Let us now consider the matter of image: Would Ronald Reagan be presidential nominee if, like Richard Widmark, he had pushed a woman in a wheelchair down the stairs, laughing that evil Richard Widmark laugh as she tumbled her way to the bottom? The answer, probably, is no.
The question comes up because Ronald Reagan has been first and foremost a movie actor and what he is -- what he is to us, anyway -- is a product of the movies he has made and the television shows he has been on and the speeches he has delivered. Whatever your politics, it's hard to find anyone who does not think taht Ronald Reagan is, as he would say, a darn nice guy. The operable cliche, after all, is "the screen does not lie."
The image is paramount. It is doubtful that General Electric, the company that rescued Ronald Reagan when his career was sagging, would have chosen him as its spokesman if he had played the part of too many bad guys or, like Vincent Price, has drunk the screen blood of young virgins.
Now this is interesting because in the old days, when it came to selling something, people were chosen for what they were, not for the roles they played. Ballplayers, for instance, endorsed cigarettes because they were athletes and famous. The ads more or less said that smoking coffin nails did not slow you down on the base paths.
Now, however, an actor does not endorse a product as himself, but rather as the character he plays. Carroll O'connor is nothing more than a marvelous character actor and on his own -- as himself -- would not be asked to endorse anyone or anything. But as Archie Bunker, he made a commercial for Sen. Edward Kennedy and although he said he was Carrol O'Connor, we knew who he really was -- a blue-collar guy named Archie Bunker, a yellow-dog Democrat if there ever was one.
The same thing is true of Karl Malden.He tells us to buy American Express travelers checks, emphasizing always the danger of theft. He is also wearing the same hat he wore when he played a cop on the tube. The message is plain: A cop is telling us to buy American Express.
This sort of thing is now commonplace. Former TV detectives pitch burglar alarms and Robert Blake, who drove fast cars as Barretta, sells STP and Robert Young, for years the television doctor Marcus Welby, prescribes Sanka for the nervous, the frazzled and it seems, the easily persuaded.
When it comes to image, television does in a very short time what it took an entire movie career to do. Only the likes of Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart, Fred Astaire and of course, John Wayne, managed to make enough films playing substantially the same character to establish a fixed persona.
In this regard, no one could match Wayne, who was awarded a congressional medal, not for his acting, which was nothing much, but for the roles he played -- for winning wars, even wars like Vietnam that we didn't win. Frederick March, a much superior actor, or Melvyn Douglas, an wesome talent, will get no medals. They did not always play heroes and they did not do their acting by and large from the back of a horse.
But of all the old Hollywood bunch, it is probably Stewart who comes closest to Reagan in image. Stewart's image is not of a hero, but of a man of integity, and it was precisely this quality -- integrity -- that Firestone bought when it needed someone or something (God forbid it should be a better tire) to refurbish its tarnished image. Those of us who don't know Jimmy Stewart from a hole in the wall somehow feel reassured that Jimmy Stewart is telling us that the company that made one of America's great lemons of a tire, really does make a wonderful product. Would Jimmy Stewart lie to you? The wrong question, but here is a better one: Does Jimmy Stewart know anything about tires?
With Reagan, who shares a Stewart-like image, the question is whether he knows anything about government. The answer is based on his performance as governor of California, is yes -- sort of.
But the fact of the matter is that no one is going to vote for or against Reagan on the basis of his record as governor of California -- what he actually did in office. That appears to be an old, worn standard for judging a politician. The critical thing with Reagan, as it was with Jimmy Carter before him in Georgia, is that he didn't fail -- his administration was no debacle. Everything beyond that is either too complicated to sort out, or a bore.
What is important to the American people is what Ronald Reagan is saying -- his message -- and the image he projects. If what he is saying seems simplistic, it also does not seem particularly menacing.
Ronald Reagan, after all, is a nice guy and if he sees things in black and white, it's only fitting. That, after all is the way we got to know him.