Sunday, February 6, 2011

Grade A

President Ronald Reagan's official White House portrait [above], taken early in 1981. His physical appearance changed noticeably after the assassination attempt on March 30th of that year.

When the nation celebrated the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth, they put his visage on the penny. The story is interesting: President Theodore Roosevelt, in the final days of his Administration [remember, in 1909 the new President (William Howard Taft) wasn't inaugurated until March 4th], Roosevelt sought to suitably commemorate Lincoln before he turned over the White House to his bloated successor. So, Roosevelt instructed a well-known sculptor named Augustus Saint-Gaudens to redesign the penny [actually, while he was at it, Roosevelt told Saint-Gaudens to start to redesign all the United States coins]. Unfortunately for Saint-Gaudens, he up and died before completing the Lincoln project, leaving Roosevelt to find a new designer.

Victor David Brenner - to my knowledge, no relation to the comedian - had previously sculpted a bronze plaque of Lincoln that Roosevelt admired. Running out of time, Roosevelt chose the Brenner bronze as the new face of the penny. Unfortunately, by the time the new penny design was complete, Roosevelt was off in Africa shooting things. Still, the Lincoln penny was minted and began circulating in August 1909 - still within a time frame to call it in honor of his 100th birthday.

Not quite so with another American icon. Back in 1829, when I was a boy, the country prepared to celebrate the 100th birthday of George Washington three years hence. Seeking a suitable way to honor the 'Father of His Country', a group of citizens in Maine organized a commission to construct a 'Washington monument' somewhere in the nation's capital. The idea was to have the monument up and ready by February 22, 1832 - the actual 100th anniversary of his birth.

Initially, private donations poured in and the effort was taken over by a national commission. While originally the Maine group wanted to have the monument financed entirely by private donations, had they stuck to that the odds are the Washington Monument would be about six feet tall. So, 1832 came and went. Somehow, the commission actually lost money. So, missing the desired date of the unveiling by a cool 22 years, the commission was distraught when the private funds dried up. For once, the Congress of the 1850s did something positive and made a $200,000 donation in 1854.

It looked like the monument was just around the corner. Then Congress slipped back into its' more traditional bone-headed thinking and for some reason invited foreign governments to donate a marble block as part of what was now going to be the Washington Monument with a capital 'M'. They were invited to donate the marble block with their own message of congratulations on what was now being billed as a 125th anniversary celebration of Washington's birth. The reason I say it was bone-headed is that this was smack in the middle of the Nativist movement in the U.S., when anti-Catholicism was the national pastime [soon to be replaced by baseball]. So, when Pope Pius IX made a marble donation on behalf of The Papal States, the Nativist political party known as the Know Nothings [which, incidentally, could be the name of every political party] decided they'd seen enough.

It had been decided that an election would be held to select members of a new Washington Monument Commission [for some reason, Congress didn't trust its $200,000 with the group who blew through the donated money]. So, the Know Nothings relied on that age-old American political tradition and rigged the elections. The result was a commission filled with Know Nothings who proceeded to - literally - remove the papal marble block and throw it into the Potomac River.

Congress thought this was rude and immediately rescinded its appropriation and work on the Monument was halted. The country was too busy tearing itself apart, what with a civil war and all, so work didn't resume until after that conflagration. By the time the Washington Monument was finally dedicated, it was for the 150th anniversary of Washington's birth, in 1882. Oh, and the papal marble block was replaced with a new one in 1982, at the direction of President Ronald Reagan.

A wonderful segue [if I do say so myself] into a post on the 100th anniversary of the birth of President Reagan today. First, in the interest of humanity and dignity, we should consider it a blessing that the poor man is not still with us. Indeed, at one time doctors were telling Nancy Reagan that her husband's physical make-up was such that he could well live past 100, even though he no longer opened his eyes - a period that lasted four years until his death in 2004. For a man as vibrant and sunny as Reagan, his long and drawn out decline into death was hard on the country but much harder - devastating - to his family.

So, today we celebrate not the ill dying Reagan but the 40th President of the United States. There are many, many examples of men who became unlikely Presidents. Indeed, out of the 43 men who have occupied the office, probably a third were perhaps the least likely men to grow up and become President in their city, town or village. Our current President certainly fits that mold.

