The Storyteller

Life after government has been good to former Reagan Attorney General Ed Meese, who’s kept busy as a spokesman for the Heritage Foundation, the enormously influential conservative think tank. Last week, he was the main speaker at the annual dinner of the 79-year-old Americanism Educational League, a self-described “patriotic tax-exempt foundation” that seeks to restore to schools and colleges what it sees as the forgotten subjects of American history and free enterprise. These relatively benign pursuits represent a somewhat different preoccupation from the league’s early years, when it published pamphlets favoring the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and was a headquarters for Orange County’s far right. (The league, once funded by Knott family members, recently relocated from Buena Park to Monrovia.)

During the cocktail hour at downtown’s Wilshire Grand Hotel, attendees lamented the leftward swerve of the Los Angeles Times and the ways liberals brainwash Americans against thinking for themselves. Meese moved affably about the room, a bulky and slightly stooped figure sporting an American-flag pin and wearing an Adam Smith necktie from Wm. Chelsea. I asked him where he thought it all went wrong in education.

“There was a movement, largely in the ’60s and since,” he explained, “to do away with required courses in colleges and have all kinds of courses with no content. Women’s studies and racial studies and all that.”

Dinner followed the presentation of the colors by Orange High School’s junior Marine ROTC, the singing of the national anthem, and a nondenominational prayer that was denominational enough to offer thanks to Jesus. About 180 people attended, including a table of students in dark blazers whose crests identified them as coming from Pepperdine University, whose vice chancellor, Michael Y. Warder, preceded Meese and a tribute to the late actor Glenn Ford.

Lou Cannon, in his book Governor Reagan, described Meese as “sometimes sycophantic but always trustworthy.” Even on this night, Meese paid effusive homage to Ronald Reagan, calling him a deep thinker and voracious reader. But as Meese piled on the tributes, another part of Cannon’s description came to mind: “Meese avoided legal language and made ample use of stories and anecdotes, which he knew was the way Reagan made sense of the world. Like Reagan, Meese could also memorize an apocryphal or invented story and persuade himself that it was true.”

Meese went on to recall one of his boss’s harmless yarns (about a CIA agent named Murphy sent to Ireland) and eulogized Reagan as the man who “led the movie industry against the communists who were trying to take it over . . . He was an innate leader, from . . . when he went into the Army in World War II and when he got out of the Army and was leader of the Screen Actors Guild.” (Reagan, who didn’t become SAG president until 1947, was rejected for military service and remained in Red Hollywood during the war, sometimes being a leader of small casts in military training films.)

As Meese continued his 37-minute talk, the wine bottles at the Pepperdine table remained untouched, but the students slipped away from the room one by one. Meanwhile, Meese moved on to a post-Reagan tale, in which a generous America had gone too far to protect the rights of its enemies incarcerated at Guantánamo Bay. “I have real questions about some recent decisions of the United States Supreme Court in regard to this,” he said. “Yesterday I spent the day at Guantánamo Bay . . . and I told the lieutenant commander there that the new section of the prison just completed would compare favorably with the last jail I’d inspected in Jackson Hole, Wyoming!”

After Meese finished, a clip from the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle was shown. It was the scene in which Glenn Ford’s high school teacher tells Sidney Poitier that a Negro can be anything in the world if he puts his mind to it. When the lights came up, the Pepperdine table was deserted. Noticing the students’ absence, the evening’s MC created his own narrative spin.

“They’re good kids,” he told the guests. “They went home to bed!”


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