November 18, 2020

Looking for the Rest of Ronald Reagan: A Post-Election Special

By Stuart Mitchner

Here’s something about your old friend Ronnie,” says my wife as she hands me the Arts section of Thursday’s New York Times. In the photograph above Adam Nagourney’s article on the new Showtime docu-series The Reagans (“Parsing the Seeds Reagan Sowed”), my “old friend” is looking almost as villainous as he does playing a crime boss who arranges murders and abuses his mistress in Don Siegel’s The Killers.

How did the Gipper and I get to be friendly? And if we’re such pals, why did I vote for Carter in 1980 and work the phones for Mondale in ‘84? More to the point, why did I spend the last half of the 1980s following the highs and lows of his film career and his presidency? The simple answer: we had a fictional relationship. I was working on a novel about the owner of a rundown New Jersey “movie palace” who was writing a series of letters to a newly elected president.

My fictional alter ego was Lucas St. Clair, an ex-minor league ballplayer who’d inherited a movie house and planned to run all 53 of Reagan’s films beginning with an election week showing of Knute Rockne All-American. Thanks to Ted Turner’s purchase of the Warner archive, scores of old Reagan movies had been turning up on TNT and TCM. I taped them all, the good, the bad, and the merely mediocre, including comedies like She’s Working Her Way Through College where Ronnie performs a dynamite drunken professor scene and Bedtime for Bonzo in which he plays straight man to a monkey. I took a special interest in problematic roles like the epileptic biochemist in Night Unto Night, the well-meaning alcoholic playboy in Dark Victory, and the double amputee in King’s Row who wakes up to the reality crying, “Where’s the rest of me?”  That cry of horror from a small town ladies’ man would become the signature line of his movie life (along with “Win one for the Gipper”), as well as the title of his 1965 autobiography. That a future president would tag his life story with such an out-of-left-field title intrigued me, especially given that the author was running for governor of California the year the book was published. Reagan’s fixation on that surreal moment of existential mutilation is among the quirks of character that make him so devious a subject (“as strange a fellow as any of us had ever met,” according to his son Ron’s memoir, My Father at 100). Think of it: this is the role and the film he considered a career highlight, even to the point of showing King’s Row at the White House, to friends, staff members, and visiting heads of state.

Dear Gipper

Dated “Election night 1980,” and signed “Your movie conscience,” the first Dear Gipper letter is part pep talk, part critique: “Today’s showing of Knute Rockne All-American played to a packed house on a Tuesday, usually the slowest day of the week. I wish you could have heard the cheering when the Gipper blazed across the screen. You’re not in it that long but oh my what an entrance, what a run, and a death scene (get out your handkerchiefs) right up there with Garbo’s Camille! And that first moment when Rockne asks you, the unknown freshman, if you want to  carry the ball, and you give him a sly ghost of a grin and say ‘How far?’ and then off you go running it for 80 yards through an astonished varsity. That was it, that was your moment, your big break, you were on your way and you knew it and maybe you even knew it was going to take you in directions no one could have imagined (look at you now); maybe that’s what gives you the air of a doomed prince amid all the jocks and moms and priests and schmaltz the brothers Warner crammed into their big pious All-American wet dream. That run could have been the story of your Hollywood career. But you blew it, you let the bastards shoot you down. Incredible to imagine, but rumor has it you passed up a chance at Bogart’s part in Casablanca. Then came the war and that was it. You gave yourself up to routine assignments, most of it mindless junk, and then politics!”

The Killers

The next letter is dated Dec. 9, 1980, a day after the murder of John Lennon. Ruefully noting the doubly unfortunate coincidence, that The Killers, the film being shown that week (his name on the marquee in big black letters above the black-lettered title) happened to be among those Reagan wished he’d never made, St. Clair assures the president-elect that it seemed best to get that one out of the way before he actually took office: “And how can I not show it when it’s one of the best things you ever did? Far from being an embarrassment, it shows where you might have gone as an actor. You could have played Sam Spade or Duke Mantee, a star from the dark side, the city that never sleeps; you’re so good as the embodiment of absolute human corruption, so tight-lipped, so relentless, it makes me wonder if maybe you wouldn’t have been too grim for those roles. Even Bogart lets a ray of light show, a hint of joy in the playing, but you keep it cold and tight right down to the moment Lee Marvin drags his bleeding carcass across the living room of your suburban mansion and shoots you dead: silently (all the killings in that grim flick are done with silencers), and so there you were again on the news the night of the shooting at the Dakota with the same bite-the-bullet gangster’s grimace on your face as you fend off an impertinent question from some news hound.”

