I've finished Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, and if I thought the Nixonian beginning depressed and angered me (and it did), it got worse once the rise of Reagan was spelled out.
(Ford, the actual sitting president between the two, comes off as a hapless fellow who would tack whatever direction the prevailing wind required, with little success. Perlstein uses the trope "damned if he does, damned if he doesn't" more than once to describe Ford's luckless efforts to navigate between the Charybdis of Watergate, Nixon's pardon, a continuing Soviet menace, and a tanking economy, on one side, and the Scilla of Reagan's telegenic refusal to admit that there was one single problem in America that optimism – plus a major rightward slant on the economy and foreign policy – couldn't fix, on the other.)
Perlstein's take on Reagan, and his attractiveness, is simple – like Reagan himself: He learned early in his not-terribly-happy childhood to recast his troubles as optimistic, heroic, counterfactual adventures – with himself as the hero, always mindful of how he looked to the crowd. Most of us recall his misrememberings of the iffy rescue stories from his years a lifeguard, or his stories while president of his Army career or the details of who died where in the WWII European Theater. But Perlstein documents a good number more of them, and they form a disturbing pattern.
Here's just one, from his days as the president of the Screen Actors Guild in the 1950s.
One month later he [Reagan, then president of the SAG] would deliver something else: A legal document, signed by him in his capacity as union president, granting MCA exclusive right to ignore a crucial Screen Actors Guild rule: a ban on agencies producing TV shows. It was a conflict of interest, because agents had the obligation to get their clients paid as much as possible, and producers had an interest in having them paid the least. But Lew Wasserman saw television as his next gold mine, and he wanted in.
There were 1,126 times more televisions in American homes than had been in 1942. Studio bosses feared the infernal machines like the plague (for a time Jack Warner banned them as set dressing in Warner Bros. Films). Hollywood actors came to fear them, too. "Thousands of hours of entertainment must be available to the television public," the Saturday Evening Post reported early in 1952, "and any guess as to where it will come from is as good as another." TV production was almost exclusively done in New York, live, instead of Los Angeles, where shows were shot on film. If TV shows were filmed, producers worried that actors would demand payment every time a show was rerun – what was known as a "reuse" payment; producers adamantly refused to even entertain the idea of reuse payments. In Los Angeles, these were perilous times: If actors held the line and continued to demand them, and movies continued to lose market share to TV, Hollywood as an institution might shrivel at an alarming rate.
Within this matrix, Wasserman spied a bonanza business opportunity.
He set up a TV production subsidiary in Los Angeles called Review – this was, on its face, against SAG rules. Wasserman, however, convinced his favorite client to sell the SAG on the idea of granting MCA a "blanket waiver" of that rule. Wasserman and his lawyer Laurence Beilenson sold the idea to Jack Dales by arguing that the acting game in Los Angeles would die without it – that TV production would stay in New York. But the argument didn't really make sense. For if letting one agency have a blanket waiver, as a monopoly, might open the floodgates to Hollywood TV production, wouldn't help Los Angeles all the more to let all agencies enjoy the same right?
It made more sense when you considered the sweetener MCA added to the deal: a secret quid pro quo. Revue would give SAG what the studios adamantly refused to grant: reuse fees.How secret was that part of the deal? It may have even been kept from Reagan, who seemed quite in earnest when, asked at a 1962 hearing on MCA's alleged monopoly power, said there was no quid pro quo. At that, a letter from Beilenson to Wasserman recollecting the secret terms – that Revue was willing to sign a contract giving the guild members reuse fees when no one else was willing to do so – was read out. Reagan was asked the question again. He replied, guilelessly, "It's quite conceivable then if he says it in this letter." By that time, Review was so gigantic that MCA had a direct hand in 45 percent of all network shows.
Maybe Reagan didn't know the deal was dirty. Maybe he just convinced himself of his friend and benefactor's incorruptible character. As usual, in those he believed innocent, innocence was all his eyes saw. It was his gift.
As a side bar, and something of a giggle, here's Reagan putting his thang down, street cred-wise, at the 1980 debate against Jimmy Carter and John Anderson:
But, if we're talking about how much we think about the working people and so forth, I'm the only fellow who ever ran for this job who was six times President of his own union and still has a lifetime membership in that union.
Reagan, who went from a Roosevelt Democrat to a studio stooge within a decade, sold out his SAG union while he still carried their card in his wallet, and once he was elected president he fed the union movement – famously starting with the air traffic controllers, after which his supporters showed their irony-free gratitude by naming an airport after him – into the shredder. And the unions believed him. They believed him. Go fig.
In any case, here's the lovable, avuncular, doddering old Dutch in 1987, near the end of his second term in the Oval Office, as the Iran Contra scandal was blowing up somewhere near his face. You'll see the pattern:
"A few months ago, I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not."
His heart and his best intentions. Yeah. It's all of a piece. Remember that the next time you read someone celebrating the Age of Reagan, with that whole City-on-a-Hill Morning-in-America fantasy. What Reagan himself – and his loyalists a generation later – always liked most about him was his ability to have no clue about the shifty business happening right under his nose, let alone what he'd been party to in the past. He was the plucky hero, no matter what.