Ronald and Nancy Reagan: Hollywood on the Potomac
The arrival of Ronald and Nancy Reagan in 1981 signaled an end to a difficult period in American history. Gone was Jimmy Carter, an honest but largely ineffective president, a puritanical scold who had outworn his welcome. Prior to Carter there was Gerald Ford, a decent man but caretaker chief executive, the only man to serve as both vice president and president without being elected to either office. Before him was Richard Nixon, who resigned the presidency ahead of what would almost certainly have been an even greater indignity: forcible removal for his involvement in the Watergate affair. It’s not much of a stretch to add Lyndon Johnson to the list: a man who did so much for the country, yet wound up tearing it apart over an unnecessary war that cost the nation dearly in blood and treasure. Come 1981, the United States was plagued by everything from rising crime and inflation, to crippling shortages of energy; abroad, there had been once-unthinkable humiliations, like Iran’s seizure of fifty-two Americans — mostly diplomats — which turned into a 444-day hostage crisis. In short, there were fears that both America’s standing in the world — and the American dream itself — were in peril.
The solution, voters decided, was a sixty-nine-year-old man — the oldest person ever elected to the presidency (the oldest prior to Reagan, William Henry Harrison, died a month after being sworn in) — a man who spoke with the optimism and self-assuredness of someone one-third his age. “Those who say that we’re in a time when there are not heroes, they just don’t know where to look,” Reagan said in his inaugural address. “And after all, why shouldn’t we believe that? We are Americans.”
It was a masterful performance, exactly the sort of uplifting, confident tone he had always been known for. “Life is just one grand, sweet song, so start the music,” he wrote in his high school yearbook. Those inclined to dislike him derided him as just an actor, and a B-list one at that, delivering his lines. They were wrong.
Reagan, of course, had been an actor — but also a two-term governor of California, the only chief executive of the nation’s biggest and most complex state — to become president. In fact, his eight years in Sacramento represented more executive experience than any of the fifteen prior presidents who had also been governors. It can be argued therefore that Ronald Reagan, who at a far earlier age happened to share the silver screen with a chimp named Bonzo, arrived in the White House as seasoned an executive — if not more so — than many of his predecessors.
But it is also true that both careers — politician and actor — blended together for Reagan as president. He admitted as much, telling his attorney general Ed Meese, “I don’t know I could do this job if I were not an actor.”
In fact, that he had been one — as opposed to, say, a career politician like Nixon or Johnson, a soldier like Dwight Eisenhower, or nuclear engineer like Carter — was very much a strength in his view. In 1989, after he left the White House, he told former speechwriter Landon Parvin:
Some of my critics over the years have said that I became president because I was an actor who knew how to give a good speech. I suppose that’s not too far wrong. Because an actor knows two important things — to be honest in what he’s doing and to be in touch with the audience. That’s not bad advice for a politician either. My actor’s instinct simply told me to speak the truth as I saw it and felt it.
Whether one agreed with Reagan politically or not, from the standpoint of sheer ability to inspire and persuade — absolutely essential qualities for any president — it is hard to argue that he was ineffective.
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. Order your copy now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble — and follow Paul on Twitter: @WestWingReport