. Pragmatism. Compromise. All of which Reagan, rooted in a firm set of beliefs, embraced once he took office. All of which are wildly out of fashion these days.

“I just don’t feel good about it,” Spencer said of the direction the GOP has taken under Trump’s sway. “I feel like I wasted a lot of years.”

“When you get to be my age” — he is 94 — “you hope things are getting better, not worse,” he went on. “But things have gotten a lot worse.”

Chuck Norris Recalls Friend Ronald Reagan’s Bold Faith

Writing in WND, martial artist, actor, and producer Chuck Norris shared about his friendship with former President of the United States, Ronald Reagan.

Norris, 81, said that while he celebrated his mother’s 100th birthday and mother’s day, the two of them also observed May 6, the National Day of Prayer.

“At one point in the weekend, we were watching a news story about how President Biden’s National Day of Prayer Proclamation this past week didn’t even mention the term ‘God’ in it,” Norris wrote. “My centenarian mother said as she watched, ‘It would never be like that in the old days of America when I was growing up.'”

“It got me reminiscing about my favorite president who also became my friend: Ronald Reagan,” Norris recalled. “He didn’t need to wait for sacred occasions. Reagan was like America’s founders. He was never ashamed to mention God, whether in Rose Garden speeches, National Prayer Breakfasts or anywhere he was. His Easter and Christmas proclamations were overtly and unabashedly Christian while respecting other religions.”

Both Norris and Reagan had careers in Hollywood, but what Norris appreciated most about the 40th President of the United States was his faith in God.

Norris cited a Washington Post article that talked about how Reagan’s mother, Nelle Wilson Reagan, became the catalyst for her son’s great faith.

“In a 1937 letter to the family of her former pastor, Nelle assured them that her radio-announcer son, who just landed a seven-year movie contract with Warner Brothers, would not be influenced by ‘such a wicked place as Hollywood,'” Norris wrote.

Norris included the entire letter, which you can read below:

Dixon, Illinois

May 26, 1937

Dear Friends:

How is our young mother and her new baby getting along? I imagine little [illegible] is thrilled over a little brother, but I am awfully sorry he has the “wheezes,” as you call it. Let me hope he will outgrow this asthma he’s so young to have to suffer with that.

I am inclosing some clippings regarding Ronald. I hardly know how to explain “our feelings.” But when people ask me if I am not “afraid to have him go to such a wicked place as Hollywood,” all I can answer is, that I feel I can trust him anywhere. He has never lost his high ideals of life. And when he called us to tell us the news, [one of the first early broadcasters in Illinois, who gave Ronald his first audition in radio] Pete MacArthur talked to me too and this is what he told me:

“I’m going to tell you something that your boy won’t tell you. When the wire came from Hollywood and we were all overjoyed at Dutch’s [name given to Ronald by MacArthur] good luck, we missed him from the office and sent one of the fellows to look for him. He soon came back saying he had discovered Dutch in one of the smaller studio rooms on his knees, praying. He didn’t let Dutch know that he saw him and when he told all of us there in the office, we cried like babies.”

Friends, he does love God and he never forgets to thank Him for all his many blessings. And when we visited him, he told me of all the nice things he would be able to do now for Eureka College if he won the seven-year contract with Warner Brothers.

You know he has been a wonderful son to us. His father hasn’t had any work since June 15, last year, and during all that time I have rec’d a $60.00 check the first of each month and another one of the same amt the 15th of each month. And if he signs the seven-year contract, then he is going to send for us. That is the thing that makes me so happy, to think I can live my last days, making a home for him, it’s almost more happiness than I ever expected in this life. …

Thanks for all your kind wishes for “me and mine” and we hope you’ll write again.


The Reagans

P.S. Remember, if you do plan to come to Dixon, our latch key is on the outside, you’ll find a warm welcome awaiting you all.

My best to Elizabeth and her little ones.

Nelle Reagan was right her son clung to his faith throughout his successful run in Hollywood and became one of the most prominent presidents in American history.

“Ronald Reagan not only survived his Hollywood film career but also thrived to become one of the most influential presidents in U.S. history, leading to the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union,” Norris wrote. “And Reagan did it with the bedrock faith exemplified by his mother.”

Norris remembered Reagan’s words at a 1984 Ecumenical Prayer Breakfast in Dallas, Texas.

