Silver Screen to White House; President Drew on His Entertainer's Training

Article excerpt

Gary Arnold is film critic for The Washington Times.

It was a line straight out of an old movie, but hardly anyone knew that at the time.

"I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green," presidential candidate Ronald Reagan thundered at debate moderator Jon Breen, getting his name wrong, that February night in 1980 in Nashua, New Hampshire.

Breen had instructed sound technicians to turn off Reagan's mike because he had brought along four other Republican candidates to what was billed as a two-man debate between him and George Bush.

Reagan came across as a champion of free speech, open debate, and all things healthily American. Nothing Bush could say after that could change the new dynamic.

And not until years later did journalists and pundits realize that Reagan's outburst came originally, nearly word for word, from the mouth of Spencer Tracy as an upstanding presidential candidate in Frank Capra's 1948 movie State of the Union.

By that time, the nation was used to the way Reagan could mesh life and art.

Indeed, Reagan's triumphs as a two-term governor of California and then a two-term president of the United States derived in great measure from the expressive skills and popular rapport he acquired as an entertainer. Using broadcasting and acting as stepping stones to political activism and then candidacy, he was the first president to take advantage of the experience and name recognition gained as a performer in radio, motion pictures, and television.

Earlier presidents had been credited with acting prowess, often by sarcastic opponents. Reagan's first political hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, made the radio an instrument of policy during his famous "fireside chats." However, Reagan was the first president who literally apprenticed as a prominent professional actor.

He also may have been the last presidential aspirant who could claim such an apprenticeship for its own sake. He had not envisioned himself as a politician until middle age. His path to Washington looped way around the beaten path that leads from law school to elective office. All politically ambitious celebrities now realize that show business can culminate in the White House.

Making the leap

Radio and motion pictures flourished as new mass entertainment media more or less simultaneously in the early decades of the twentieth century. When talkies began to supplant silent movies permanently in 1928 and 1929, the mutual interests of broadcasting and Hollywood were decisively enhanced. Performers who attracted a following in one medium were potential draws in another.

Although singers, comedians, and dance bands were the likeliest prospects for combining radio careers with movie careers, Ronald Reagan demonstrated that the leap to Hollywood also could be navigated from regional sports broadcasting.

Active in both dramatics and athletics while attending Eureka College in Illinois, Reagan contemplated an acting career but found it more prudent to try broadcasting when he began job hunting as a recent graduate in the summer of 1932. Chicago was a major source of radio programming at the time and much closer to home.

Reagan was not hired in Chicago, but he did catch on at WHO in Des Moines, Iowa. A 50,000-watt station that reached most of the Midwest, it brought him a national audience within a few years. When WHO became an NBC affiliate, he was heard on coast-to-coast sports broadcasts. His beat eventually included reporting on the Chicago Cubs' spring training activities from Catalina Island, a favorite vacation retreat for the movie colony in nearby Hollywood.

In addition to his frequent coverage of football, baseball, track, and swimming, Reagan interviewed entertainers who were working in Des Moines. One, band singer Joy Hodge, introduced him to Hollywood agent Bill Meiklejohn when their paths crossed in Los Angeles in the spring of 1937. …