The Rise of Ronald Reagan

The Rise of Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan was born in 1911 in rural Illinois.


Ronald Reagan was born in 1911 in rural Illinois. His father, John Edward Reagan, was a store clerk and erstwhile merchant whose jobs took the family to such towns as Galesburg, Monmouth and Dixon–just the sorts of places responsible for one of the raging themes of American literature, the soul-murdering complacency of our provinces, without which the careers of Edwin Arlington Robinson, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis and Willa Cather, to name just a few, would never have found glory. The best and brightest fled all our Galesburgs and Dixons, if they could, but the candidate was not among them.

The Reagans were a poor, close, hard-working family. With his older brother, Neil, Reagan sold homemade popcorn at high school football games and was charged with the serious business of maintaining the family vegetable garden. For many summers he worked as a lifeguard at Lowell Park on the Rock River in Dixon, pulling seventy-seven people out of the water by his own count and socking away most of his salary to make up college tuition.

The candidate attended Eureka College in Eureka, Illinois. He was no student. He had a photographic memory, and it was this trait, rather than application to books or innate cleverness, that got him through his exams. What really interested him was making the football team, pledging a fraternity, debating and acting in campus theatricals. But his priorities were correct. Eureka, a fifth-rate college, provided meager academic credentials to its graduates. But a third-rate student at a fifth-rate college could learn from the stage, the debating platform, the gridiron and the fraternity party the styles of manliness and verbal sincerity that would stand him in good stead when the time came to make his mark in the world. In fact, the easy, garrulous charm Reagan developed at Eureka got results very quickly. Graduating in the depths of the Depression, he had no trouble finding a job as a radio announcer.

We have these facts from a biography, The Rise of Ronald Reagan, by Bill Boyarsky, a California journalist, and from the candidate’s autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me?, the title of which is taken from his most memorable line as a film actor. In the picture King’s Row, he played the role of a young rake who is careless with his attentions to the daughter of a surgeon; when he lands in the hospital after a car accident, the vengeful surgeon amputates his legs. Reagan delivers the memorable line coming to after the operation.

It was when he became a sportscaster for WHO in Des Moines that Reagan’s peculiar affinity for simulated life began to emerge. He was called on to describe baseball games played by the Chicago White Sox and the Cubs on the basis of Western Union messages telegraphed from the ballpark. These were characteristically brief–a hit, a walk and so on–but the chatty Reagan made an art of describing the game as if he were sitting in the stands, faking the scene in all its drama with only a sound effects man to help him. He became quite popular with the regional audience and did promotional work on the side as the station’s celebrity speaker, giving talks to fraternal lodges, boys’ clubs and the like, telling sports stories and deriving from them Y.M.C.A. sorts of morals.

In 1937, Reagan went to Santa Catalina Island to cover the Chicago Cubs in spring training. The proximity to Hollywood reawoke his collegiate ambition to act, and he managed to get himself a screen test. He didn’t really expect anything to come of it but was offered a contract by Warner Brothers for $200 a week. An agent had persuaded the studio that he was another Robert Taylor. Considering that actor’s negligible store of animation, one can wonder now at the inducement. In any event, the candidate acted in more than twenty “B” pictures before his big break came. In 1940, he persuaded Jack Warner to give him the role of George Gipp, the doomed Notre Dame football hero, in Knute Rockne, All American, a film about the famous football coach. His means of persuasion was a photograph of himself in his Eureka College jersey and helmet.

Subsequently, he was sanctified to play the role of a pubescent Shirley Temple’s first screen beau in That Hagen Girl. There is no evidence that between takes they exchanged Republican philosophies. Thereafter his career ascended to such heights as the aforementioned King’s Row, The Voice of the Turtle and The Hasty Heart; descended to the likes of Bedtime for Bonzo, in which the lead was a chimpanzee, and sank forever in Hellcats of the Navy, a black and white 1950s film about submarines. All in all, Reagan acted in close to fifty movies over a twenty-year period and the relevance of this achievement to a Presidential candidacy should not go unexamined.

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.

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.

Peculiarly, his tenure as G.E. spokesman overlapped the years in which the great electrical industry price-fixing scandal was going on. While Reagan extolled the virtues of free enterprise in front of the logo, G.E., along with Westinghouse, Allis-Chalmers and other giant corporations, was habitually controlling the market by clandestine price fixing and bid rigging agreements, all of which led, in 1960, to grand jury indictments, in what was characterized by the Justice Department as the largest criminal case ever brought under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Three G.E. executives pleaded guilty and went to jail. The company was fined, and some people to this day think Ralph Cordiner, the chairman of the board, himself narrowly escaped prosecution. Reagan, of course, was totally innocent of all of this; and there is no indication his innocence was ever shaken by the news.

Even now, as the Republican candidate for the Presidency, he would probably be shocked if it were suggested to him that today the Horatio Alger hero is a multinational corporation. William Safire quotes him as saying that he doesn’t want to use the word “ideology” in his speeches because the American people think it’s a “scare word,” More likely he doesn’t think he should be unfairly tagged with having one. The pictures of him in the newspapers as often as not show him in his prewar pompadour, smiling somewhat quizzically at age 69, as if not quite understanding why others don’t perceive the rational, logical, inevitable, but above all descriptive American truth of his politics.

Those journalists who have studied his years as Governor of California find Reagan’s record was not all that bad–surprisingly moderate in many areas, and certainly within the normal range of the politics of compromise, the giving and taking between executive and legislative branches that keeps most governments of this country, state as well as Federal, in centrist balance. That may be encouraging to some, but of all his previous job experiences, as sportscaster of invisible ball games, studio actor, Culver City commando, television salesman, the governorship of California probably has least relevance to his Presidential candidacy. His own accounts of what he did in California are charmingly demagogic, as though he is seeking to prove that he was more conservative in office than he is given credit for. Some reports have it that he did not act like a Governor, that he went home at five o’clock in the afternoon and forgot the job until the next morning. He scrupulously kept his private life private–very odd in the American political tradition, where one’s spouse, children, parents, sisters and brothers, medical problems and psychological difficulties are all grist for the mill. The impression is that he turned his Governor’s persona on and off with a ventriloquial indifference.

The candidate has chosen not to travel abroad in the only available time before the campaign begins in earnest, because he doesn’t want to give his opponents the chance to accuse him of trying to acquire instant expertise in his weak department, foreign policy. Always image-conscious, he has not thought, nor, apparently, have his advisers, that by going abroad he might possibly learn something.

In any event, the nomination is his who has pursued it giving pep talks and doing dinners and shaking hands and smiling and raising money and speaking simplistic fantasy for most of his adult life. One could write of the people behind Ronald Reagan, but that is another story. He has beaten the best the Republican primaries have had to offer–Senators and Governors, Cabinet officials, Congressmen–and the party that honored us with Richard Nixon will now offer him. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the next President of the United States.

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