“The following is just a small but powerful example of that speech, something that should be read or watched in entirety in every classroom and living room in America. And right now it would even serve as a great reminder and patriotic training for those presently occupying the Oval Office.”

Norris shared a portion of Ronald Reagan’s speech:

We establish no religion in this country, nor will we ever. We command no worship. We mandate no belief. But we poison our society when we remove its theological underpinnings. We court corruption when we leave it bereft of belief. All are free to believe or not believe all are free to practice a faith or not. But those who believe must be free to speak of and act on their belief, to apply moral teaching to public questions.

Without God, there is no virtue, because there’s no prompting of the conscience. Without God, we’re mired in the material, that flat world that tells us only what the senses perceive. Without God, there is a coarsening of the society. And without God, democracy will not and cannot long endure.

If we ever forget that we’re one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under.

Exchange: ‘Stripping Down and Lighting Up’

February 19, 2013

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San Francisco
Steve Wasserman has taken liberties with history and with my book, Subversives: The FBI&rsquos War on Student Radicals, and Reagan&rsquos Rise to Power [&ldquoExit Stage Left,&rdquo Oct. 29, 2012]. Wasserman, a former Berkeley radical, opens his essay with an anecdote from 1969. He&rsquod spent the day &ldquobattling cops&rdquo trying to quell a protest at UC Berkeley, and that evening attended the Living Theatre&rsquos Paradise Now, a performance meant to shock with its outré references to pot and sex. Some in the audience disrupted the show by stripping down and lighting up (though Wasserman demurely doesn&rsquot say if he joined in). &ldquoBedazzled as we were by the spectacle of our own high ideals and the intoxications of making history,&rdquo he writes, &ldquowe perhaps might be forgiven for mistaking the theater in the streets as the main event.&rdquo
This episode may reflect Wasserman&rsquos experience of late &rsquo60s Berkeley, but not the broader period I examined or the role of most students, professors and university officials targeted by the FBI. Subversives tells the story of J. Edgar Hoover&rsquos covert operations at the University of California during the Cold War. It starts with the FBI&rsquos investigation of Soviet nuclear espionage at Berkeley in the &rsquo40s and shows how the bureau veered from this mission to focus on citizens engaged in constitutionally protected dissent. The book does this by tracing the FBI&rsquos converging involvements with three iconic figures who clashed at Berkeley in the &rsquo60s: the ambitious neophyte politician Ronald Reagan, the inspiring student leader Mario Savio and the liberal university president Clark Kerr.

As the prologue notes, &ldquoIt shows how the FBI&rsquos dirty tricks at Berkeley helped fuel the student movement, damage the Democratic Party, launch Ronald Reagan&rsquos political career, and exacerbate the nation&rsquos continuing culture wars. Above all, it illustrates the dangers that the combination of secrecy and power pose to democracy, especially during turbulent times.&rdquo

Wasserman shoots past all this, writing, &ldquoDid the bureau, despite its legal, extralegal and often criminal manipulations, actually bend history&rsquos arrow? For all its provocations, did it really derail or significantly disrupt the New Left? Did it truly succeed in putting the kibosh on student protest? Was it an important factor in propelling Reagan to the pinnacle of power&mdasha summit to which he somehow might not, on the strength of his own political genius, have risen? The answer, contre Rosenfeld, is no.&rdquo

&ldquoHistory&rsquos arrow&rdquo is a nice conceit, but history is not one archer and arrow but many archers and arrows. And in many instances, Hoover&rsquos hidden hand did alter the arrow&rsquos arc. Consider some 1,000 professors dismissed without due process under the FBI&rsquos unauthorized Responsibilities Program in the &rsquo50s. Or Kerr, whom Hoover undermined with the public, the regents and President Johnson, who dropped him as a cabinet candidate. Or the FBI&rsquos steady leaking of allegations to political and media allies, which darkened public opinion of UC and helped build a conservative consensus, both of which benefited candidate Reagan.

I don&rsquot claim that the FBI &ldquosignificantly disrupted&rdquo the New Left or put &ldquothe kibosh&rdquo on student protest. I do show that the FBI&rsquos dirty tricks not only failed to stop the Free Speech Movement and other protests, but backfired and strengthened the student movement. Thus, Hoover inadvertently drew Savio to Berkeley. Nor do I say Reagan won office because of Hoover. I show that Reagan was an active informer in Hollywood, that Hoover repaid him with personal and political favors, and that this covert&mdashand improper&mdashrelationship significantly influenced Reagan&rsquos political transformation.

