Roll ‘Em: Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Movies and the White House

…an excerpt from Under This Roof, from Paul Brandus of the award-winning West Wing Reports — pre-orders available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble

While the Reagans never lacked for rich and famous friends, they were never more content when they were alone together. A typical evening consisted of “Ronnie” and “Mommie” (as they called each other) watching TV while eating dinner on trays in a small study next to their bedroom on the second floor of the White House. Like most presidents in the television age, their viewing habits included the nightly network news broadcasts.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan enjoying a movie in the Family Theater on the ground floor of the White House. Built by Franklin Roosevelt in 1942, the theater has been a favorite of First Families ever since. (Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)

But it was movies that the president and first lady seemed to enjoy the most. Beginning with the 1980 Jack Lemmon film Tribute, which they watched eleven days after the president was sworn in, to one of Reagan’s own films — 1954’s Cattle Queen of Montana — which they saw six days before leaving the White House, they watched 362 films together in eight years. The bulk of these were screened on weekends at Camp David, including the only movie they starred in together: Hellcats of the Navy, a 1957 movie about “the daring exploits of a submarine commander,” and his on-shore love interest.

The Reagans’ tastes were eclectic; the list of films they watched included everything from musicals and comedies to science fiction and thrillers. Alfred Hitchcock movies seemed to be a particular favorite — one of the few films they watched twice was North by Northwest, the 1959 classic in which Cary Grant is mistaken for a government agent. They also watched two of Reagan’s best-known movies. One was King’s Row (1942), which Reagan considered his best film. Co-star Bob Cummings was so impressed with Reagan’s presence both on and off screen that he made a rather prescient prediction: “One day Ron, I’m going to vote for you for president.” It isn’t known whether Cummings, who died in 1990, actually did.

The other popular Reagan film was Knute Rockne All American (1940), in which Reagan played a Notre Dame football player — George Gipp — who was stricken with a fatal illness. Coach Rockne, in an inspirational speech to the team, tells them “Let’s win one for the Gipper.” Reagan often rolled out the line during his presidency to fire up his supporters.

The president also knew that as a cultural touchstone, movies and the emotional, and sometimes patriotic, fervor they often stirred up were useful in pushing his policies — particularly if the movie had a well-known line. “Go ahead — make my day,” Reagan quipped in a March 13, 1985 speech in which he threatened to veto legislation raising taxes. It was a short, simple, and easily understood line, one guaranteed enormous play on TV. He borrowed it from the popular 1983 Clint Eastwood movie Sudden Impact (which the president apparently had not actually seen).

Like many of his fellow citizens, the president occasionally found himself watching a movie when he should have been doing something else. On the eve of an economic summit with world leaders in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1983, Reagan’s chief of staff James Baker gave him a thick briefing book to read. The next day Baker was shocked to learn that the president hadn’t even touched it. Baker asked why. “Well, Jim,” the president said, “The Sound of Music was on last night.” At Camp David a few weeks later, when he should have been reading documents prepared for him on the MX missile, he watched War Games, in which a teenaged computer whiz (Matthew Broderick) accesses a Pentagon computer system and nearly touches off World War III. At a White House meeting on the MX two days later, he asked a group of congressmen if any of them had seen it, and launched into a review of the film. “Don’t tell the ending,” one of the lawmakers told him.

Even Reagan’s first meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 may have been influenced in part by the 1951 science-fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which a flying saucer lands near the White House. If Earth were ever invaded from outer space, the president told Gorbachev, surely the United States and Soviet Union could put aside their rivalry and work together to combat the aliens. Gorbachev changed the subject. The press — and privately White House staffers — sometimes questioned whether Reagan was blurring films and facts, but aides eventually adopted the president’s standard of judging stories “by their impact rather than their accuracy.”

But Reagan’s observation was true: politics and movies do share a great deal in common. Both require an understanding of public desire, both involve strangers projecting their lives onto yours, and both require narratives to hold the audience’s interest and sympathy.

21 Presidents, 21 rooms, 21 insider stories. That’s “Under This Roof,” by Paul Brandus of the award-winning White House-based news service West Wing Reports. Pre-order your copy now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble — and follow Paul on Twitter: @WestWingReport