I don’t often brag about this, but members of the Reagan White House press office nicknamed me “The Jinx” because, every time I got near the guy, something horrible would happen. It was the ’80s, and I was a Newsweek Washington correspondent covering the administration and occasionally traveling with Reagan himself.
There was that trip to Georgia, with its terror on the back nine: While Reagan hacked through Augusta National, a guy in a pickup truck crashed the gate waving a .38-caliber pistol, took hostages at the pro shop and demanded to talk to Ronnie. The next day, it was the massacre of Marines in Beirut. And ushering in Reagan’s second term were single-digit temperatures for what was the coldest presidential inaugural since Grant’s in 1873.
Thankfully, no one could pin the assassination attempt on me: I was far away in marital counseling where my husband was busy assassinating my character . . . and vice versa.
Perhaps, I was just living up to my old moniker when I scooped Reagan’s final ride this week. I was chatting with Newsweek’s chief political correspondent, Howard Fineman (our offices used to be opposite each other), last Friday when he said as an afterthought, “Hey, you haven’t heard anything about Ronald Reagan dying, have you?” That morning, the rumor was everywhere, but no one could get any real news. I put in a few calls to Hollywood people, who knew exactly what was happening: Reagan’s medical condition had worsened precipitously, doctors were at the Bel Air house, and the prognosis was only a day. I tried to file, but no one was picking up the phone at 6:30 p.m. So I sent out an urgent dispatch to my e-mail list.
When the Drudge Report bannered it huge, my phone started ringing (CNN, CBS, the Brits). Twelve hours later the White House confirmed Reagan’s downslide, and then his death. How interesting in this wacky news world that someone like me could break this world news and that I could get the word out globally with only an e-mail.
I left Washington, D.C., for Los Angeles because of Reagan. With urban affairs and social issues as my primary beat, I couldn’t stomach more of his administration’s deliberate blindness to the country’s unfortunate.
I hated reporting that, after four months’ work and $320,000 spent, the so-called Ronald Reagan’s Task Force on Food Assistance concluded that, while hunger “does persist” in America, it is “at present impossible to estimate the extent of that hunger with any reasonable degree of objectivity.” And I also hated that the panel upheld the wisdom of the Reagan administration’s attempts to cut the costs of federal food programs.
I reviled the president’s neglect of AIDS and homelessness, which stuck in my craw even as I wrote about a 61-year-old wino who was a World War II vet and winner of a Bronze Star (for “braving the unabated fire” of German troops to carry wounded comrades to safety) before he froze to death in the federal park across the street from the White House.
And I saw how Reagan, the former head of the Screen Actors Guild, even turned his back on Hollywood’s unions. I’ll never forget the shameful ad for 200 nonunion, “attractive, clean-cut, all-American types” to perform during his second inauguration for travel expenses, food and lodging — but no pay. “It’s bad taste and stupid,” Ed Asner, then the SAG president, criticized. The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission because the ad’s wording had “a chilling effect on the ethnic minority participation.” Actors’ Equity threatened demonstrations, adding to the lengthening list of counterinaugural events. Soon, the inaugural committee blamed the whole thing on California producer Robert Jani, that veteran of the Olympic hoopla in L.A.
Given that I’m now covering Hollywood instead of poverty (go figure), I and other detractors wonder about Reagan’s ultimate legacy in show biz. We can overlook his B-movie acting. We can even get past his virulent anti-communism during the tumultuous times of McCarthyism and the blacklist. But we agree that he will be most remembered for how he misused his power as head of the Screen Actors Guild. Back in 1952, the Hollywood scandal swirling around him was his granting of a SAG blanket waiver to MCA, which allowed it both to represent and employ talent for its burgeoning TV franchises. This is as clear a case of wanton conflict of interest as there has ever been in this town.
In exchange for doing MCA’s bidding, Reagan — then not just the talent agency’s client but boss Lew Wasserman’s first million-dollar client — would move from host and program supervisor of General Electric Theater to actually producing and claiming an equity stake in the TV show itself. “He and his board engineered it, thus giving MCA carte blanche to literally own television in this country for the next half-dozen years,” says Dennis McDougal, author of the unauthorized Wasserman biography The Last Mogul. “He will also be remembered for his spectacular failure — long before he forgot Iran-Contra and before he ever had Alzheimer’s — to recall his role in the waiver when he was hauled before [then–Attorney General] Bobby Kennedy’s grand jury in 1962.”
The GE Theater job couldn’t have come at a better time for the then 43-year-old actor, who had been reduced to performing in Las Vegas as an emcee for a song-and-dance act. Years later, Henry Denker, a well-known theater, TV and radio writer, penned a thinly disguised roman à clef about the “TCA” talent agency, its ties with the mob and a has-been actor turned Western state governor. The Kingmaker disappeared soon after publication, reportedly because Wasserman had it deep-sixed. It remains one of the hardest books about Hollywood to find.
Which brings me to my most vivid memory, the time Reagan’s one-time MCA agent, Arthur Parks, told me about the trouble Reagan got into during negotiations to renew his GE Theater contract. The show was already a hit when Reagan began hosting and appearing in promotional tours orchestrated by GE’s PR department and advertising agency. In all, Reagan was said to have visited GE’s 135 research and manufacturing facilities and met some 250,000 people. His popularity soared in the South, which, according to his biographers, planted the seeds for Southern conservatives to later underwrite his rise to the presidency.
By 1962, Reagan’s GE Theater appearances were marred by the controversy around the Justice Department’s antitrust investigation of MCA and the SAG waivers. But it was Reagan’s increasingly anti-government demeanor while on tour that began to vex GE’s brass. According to Parks, GE was bidding on a Tennessee generator project and didn’t want Reagan’s political speeches to blow the contract. So the company’s ad agency laid it on the line: Reagan’s option wouldn’t be picked up unless he shut up. Reagan thought it over, and then stunned his agents by saying no. They couldn’t believe that Reagan was turning his back on a half-million-dollar deal.
The president of GE even spoke to Reagan personally but couldn’t get the actor to back down. After the deal was dead, the GE exec phoned Parks with one last request. “Call Mr. Reagan and tell him I admire him more now than I did before I made the call for sticking to his guns.”
Right-wing pundits today wishing to disenfranchise politically outspoken actors (unless they’re Arnold Schwarzenegger) would do well to remember that, once upon a time, Reagan was indeed fired for being a Hollywood activist.
E-mail at email@example.com.