Absurdly, Wasserman suggests I believe everyone named in FBI records was involved in un-American conspiracies. I make clear that the bureau focused on legitimate protest. (He even misses the title&rsquos double entendre.) He complains I lack irony, but he&rsquos being a trifle farinaceous. One needn&rsquot begin passages with a neon &ldquoIronically&hellip.&rdquo The facts speak for themselves, and readers may conclude certain events are &ldquoironic&rdquo&mdashor are the logical result of a dictatorial director demanding agents validate his undue obsession with subversives.

Beginning my research in 1981, I knew Senator Frank Church had exposed FBI activities elsewhere, and I was inspired to investigate them at Berkeley. I brought five FOIA lawsuits over twenty-seven years and forced the FBI to release 300,000-plus pages. Wasserman suggests the FBI tried to thwart their release because they reveal the bureau&rsquos &ldquothoroughgoing incompetence.&rdquo Amusing, perhaps, but the courts overruled FBI secrecy claims after finding the investigations unlawful. As the judge concluded, &ldquoThe records in this case go [to] the very essence of what the government was up to during a turbulent, historic period.&rdquo But contrary to Wasserman, I didn&rsquot rely solely on them but also conducted more than 150 interviews and other research. Was the systemic political corruption of the FBI really a &ldquosideshow&rdquo to the New Left&rsquos protests? Many might say just the opposite.

Why did Wasserman so bend his review? Is he still &ldquobedazzled&rdquo by his own spectacle? Or is his motive manifest in his conclusion: &ldquoBut we did not need Hoover&rsquos hooligans to prompt us to embrace the terrible logic of politics as a total art form. We came all on our own to believe that only by increasingly provocative spectacle could the veil of public apathy be pierced. It is we who elevated extremism to the level of strategy. It was a dialectic of defeat.&rdquo

Such &ldquoextremism&rdquo may have contributed to the New Left&rsquos decline, but it wasn&rsquot the style of most activists during the Cold War and other forces may have played a greater role, including the end of the Vietnam War. And who&rsquos to say the loose amalgam of the New Left was meant to become a political institution, as Wasserman suggests. There&rsquos a strong argument, too, that the era&rsquos tumult led to a more democratic society. But as Wasserman makes clear, his true aim was bashing the &rsquo60s and indulging in public self-renunciation perhaps he did get naked.

Wasserman Replies

Gosh. Seth Rosenfeld is an exemplary reporter. Subversives is, as I wrote, &ldquowelcome,&rdquo &ldquoimportant&rdquo and &ldquoadds nuance and appalling detail&rdquo to our sense of the &rsquo60s, &ldquowhose many tumults and contradictions still lie buried beneath a carapace of cliché.&rdquo

I added, &ldquoRosenfeld&rsquos labors help to deepen our understanding,&rdquo and I praised his &ldquoadmirable dedication&rdquo to exposing what the FBI tried to hide. Rosenfeld&rsquos aggrieved letter gives me a chance to go further: his book is indispensable though flawed (how and to what degree are matters reasonable people may reasonably disagree about).

Still, I urge everyone to read it&mdashwithout, however, checking your critical faculties at the title page. Read it with an open mind, but not so open that, as the old adage warns, your brains fall out.

Steve Wasserman Steve Wasserman, publisher and executive director of Heyday Books, based in Berkeley, California, is a consulting editor to Yale University Press. Tom Hayden’s Hell No: The Forgotten Power of the Vietnam Peace Movement, will be published in January.


Reagan’s primary goal upon taking office was to stimulate the sagging economy while simultaneously cutting both government programs and taxes. His economic policies, called Reaganomics by the press, were based on a theory called supply-side economics, about which many economists were skeptical. Influenced by economist Arthur Laffer of the University of Southern California, Reagan cut income taxes for those at the top of the economic ladder, which was supposed to motivate the rich to invest in businesses, factories, and the stock market in anticipation of high returns. According to Laffer’s argument, this would eventually translate into more jobs further down the socioeconomic ladder. Economic growth would also increase the total tax revenue—even at a lower tax rate. In other words, proponents of “trickle-down economics” promised to cut taxes and balance the budget at the same time. Reaganomics also included the deregulation of industry and higher interest rates to control inflation, but these initiatives preceded Reagan and were conceived in the Carter administration.

