‘Tis the season to be Ronnie.
Modern Presidents have always found a way to dominate TV. This year more than ever, though, Christmas time is Reagan time, and Frosty the Snowman lives in the White House.
It began with last week’s truly screwball “All Star Party for ‘Dutch’ Reagan” on CBS, followed by Sunday night’s boggling “60 Minutes” piece on the President confusing movies and reality. Then came that night’s “Christmas in Washington” on NBC, where the Reagans were serenaded and sang Christmas carols alongside such celebrities as Tom Brokaw.
Flash back to Dec. 8, though. . . .
The all-star party for Dutch inexplicably toasted Reagan’s career as a movie star, recalling those days when everyone in Hollywood supposedly knew him as Dutch. All of Dutch’s pals were present, including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Burt Reynolds, Monty Hall, Charlton Heston and Emmanuel Lewis of “Webster.”
What a boffo show it was. Martin did drunk jokes. Reynolds, who was not even around when Reagan was making movies, said “Hi, Dutch.” Heston endorsed Dutch’s performance in the White House. Hall said, “Hi, Dutch.” Lewis let Dutch hold his hand. Dutch once again recalled his days as a baseball announcer in Illinois. And Sinatra provided a shocker by disclosing what had been Hollywood’s best-kept secret, that Dutch’s movies were “great.” He apparently hadn’t seen “Bedtime for Bonzo.”
Now flash forward to Sunday.
Dutch Reagan was snug in his bed, with visions of movies dancing in his head. At least that was the impression you got from the lead “60 Minutes” piece reported by Morley Safer.
“60 Minutes” interviewed a University of California political scientist named Michael Rogin, who claimed that Dutch sometimes cannot distinguish between the movies and reality. Rogin had first made this charge in a slide-supported paper (“Ronald Reagan--The Movie”) that he presented at a meeting of the American Political Science Assn.
He showed the President continually falling back on movie dialogue:
There was Reagan repeating the taunt of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry--"Go ahead, make my day"--in challenging Congress to vote a tax increase that he vowed to veto. And there he was imitating Sylvester Stallone: “In the spirit of ‘Rambo,’ let me tell you, we’re going to win this time.”
There was more. “60 Minutes” showed the President borrowing that famous “Star Wars” line: “The force is with us.” And there he was quoting Gary Cooper in “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.” And there he was again, repeatedly alluding to his most famous movie role as Notre Dame’s George Gipp, exhorting his political supporters to “Win this one for the Gipper.”
Well, c’mon. It’s entirely possible that Reagan was merely repeating movie references that were dug up for him by his staff because of his Hollywood background. Moreover, there was no real substance to Rogin’s premise that Reagan may be using screen dialogue to reduce life to movie oversimplifications.
But then “60 Minutes” got down to business.
It first showed Reagan at that heated 1980 candidates’ debate in New Hampshire, angrily declaring, “I’m paying for this microphone,” then showed Spencer Tracy in “The State of the Union” saying, “Don’t shut me off! I’m paying for this broadcast.” A coincidence?
“It is when he touches on heroism that the President really seems to have trouble separating life from the movies,” Safer charged. Cut to Reagan, repeatedly quoting almost verbatim Fredric March’s fictional admiral in “The Bridges at Toko Ri.” The movie admiral gave a testimonial to downed Korean War pilots by asking: “Where did we get such men?”
But Reagan seems to have confused March with a real admiral: “Many years ago in one of the four wars in my lifetime, an admiral stood on the bridge of a carrier. . . . He asked, ‘Where do we find such men?’ ”)
And there he was referring in a speech to the Medal of Honor being awarded posthumously in World War II to the pilot of a crashing B-17 who had bravely refused to bail out and leave behind his trapped turret gunner.
According to Safer, both the White House and Pentagon were unable to substantiate a Medal of Honor being awarded for such an incident. But a World War II veteran from Brooklyn did recall the incident. He told “60 Minutes” he saw it in a movie, “Wing and a Prayer” starring Dana Andrews, that was shown aboard his aircraft carrier during the war.
Has Dutch “really lived inside what apparently is a Dana Andrews movie?” Rogin wondered. The answer will be decided ultimately by historians and movie critics.
Meanwhile, there is this consolation. Things could be worse. The President could be Charlton Heston, sitting in the White House and trying to part the Potomac River like the Red Sea.
In the words of a famous admiral, “Where do we find such men?”