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The Rise of Ronald Reagan | The Nation

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The Rise of Ronald Reagan

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With few exceptions, film stars in the 1930s and 1940s lived in a peculiar state of public celebrity and private humiliation. It was the primary condition of their fame that their worth was constantly under question. The studios had a lock on everyone and actors were punished and rewarded and otherwise dealt with as children by the paternalistic film moguls who held their contracts. Stars were property. In most cases their personal lives were as closely directed as their film lives. How and with whom they conducted themselves were the responsibilities of publicity departments. Their names were changed, and plastic surgeons improved their faces. All in all, they lived in that meId of life and art typecasting we call stardom but which is in fact self-obliteration.

About the Author

E.L. Doctorow
E.L. Doctorow’s All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories was recently published in paperback.

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Films were made then, as they are today, not by actors but by producers, directors and technicians. The working life of a star was tedium--waiting for the technicians to get around to them, doing scenes in no reasonable order, more often than not repeating them to the point of distraction. No sane adult could long take pride in this sort of mannequin work. Actors bloomed and faded, destroyed themselves in scandal, drugs and drink, gave themselves to public rebellion, or cultivated a rampant narcissism. A few even tried to produce and direct their own films. It is instructive that Ronald Reagan resorted to none of these stratagems of protest and self-expression. He seemed to agree with assessments of his talents as modest. He did not burningly aspire to serious acting. He followed the rules of the game, was easygoing and cooperative, made friends of influential gossip columnists and producers, sought contacts and acted generally the good boy, perceiving through the endless reaches of this devastatingly hollow life one salient fact: it was a good living. Perhaps if his talent had been greater or his need to accomplish something really worthwhile had been stronger, he wouldn't have lasted as long as he did.

At the beginning of World War II, Reagan, a reserve second lieutenant in the cavalry, was called up for active duty. Here, presumably, was the occasion for reality to make its intrusive claims on the life of a professional fantasist. But he was assigned to the First Motion Picture Unit of the Army Air Corps and spent the war at the Hal Roach studio in Culver City. He narrated training films, one of the most notable being Target Tokyo. Saipan-based B-29 superfortress pilots preparing to firebomb Japanese war plants in Ota were shown--by, means of special effects, miniature topography and traveling shots made from a moving crane--how the ground below would appear as they made their bombing run.

Only after the war did Reagan's life begin to attach to the nonfictive structure of things. He became active in the Screen Actors Guild and after a time was elected its president. Of course it was not exactly a blue-collar union that had on its rolls Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, future Republican Senator George Murphy and Republican Presidential TV adviser Robert Montgomery. Nevertheless, this was the postwar period of tough jurisdictional disputes between movie craft unions, one reputedly led by gangsters, and it was also the time when the House Un-American Activities Committee began to ask movie stars their opinions of the international godless Communist conspiracy. The candidate got a behind-the-scenes view of some rough politics. He seemed to like it well enough, testifying before the HUAC subcommittee and taking a militantly square-jawed stand on these matters of national urgency with the same kind of Midwestern good-boy appeal that was later to attract the attention of some conservative Californians looking around for a gubernatorial candidate in the 1960s.

The odd thing, though, was that while Reagan was devoting more and more time to being spokesman for the Screen Actors Guild, his career as an actor was going into decline. Paradoxically, he was getting more press and prestige as a union officer than as an actor. It is generally believed that this period of his life marked the transition from actor to politician. But in effect he was becoming an actor figure, a front for working actors, and though his activities were now clearly in the realm of the real, if insane, world, the personal quotient of pretense was still high. He was a union official pretending to be a successful movie star.

It was in this Pirandelloesque state of being that he married a fairly obscure M-G-M contract player named Nancy Davis. The circumstances that brought them together are worth noting. The daughter of an ultraconservative Chicago surgeon, Miss Davis became concerned when she began to receive mail from left-wing organizations in the early 1950s. She consulted the director Mervyn LeRoy, who suggested that they bring the problem to the attention of guild president Reagan. This seemed to Miss Davis a splendid idea--apparently she was happy to have any pretext to meet the handsome actor. The director phoned Reagan, who consulted union membership files, found that Miss Davis's name had been confused with that of another actress and gave her a clean bill of health. LeRoy, unlikely cupid though he was, suggested that Reagan bring the good news personally to Miss Davis by taking her out to dinner. Reagan complied, and it was in this manner, after giving her a loyalty check, that Ronald Reagan met his wife-to-be.

The final formative period in the candidate's history of self-realization is the eight years or so he spent as the face and voice of the General Electric Company, selling its products and benign motives to the American public on television. He introduced the weekly stories of the G.E. Theater and gave the sales pitch. But that wasn't all. When he was not on camera he went around to the G.E. plants, shaking hands with the assembly-line workers and giving speeches at middle-management luncheons. The chief executives of G.E. were at this time concerned about employee morale--not job security or better pay but a smile and a handshake from a movie star was their formula for improving it. In truth, it was this period and not his tenure as a union official that manifested the political content of the candidate's life and passion. He began to perfect a speech, the same speech he gives to this day with ever-changing topical references and gags to keep it fresh, in which all the nostalgia for his Midwestern boyhood--the ideals of self-reliance, hard work, belief in God, family and flag--came into symbolic focus in the corporate logo hanging like a knight's coat of arms behind the dais.

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