And there he is again in the aforementioned Times photograph giving with the same if-looks-could-kill glare, a battery of mikes ranged in front of him like loaded weapons. The image underscores the message of director Milt Tyrnauer’s The Reagans, that while passing as a jovial, consensus-seeking “morning in America” conservative, Reagan actually “paved the way  for Trump” and the fall of the Republican party. Of all the things said about him by Leslie Stahl, Jonathan Alter, Ron Reagan Jr., and various other talking heads in Part One (“The Hollywood Myth Machine”), the lines that came closest to my sense of the man (my fictional friend) were “Nobody ever figured him out,” “He created his own reality,” and “He trained himself to ignore the negative and accentuate the positive.”

I keep coming back to the passage from Ron Jr.’s book, about his father’s tendency to “go wandering somewhere in his own head” and how he and his siblings, “if they were being honest, would agree that he was as strange a fellow as any of us had ever met,” but not “darkly strange, mind you. In fact, he was so naturally sunny, so utterly without guile, so devoid of cynicism or pettiness as to create for himself a whole new category of strangeness…. I often felt I had to check my natural sarcasm and sense of absurdity at the door for fear of inducing in him a fit of psychological disequilibrium.”

A Stranger’s Light

During this long bumpy ride through a post-election no-man’s land, I’ve been returning to something that happened when I was in seventh grade. My parents and I were driving home from a visit to friends in Illinois, it was night, and we were on a hilly, dangerously unfamiliar two-lane state highway when our headlights stopped working — suddenly we’re in free fall, lost in space, veering around in total darkness, my father frantically struggling with various switches (“I can’t see a thing”), my mother going “oh my god,” as a car shows up directly behind us, too close, on the verge of rear-ending us, but no, they’re slowing down, flashing their headlights, then giving a swift short toot on the horn that says, “We’re with you, use our light.” So their light became our light. On a road we didn’t know, they saw us through several miles of steep hills and treacherous curves, two cars with one light, holding the balance in motion, even as impatient drivers blew blaring and honking past us. The stranger’s light stayed with us until we pulled into a gas station, and only then did they leave us, driving by with a friendly farewell honk.

That was before interstates and cell phones, red states and blue states. Even in an era when being helped by strangers wasn’t all that uncommon (out of gas, battery dead, whatever), this particular act of kindness was hard to forget. At the time, we had Indiana license plates. I don’t remember where the stranger’s car was from, most likely Illinois. Imagine a similar situation on November 18, 2020. We’d be OK with plates from the Hoosier state, but what if the car behind us had been from New York or California? Would they have bothered to go out of their way for some yahoos demented enough to vote for You Know Who, clueless inhabitants of the land of the fly in Pence’s snow white hair? Or, assuming the New Yorkers fit the tried and true liberal profile, they might have shared their light. But say we had New York plates and the car behind us was from a deep red state like Louisiana or Oklahoma. To up the ante, suppose we had Biden/Harris or Black Lives Matter bumper stickers. What then? Would the best we could hope for be a bang-bang-bang blasting of the horn as they blew arrogantly past us? Or would they ever so accidentally on purpose give us a friendly nudge off the road into the abyss? Or how about my old friend the Gipper?  He’s from Illinois. Back in the day he may even have driven on that same stretch of road. They say he saved as many as 77 lives when he was a lifeguard. I’d like to think he’d have done the right thing, at least before he ran for office. In The Reagans, when someone asked him if he was a politician, he said, “No, I’m an ex-actor.”

The fictional letters to Reagan originally appeared in somewhat different form under the title “Pitch and Catch” in the Winter 1989 issue of Raritan: A Quarterly Review.