by Ralph Brauer | 10/14/2007 11:19:00 PM

In this digital age, many of us have forgotten what a film negative looks like and fewer still have ever viewed an actual reel of a movie. Yet if you've never seen a strip of movie film or even handled a negative, you can't really understand Ronald Reagan.

They made us handle them with white gloves at the Library of Congress as we opened the heavy canisters and threaded them through the sprockets on the projection table. Held in your hands they possessed an almost transcendental quality. You could distinctly make out the shapes and colors of the images captured in the celluloid, yet you could also see right through them as if they were ghosts. The rows of square holes on the sides propelled these apparitions at a speed of twenty-four per second in front of the blinding, flickering light; fast enough to play a trick on the human eye that made the specters come to life, called back from that place in the imagination where they first took form.

Few Americans understood the power of these apparitions better than Ronald Reagan. Even before the days of digital manipulation he intuitively grasped not merely that images could be manipulated and altered to construct a new and separate reality, but so could real people. Ronald Reagan was our first PhotoShop, YouTube president.


When Reagan was growing up, Hollywood sucked young people from the small towns of the Midwest as surely as tales about rich homesteads first pulled their ancestors towards the setting sun. For Reagan's generation Hollywood loomed as a Disney-like Fantasyland carefully built by press agents and studio publicists who showed the royalty of the silver screen riding in coach-like Duesenbergs to fashionable balls held in palatial castles.

For Reagan the journey may have geographically far, but in his mind it was right next door, for even as a boy Reagan had lived in two worlds. Biographer Edmund Morris reminds us:
I can understand Dutch's wry remark that his fellow citizens would have looked askance at him had he ever confessed the full extent of his youthful fantasies. [p. 51]

Reagan PhotoShopped his life even as he was leading it and then constantly edited the images over his life as he constructed the YouTube movie that was his life.

Reagan's life story could not have been imagined even by the most imaginative of those screenwriters, for even today the plot seems wildly improbable: the former Dixon lifeguard and Des Moines sports broadcaster lands the coveted screen tryout, works his way from "B" pictures to playing Errol Flynn's sidekick, is elected to head the Screen Actors' Guild, then Governor of California and finally President of the United States. By the time he died, the real Reagan and the mythic Reagan have become so intertwined that unraveling them has become all but impossible--so that like that famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, whose theme was the intertwining of myth and reality--the preference is to "print the myth."

Cowboy Hats and Italian Saddles

A widely-circulated photograph that has become an American icon symbolizes The Myth known to millions of Americans, for even if you did not know the face in the picture, it is not hard to view it as the quintessential portrait of what people around the world label as "American." This Charles Russell painting come to life shows a man whose face seems sculpted from granite wearing a well-creased tan cowboy hat tilted at an optimistic angle. With eyes narrowed by the sun, Reagan sports a smile that has the appealing slant of a man leaning casually on a fencepost. So powerful is the image it seems beyond parody.

Yet like everything coming from Hollywood, the image is as false as the computer-generated graphics that now grace any image. In the Hollywood of Ronald Reagan before digital manipulation that schoolchildren take to easier than multiplication tables, artifice and reality became so intertwined that those who were part of it often could not separate the two, sometimes with tragic consequences for the Marilyn Monroes of the world. As for the public, its need to believe often overcame its better judgment.In some ways there was a Rosebud in the attic of every American mind.

One detail of Reagan's life captures this contradiction between myth and reality: Reagan rode with a jumping saddle, which stereotypes associate with effete British leisure class snobs who live on monstrous country estates. Reagan also favored the long riding boots of prep school equestrians, the same riding boots you occasionally see on Prince Charles and his pals as they partake in a friendly game of polo on immaculately manicured lawns while ladies in flowing dresses play at being Jane Austen heroines. Many informal pictures of Reagan "At the Ranch" on the Ronald Reagan Library website show him in a polo shirt and riding boots with tucked-in khakis we rural Midwesterners used to call "dude style."

In Riding with Reagan John R. Barletta tells us:
The saddle he used was a Perianni forward seat jumping saddle, which was made in Italy. He bought it as a young man, and by the time he was president, it was more than thirty years old...President Reagan had other saddles, as well. The Queen of England gave him a beautiful Steuben saddle made in Germany...The King of Morocco gave him a saddle as a gift. (pp. 75-76)

Walk into any cow country bar with a jackalope or deer rack mounted on the wall next to a neon Budweiser sign and ask anyone nursing a drink to describe a "forward seat jumping saddle" and if you are lucky they will only laugh. Tell them that was Ronald Reagan's favorite saddle and they're liable to toss you out before you have a chance to explain.

No true Reaganite would believe that rather than being Kit Carson or Wyatt Earp their hero resembled one of those aristocrats who bought cattle ranches in the nineteenth century and paid people like Bill Cody to lead them to buffalo they would shoot until their arms ached from the recoil of fifty caliber rifles.