Many politicians, including Republicans, were wary of Reagan’s economic program even his eventual vice president, George H. W. Bush, had referred to it as “voodoo economics” when competing with him for the Republican presidential nomination. When Reagan proposed a 30 percent cut in taxes to be phased in over his first term in office, Congress balked. Opponents argued that the tax cuts would benefit the rich and not the poor, who needed help the most. In response, Reagan presented his plan directly to the people ([link]).

Reagan was an articulate spokesman for his political perspectives and was able to garner support for his policies. Often called “The Great Communicator,” he was noted for his ability, honed through years as an actor and spokesperson, to convey a mixture of folksy wisdom, empathy, and concern while taking humorous digs at his opponents. Indeed, listening to Reagan speak often felt like hearing a favorite uncle recall stories about the “good old days” before big government, expensive social programs, and greedy politicians destroyed the country ([link]). Americans found this rhetorical style extremely compelling. Public support for the plan, combined with a surge in the president’s popularity after he survived an assassination attempt in March 1981, swayed Congress, including many Democrats. On July 29, 1981, Congress passed the Economic Recovery Tax Act, which phased in a 25 percent overall reduction in taxes over a period of three years.

On March 30, 1981, just months into the Reagan presidency, John Hinckley, Jr. attempted to assassinate the president as he left a speaking engagement at the Washington Hilton Hotel. Hinckley wounded Reagan and three others in the attempt. Here, National Security Adviser Richard V. Allen recalls what happened the day President Reagan was shot:

By 2:52 PM I arrived at the White House and went to [Chief of Staff James] Baker’s office . . . and we placed a call to Vice President George H. W. Bush. . . .

[W]e sent a message with the few facts we knew: the bullets had been fired and press secretary Jim Brady had been hit, as had a Secret Service agent and a DC policeman. At first, the President was thought to be unscathed.

Jerry Parr, the Secret Service Detail Chief, shoved the President into the limousine, codenamed “Stagecoach,” and slammed the doors shut. The driver sped off. Headed back to the safety of the White House, Parr noticed that the red blood at the President’s mouth was frothy, indicating an internal injury, and suddenly switched the route to the hospital. . . . Parr saved the President’s life. He had lost a serious quantity of blood internally and reached [the emergency room] just in time. . . .

Though the President never lost his sense of humor throughout, and had actually walked into the hospital under his own power before his knees buckled, his condition became grave.

Why do you think Allen mentions the president’s sense of humor and his ability to walk into the hospital on his own? Why might the assassination attempt have helped Reagan achieve some of his political goals, such as getting his tax cuts through Congress?

The largest of the presidential libraries, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library contains Reagan’s most important speeches and pictures of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

Reagan was successful at cutting taxes, but he failed to reduce government spending. Although he had long warned about the dangers of big government, he created a new cabinet-level agency, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the number of federal employees increased during his time in office. He allocated a smaller share of the federal budget to antipoverty programs like Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), food stamps, rent subsidies, job training programs, and Medicaid, but Social Security and Medicare entitlements, from which his supporters benefited, were left largely untouched except for an increase in payroll taxes to pay for them. Indeed, in 1983, Reagan agreed to a compromise with the Democrats in Congress on a $165 billion injection of funds to save Social Security, which included this payroll tax increase.

But Reagan seemed less flexible when it came to deregulating industry and weakening the power of labor unions. Banks and savings and loan associations were deregulated. Pollution control was enforced less strictly by the Environmental Protection Agency, and restrictions on logging and drilling for oil on public lands were relaxed. Believing the free market was self-regulating, the Reagan administration had little use for labor unions, and in 1981, the president fired twelve thousand federal air traffic controllers who had gone on strike to secure better working conditions (which would also have improved the public’s safety). His action effectively destroyed the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) and ushered in a new era of labor relations in which, following his example, employers simply replaced striking workers. The weakening of unions contributed to the leveling off of real wages for the average American family during the 1980s.

