On the World Stage, The White House's Best Actor
Before the film, coffee and cake were served. A White House social secretary tapped me on the shoulder. She asked if I would mind going over and sitting with the president, who was alone at a small table. Would I mind? No, I wouldn't, nor would the friend who came with me. Joined by a few others, we listened for half and hour as Reagan told stories from the old days. Occasionally he would be prompted on specific details by his old friend A.C. Lyles, longtime producer of westerns.
Reagan told a self-deprecating tale of a publicity gimmick dreamed up by the studio; stars would go door to door and shake hands with the ticket-buying public. At one door, the woman of the house insisted she knew who he was but could not, after several minutes of trying, come up with his name. "I'll give you a hint," Reagan remembered telling her. "My initials are R.R." The woman thought for a minute, then broke out in a broad, knowing smile. "Of course!" she exclaimed. "Roy Rogers!"
Before the screening, Reagan spoke to the small crowd. He held up a pair of dancing shoes worn in the film and given to him by Cagney. Then Reagan recalled that there'd been talk at Warners that year of submitting Reagan's performance in "Kings Row" as the studio's bid for the Best Actor Oscar. Reagan said that while he would have liked that, he knew the nominee had to be Cagney, and deferred. He never won an Oscar, no, but winning the presidency in two landslides is nothing to be sneezed at.
Reagan's were television campaigns, of course, and though people still remember the "morning in America" and "bear in the woods" ads, Reagan's own spontaneous moments are more cherishable: "I paid for this microphone!" and, to someone in sharp disagreement with him, "Oh, shut up."
His 1981 inaugural festivities were the most TV-intensive ever, since American hostages were being released by Iran even as the president was about to take the oath of office and send Jimmy Carter back to Plains, Ga. What is normally a strictly ceremonial event became red-hot riveting television. There was speculation in later years about how the timing managed to be so convenient and dramatic; however it happened, it was an incredible send-off for a new administration, one that would use television more fluently than any other up to that time.
Many images from those years return now as Reagan and his times are recalled: the president with a hand cupped to his ear so he could hear Sam Donaldson's shouted question while a noisy helicopter awaited Reagan nearby . . . the gallery of Reagan impersonators (Johnny Carson most prominent among them) who always tried to mimic the prefatory, "Well," with which Reagan answered questions . . . and the stunning moment when Reagan stood in West Berlin and loudly implored -- commanded, really -- "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!"
And torn down -- eventually -- it was.
Lampooning the presidency is a noble American tradition, but the Reagans, Ronald and Nancy, often beat potential lampooners to the punch by whimsically dissing themselves. Theirs was also called one of the great love stories of the 20th century. Nancy Reagan was much maligned for allegedly extravagant ways during those years, but in recent years, her role has been seen more for the positive, resourceful and supportive performance that it was. Mrs. Reagan is currently active in the drive to allow stem cell research in finding cures for Alzheimer's and other diseases, but President Bush has refused to reconsider his opposition. Bush thinks he hears Jesus giving him orders. The gap between him and Ronald Reagan -- in terms of stature, speaking ability, and overall presidentiality -- is gargantuan.
However one felt about Reagan's politics, his style and, indeed, his sense of showmanship had to be admired. His two terms were probably the most entertaining presidencies we'd ever had -- until the tabloid squalor of the Clinton years, which were entertaining in a dark and demeaning way. Ronald Reagan was our feel-good president. You didn't moan and groan when he interrupted the prime time schedule to make a brief speech or have a chat with his fellow Americans. He had ruddy cheeks like Santa Claus and a deluxe, mellifluous voice. If he'd been a commercial pitchman, he could have sold us anything. Instead, he sold us a dream, he sold us on ourselves, he awakened a vision that had been there for a couple centuries but seemed recently to have gone dormant, or somehow become unhip and uncool.
Of all the images he liked to summon, one of his favorites was "that shining city on a hill." It wasn't always completely clear what he meant -- Washington? A mythic vision of America? A free-enterprise Utopia or something far more spiritual? Whatever it is, wherever it is, it always sounded like a goal devoutly to be desired and endlessly to be pursued. Ronald Reagan spent a life looking for it, and now -- we'd like to think -- he has found it.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Reagan delivering his farewell address from the White House in 1989. He could make even the grandest speeches sound folksy and accessible.
(Ron Edmonds -- AP)
In some editions of the Post, the Tom Shales column in the June 6 Style section mischaracterized Ronald Reagan's service record. Reagan served in the Army Air Corps from 1942 to 1945. He was assigned to the First Motion Picture Unit and made training films and appeared in the musical "This Is the Army."
Video: President Bush makes his first comments on the death of Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States.
Audio: A remembrance of the personal life of Reagan, as told by Reagan biographer and Post reporter Lou Cannon.
Audio: Cannon describes Reagan's political career.
Audio: Cannon remembers Reagan's speech at the Berlin Wall in 1987.
Timeline: Ronald Reagan's Life
___ Ronald Reagan ___
___ Narrated Photo Galleries ___ Personal Life: A remembrance, as told by Reagan biographer and Post reporter Lou Cannon.
Lou Cannon on Political Career
___ More Photos ___ A Nation Grieves Reagan's Passing
___ Multimedia ___ Video: President Bush comments
Audio: Cannon on Berlin Speech
___ Timeline ___ Ronald Reagan's Life: 1911-2004
___ Washington Post Coverage ___ Ronald Reagan Dies
Actor, Governor, President, Icon
LBJ's Service to Be Funeral Model
___ Nation, World Reaction ___ Nation and World Pay Tribute
In Illinois, Heartland Town Mourns
Remembering in California
Preparations in Washington
Conflicted in Former 'Evil Empire'
In Europe, Appreciation Grew
Reagan's Optimism Hailed
In Calif., Admirers Gather
Europe, Latin America React
___ Political Legacy ___ Sagging GOP Rebuilt in His Image
Reagan Lives On
'More Than Just a Man'
Shales: Actor on the World Stage
Kurtz: Remaking of a President
___ Global Legacy ___ Hastening an End to the Cold War
___ Economic Legacy ___ Historic Tax Code Changes Eroded
Policy's Nickname: Reaganomics
___ An American Legend ___ Reagan Took Normandy by Storm
His Fellow Americans
Flags Lowered, Memories Raised
Reagan in Hollywood, Warming Up
The Leading Man
A Reagan Filmography
Washington in the '80s
Reagan Had Passion for Sports
___ Opinion ___ Broder: The Great Persuader
Will: An Optimist's Legacy