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Memories of the man who tore down the Wall, Ronald Reagan

Memories of the man who tore down the Wall, Ronald Reagan

It all seems a little unreal today - a Hollywood B-list movie star who became the most powerful man in the world. With 6 February marking the 100th anniversary of The Great Communicator’s birth, J BROOKS SPECTOR lifts the veil on some of the mystique that was the 40th President of the US.

It is astonishing to realise Ronald Reagan and John F Kennedy were members of the same generation – a mere six years separated their births. 

Kennedy, of course, remains in collective memory as forever youthful, alert, hatless, a shock of red hair, his breath congealing into vapour as he stands in front of the Capitol Building in the sunny, frigid weather of his inauguration. He tells a new generation of Americans they must bear any burden, pay any price, they must ask not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country. A strong, vigorous government and nation can do virtually anything that needs to be done.

Twenty years later, a genial grandfather of a man, Ronald Reagan would tell his country in his inauguration speech that “in the present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”.

Both men went to Berlin. Kennedy to tell the world that he was proud to call himself a Berliner (or that infamous jelly donut, depending on your translator) in the face of Soviet military threats; Reagan, by contrast, to tug at a faded, fraying Iron Curtain and to challenge Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down that wall.

Kennedy was Harvard-educated, Boston-Irish, but three generations from poverty. By contrast, Ronald Reagan was small town-Midwestern working class with an alcoholic father. Working to pay for his education at a small middling university, Reagan was a popular, even heroic, lifeguard – he’s credited with saving dozens of lives during his summers guarding the water. In jobs as a broadcaster for small regional radio stations he recreated sports events on air from the continuous telegram of the action as it happened, long before radio networks were electronically connected across the country by microwave transmissions.

Like so many others, he moved west. Arriving in Hollywood, he aimed for the brass ring of A-list stardom. But, instead, he ended up as a reliable bit-part actor instead. For decades, before the advent of 24/7 cable channels, American insomniacs could watch local television in the early hours and come across a forever-youthful Ronald Reagan as the University of Notre Dame’s football star, George Gipp, “the Gipper”, in the film classic, “Knute Rockne, All American.”

Photos: Then actor Ronald Reagan in a Chesterfield cigarette advertisement; Then U.S president Ronald Reagan is seen escorted by First Lady, Nancy Reagan, in this October 29, 1981 file photo as they left the White House [en route to Bethesda Naval Hospital for the President’s physical exam.]

In the film’s most iconic scene, Pat O’Brien, playing the legendary coach Knute Rockne, would forever inspire his dejected team at half-time in the locker room, by recalling what “the Gipper” had told him on his deathbed: “The last thing George said to me, ‘Rock,’ he said, ‘sometime when the team is up against it and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go out there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper.”

“Win one for the Gipper” ultimately became the subtitle message of Ronald Reagan’s national political life, appearing over and over again as the tagline for his campaigns.

In Hollywood, two marriages and a list of moderately successful films like “Kings Row”, “Hellcats of the Navy” and “Bedtime for Bonzo” would follow in the 1940s and early 50s. “Bonzo”, of course, concerned the fearsome task of babysitting a temperamental pet chimpanzee. Really. And it is Reagan’s great, good luck that George Gipp and not Bonzo’s keeper was the role that stuck in the popular mind.

Reagan served in Hollywood during World War II as an actor in a series of training films for the troops – and critics later thought he sometimes imagined himself in the battles he portrayed. Some even felt his “Star Wars” anti-missile project came from one of his Brass Bancroft, secret agent films.

The late 1940s and early 50s were difficult times for many in Hollywood. Eager congressional committees were on the trail of a largely imaginary communist plot to subvert America through subversive film and television shows. China’s fall to the Communists, Russia’s surprise development of atomic weapons in 1949 (with the help of spies in the Manhattan Project) and the ensuing Cold War gave Americans profound disquiet. By this time, Ronald Reagan had become head of the Screen Actors Guild, the performers’ labour union, as his on-screen career began to wilt. Although Reagan never testified against any of his acting colleagues, as their union head he didn’t exactly cover himself with glory on their behalf either.

Watch: 1981 Reagan assassination attempt

By this time he’d shifted to television and became continuity presenter for several immensely popular TV dramatic shows such as “Death Valley Days” and “General Electric Theatre”. Through his association with General Electric, he came under the sway of Lemuel Boulware, a senior executive at GE, and Reagan’s politics made a dramatic turn to the right and in support of business-friendly Republicanism. He began a new life as a well-paid pitchman for GE and its rugged, hard-core capitalism to corporate audiences across the country in motivational speeches and guest appearances. The work wasn’t very hard, the pay was great and the applause was flattering. But, along the way, Reagan also began to perfect his ability to deliver the homilies that became so easy on the ear for his political audiences.

