Actors do not usually turn in performances that gain the notice of presidents.
But when Paul Newman decided to take the role of anti-war activist in the early days of the Vietnam imbroglio, he performed so ably – as an early and essential campaigner for Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and prominent supporter of George McGovern – that he ranked high on then-President Richard Nixon’s “enemies list.”
Newman’s name was on the original list of enemies produced by Nixon aide Charles Colson in 1971.
Colson’s notes on the memorandum with regard to the actor read: “Paul Newman, California: Radic-lib causes. Heavy McCarthy involvement ’68. Used effectively in nationwide T.V. commercials. ’72 involvement certain.”
The official purpose, according to internal memos that circulated in the Nixon White House prior to the 1972 election was to “screw” liberal politicians, labor leaders, business titans, academics, activists and an actor who might be threats to the president’s reelection.
“This memorandum addresses the matter of how we can maximize the fact of our incumbency in dealing with persons known to be active in their opposition to our Administration; stated a bit more bluntly–how we can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies,” wrote White House counsel John Dean.
Newman, who died Friday at age 83, survived and thrived.
He won acting’s top honors and even became one of the nation’s most successful entrepreneurs, marketing his own exceptionally successful “Newman’s Own” brand of salad dressings and organic food. (“It’s all been a bad joke that just ran out of control,” Newman said of the food business, which allowed him donate more generously than just about anyone in Hollywood or on Wall Street to charity.)
Newman remained political — dedicated to civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights, committed to ending the nuclear arms race and determined to elect opponents of war and militarism.
Newman supported, and even wrote for, The Nation.
And he was a steady campaigner for and contributor to progressive causes and candidates – mostly Democrats but also anti-war Republican Pete McCloskey when he challenged Nixon in the Republican primaries of 1972 and to Green Ralph Nader in 2000. In 2006, the actor helped Connecticut’s Ned Lamont mount a successful Democratic primary challenge to U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman. (Newman got so into the Lamont campaign that he even volunteered to do calls for the campaign — and wrote his own script.)
This year, Newman was a maxed-out contributor to the campaign of Barack Obama for president.
The actor finished his life with more friends and fewer enemies than just about anyone in his chosen profession. And Newman’s extensive philanthropy earned him little but praise in his final years.
Yet, Paul Newman was particularly proud to have been an “enemy.”
Indeed, he said to the end of his days that the place he held on Nixon’s list was “the highest single honor I’ve ever received.”