Reagan’s economic policymakers succeeded in breaking the cycle of stagflation that had been plaguing the nation, but at significant cost. In its effort to curb high inflation with dramatically increased interest rates, the Federal Reserve also triggered a deep recession. Inflation did drop, but borrowing became expensive and consumers spent less. In Reagan’s first years in office, bankruptcies increased and unemployment reached about 10 percent, its highest level since the Great Depression. Homelessness became a significant problem in cities, a fact the president made light of by suggesting that the press exaggerated the problem and that many homeless people chose to live on the streets. Economic growth resumed in 1983 and gross domestic product grew at an average of 4.5 percent during the rest of his presidency. By the end of Reagan’s second term in office, unemployment had dropped to about 5.3 percent, but the nation was nearly $3 trillion in debt. An increase in defense spending coupled with $3.6 billion in tax relief for the 162,000 American families with incomes of $200,000 or more made a balanced budget, one of the president’s campaign promises in 1980, impossible to achieve.

The Reagan years were a complicated era of social, economic, and political change, with many trends operating simultaneously and sometimes at cross-purposes. While many suffered, others prospered. The 1970s had been the era of the hippie, and Newsweek magazine declared 1984 to be the “year of the Yuppie .” Yuppies, whose name derived from “(y)oung, (u)rban (p)rofessionals,” were akin to hippies in being young people whose interests, values, and lifestyle influenced American culture, economy, and politics, just as the hippies’ credo had done in the late 1960s and 1970s. Unlike hippies, however, yuppies were materialistic and obsessed with image, comfort, and economic prosperity. Although liberal on some social issues, economically they were conservative. Ironically, some yuppies were former hippies or yippies, like Jerry Rubin, who gave up his crusade against “the establishment” to become a businessman.

Read more about yuppie culture and then use the table of contents to access other information about the culture of the 1980s.


Edward Albert Heimberger was born in Rock Island, Illinois, on April 22, 1906, the oldest of the five children of Frank Daniel Heimberger, a real estate agent, and his wife, Julia Jones. [2] His year of birth is often given as 1908, but this is incorrect. His parents were not married when Albert was born, and his mother altered his birth certificate after her marriage. [3]

When he was one year old, his family moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Young Edward secured his first job as a newspaper boy when he was only six. During World War I, his German name led to taunts as "the enemy" by his classmates. He studied at Central High School in Minneapolis and joined the drama club. His schoolmate Harriet Lake (later known as actress Ann Sothern) graduated in the same class. Finishing high school in 1926, [4] he entered the University of Minnesota, where he majored in business.

When he graduated, Albert embarked on a business career. However, the stock market crash in 1929 left him essentially unemployed. He then took odd jobs, working as a trapeze performer, an insurance salesman, and a nightclub singer. Albert stopped using his last name professionally, since it invariably was mispronounced as "Hamburger". He moved to New York City in 1933, where he co-hosted a radio show, The Honeymooners – Grace and Eddie Show, which ran for three years. At the show's end, he was offered a film contract by Warner Bros. [5]

In the 1930s, Albert performed in Broadway stage productions, including Brother Rat, which opened in 1936. He had lead roles in Room Service (1937–1938) and The Boys from Syracuse (1938–1939). In 1936, Albert had also become one of the earliest television actors, performing live in one of RCA's first television broadcasts in association with NBC, a promotion for their New York City radio stations. [5]

Performing regularly on early television, Albert wrote and performed in the first teleplay, The Love Nest, written for television. Done live (not recorded on film), this production took place November 6, 1936, and originated in Studio 3H (now 3K) in the GE Building at Rockefeller Center (then called the RCA Building) in New York City and was broadcast over NBC's experimental television station W2XBS (now WNBC-TV). Hosted by Betty Goodwin, The Love Nest starred Albert, Hildegarde, The Ink Spots, Ed Wynn, and actress Grace Bradt. Before this time, television productions were adaptations of stage plays. [6]

Albert landed the starring role in the 1938 Broadway musical The Boys from Syracuse, and met Burl Ives, who had a small role in the play. The two later briefly shared an apartment in the Beachwood Canyon community of Hollywood after Ives moved west the following year. Also in 1938, Albert made his feature-film debut in the Hollywood version of Brother Rat with Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman, reprising his Broadway role as cadet "Bing" Edwards. The next year, he starred in On Your Toes, adapted for the screen from the Broadway smash by Rodgers and Hart. [7]

Military Edit

Prior to World War II, and before his film career, Albert had toured Mexico as a clown and high-wire artist with the Escalante Brothers Circus, but secretly worked for U.S. Army intelligence, photographing German U-boats in Mexican harbors. [8] On September 9, 1942, Albert enlisted in the United States Coast Guard and was discharged in 1943 to accept an appointment as a lieutenant in the U.S. Naval Reserve. He was awarded the Bronze Star with Combat "V" for his actions during the invasion of Tarawa in November 1943, when, as the coxswain of a Coast Guard landing craft, he rescued 47 Marines who were stranded offshore (and supervised the rescue of 30 others), while under heavy enemy machine-gun fire. [9]

As leading man Edit

During the war years, Albert returned to films, starring in ones such as The Great Mr. Nobody, Lady Bodyguard, and Ladies' Day, as well as reuniting with Reagan and Wyman for An Angel from Texas and co-starring with Humphrey Bogart in The Wagons Roll at Night. After the war, he resumed appearing in leading roles, including 1947's Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman, opposite Susan Hayward.

