By Edmund Morris
Friday, February 4, 2011; 5:00 PM
It has been argued that Ronald Reagan was a myth himself, a construct of his own and other people's imaginings, rather than an extraordinary American about whom some untruths are told. The sentimental colossus his acolytes are trying to erect today, with gilded pecs, red-painted smile and an NRA-approved pistol in each manly fist, bears no resemblance to the man I knew: in private a person of no ego and little charisma, in public a statesman of formidable purpose.1. He was a bad actor.
Well, yes and no. Most of the movies he made as a Warner Bros. contract player are unwatchable by persons of sound mind. When he was president, it was easy to laugh at them. The spectacle of the leader of the free world, a.k.a. Secret Service agent Brass Bancroft, deploying an enormous ray gun against an airborne armada was especially hilarious in 1983, the year he announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, that vaporizer of foreign nuclear missiles. "All right, Hayden - focus that inertia projector on 'em and let 'em have it!"
Even when Reagan believed he was acting well, as in "Kings Row," he betrayed infallible signs of thespian mediocrity: an unwillingness to listen to other performers and an inability to communicate thoughts. Now that he is dead, however, one feels an odd tenderness for the effort he put into every role - particularly in early movies, when he struggled to control a tendency of his lips to writhe around his too-rapid speech.
Ironically, he was transformed into a superb actor when he took on the roles of governor of California, presidential candidate and president of the United States. Then, as never in his movies, he became authoritative, authentic, irresistible to eye and ear. His two greatest performances, in my opinion, were at the Republican National Convention in 1976, when he effortlessly stole Gerald Ford's thunder as nominee and made the delegates regret their choice, and at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1985, when he delivered the supreme speech of his presidency.
I asked him once if he had any nostalgia for the years he was nuzzling up to Ann Sheridan and Doris Day on camera. He gestured around the Oval Office. "Why should I? I have the biggest stage in the world, right here!"2. He was but a movie-set soldier in World War II.
It's true that Reagan spent virtually all the war years flying a desk at the First Motion Picture Unit, USAAF, in Culver City. But that hardly means he did not passionately want to fight for his country overseas. Army doctors found his vision to be so defective, at "7/200 bilateral," that a tank could advance within seven feet of him before he could identify it as Japanese. His Warner Bros. colleague Eddie Albert, a veteran of the Pacific War, later told me about presenting Reagan with a souvenir from the bloodbath of Tarawa. "I've never forgotten the way he looked. Like I'd humiliated him."
In the spring of 1945, Capt. Reagan, as the FMPU's intelligence officer, spent weeks processing raw color footage from the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. The images so burned into his brain that later in life - quite understandably - he imagined he had been there at Ohrdruf and Buchenwald. He kept one of those Army reels to show to each of his children in early adolescence, so that they could learn about man's inhumanity to man. Ask Patti. Ask Ron.3. He was warm-hearted.
No. But Reagan wasn't cold - except in his detestation of totalitarianism - so much as cool, in the way a large, calm lake is cool. Like many another natural leader (George Marshall and Charles de Gaulle come to mind), he viewed those who clustered around him abstractedly. He registered audiences rather than individuals. Reagan intimates have confessed to me that they were never sure he knew who the hell they were.
His three younger children have publicly stated that there were times (decades before any rumors of dementia) when he treated them as complete strangers. As for his marriage to Nancy, I'll note only that she was the fourth short, tough, street-smart woman he dreamily depended on to organize his everyday life, the others being his mother, Nelle Reagan; his first fiancee, Margaret Cleaver; and his first wife, Jane Wyman. He had no close friends. And until young Ron reminded him, it didn't occur to him to put a headstone on either of his parents' graves.4. He was only a campaign Christian.
On the contrary, Reagan was a "practical Christian," that being the name of a mainly Midwestern, social-work-oriented movement when he was growing up. At 11, young Dutch had an epiphany, prompted by the sight of his alcoholic father lying dead drunk on the front porch of the family house in Dixon, Ill. In a moving passage of autobiography, Reagan wrote: "Seeing his arms spread out as if he were crucified - as indeed he was - his hair soaked with melting snow, snoring as he breathed, I could feel no resentment against him." It was the season of Lent, and his mother, a devotee of the Disciples of Christ, put a comforting novel in his hand: "That Printer of Udell's" by Harold Bell Wright. Dutch read it and told her, "I want to declare my faith and be baptized." He was, by total immersion, on June 21, 1922.
I read a speckled copy of that book in the Library of Congress. Almost creepily, it tells the story of a handsome Midwestern boy who makes good for the sins of his father by becoming a practical Christian and a spellbinding orator. He develops a penchant for brown suits and welfare reform, marries a wide-eyed girl (who listens adoringly to his speeches) and wins election to public office in Washington.
Shy about his faith as an adult, Reagan was capable of conventional pieties like all American politicians. He attended few church services as president. But on occasion, before critical meetings, you would see him draw aside and mumble prayers.5. He was an "amiable dunce."
Yeah, right, Clark Clifford. Ronald Reagan only performed successfully in six different careers: radio sportscaster, movie actor, trade union president, corporate spokesman, two-term governor and two-term president of the United States. Lucky for him he wasn't hampered by Jimmy Carter's intelligence!
Edmund Morris was the authorized biographer of Ronald Reagan. In addition to "Dutch," his life of the 40th president, he has published a trilogy about Theodore Roosevelt.
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