The Answer to a Presidential Trivia Question

The deceptions of Reagan's image encompass more than his pretending to be a cowboy. Ronald Reagan is the answer to a fascinating trivia question: he was the first president and certainly one of the first Americans to wear contact lenses, which according to the Reagan Library he "began wearing when he began his acting career." Without them instead of playing the Gipper, Reagan might have been assigned the stereotypical four-eyed roles Hollywood still favors--bankers, accountants, nerds and assorted wimps.

Instead he PhotoShopped the glasses out of the picture, something that Harry Truman would have disdained. Imagine how different history might have been had Ronald Reagan had to wear spectacles in public? There is a glimpse of it in a letter Edmund Morris quotes in his Reagan biography Dutch. Written by a fellow student at Eureka College it captures Reagan in a far different light than the legend:
Our four-eyed friend is getting increasingly rah-rah. After freezing his bum on the squad bench last summer, he's now leading the yells at basketball! [p.76]

In Reagan, In His Own Hand, authors Kiron K. Skinner, Martin Anderson, Annelise Anderson write that "he didn't like to wear eyeglasses," so when he gave a speech he would pop out one contact just before leaving the car or plane so he had one short vision eye and one long vision eye. The symbolism of this dual vision practically leaps off the page, expressing the duality of Ronald Reagan's life. [p. xviii]

One of Reagan's films--and one of the most bizarre movies ever made--captures Reagan's contradictions.The Santa Fe Trail has nothing to do with the famous trail, but instead focuses on the "Bleeding Kansas" of John Brown, with Reagan as George Custer to Errol Flynn's Jeb Stuart and Raymond Massey's Brown. Santa Fe Trail shows how Hollywood could so twist history and reality that what emerged was barely recognizable and yet people stepped up to the box office and paid to see it. That neither Stewart nor Custer were ever in Bleeding Kansas or chased after John Brown matters little in this grotesque plot. The movie ends with Custer marrying the daughter of Jefferson Davis!

Facade and Enigma

Just as no one sitting in a theater watching Santa Fe Trail seemed to mind its ridiculous sense of history, Reagan's followers are virtually silent about his well-constructed facade. Reagan admirer Dinesh D'Souza even titled his biography, Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader. The cover features--what else--that iconic picture of Reagan in a cowboy hat. There is no mention of English riding boots, expensive Italian saddles or contact lenses. D'Souza believes:
Reagan owned the affection of the American people because he seemed like a regular guy. [p. 9]

Note the use of the word "seemed." His biographers all express their frustration in understanding his character, a frustration that prompted Edmund Morris to weave his own life together with Reagan's. Every line of the Reagan story--even those written by his most doctrinaire supporters--confirms none of them ever really felt they knew the man.

D'Souza begins his biography by noting:
Any intelligent examination of Reagan must begin with the recognition that he was a mystery both personally and politically...Even Reagan's family found him enigmatic and impenetrable...Nancy Reagan also felt there was a part Reagan that was inaccessible to her. [pp. 1-2]

In an article on Reagan in TIME's 100 most influential people series Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan wrote:
For all that, there was of course his famous detachment. I never understood it, and neither, from what I've seen, did anyone else. It is true that when you worked for him, whether for two years or 20, he didn't care that much about your feelings. His saving grace — and it is a big one, a key one to his nature — is that he didn't care much about his feelings either. The cause was all, the effort to make the world calmer and the country freer was all.

A Political Dream Factory

A major reason Reagan has remained a paradox is that people have looked for explanations of his life in the wrong places. To understand Ronald Reagan you have to understand Hollywood in the 1940s. Hortense Powdermaker once called Hollywood "the Dream Factory." Ronald Reagan made politics a dream factory. Powdermaker, who was an anthropologist, studied the film capital during the years Ronald Reagan was at his height as an actor. What she found helps explain the paradoxes of Ronald Reagan, for the aptly-named Tinseltown was a place of paradox.

When she interviewed actors and actresses, Powdermaker found they exhibited a dichotomy between "look at me" and "look at what I've done." She found the proverbial star who longed to really "show" they could act by doing Shakespeare or a serious role. Reagan himself longed for more parts like his critically-acclaimed role in Kings Row, a film in which Reagan made "where's the rest of me" into a brilliant piece of acting. In an unusually perceptive observation Reagan admitted:
So much of our profession is taken up with pretending, with the interpretation of never-never roles, that an actor must spend half his waking hours in fantasy, in rehearsal or shooting. If he is only an actor, I feel, he is much like I was in Kings Row, only half a man--no matter how great his talents. [Dallek, p. 11]
Hollywood gave Ronald Reagan a chance to perfect the role he would later play as president, one that would make us believe his symbol was a cowboy not an Italian jumping saddle. If you watch Santa Fe Trail you can see all the mannerisms he would use as president, that cocked head with its wide smile, the aw-shucks attitude, the square-jawed, steely-eyed look he could get about something that mattered.