Does Reagan fit into this category? Yes and no. Actually, it is probably more no than yes. Reagan's detractors would scoff at that and say that Ronald Reagan was the least likely - and least qualified - man to assume the Presidency - ever. Of course, these are folks who are too young to remember Warren Harding's stag parties in the White House, but that's another story.

While it is true that Reagan did not turn to politics until he was well into his middle-age, too often his detractors belittle what he did during that first phase of his life. Those who did not appreciate that period of his life now lie by the political roadside alongside the carcasses of hundreds of others who underestimated Ronald Reagan.

Those putting Reagan in the unlikely/unqualified category point to that early career - first as a radio announcer, and then a Hollywood actor - as proof-positive that he belongs there. His detractors love to call him a 'Grade B actor' - which is horseshit. His movies were 'B' movies, but Reagan's acting was not. Despite the fact that the scripts were dreadful and he was surrounded by true 'B' actors, Reagan's performances are actually quite good. Indeed, even setting aside the fact that you know the man is going to become President 40 years hence, watching these horrible films you find yourself focusing on Reagan's characters simply because they are the only ones who are interesting.

Of course, his detractors also try to have it both ways. They say he was a horrible actor in the 1940s and 1950s but then the greatest 'actor' of all time while President of the United States. This defies logic - which, of course, has never deterred the Left on anything. In fact, I would say that Reagan's acting was not 'B' - ever.

But his supporters also misread him when they try to underplay his acting abilities as President. That is just plain silly. The man played a role of a lifetime from 1981-1989. He used his knowledge of communication, voice inflection, projection and knowing his audience to simple perfection. That's not a slap at Reagan, by the way. In fact, another President I admire - a guy from Arkansas - might have beat out Reagan for an Oscar if they gave one to Presidents' for their acting ability.

So, the whole 'acting' angle is more complicated than people think. Because it is so complicated, in fact, that tends to lead me to believe that it is at the crux of any study of Ronald Reagan. We should study it because one of the traits of the greatest actors - being a brilliant observer of people and taking those observations to project those qualities into a character - helped make Reagan a successful President. He was intelligent, but not brilliant. This led some to say that he had literally no intellectual curiosity. He had a limited attention span for most of his entire life, which often led those who were trying to get their point across to him in a meeting walk away thinking Reagan was a dolt. More likely, the dolt was the guy talking to Reagan. Reagan had gotten whatever he wanted or needed from the person and, with that done, the President had simply 'turned off the TV', so to speak. He listened, he learned, he studied, and then his mind was gone from the discussion.

The one intrinsic part of Reagan's character, though, was understanding and knowing people. That is ironic because Reagan himself was perhaps the least 'known' person ever to occupy the White House. I don't mean he wasn't famous; I mean almost no one 'knew' Reagan. He had no best friend other than his wife, Nancy. Beyond her, of all the hundreds of men and women who would work closely with Reagan over his political career, not one could say they 'knew' Reagan. Perhaps because he could read people so well he refused to allow himself to be read by others. Perhaps it was his childhood experiences with an alcoholic father with a temper [never a good combination...unless you're Charlie Sheen] made him so introverted, so removed. We'll never know.

But that's where Reagan's acting comes in. Because, although Reagan was an introvert with no confidants, he made every single person he encountered in his life feel as if they knew Reagan; that they were his confidant, buddy, pal. His acting skills allowed him to watch people, learn from people, entertain them, make them feel like they were a part of his life while - in reality - shutting them out his true self entirely. And that ability made him the President he became.

So, in my view, rather than dismissing him as a 'B' actor, in fact we should recognize - and not in a derogatory way - the role that Reagan's acting talents played in his successful leadership of the country. His acting career was not something to be passed over in a few pages in a biography: it was a key component of his being.

In the most positive sense - and not as a swipe at him - I say Ronald Reagan was no Grade 'B' actor. In fact, he was Grade 'A'. The only 'B' I'd give him is an academic mark. I believe he was a good [B] - not a great - President.

So, Happy 100th birthday, Mr. President. In this equation, A + B = a man worth honoring on this day.

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