Friday, December 16, 2005

A Deferential Bob of the Head, a Thoughtful, Halting Manner and a Winning Political Style is Born

After he fixed the faucet, Ronald Reagan returned to the table in the hotel room and we started talking. I asked him this provocative question, almost an insulting one—more of a statement than a question (a style I discourage on my radio shows but this was long before there was one). It went: “Governor, here we are in 1979 when the nation appears to be in solid disagreement with everything you stand for. It seems like the nation doesn’t want to see us involved in a continued internecine war with the USSR but wants d├ętente. It feels it’s been stung in Vietnam. Yet you seem to be talking about America winning the Cold War when so many believe it is a war that cannot be won but only settled.”

Continuing: “On domestic affairs, it seems like the nation has accepted a larger role for government in everything from the GI Bill to farm subsidies to student loans. Yet in listening to your radio programs, it seems you’re hearkening back to the old days of Calvin Coolidge, if I may say so. On social issues, the rise of feminism and so-called reproductive rights is embraced by many in the Congress including your prospective opponents. In short, you’re pretty much of a minority even in your own party. How are you going to win the nomination and even granting that you win it, how are you going to win the election against a Democratic party which seems to have subsidized the interest groups and is tough to counteract. Let me also say that I agree with you on almost everything—top to bottom—but for the life of me I can’t figure out how you’re going to win unless you change your stance, and that would cause cynicism.”

I don’t intend to go into the details of his answer because after years of familiarity with his views, you know the answers. But I want to leave this with you: he responded with as thorough a grasp of domestic policy as I’ve ever heard and, in fact, recited more statistics than I ever imagined. I was shaken and exultant because I had found my presidential candidate. We talked for a long time, he working the cops into the discussion so they felt they belonged. The one lesson I took with me, besides the fact that here was a very knowledgeable guy was significant. I asked him how he would win. He asked if I had ever seen him in “Knute Rockne: All American.” I had not once but many times on midnight re-runs.

He said: There was a scene in there that was ultimately cut but it was meant to capture the first time George Gipp met Rockne. I’m playing Gipp and throwing a baseball on the campus of Notre Dame. Rockne—played by Pat O’Brien (he was a big star, much bigger at the time than I or anyone else in the film)—sees me throwing the baseball. He strides over to me and has this line (O’Brien never flubbed a line): Hey, kid, if you can throw a football like you throw that baseball, you’ve got a job of my team. Are you game?” The cameramen said: it’s a wrap, Pat. Terrific. Then they set up for my response shot. My line was supposed to be: “Gee, Rock, I sure would like to try.” I did that line seventeen times with poor O’Brien having to stride over to me and toss out his line which was always perfect: Hey, kid, if you can throw a football like you throw that baseball you’ve got a job on my team, are you game?” And here I go with what I thought was a snappy way of delivering the line but the director would keep yelling “cut—give me some humility.” Give me some humility? What did that mean? I didn’t know how to deliver it.

Finally the director, Lloyd Bacon called us both over and said flatly, “Reagan we don’t have to have you in this picture at all. We can get somebody else. I couldn’t imagine what was wrong with the way I delivered the line. He kept saying, “it’s not right; it’s not right. I want some humility and you give me cocky kid.” Finally he said to O’Brien: Pat, you know what I want. Take him out and tell him, show him. And if that doesn’t work, tomorrow we’ll get somebody else.” And he stalked away.

So, Reagan said, we were in LA with a cardboard backdrop of Notre Dame on the set. So we went to a quiet bar with a glass mirror over the bar. Pat filled up his drink. I ordered a very light one and stayed with it. Pat said, Reagan, in order to play this scene well you’ve got to be a very humble kid. You understand the line: Gee, Rock, I sure would like to try? You deliver the line like a cocky kid. That’s not the approach. You got to show you’re humble.

Reagan said: I was desperate and said Pat, how do I do this?

O’Brien said: Remember this, the camera is seduce-able. The old line that the camera always tells the truth is goofy. The camera can be seduced, even by a cocky kid like you. The way to con the camera is to bob your head deferentially—like this [and he did it], sort of speak haltingly, maybe use the word “well” before you begin. This is how I would give the line. [I will always remember Reagan imitating Pat O’Brien teaching Reagan]. A lot of it is in the bobbing of the head which shows you’re humble. Now try it. Reagan said he did it fifteen or so times. O’Brien said: I think you’re getting on to it but it needs work. Tonight after dinner, you stand in front of the mirror and do it over and over. Tomorrow is a big day. You’ve got to do it right. Then O’Brien added these very important words: Incidentally, Reagan, that style of deferential appeal could really help you in this business. You’re somewhat of a cocky kid yourself. You might adopt it as a style. It could get you a lot of roles.

Reagan said he went home and followed O’Brien’s orders. The next day on the third take, it was a wrap and his role was safe. For all the anxiety about the scene, it was scrubbed in the final film cut and another scene written and filmed quickly without the humility. But it was clear that Reagan agreed with what O’Brien had said: incidentally, Reagan you’re a cocky kid and you’re more attractive when you seem humble. Reagan applied this to his persona. Actually it became so much a part of him, he said, that when he played his biggest film, “King’s Row” and he had the part of a cocky kid named Drake McHugh, he had to work himself over to get the part down and he sat down again with O’Brien to re-make himself as an upstart kid. “But don’t forget the old Reagan,” O’Brien said. “It’s your trademark.” (O’Brien’s own trademark, incidentally, was that of a very cocky Irishman, not unlike Jimmy Cagney’s).

Hearing him relate this story was so fascinating that I had forgotten my question, but he didn’t: how was he going to sell his ideas? He said that when he ran against Pat Brown for the governorship, he was given a sheaf of manuscripts full of statistics six inches high to master for a television debate. It was clear he was coming to this political game late and couldn’t pound it all into his head so he gave up. He called O’Brien on the phone and they got together. O’Brien said: Ron, you know what you believe should happen to state government, don’t you? Reagan said: yes. Do you remember what you learned years ago? You get humble. You bob your head deferentially and say this is what I want to do and I sure would like to try.

At the outset, I thought it was simplistic. But when I saw him later in a debate with John Anderson, a man who knew not only the fine points of legislation but the sub-paragraphs and phrases, I saw him bob his head deferentially and say what he wanted to accomplish and “I sure would like to try.” The audience understood that he wasn’t going to rival Anderson who served in the House for decades. They felt he was conservative—maybe too conservative, I don’t know—but maybe we’ll give “the kid” (Reagan was hardly youthful but appeared as such) “a chance.” When he debated Carter he used the technique, plus (bobbing the head to show humility) “there you go again.”

In essence, I recognized in the hotel room that afternoon that here was a genius, every bit as much a genius as the man he originally admired so much: Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had learned his own persona differently: with uplifted cigarette-holder to display his jaunty confidence when the nation was hurting. Whenever I saw Reagan as president in a TV news conference being confronted by Sam Donaldson who would say: the government did this-and-this and you said this-and-this and how do you square these things, I’d see him bob his head and indicate virtually, he’d just like to try. Believe it or not this story isn’t finished yet. I just thought of something else: it has to go to a third chapter tomorrow. It’ll begin with his statement made when he was walking through O’Hare with me that he once lived as a child in Chicago. I thought: if this guy gets elected, he will have been the only president to have actually lived in Chicago. The only two other Illinoisans—Lincoln and Grant—didn’t (they weren’t actually Illinoisans by birth anyhow). Reagan was the only Illinoisan by birth. What transpired then, trying to find his original home may be fascinating—and tell you very much about how comfortable he was in his own skin.

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