Ronald Reagan spent what may have been the best years of his life in Hollywood, where he acquired a wealth of one-liners and a powerful but distinctly cinematic view of history.
Asked in 1966 what kind of governor he would be, Reagan responded jokingly, "I don't know, I've never played a governor." But Reagan wasn't joking in 1975 when he claimed that segregation had ended in the armed services during World War II because a black steward "cradled a machine gun in his arms, which is not an easy thing to do," and fired it at Japanese planes strafing Pearl Harbor.
This account occurred early in Reagan's near-miss struggle to wrest the presidential nomination from Gerald R. Ford. I interviewed Reagan on the campaign plane the same day and observed that segregation ended in the armed services three years after the war when President Harry S Truman signed an order abolishing it. This did not deter Reagan, whose view was grounded in World War II movies. "I remember the scene," he told me. "It was very powerful."
It was a typical response from Reagan, whose stories make up in dramatic intensity what they lack in accuracy and who still often sees the world through the intensely patriotic but oversimplified lenses of the film industry of his day.
Cut now to Nov. 29, 1983. The scene is the Oval Office, and then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is meeting with the president. As Shamir subsequently told the Israeli cabinet, Reagan related a moving story about how his concern for the Jewish people stemmed from his experiences in World War II when he had served as a photographer assigned to film Nazi death camps.
Shamir said Reagan had told him that he saved a copy of the film because he believed that the Holocaust would one day be questioned. Reagan said his view was vindicated years later when a member of his family asked if the Holocaust had really occurred and Reagan showed him the film.
On Feb. 15, 1984, Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal went to the White House and heard a similar Reagan story. Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, attended this meeting and told me that he left the Oval Office believing that Reagan had photographed the death camps.
In fact, Reagan spent the war in Hollywood making training films with the First Motion Picture Unit of the Army Air Corps. Hier said Marshall Breger, White House representative to Jewish groups, later explained that the president was referring to films he had seen of the death camps while in the service. Hier says he thinks that what happened may have been "rhetorical excess" by Reagan.
After I wrote last year about the amazingly similar misunderstandings by Shamir and Wiesenthal, White House officials said Reagan had never misrepresented himself as a wartime photographer. They attributed Wiesenthal's misunderstanding to his faulty English, although this hardly explains why Shamir took away an identical account from a different meeting. One senior official insisted that Reagan had shown the film not to a family member but to "a Jewish friend" who doubted the Holocaust.
Subsequently, Reagan wrote to me, denying any misrepresentation and enclosing remarks from the Holocaust Ceremony of 1981 where he accurately referred to his wartime service in Hollywood. In this earlier account, Reagan claimed that his motion picture unit had assembled combat film every week and edited it into "a secret report for the general staff."
The president's view of himself as Reagan the Reconciler on his trip to West Germany this week is an extension of the cinematic approach to foreign trips. On the Korean Demilitarized Zone in 1983, Reagan peered through binoculars into communist North Korea and said he was on "the front lines of freedom," which could have been the movie title of that trip.
The cinematic quality was so striking in Korea that a military policeman explained that an armored personnel carrier brought to an outdoor church service had no use except "as a backdrop." When it was time to go, reporters cried out, "Strike the set."
There were other presidential "films." There was "Trek of a Salesman," Reagan's epic journey to "so-called Communist China." There was "Blarney Road," as Reagan explored his Irish ancestral roots. And there was "Naptime at the Vatican," when a tired president nodded off during a meeting with the pope.
It is too bad that Reagan, who really cares about the Holocaust, was not a death-camp photographer. That would have given him an understanding more lasting than any cinematic reality. And it surely would have led him to avoid an attempt at "reconciliation" in a German cemetery where Nazi SS troops lie buried.