“He certainly used me as a prop!” said Sam Donaldson, the onetime White House correspondent for ABC News.
Guess who he was talking about. “We’d ask a question, and he might give a serious answer, but if he wanted to dodge it, he’d do a quip. We understood he sometimes used us as foils, but that’s fair.”
In the end, Mr. Donaldson said Ronald Reagan was great with TV cameras, but it was because he actually believed much of what he said. If the TV camera was a lie-detector test, well, the President had passed. But it didn’t mean he was right.
“He believed that communism belonged in the ash heap of history, all right? He was right,” said Mr. Donaldson. “And he also believed that people slept on the sidewalk, on grates in the dead of winter in Washington, because they wanted to-he believed that! Well, I don’t think many other people believe that. But since he believed it, if you had given him a lie-detector test-’Do people sleep on grates in Washington in the dead of winter because they want to?’-he’d say, ‘Yeeess.’ And the needles would reflect that he was telling the truth. He saw the world through rose-colored glasses.”
More than any other politician in the 20th century, Ronald Reagan knew what he was doing with the media. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was magnificent with a microphone, and John F. Kennedy looked as good as any President could ever hope to. But nobody had ever had the confidence of a pro before; Ronald Reagan had been paid to work on movie sets. He had watched directors. He had campaigned and spoken week after week in plant after plant for General Electric, put his family around a dinner table to sell the product, and he knew that exposing his soul wasn’t necessarily selling it.
“For General Electric, here is Ronald Reagan!” began a 1956 episode of CBS’s General Electric Theater .
In a tweed coat, skinny black tie and the Brylcreemed haircut he wore until he died on Saturday, June 5, at 93, the host leaned casually on a stage light, a man clearly in charge on a TV set. He was introducing a half-hour drama called “I’m a Fool,” starring James Dean, the martyred teen icon. “Those of us who worked with Jimmy Dean carry an image of intense struggle for a goal beyond himself,” he intoned. “And curiously enough, that’s the story of the boy he portrays tonight.”
Ronald Reagan’s own portrayal at that moment-a man who applied G.E.’s slogan, “Progress is our most important product,” to himself and his nation-was indistinguishable from the role he would play the rest of his life: the affable on-air personality, the same soothing visage who generally saved his tough talk for the Communists.
“He was a finished product in ’62,” said Chris Matthews, the former aide to House Speaker Tip O’Neill, whose prickly feelings about Mr. Reagan were well-known. Mr. Matthews is a host himself, of MSNBC’s Hardball , to which he brings a less soothing tone than Mr. Reagan brought to G.E. Theater . “He was your host, Ronald Reagan. He played himself for eight years. He was No. 1 in the slot-until Bonanza came along.”
Mr. Reagan hosted G.E. Theater from 1954 to 1962, and campaigned for the company from G.E. plant to G.E. plant, making the speeches that would give him the incomparable facility that launched him to the Presidency. By the time he made his huge leap and campaigned for Barry Goldwater with his breakthrough speech in 1964, his potential had finally become clear: Reagan was ready to turn his sunny TV essence-a bulkier version of Robert Young in Father Knows Best -into a political tool of the Republican Party.
“We are faced with the most evil enemy mankind has known in his long climb from the swamp to the stars,” he said in “A Time for Choosing,” the stump speech that transformed him from washed-up Warner Bros. exile to Barry Goldwater’s successor in the conservative Republican movement. “Those who ask us to trade our freedom for the soup kitchen of the welfare state are architects of a policy of accommodation. They say the world has become too complex for simple answers. They are wrong. There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right.”
Ronald Reagan understood the media better than any politician of his age. He knew, and often said, that if a politician knew how to convey his sincerity, the camera was his friend. His ability to convey a belief in himself transmuted into the most powerful enveloping presence in television: the smile, the squint, the cocked head, each precise and beautiful in its way, charted precisely the man he wanted Americans to see.
For Ronald Reagan, knowing the camera was knowing himself.
“He knew the camera never lied,” said Phil Dusenberry, the former chairman of ad agency BBD&O, who produced the “Morning in America” campaign ads in 1984 and also the 30-minute film in which Reagan gave his legendary “Boys of Pointe du Hoc” speech at Normandy. “He knew exactly [that] the camera would catch any false note, any false expression or whatever. And he knew this better than anyone, and he always came across as himself.”
His professionalism was infinite, and he knew how to take direction. As Nancy Reagan wrote in Time this week, he had no ego. He would hit his points. His cowboy image-the one on the cover of both Time and Newsweek this week-was a beautiful thing. In 1966, a local reporter from KTIX in San Francisco wanted to do a segment on horseback with the candidate for governor of California. Lyn Nofziger, Mr. Reagan’s press secretary, accompanied the reporter and was shocked to see his candidate in jaspers and English riding boots.
“When he changed into his riding clothes, he came out. And I looked at him-and he was not yet the governor-and I said, ‘You can’t do that,’” Mr. Nofziger recalled. “He said, ‘This is the way I always ride.’ I said, ‘This is not the purpose of that. It’s to get votes. They’re going to think you look like a sissy!’ He’s a great cowboy, looking at him. He played a cowboy in movies.
