President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime

By Lou Cannon | Go to book overview
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4
THE ACTING PRESIDENT

And believe me, Bedtime for Bonzo made more sense than what they were doing in Washington.

RONALD REAGAN, MAY 25, 19821

RONALD REAGAN'S CINEMATIC visions and theatrical gifts were better suited to the grander stage of Washington than to Sacramento. He had skated through as governor, relying on his charm and negotiating skills and upon aides who had survived by learning the ways of the legislature. On balance he was a good governor, though not a great one. His second term, which ended in 1974, was marked by constructive welfare, education, and tax legislation that owed at least as much to these no-longer-novice aides and to the Democratic leadership of the legislature as to his own abilities. But eight years as governor had taught Reagan that he performed best when he attended to larger visions. Once he settled in as governor, he became indifferent to the everydayness of government and unconcerned about his lack of fundamental civics knowledge. He learned to let others, particularly Edwin Meese III, do the heavy lifting and to rely upon his directors, as he had done in Hollywood. Reagan saved himself for the big scenes. By the time he reached the White House in 1981, after three tries at the presidency, Reagan felt free to draw upon the themes, examples, and anecdotes of his movie days. He had real-life movies in his head and a surer sense of his own role in the production of the Reagan presidency. He knew what he wanted to accomplish, and what he wanted to be. What he wanted to be, and what he became, was an accomplished presidential performer.

Reagan never forgot the gibes about his acting that he endured during his first campaign for public office and periodically throughout his political career. He owed a debt to his acting experience, but he was circumspect about acknowledging it. Not until his final weeks in the White House, when no one any longer cared if he was role-playing, did Reagan publicly

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