Reagan biographer, Edmund Morris, explains that Reagan, “…was transformed into a superb actor when he took on the roles of governor of California, presidential candidate and president of the US. Then, as never in his movies, he became authoritative, authentic, irresistible to eye and ear. His two greatest performances, in my opinion, were at the Republican National Convention in 1976, when he effortlessly stole Gerald Ford’s thunder as nominee and made the delegates regret their choice, and at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1985, when he delivered the supreme speech of his presidency.”

Or, perhaps, too, for most of us, it was his speech – very nearly a national prayer of reassurance – after the fatal explosion of the Challenger space shuttle.

His genial good looks, his immense national familiarity from television appearances, his easy manner with audiences, the rich and famous – and, most especially, the politically well connected – made him a natural Republican candidate for governor of California. They were convinced he could appeal successfully to those tired of the excesses of the chaotic 1960s. That could well have been the final stop for a man as old as Ronald Reagan – it was a rare individual who sought further public office late into his 60s.

Watch: Then Governor of California Ronald Reagan with Sonny & Cher (1972)

While he was still California’s governor, I first encountered Ronald Reagan when I a was a young diplomat assigned to Indonesia.  Reagan had come out to Asia as Richard Nixon’s personal emissary to sign a complex, three-sided oil sale agreement between Japan, Indonesia and the US. Okay, it was a gift of a trip to give Reagan some polish in international affairs as he was then supposed to be riding off to retirement.

The Reagans stayed as guests of the US ambassador in Jakarta so Reagan could play his bit part, signing a trade agreement and then returning home as a newly minted foreign policy expert, having seen Asia up close.

Somewhere along the way Nancy Reagan decided she had to purchase gifts for her Hollywood friends, having heard Indonesia was the place to pick up the odd bit of Ming porcelain. I was summoned to action: “You speak Indonesian pretty well, right? Good. Go find us some antique dealers, right now.” Our conversation continued:“Err, how should I do that? It’s Sunday night, all the stores are closed.” “Your problem, just solve it.”

So, off I went to the street where a group of Chinese antique dealers was located. Sunday night, still. No lights on the street or in the shops. Fortunately, the shop owners usually lived above their stores so I stood in the middle of the street, calling out to them and tossing pebbles at closed windows, trying to get attention and not buckets of waste water thrown at me. Eventually, a bargain was struck and I arranged for a bus to pick up a whole clutch of antique dealers in 30 minutes. At the appointed time, there was a crowd of antique dealers waiting for their best chance to sell something to those important foreign visitors from Hollywood.

Over the next hours, as word spread, a continuous stream of more antique peddlers arrived at the ambassador’s front gate. I had become the sorcerer’s apprentice of Southeast Asia. In the end, Nancy Reagan looked at the hundreds of pieces arrayed on the floor, bargained desultorily for a short while, yawned, lost interest, and then the gubernatorial couple simply went to bed, leaving a mob of sullen peddlers who had been dragged out from their homes, late on a Sunday night.

Rank mattered then as now and so it was my task to escort them to their homes with all their rewrapped items and nothing sold to those famous rich people from Hollywood. I never dared return to that street again. Years later, my wife and I returned to Indonesia and we were regaled by a fantastic, baroque tale of VIP visitors and their impossible demands. Amazingly, at its heart was my misadventure with Nancy and Ronnie Reagan.

Returning to Reagan’s political career, in which, like it says in “Casablanca”, fate took a hand and propelled him to the presidency rather than retirement. President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace in August 1974 because of the Watergate scandal and his newly appointed vice president, Gerald Ford, himself after replacing the disgraced vice president, Spiro Agnew, took over as the new president.

The right wing of the Republican Party was sufficiently appalled at the prospect of such a non-ideologically focused, non-hard-edged man like Ford continuing as president that they encouraged Ronald Reagan to challenge Ford for the Republican Party nomination in 1976. He failed to unseat Ford, but, having electrified the 1976 Republican convention, when the hapless Jimmy Carter was undone by the hostage drama in Tehran, Reagan became the inevitable choice for the Republicans – and victor in the general election as well with the slogan, “It’s Morning in America”. What, exactly, did that mean? If nothing else, it seemed to tap deeply into a fundamental belief on the part of Americans that there is always another chance to fix things, to move on, to get it right this time. American exceptionalism.

Over the years, Ronald Reagan’s public utterances, delivered with a level of sincerity and piety not unlike those of Chance the Gardener in Jerzy Kosinski’s novel (and later the film), “Being There”, have taken on a weighty sense of gravitas. This despite the fact that Reagan’s statements, just like Chance’s, sometimes seemed to be the kinds of thing into which people could read whatever they wanted to read.

Watch: Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall (1987)

And over time this mythic Ronald Reagan has almost totally displaced the original, making him the darling of the new right and the touchstone of their programme for the country. One of his biographers, Will Bunch, points to five such myths now seen as truth.