“He believed if you were a slimeball, the camera would show it,” Mr. Nofziger continued. “He had some specific rules. When you’re being interviewed on a camera or making a speech, you look directly into the camera-you’re not really looking at the camera, you’re looking at some guy in his living room, at an individual. That’s what made him so effective. He was tremendous at reading teleprompters. I have come out of speeches where he was reading teleprompters and people said, ‘My goodness, how did he do that? He memorized that speech perfectly.’ The camera was really one of his strong points.”
“He was utterly comfortable,” said Mike Wallace, the 60 Minutes correspondent and a longtime friend of Nancy Reagan. “But it had nothing to do with the camera. He was a guileless man. And that came across, which made the audience comfortable with him. But I don’t think it was contrived. I never thought it was contrived in any way. He was comfortable.”
If President Reagan had flummoxed the brilliant Edmund Morris, who, in his 1999 authorized biography Dutch , couldn’t seem to find Ronald Reagan behind the TV hologram-and who’d felt forced to insert himself in fictional form into the pivotal moments of Reagan’s life to find what he assumed must be there: the real, actual man leaning on the stage light after the show-maybe it was because he didn’t have a camera rolling while he interviewed him. It was Ronald Reagan’s considered awareness of the TV set-the teleprompter, the stage directions, the red recording light above the lens-that made him appear natural on the screen, said Mr. Dusenberry. He recalled setting Reagan up for TV ads in 1984 and offering him a few takes to get warmed up.
“I had written a commercial for him the night before and I knew he hadn’t seen it, so I said to him, ‘Mr. President, let me run this through the teleprompter for you, just so you can get familiar with the dialogue here,’” Mr. Dusenberry recalled. “And he said, ‘Oh, let’s live dangerously, let’s just shoot it.’ And we shot it, and he brought it in just half a second under the allotted time. It was a 60-second spot-not a flub, not a false inflection. It was just perfect. So he was the master of the technical aspects of this craft.
“And the rest of it, he just allowed himself to be himself, because he knew exactly what he was doing at all times, and what the camera was doing and whether we were making a move with the camera or what-he was just so aware of everything that was happening technically around him.”
The result was a President so nimble in front of a camera that he could connect directly to America’s sentimentality and gruff generosity, the emotions from which Jack Warner and Hal Wallis and Lew Wasserman had made an industry. “He could talk to America,” said Mr. Matthews. “He knew that guy. He knew him, he talked to him. He had the ability to look at Americans-almost like a Santa Claus mask, someone was looking at you. He was able to relate, to connect to people individually on television. Which is a talent. I don’t know if I have it or anybody else has it.”
In 1984, Mr. Dusenberry produced “A New Beginning,” a television ad that featured the footage of Reagan’s speech at Normandy for the 40th anniversary of D-Day. Mr. Dusenberry said that Heywood Gould, the screenwriter who wrote the 1978 film The Boys from Brazil , had been hired to write a treatment for the commercial, which was to be shown at the Republican National Convention. “It was Charlton Heston taking you on a tour of the White House,” he recalled. “It was just awful. It had no emotion in it. I said, ‘You’ve got to play to the emotions. That’s the best part of this President, this emotional component, and his ability to make you feel something.’”
Not only that, they didn’t need another actor to get that message across-even if it was the Republicans’ second-favorite box-office idol. To tap into President Reagan’s natural ability to tap into his own sentiments, they simply showed him pictures from his first term in office-with the cameras rolling.
“We sat him down in the Roosevelt Room in the White House, and we had the camera shooting over Mike Deaver’s shoulder,” Mr. Dusenberry recalled of Mr. Reagan’s legendary image-maker, “passing him photographs of his first four years in office, of key moments in his Presidency, and asking him to just comment on what was going on in that particular event. We got so much fabulous stuff as a result. Mike would hand him a photograph of his meeting with Gorbachev, and he would then go on for 10 minutes about it, and we’d get such great stuff.”
Reagan could improvise, too, which was the politico-thespian version of his forward pass à la Knute Rockne All American . He could turn any attack into a sitcom laugh. In 1983, Mr. Matthews recalled, the Democrats had acquired an advanced script of one of Reagan’s speeches and planned to applaud the line, “We in the government should be the first to put people back to work.” They arrived with scripts in their hands.
“When the Democrats applauded,” said Mr. Matthews, “he just looked up, did a Jack Benny and said, ‘There, all along I thought you were just reading the papers.’ They were all just holding the scripts. But he made them look like a bunch of Claghorns just reading the newspapers. And they all laughed, and the public saw them all laugh and figured, ‘These guys are just a bunch of Senator Snorts,’ and they think it’s funny.’ ‘There, all along I thought you were just reading the papers.’ The papers! What is that uncanny ability to see the camera and talk to it and use everybody else as a prop? Amazing.”
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