As character actor Edit

From 1948 on, Albert guest-starred in nearly 90 television series. He made his guest-starring debut on an episode of The Ford Theatre Hour. This part led to other roles such as Chevrolet Tele-Theatre, Suspense, Lights Out, Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, Studio One, Philco Television Playhouse, Your Show of Shows, Front Row Center, The Alcoa Hour, and in dramatic series The Eleventh Hour, The Reporter, and General Electric Theater.

In 1959, Albert was cast as businessman Dan Simpson in the episode "The Unwilling" of the NBC Western series Riverboat. In the story line, Dan Simpson attempts to open a general store in the American West despite a raid from pirates on the Mississippi River who stole from him $20,000 in merchandise. Debra Paget is cast in this episode as Lela Russell Russell Johnson is Darius, and John M. Picard is uncredited as a river pirate.

On stage Edit

The 1950s also had a return to Broadway for Albert, including roles in Miss Liberty (1949–1950) and The Seven Year Itch (1952–1955). In 1960, Albert replaced Robert Preston in the lead role of Professor Harold Hill, in the Broadway production of The Music Man. Albert also performed in regional theater. He created the title role of Marc Blitzstein's Reuben, Reuben in 1955 in Boston. He performed at The Muny Theater in St. Louis, reprising the Harold Hill role in The Music Man in 1966 and playing Alfred P. Doolittle in My Fair Lady in 1968.

1950s and 1960s film career Edit

In the 1950s, Albert appeared in film roles such as that of Lucille Ball's fiancé in The Fuller Brush Girl (1950), Bill Gorton in The Sun Also Rises (1957), and a traveling salesman in Carrie (1952). He was nominated for his first Oscar as Best Supporting Actor with Roman Holiday (1953). In Oklahoma! (1955), he played a womanizing Persian peddler, and in Who's Got the Action? (1962), he portrayed a lawyer helping his partner (Dean Martin) cope with a gambling addiction. In Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) he played a psychiatrist with an enthusiasm for farming. He appeared in several military roles, including The Longest Day (1962), about the Normandy invasion. The film Attack (1956) provided Albert with a dark role as a cowardly, psychotic Army captain whose behavior threatens the safety of his company. In a similar vein, he played a psychotic United States Army Air Force colonel in Captain Newman, M.D. (1963), opposite Gregory Peck.

Television series Edit

He guest-starred on various series, including ABC's The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom, as well as the Westinghouse Studio One series (CBS, 1953–54), playing Winston Smith in the first TV adaptation of 1984, by William Templeton.

The Eddie Albert Show Edit

Albert had his own daytime variety program, The Eddie Albert Show, on CBS television in 1953. Singer Ellen Hanley was a regular on the show. A review in Broadcasting magazine panned the program, saying, "Mr. Albert with the help of Miss Hanley, conducts an interview, talks a little, sings a little and looks all-thumbs a lot." [10]

Saturday Night Revue Edit

Beginning June 12, 1954, Albert was host of Saturday Night Revue, which replaced Your Show of Shows on NBC. The 9:00–10:30 pm (Eastern Time) program also featured Ben Blue and Alan Young and the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra. [11]

Guest appearances Edit

In 1962, Albert appeared as Cal Kroeger on the TV western The Virginian in the episode titled "Impasse." In 1964, Albert guest-starred in "Cry of Silence", an episode of the science fiction television series The Outer Limits. Albert played Andy Thorne, who along with his wife Karen (played by June Havoc), had decided to leave the city and buy a farm (a recurring theme in Albert's career). They find themselves lost and in the middle of a deserted valley where they come under attack by a series of tumbleweeds, frogs, and rocks. Also in 1964, he guest-starred as a government agent in the pilot episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea entitled "Eleven Days to Zero". Albert appeared as Taylor Dickson, a western photographer in season 7, episode 11 as “The Photographer” in Rawhide, alongside Clint Eastwood (Rowdy Yates) aired December 11 1964.

