After watching the impressive state funeral of Ronald Reagan--getting his casket up all those steps was unbelievable--I had to add my two cents. For, although I never met him, Ronald Reagan brought me to Washington.
I grew up in a typical liberal household back East, and we moved to California while Ronald Reagan was still governor. There was a lot of culture shock. He was indeed popular, but not with the people we knew. My parents both taught at the University of California, and Reagan was the man who fired Clark Kerr over the Free Speech Movement. He instituted tuition. He cut the budget. He was anti-intellectual. Etc.
Actually, he was perhaps even more reviled than Nixon. Because academics gave Nixon credit for being smart, while they thought Reagan was just a dumb actor. Reagan was such a large figure in the iconography of my consciousness that I thought I would produce a documentary film exposing him. I remember this well, it was in the early 1980s. I was going to work with Laurence Leamer, who wrote a popular Reagan biography called "Make Believe" and we were going to have Gore Vidal host the picture. We even met with Gore Vidal for drinks at the bar of the Beverly Hills Hotel. He was very funny, in a waspish way, and did imitations of Reagan and his circle. If he were not an author, Vidal probably could have made a living on the nightclub circuit. He's much better as an entertainer than a political analyst. But I digress...
In any case, what followed were a lot of complications, and the partnership didn't work out. No film was ever made, which was a Good Thing, since I subsequently ended up working at The Heritage Foundation and sitting in rooms with people like Ed Meese, who led Governor Reagan's side in Berkeley battles over "People's Park." I couldn't believe it then, it is hard to believe now.
What I remembered most clearly was that I couldn't get access to the rights to use Reagan's old Warner Brothers movies--by the way, they were good, he was a perfectly good actor, he was not a B actor, and King's Row, his favorite, is a really sophisticated picture; and the Santa Fe Trail is really excellent, too. Trivia tidbit, Ronald Reagan was considered for the role of Rick in Casablanca, but it was given to Bogart at the last minute. Jack Warner liked him, which is why Reagan was always telling Warner stories. In any case, I wanted to use a lot of clips, and it wasn't going to be possible. The other night I saw some outtakes on 60 Minutes, that I had never seen, and they were really funny, and that was Reagan. So, the first thing from my research that affected me was that Reagan was not a bad actor. I had been laboring under a false impression.
The second thing that hit me, somehow, was that he had really truly been a man of the left for many years. For some reason I found myself at Bertolt Brecht's old house in Santa Monica, the one he wrote all those somber poems about, it was a perfectly nice house. And the man who now lived there, who was clearly an old leftist, said oh, yes, Reagan had been at parties with Brecht during the war. Now, maybe that man was making things up. And maybe not, because Hollywood is and was a pretty small community, people run into each other pretty easily.
But in any case Reagan's left credentials were pretty solid. He had organized a student revolt at his college, for example. Well, anyhow, he turned against the Communists, and they never forgave him. He drove them out of the Hollywood unions, because he knew the threat they posed. And he knew because he certainly had been on the same side earlier on. And in the end, I think that is how he knew how to deal with Gorbachev and break the Soviet Union. He knew how Communists think and how they act. This is something that good, grey corporate Republicans simply had no clue about, and still don't. Reagan also had been a union organizer, and he knew the way workers think and feel. Again, something most corporate types find a mystery.
Anyway, I ended up doing graduate work in film school, studying television. I remember that at orientation we were asked why we were there. And I said, because I want to know why Reagan is so successful. I guess I was being glib. Everyone laughed, thinking it was a joke.
But funnily enough, I did learn. And his success did have to to with his being an actor. For actors always have to have a truth that guides them, in every scene, in every role. They play to the truth of the character, to the truth of the scene. And where it intersects with their truth, they connect and can do a great characterization. It is, in a word a symbiosis, or a dialectic to the marxist-trained thinkers. But what became clear was that the people who were saying "let Reagan be Reagan" knew who Reagan was, and Reagan knew who he was. He once said, "I know who I am." That was a great revelation. Because at that age, and at that time, I didn't know who I was.