Like other Hollywood stars Powdermaker studied, Ronald Reagan had a lifelong difficulty separating reality and fantasy. In his brilliant book on Reagan, Robert Dallek theorizes that the president always cast himself as a hero, even if it sometimes meant stretching the truth. Reagan, of course, was famous for his "stories" which even the press sometimes snickered over. In his Reagan biography Lou Cannon reports that the president told both Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal:

His concern for Israel could be traced to World War II when he photographed the Nazi death camps. [p. 401]

Reagan never served overseas during World War II. He did see the death camp films as part of his duties making, editing and cataloging films at an army camp outside Hollywood.

The Shamir story illustrates Ronald Reagan's propensity to PhotoShop reality by literally rewriting history. If George Custer could marry Jefferson Davis' daughter, then he could film the liberation of the camps. The he told the leaders of Israel a bald-faced lie did not matter.

This style of editing history became most forcefully expressed with what became a hallmark of the Reagan presidency--his use of anecdotes. In this Reagan went far beyond the Hollywood scriptwriters who created Santa Fe Trail and anticipated the YouTube era, for the essence of YouTube is short video segments whose standard of excellence is no their truthfulness, but how much they manipulate reality. The more unreal they are; the better they are.

So it was with Reagan's anecdotes. It was Ronald Reagan who invented the Welfare Queen and her Cadillac to justify cuts in social programs. It became common for Reagan to answer critics with a YouTube story. For example Dallek reports that when Senator Robert Packwood objected to Reagan's budget cuts, he replied with a "story":
You know a person yesterday, a young man, went into a grocery store and he had an orange in one hand and a bottle in the other and he paid for the orange with food stamps and he took the change and paid for the vodka. That's what's wrong.[p. 72]

Powdermaker saw the paradox behind artifice and reality as the heart of the relationship between film stars and their audience. She relates the tale of Errol Flynn, whose 1943 trial for raping two underage girls ended in acquittal by an all female jury. Powdermaker reports that the judge in the trial received many letters from women who were mothers who came to the actor's defense. She observed:
Often there is the attitude that a movie hero or heroine can do no wrong, when they appear to indulge their instinctual life more than is customary. [p. 250]

I once had a personal experience with this refusal to accept reality when Elvis Presley died. A national magazine called me and asked for a comment. I mentioned that towards the end of his life Presley had gained weight and no longer looked well. Little did I know the firestorm that would set off. The hate mail all had one theme--Presley had not put on weight and looked fine. His fans refused to see Presley as he had become, but instead saw the myth.

Even today the worshipers of Ronald Reagan see the cowboy hat but not the riding boots and the Italian saddle. They see him as a "man of the people," even though he was so aloof not even his wife felt she really knew him. People who have pictures of Reagan in his cowboy hat posted all over the Internet essentially refuse to believe their hero rode like an upperclass British twit.

The Hollywood Paradox

History is less susceptible to the "Hollywood paradox" than people living with it and nowhere is this truer than with Ronald Reagan. Powdermaker's book contains an interesting tidbit that I have not seen in any Reagan biography. It lists the salaries of the top stars of 1946. Humphrey Bogart heads the list at $432,000 followed by Bette Davis at $328,000. Ronald Reagan ranks tenth at $169,750 not that far behind Errol Flynn at $199,999. In terms of salary, in 1946 Hollywood thought Ronald Reagan was the tenth best movie star in the country, but today I doubt Hollywood or anyone else would rank him so high.

My sense is we also may come to see his presidency that way as we unravel his PhotoShop reality, YouTube editing job. For Ronald Reagan the contacts, cowboy hat and the riding boots were not mere affectations, instead they expressed the very core of the man's beliefs and the philosophy some still refer to as Reaganism. Ronald Reagan's greatest performance was to convince the American people he was a regular guy wearing a cowboy hat when in fact he was an elitist in riding boots who inaugurated a Republican Counterrevolution dedicated to rolling back the New Deal and reaffirming the "survival of the fittest" ideology of the late nineteenth century.

To understand that you need to explore what most regard as his greatest speech, his First Inaugural, which will be the subject of a future essay.




Blogger Unknown on 10/16/2007 2:39 PM:

An excellent piece -- you're right that Reagan's signature move was to manipulate reality. In that sense, he could best be termed an assassin of history; to paraphrase James Thurber, he "killed history and made it bleed."

Here's a question: to what extent do you think Reagan's manipulation of history in the sense of outright lying was a reflection of his nascent Altzheimer's? We know he was feeling the effects of that during the end of his Presidency, and his increasingly meaningless turns of phrase such as "Let's not throw the baby out with the dishes" can certainly be traced to the disease. Can Reagan be let off the hook a bit for lying on the grounds that he was not himself?