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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The Gipper (1911-2004)

As a film actor, the general critical assessment of Ronald Reagan was that he had more charisma than talent. It was a critique that would follow him into subsequent jobs.

It is darkly ironic, given the long years at the end of his life that he lay afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, that the two most indelible movie images we have of him are ones in which he is lying on a hospital bed. The most famous, of course, was his role as dying Notre Dame football legend George Gipp in 1940’s Knute Rockne, All American, in which he exhorts the Fighting Irish to “win just one for the Gipper.” The other was his personal favorite film, the 1942 small-town melodrama Kings Row, in which Reagan’s character undergoes a double amputation, waking up to cry, “Where’s the rest of me?” (a line that became the title of his autobiography). While time has not been kind to either film, the latter one does show that he was really somewhat better at his acting craft than his critics gave him credit for.

As you may have heard, Reagan gave up his Hollywood career in the 1960s and went on to other work. In fact, his later jobs so overshadowed his movie career that we nearly forget that he made more than 50 films over a 27-year period. The titles range from Hollywood Hotel to The Amazing Doctor Clitterhouse to Brother Rat (with Eddie Albert) to Dark Victory (with Bette Davis) to Sante Fe Trail (in which he played George Custer) to Tugboat Annie Sails Again to This is the Army (the Irving Berlin songfest in which he played the son of future U.S. Senator George Murphy) to the immortal Bedtime for Bonzo to Hellcats of the Navy (in which he co-starred with his second wife Nancy Davis) to his last role, as a brutal crime boss in 1964’s The Killers along with Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson and John Cassavetes.

For me personally, it was somehow fitting that Reagan died exactly ten years and a day after my own father. My dad was a Reagan admirer and had the very same optimistic conservative nature. This wasn’t a rich man’s economic self-interest kind of Republicanism or even a religiously strict moral kind of Republicanism. It was a sunny Midwest America-is-a-great-country brand of Republicanism. Reagan’s Republican party may have had its significant share of rich people and devoutly religious people, but after all this time, it is clear that he really did believe all those corny lines he delivered about America. He wasn’t merely acting, as his detractors suggested.

Because Reagan tended to see things in black and white, good and bad (or, as the current president would say, he didn’t do nuance), his opponents ridiculed him as simple. There was always the suspicion that he was merely the well-performing front man for someone else’s ideas. Hindsight shows that this wasn’t true either. Perhaps the truest portrait of Reagan was a hilarious Saturday Night Live skit in which the late Phil Hartman played him as an aw-gosh dolt posing amiably with Girl Scouts for the press but converting into an aggressive, hands-on, in-control crack leader the minute the reporters were safely out of the room.

The U.S. media reflections on his life and career have largely been affectionate. Even the “liberal” press can’t help but admit that they liked the guy. Still, the arguments continue over the huge effect he had on America. Republicans cite his tax cuts as brilliant. Democrats say they initiated a pattern of budget deficits that continue to this day. In the end, both sides are at least partly right. His tax cuts did spur the economy into generating more than enough tax revenues to make up for the cuts. But then he took all of that plus money cut from social programs and poured it into the military, and even went on later to sign a tax increase. (He was canny enough not to have uttered a “read my lips” line.) His presidency was a watershed in that it marked the point in latter 20th-century America where political arguments over domestic spending changed from how much to increase spending to how and where to cut programs.

President Reagan has already had at least one movie made about him. It was a CBS made-for-television film, in which James Brolin played him. It caused such a stink among Reagan admirers that CBS wound up shifting it to a cable channel. One criticism of Reagan was that he didn’t do enough about the problem of AIDS, which was first identified at the very moment he became president. The movie had Reagan saying something to the effect that the disease was a fitting punishment for gays. Not only did Reagan never say that, even many of his opponents had to admit that it wasn’t in the spirit of the man to harbor such a thought.

Naturally, the European press has not been as effusive as the American media, although there is a surprising amount of affection for him over here, despite the derision heaped on him during his term by Europeans (not unlike the way they deride the current president), who do do nuance, and by the bucketful. Here, they always refer to him as a “cowboy,” which in Europe is not a good thing. The Irish press, much of which is completely ideologically opposed to Reagan’s political philosophy, has a time-tested way of dealing with the passing of such an American leader. On the evening news this week, Reagan was remembered essentially as the Yank who visited a small town in Tipperary and found his great-grandfather’s name in the baptismal record of the local church. (The story they missed, however, was the one the Missus told me about how the locals near her hometown had to clean up an old shed in advance of the Reagans’ visit to Mayo because it was supposedly where Nancy Reagan’s people came from.)

Last May 1 was a big day in Europe. Politicians and journalists proclaimed it (without the slightest trace of a smirk) “enlargement day,” as ten (mostly eastern European) countries joined the European Union. During one bit of analysis on the Irish national broadcaster (RTÉ), I heard an expert declare that this day would never have come without… (At this my ears perked up. Was he merely going to mention the Pope, or would he actually invoke the name of Reagan?) It would never have come about, he said, without… trade unionists. Well, yes, I thought, Solidarity was definitely a major force in changing things in Poland. But there were similar political revolts in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, and those were promptly crushed by Soviet tanks. What was different this time? The difference, of course, was that Reagan’s aforementioned military spending spree had bankrupted the Soviet Union, as it struggled to keep up with him. Depending on your point of view, Reagan either single-handedly won the Cold War or he merely provided the final push to an already-toppling empire. That is, unless you work for RTÉ, in which case you figure Reagan had nothing to do with it and it was the power of trade unionists (rather paradoxically when you think about it) that virtually wiped out communism in Europe.

Love him or hate him, Ronald Reagan changed the entire world. As a sheer leader, he was so successful that no less a successor than Bill Clinton studied his techniques and emulated him. (Don’t take my word for it. Former Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos said so in his book.) For this Hollywood B movie actor, it’s not an exaggeration to say that President of the United States was the one role he was definitely born to play.

-S.L., 10 June 2004

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