Well, I thought I was heading away from politics into the arts, but one thing led to another, and I ended up doing a dissertation on Masterpiece Theatre, hosted by Alistair Cooke. And what should I discover? One of the predecessors, along with Omnibus, and Playhouse 90, and all the rest, was GE Theater, hosted by Ronald Reagan. Anthology drama. Reagan was an American Alistair Cooke, as well as a sports announcer.
Well, it just kept getting more and more interesting. And the Reagan Revolution even got to this lifelong liberal, and I ended up writing an application to do a study of the privatization of PBS for the Heritage Foundation. Of course, I had been in England to do dissertation research, and found Thatcher's establishment of Channel Four as a private channel very interesting. It worked, and was paid for by commercial advertising. Anyhow, the Heritage Foundation brought me to Washington, where I learned another interesting thing about the Reagan legacy.
It turned out that the most vicious anti-Reaganites were associated with George Bush the Elder. Immediately upon taking office, he ordered ALL the Reagan appointees to be fired. John Sununu wouldn't do it, so Andrew Card, now White House chief of staff for George Bush the Younger, did the deed. And yes, they were all let go. Incredible. This caused a lot of ill will at the Heritage foundation, where at one event a younger staffer carried a mock head of George Bush the Elder on a platter, and he lost his job for that, but it expressed the general feeling.
Because although Reagan was anti-communist, he was a revolutionary. It was true. And George Bush the Elder was an Establishmentarian.
The Heritage Foundation had brought me to work for them, although I had no personal ties, and no "loyalty." I found myself in a very sympathetic milieu. Because Reagan supporters were really interested in ideas, they were sort of outsiders. And they would try things and if they worked, great. It was like show business, every picture is another chance, nobody bats 1000, and so forth. But for the Bush people, everything seemed wired, rigged, based on accidents of birth, schooling, personal connections. A closed shop, rather than an open shop.
Later I worked for the anti-communist David Horowitz (not the television consumer reporter, one would often have to add), also a Berkeley alumnus (as was David Brock, interestingly). He had set up a press called Second Thoughts Books, based on the title his book about his turn against communism. And he said Reagan had inscribed a picture to him with words to the effect, "I had second thoughts, too..."
And so had I. One seminal event was going to the Berlin Film Festival and crossing into East Berlin, which was a "showcase" city. Brecht's son or grandson or some relation had said, oh you simply must see the East, it has so much culture, etc. And so went over to visit. It was just horrible, looked like WWII hadn't ended, tanks everywhere, nothing in the stores, nothing to eat. Just lots of vodka and piles of coal in the street. Buildings still with holes in them--and this was in 1981. I was taken away and searched at the border, no harm done, but not pleasant going in. We had to change money to worthless currency, open a worthless bank account. All around us were depressed faces of grim people. It was grey and horrible. Especially compared to West Berlin, which was better than New York at that time. So Reagan's phrase, "evil empire" spoke to my own experience.
One other big event. I was still in film school and went to a Berkeley alumni event in Los Angeles in 1984 wearing a Mondale button, in the home of a successful lawyer. He had a picture of himself with John F. Kennedy. He told me he was going to vote for Reagan, and I was shocked. Why? He said he couldn't stand the way the party had changed, that Jerry Brown had appointed terrible judges, and that Reagan had made really first-rate appointments. At that time, young and not very worldly, I simply chalked it up to his being succesful. But now I know where he was coming from. What Alistair Cooke had called "the ghastly 60s" had pushed him out of the Democratic camp. The Democrats had left him.
This was the same terminology Reagan used. And it was this liberal individualism that was so attractive. Understanding this truly liberal side of Reagan's legacy, for after all there is nothing conservative about a revolution, I would suggest, is one key to understanding his success.