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Reagan at 100

reagan-timeThe first vote I ever cast, way back in 1984, was to re-elect Ronald Reagan to a second term as president.  It may also have been the last time I really felt like I was voting for something, instead of against something else.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of Reagan’s birth, and you’ll be relieved to know I’m leaving it to more qualified persons to debate the merits and legacy of his long career in politics (except to say I’m still a fan). However, it’s worth noting that whatever impressions I formed of the man back then were based on his performance on the political stage,  since I didn’t have access to his films.  This was before VHS tapes (for me, anyway) and the rules of the day for broadcasters required equal time be given to both sides in political matters; if you ran an hour of Republican-sponsored programming, you had to even it out with equal air time for the Democrats.  That meant, apparently, that you couldn’t show a Reagan movie without somehow finding two hours of Democratic material to balance it out (I guess you can only show PT 109 so many times).

Of course when the rules were made, nobody was anticipating having a former movie star in high office.  It would be kind of a stretch to claim Hellcats of the Navy as GOP propaganda, but I suppose it could be (and was) argued that since nearly all of Reagan’s films portrayed him in a heroic light, it wouldn’t be fair to air them while he was still in office, trying to convince us he was on the side of the angels in one political dispute or other.

So it was that I didn’t get to know Reagan the Actor until the early 90’s, when I discovered Bedtime for Bonzo was actually a fun film and not even close to the embarrassment it was made out to be by the opposition, and that the “Gipper” appellation came from a very good film, Knute Rockne, All American.

However, the one that really reeled me in (ha!) was Desperate Journey, which I stumbled across late one night while channel-surfing and which would begin my long fascination with Errol Flynn.  In the film, Reagan and Flynn (along with Alan Hale and others) are shot down in Nazi Germany and proceed to demolish half the country like a five-man wrecking crew.  It was pure hokum, naturally, but that was the appeal.

What first got my attention was the sight of the former President climbing from the wreckage of a crashed bomber in his leather flight jacket, but what won me over was this scene, arguably the best in the whole picture:


Legend has it Errol Flynn, notoriously protective of his leading-man image, fought to have this scene re-written for his character, but happily director Raoul Walsh would have none of it. It would have been wrong for Flynn in this case, as his character is supposed to be weighted down with the responsibility of command, and the guilt of having gotten into the whole mess through a tactical blunder. It’s much more appropriate for Reagan’s character, who along with the always-wonderful Alan Hale (Sr) adds a lightness and comic energy to the film that makes the whole enterprise ridiculously fun instead of simply ridiculous.

In the last reel, our heroes — now winnowed down to just Flynn, Reagan and the comparatively dour Arthur Kennedy — find themselves mere yards away from a captured British bomber, and freedom. Unfortunately the plane is surrounded by Nazis, and chief baddie Raymond Massey is closing in. When it sets in just how hopeless the situation is, there’s a brief, awkward silence before Reagan pipes up with cheerful impatience, “Well, what are we waiting for? There’s only twelve of ’em!” That one gets a laugh from me every time, partly from the delivery but also because it’s a winking admission that we left “realism” behind several reels ago.

It also sums up for me a key to Reagan’s appeal in office and on-screen; the cheerful optimism in the face of odds all the “experts” agree are insurmountable. There’s no way you can beat the Soviets, they say, quite rationally; the best we can hope for is peaceful co-existence. Stagflation is the new reality; the days of economic growth are done. The Presidency has simply grown too big for any one man. History is not made by individuals. And on and on.

To which Reagan says, hopping to his feet and straightening his jacket with an eager grin, “What are we waiting for, there’s only a dozen of ’em!”

Funny how much you can accomplish when you don’t realize it’s impossible. The experts go down like tenpins. The Iron Curtain turns out to have a glass jaw. Another victory for foolish optimism.

Way to go, Gipper. And Happy birthday.

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