Albert was cast as Charlie O'Rourke in the 1964 episode "Visions of Sugar Plums" of the NBC education drama series, Mr. Novak, starring James Franciscus. Bobby Diamond, formerly of the Fury series, also appeared in this episode.

Green Acres Edit

In 1965, Albert was approached by producer Paul Henning to star in a new sitcom for CBS called Green Acres. His character, Oliver Wendell Douglas, was a lawyer who left the city to enjoy a simple life as a gentleman farmer. Co-starring on the show was Eva Gabor as his urbanite, spoiled wife, Lisa. The show was an immediate hit, achieving fifth place in the ratings in its first season. The series lasted six seasons with 170 episodes.

Switch Edit

After a four-year-absence from the small screen, and upon reaching age 69 in 1975, Albert signed a new contract with Universal Television, and starred in the popular 1970s adventure/crime drama Switch for CBS, as a retired police officer, Frank McBride, who goes to work as a private detective with a former criminal he had once jailed. In its first season, Switch was a hit. By late 1976, the show had become a more serious and traditional crime drama. At the end of its third season in 1978, ratings began to drop, and the show was canceled after 70 episodes.

Television specials Edit

Eddie Albert appears in a number of television specials. His first was the 1956 made-for-television NBC documentary Our Mr. Sun, a Bell Telephone-produced color special. [12] Directed by Frank Capra, it blends live action and animation. Albert appears with Dr. Frank Baxter, who appears in several other Bell Telephone science specials.

In 1965, the year that Green Acres premiered, Albert served as host/narrator for the telecast of a German-American made-for-television film version of The Nutcracker, which was rerun several times and is now available as a Warners Archive DVD. The host sequences and the narration, all included on the DVD, were especially filmed for English-language telecasts of this short film (it was only an hour in length, and cut much from the Tchaikovsky ballet).

Later work Edit

In 1971, Albert guest-starred in a season-one Columbo episode called "Dead Weight", which also featured guest star Suzanne Pleshette, as a highly decorated retired US Marine Corps major general, and combat war hero from the Korean War, who murders his adjutant to cover up an illegal quid pro quo contracting conspiracy scheme.

In 1972, Albert resumed his film career and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as an overprotective father in The Heartbreak Kid (1972), and delivered a memorable performance opposite Burt Reynolds as an evil prison warden in 1974's The Longest Yard. In a lighter vein, Albert portrayed the gruff though soft-hearted Jason O'Day in the successful Disney film Escape to Witch Mountain in 1975.

Albert appeared in such 1980s films as How to Beat the High Cost of Living (1980), Yesterday (1981), Take This Job and Shove It (1981), Rooster (1982 television film), and Yes, Giorgio (1982), and as the US President in Dreamscape (1984). His final feature film role was a cameo appearance in The Big Picture (1989). He also appeared in many all-star television miniseries, including Evening in Byzantium (1978), The Word (1978), Peter and Paul (1981), Goliath Awaits (1981) and War and Remembrance (1988).

In 1982 Albert sang the character role of the elderly Altoum in the San Francisco Opera staging of Puccini's Turandot. [13]

In the mid-1980s, Albert was reunited with longtime friend and co-star of the Brother Rat and An Angel from Texas films, Jane Wyman, in a recurring role as the villainous Carlton Travis in the popular 1980s soap opera Falcon Crest. He also guest-starred on an episode of the '80s television series Highway to Heaven, as well as Murder, She Wrote, and in 1990, he reunited with Eva Gabor for a Return to Green Acres. In 1993, he guest-starred for several episodes on the ABC daytime soap opera General Hospital as Jack Boland, and also made a guest appearance on the Golden Girls spin-off The Golden Palace the same year.