First, his extraordinary popularity as president. It is certainly true Reagan has become enormously popular in the 20 years since he left office. A recent CNN/Opinion poll rated him third in public regard, following Kennedy and Bill Clinton among all presidents of the past half-century. But Reagan’s average popularity as president was less than 53%, just a bit more than Barack Obama’s is now. And in fact, in 1982, when unemployment hit 10%, his approval fell to just 35%.

Second, among the right, Reagan now has his implacable reputation as a tax cutter. While it is true the marginal tax rate fell from 70% to 50% during his first year in office, during the rest of his administration, Reagan signed laws to increase federal taxes every year of his presidency thereafter, except for the final year. Wealthy people gained from Reagan’s tax policies, but working-class people actually paid a higher percentage of their incomes in taxes after he left office than when he arrived in Washington.

Third, Reagan has gained a reputation as the ultra-plus-ultra of hawks whose defence spending meant the end of the Soviet Union. Will Bunch argues “his real contributions to the end of the Cold War were his willingness to negotiate arms reductions with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his encouragement of Gorbachev as a domestic reformer.” Rather like John Wayne in the White House.

Fourth is the claim Reagan shrank the federal government in line with his views about the proper role of government. The federal government actually increased by any standard from 1981 to 1989. Spending grew 2.5% a year and the national debt ballooned nearly fourfold. Not surprisingly too, federal employees grew steadily, fed by Reagan’s military spending habit.

The fifth part of the Reagan legend is that he became the avenging angel of the culture wars. Just for openers, as California governor, he actually signed into law the legalisation of abortion. As he departed Washington, right-wing activists such as Michael Ferris could complain that Reagan simply “offered us a bunch of political trinkets” rather than a fundamental change in the nation’s political course.

What Reagan clearly could do better than anyone was to play his role as an instinctive politician, albeit a sometimes distant, abstract human being with family, friends and advisers. As biographer Edmund Morris wrote about him: “… (Regan) registered audiences rather than individuals. Reagan intimates have confessed to me that they were never sure he knew who the hell they were.

“His three younger children have publicly stated that there were times (decades before any rumours of dementia) when he treated them as complete strangers. As for his marriage to Nancy, I’ll note only that she was the fourth short, tough, street-smart woman he dreamily depended on to organise his everyday life, the others being his mother, Nelle Reagan; his first fiancée, Margaret Cleaver; and his first wife, Jane Wyman. He had no close friends. And until young Ron reminded him, it didn’t occur to him to put a headstone on either of his parents’ graves.

“Ronald Reagan only performed successfully in six different careers: radio sportscaster, movie actor, trade union president, corporate spokesman, two-term governor and two-term president of the US. Lucky for him he wasn’t hampered by Jimmy Carter’s intelligence!”

Photo: Then U.S. President Ronald Reagan waving to well-wishers on the south lawn of the White House on April 25, 1986, before departing for a summit in Tokyo. REUTERS/Joe Marquette

Years after my first encounter with Reagan, I saw a very different side of him. While working in a small African nation, I sold my embassy colleagues on the idea of getting a videotaped message of congratulations from the president to my host country’s ruler and people on the 20th  anniversary of their independence.

Washington agreed, but then told me the informal rule was that whoever proposed a speech wrote the draft. Oh. What I soon learned, however, was that like pretty much everybody else, I had so thoroughly absorbed Reagan’s style that writing these remarks came naturally – one just knew what Ronald Reagan would sound like, short, punchy phrases, a warm, sunny style and simple declarative sentences that had a straightforward yet sentimental texture to them.

A few weeks later, by special delivery, two versions of the tape arrived: a rough-cut version we could use to copy extracts from and the finished product for delivery to the country’s ruler. But there was a surprise – the rough version included the two minutes before Reagan had to read the message. The tape showed an old man, listing to one side, weary. But as he is given the countdown, “Mr. President, 10 seconds…. five seconds… one second”, Reagan became a figure transformed, drawn up to his full presidential image, animated, interested, engaged and speaking through the camera, right to people 8,000km away in Africa.

And now, 100 years after his birth and nearly a decade since his death, the newest generation of Republican ideologues like Sarah Palin is trying on his mantle – not for his policies per se, but more for the way he communicated directly to everyone in a vast nation and spoke of a new, reborn nation shucking off doubt.

Watch Sarah Palin’s speech at Reagan Ranch Center (Part One), the usual warnings apply:

Maybe Reagan’s policies didn’t actually end the Cold War and the competition with the Soviet Union directly. His policy of constructive engagement just as clearly deflated hope among most South Africans. The Iran-Contra scandal clearly diminished his political legacy and the reputations of others. He never mentioned Aids during his time in office.

But, just as clearly, his words must have given hope to Russians and East Europeans that their condition was not permanent then. While for a man who disliked Washington so much that one of Washington’s airports now bears his name, it would not surprise me too much if some day  a statue of him were dedicated in some place much further to the east. DM

For more, read:

Main photo: Former U.S president Ronald Reagan is seen in this 1982 file photo addressing a political convention in Washington. Reuters.


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