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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

MOVIE NIGHTS WITH THE REAGANS: A MEMOIR

By Mark Weinberg


Simon and Schuster, $28, 288 pages

For Ronald and Nancy Reagan the movies were the real world where they learned the trade of acting that took them far along the path to power.

According to Mark Weinberg, a longtime presidential aide to the late President Reagan, he spent many weekends at Camp David with a small exclusive group invited to watch current films with the president and his wife. They were served popcorn and water, but Mr. Weinberg admits he never had the courage to ask for a beer.

In this memoir of happy days with the Reagans, Mr. Weinberg observes that the president enjoyed the presidency, “but it did seem he had more plain old fun making movies.”

As evidence of Mr. Reagan’s nostalgia for his Hollywood days, the author recalls that the president would refer to a radio speech as a “script” and to the author as his “publicity man” which was undeniable. As Mr. Weinberg tells it, the Reagans lived in a close to idyllic world combining the luxury of movie stardom with the immense power in the life of an American president. He has almost no criticism of Mr. Reagan, and notes that the president contended that being an actor was a “big advantage” for an ambitious politician.

“He would sometime say he did not see how you could be president without being an actor,” reports Mr. Weinberg.

He also notes that Mr. Reagan was known to use lines from well-known movies in his political speeches. Such as “Where’s the rest of me,” the famous quote from the movie in which Mr. Reagan discovers his legs have been amputated by a sadistic doctor. The closest he comes to a story about how Mr. Reagan could defend himself against other actors is provided in the account of how Errol Flynn, apparently not known for modesty, insisted on moving from his position in a Western movie beside Mr. Reagan so that he would look taller than his rival who was the same height.

Mr. Reagan’s reaction was to carefully move dirt with his feet so that he looked taller than Mr. Flynn, writes Mr. Weinberg, who observed that the other actor didn’t “like it much.”

Yet Mr. Reagan was willing to poke fun at himself. He wasn’t easy to know, but nobody suggested he lacked a sense of humor. He was criticized for starring in “Bedtime for Bonzo,” which also starred a chimpanzee, and insisted he enjoyed working with the animal.

The author reports that not even complaints from Stuart Spencer, the toughest of all political strategists, about the ridiculous aspects of that movie discouraged Mr. Reagan. Mr. Spencer was quoted as pointing out to Mr. Reagan “You’ve always complained about playing second fiddle to Errol Flynn and here you are playing second fiddle to a chimpanzee. How can that be a good movie?” The president, writes Mr. Weinberg, “was not dissuaded.”

The author emphasizes Mr. Reagan’s patriotism and his enthusiasm for movies like “Top Gun.” He also points out that Camp David was a military facility and it was Mr. Reagan’s idea to drop in at the Naval Support Facility and have lunch in the mess every so often. A spot was saved for him at a table with men and women of all ranks, and he would take a plastic tray from the cafeteria and choose food like everyone else, Mr. Weinberg writes. He would have stayed in the mess hall half the day if the staff had let him, he adds.

It was true, according to the author, that Mr. Reagan had little tolerance for weakness political, personal or otherwise and was serious about fighting organized crime, which Mr. Weinberg feels was an unrecognized aspect of his presidency. His personal life was very private, but it was clear that he had problems with his rebellious daughter Patti and even his son Ron, although he indicated affection and support for his family whether they agreed with his politics or not.

Mr. Weinberg does acknowledge that one name from Mr. Reagan’s past that stayed there was that of Jane Wyman, his first wife, who was never mentioned, and if anyone knew why that wasn’t mentioned either, especially by Nancy. There was, of course, no question about the couple’s devotion to each other. Their favorite movie was “Hellcats of the Navy,” the only one in which they starred together. And undoubtedly enjoyed.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.


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