Eddie Albert's wife, Mexican actress Margo, was well known in Hollywood for her left-wing political leanings, [14] but she was not a member of the Communist Party. [15] In 1950, Margo and Albert's names were both published in "Red Channels," an anti-Communist pamphlet that sought to expose purported Communist influence within the entertainment industry. [16] [17]

By 1951, those identified in "Red Channels" were blacklisted across much or all of the movie and broadcast industries unless they cleared their names, the customary requirement being that they testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Additional hearings in 1951–52 generated the bulk of the blacklist, which was then used by the industry on both coasts to control who was hired. In addition, the 1950 publication "Red Channels" listed 151 suspects, and hearings on a smaller scale continued through the decade. Friendly witnesses included actors Lloyd Bridges, Lee J. Cobb, Gary Cooper, Robert Montgomery, Ronald Reagan, and Robert Taylor studio heads Walt Disney, Louis B. Mayer, and Jack L. Warner and director Elia Kazan (whose compliance generated controversy over honoring him in the 1990s). Among the hundreds named were Eddie Albert, Richard Attenborough, Lucille Ball (who testified but satisfied the committee without naming others), Will Geer, Charlie Chaplin, Howard da Silva, Lee Grant, Lillian Hellman, Kim Hunter, Norman Lloyd, Arthur Miller, Zero Mostel, Dorothy Parker, Paul Robeson, and Lionel Stander.

The results were devastating for many on the list. Some changed careers, while others left the United States, or if screenwriters, worked under pseudonyms and used "fronts" to sell their scripts. [17]

Albert later spoke of this period:

Everyone was so full of fear. Many people couldn't support their families, or worse, their lives were ruined and they had to go out and do menial jobs. Some even killed themselves.

Eddie Albert, quoted in Vincent Price: A Daughter's Biography [18]

Albert's son spoke of his parents' blacklisting in an interview published in December 1972, crediting Albert's service during World War II with ultimately saving his career:

My mom was blacklisted for appearing at an anti-Franco rally she was branded a Communist, was spat upon in the streets, and had to have a bodyguard. And my dad found himself unemployable at several major studios, just when his career was gathering momentum. During the second World War, dad joined the Navy and saw action at Tarawa, and because he came back something of a hero, he was able to get work again. But he never got as far as he should have gotten. [19]

While Albert's career survived the blacklist, his wife, Margo, had extreme difficulty finding work. [18]

Albert was active in social and environmental causes, especially from the 1970s onward. He narrated and starred in a 1971 promotional film strongly denouncing the destruction by timber companies of much of the remaining old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. The film, titled "To Touch The Sky," was sponsored and presented by Weyerhaeuser Company, a forestry products concern. [20] [21] Yet a year earlier, Albert participated in the creation of Earth Day and spoke at one of its events in 1970. [22]

Albert founded the Eddie Albert World Trees Foundation and was national chairman for the Boy Scouts of America's conservation program. He was a trustee of the National Recreation and Park Association and a member of the U.S. Department of Energy's advisory board. TV Guide called him "an ecological Paul Revere". [23] Beginning in the 1940s, Eddie Albert Productions produced films for various US corporations, as well as documentaries such as Human Beginnings (a for-its-time controversial sex-education film) and Human Growth. [24]

He was special envoy for Meals for Millions and consultant for the World Hunger Conference. [22] He joined Albert Schweitzer in a documentary about African malnutrition. [25] [26] and fought agricultural and industrial pollution, particularly DDT. [22] Albert promoted organic gardening, and founded City Children's Farms for inner-city children, [27] while supporting eco-farming and tree planting. [28]

Albert was also a director of the U.S. Council on Refugees. [29] [30]

Albert married Mexican actress Margo (née María Margarita Guadalupe Teresa Estela Bolado Castilla y O'Donnell) in 1945. Albert and Margo had a son, Edward Jr., also an actor, and adopted a daughter, Maria, who became her father's business manager. Margo Albert died from brain cancer on July 17, 1985.

The Alberts lived in Pacific Palisades, California, in a Spanish-style house on an acre of land (0.4ha) with a cornfield in front. Albert grew organic vegetables in a greenhouse and recalled how his parents had a "liberty garden" at home during World War I.

Albert was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1995. [23] [5] [31]

His son put aside his acting career to care for his father. Despite his illness, Albert exercised regularly until shortly before his death. Eddie Albert died of pneumonia on May 26, 2005, at the age of 99 in his home in Pacific Palisades, California. [1] He was interred at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, next to his late wife and near his Green Acres co-star Eva Gabor.

Albert's son, Edward, Jr. (1951–2006), was an actor, musician, singer, and linguist/dialectician. [32] Edward Jr. died at age 55, one year after his father. He had been suffering from lung cancer for 18 months.

For contributions to the television industry, Eddie Albert was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6441 Hollywood Boulevard. [33]