Ronald Reagan once famously asked, “How could anyone be president of the United States without having first been an actor?” His question was not entirely rhetorical. Reagan understood the importance of celebrity cool and celebrity power, and if he were around at this moment, he’d predict a massive detonation in the coming presidential election – one that likely will be history’s most contentious, as befits the era of Donald Trump.
Louis B. Mayer, MGM’s studio oligarch, also coveted celebrity power but would have been appalled by Trump’s approach to it. Mayer’s aim was to mobilize the icons of pop culture, not alienate them. He wanted all his stars to vote Republican, and even opened a unit to train conservative zealots. James Stewart and Jeannette MacDonald were among his recruits along with every president of SAG, including Robert Montgomery and, later, Reagan.
As today’s stars venture further into the political arena, are there lessons they can learn from the past?
For one thing, they should be alarmed by the shrill rhetoric of Trump America — a sharp reversal from that of Reagan, George Murphy and even Arnold Schwarzenegger. All three achieved political power by selling a brand of faux nostalgia. “They represented themselves as a return to an imagined past of simpler, better days,” in the words of political historian Steven J. Ross. Clint Eastwood also represents a link to that style (more on him later).
Over the decades, a succession of cataclysms kept undercutting the illusion of a “moderate” Hollywood – the Depression, Hitler, McCarthyism and Vietnam. Nazi aggression prompted Jack Warner to break with Mayer; while Mayer tried to ignore Hitler’s incursions, Warner started releasing anti-fascist “message pictures” with titles including Espionage Agent, Underground and Black Legion.
Today’s stars likely would prefer to revive the Reagan-Murphy-Schwarzenegger aura if they decide to enter the 2020 campaign arena, even if they were confronted by Trumpian tantrums. “Stars have an instinct for protecting their brand – all their brands,” observed a veteran agent and activist. “On the other hand, Trump’s screw-ups on COVID and race may have turned the town into a cauldron of Jane Fondas.”
Analyzing the political beliefs of top stars over the years has been akin to penetrating a deep fog. Liberals disdained Charlton Heston for his NRA advocacy, forgetting that he earlier had led Hollywood’s deputation to join Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. “I’m a Midwestern guy who grew up with guns,” the good-natured Heston once explained to me. “People take my opinions too seriously because, as Moses, I once parted the Red Sea.”
John Wayne co-produced and starred in The Green Berets to prove his support for the Vietnam War, but at one time he supported Harry Truman and had angrily quit the John Birch Society. “The characters I play are pretty consistent, but that doesn’t mean my politics are,” he once told me over lunch.
Eastwood may have talked to an empty chair representing Obama (which he later said he regretted), but this year he came out in support of Michael Bloomberg. He covets his ambiguity: “I’m a Libertarian,” he likes to say with a sly smile, taking refuge in the fuzziness of that party’s doctrines. In private talks, I have found him to be fiercely liberal on social issues and diversity.
Without doubt, Warren Beatty’s activism has represented the most focused forays of celebrity campaigning, albeit not always with winning results. Marshaling allies like Barbra Streisand and James Taylor, Beatty raised enough money to win the California primary for George McGovern in 1971 but was unable to levitate the senator from South Dakota into serious presidential contention against incumbent Richard Nixon. Again, he was credited with sharpening Gary Hart’s campaign style, and liberalizing his positions, but neither he nor Hart could come up with effective tactics to combat a rigged sex scandal in 1988 – one that shut down Hart’s political prospects.
Robert Redford, another Hart backer, later observed that “Hart’s involvement with the Hollywood Set was the worst thing that happened to him.” But Reagan, too, was aware of the average voter’s wariness of the “Hollywood set,” ultimately deciding that he could turn it to his advantage. He presented himself as the Hollywood “good guy.” He was enriched as the television spokesman for General Electric, the plain-spoken Middle American who championed capitalism.
Like Heston, Reagan’s views had leaned to the liberal side during his early years in Hollywood, but the anti-communist fever of the late ‘50s pushed him to the right. When Reagan first confronted the ugly side of the Black List, he fretted about its repercussions, complaining that it might turn one artist against another. It did.
As The New York Times’ correspondent in California during that period, I had several conversations with Reagan about this concern and sensed his genuine alarm about extremism. At the same time, with the governorship beckoning, he understood the value of assuming the label of an anti-Red warrior, and his advisers urgently pushed him in this direction. Again, he would have preferred the protective cover of ambiguity but understood the importance of conveying conviction.
If he were around today, I think Reagan, like Louis B. Mayer, would be appalled by Trump’s divisive tactics and would counsel fellow actors to defeat him. Trump, he might argue, never had an actor’s talent but instead became a second-tier television host who dreamed of being a true celebrity. Unfortunately, that dream was abundantly realized.