IV THE FINALE: “GEE, ROCK—I SURE WOULD LIKE TO TRY!”
Some people think there’s been a Parson Weems flavor to the buildup of Ronald Reagan. Yes, it’s true-- but it’s by no means comparable to that of JFK. We live now in a purposely engendered romanticized bubble invented by liberaldom’s twisted historian-hack, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. where everything about John Kennedy is pronounced great. His womanizing hasn’t dented his stature at all—whereas Richard Nixon who accomplished the major coup of splitting the Sino-Soviet bloc, a major turning-point in the Cold War—is regarded as evil, corrupt and a disgrace. Why is that? Liberal media? Sure. But also style. Nixon’s was a hyper-aggressive style. Kennedy’s was relaxed, filled with surety but low-key. Just recently the Kennedy family women, dominated by Maria Shriver has driven out of circulation a Kennedy documentary that is unfavorable. But Parson Weems, who told saccharine little stories about how George Washington owned up to cutting down the cherry tree and how the 1stpresident threw a silver dollar across the Potomac was not much different: his goal was to build a godly image of Washington. Ridiculous fellow. Washington couldn’t have thrown a silver dollar across the Potomac because one wasn’t coined until shortly before his death. Besides , the Potomac’s width made it impossible. Others correcting Weems said it was more likely that he threw a hunk of slate across the Rapahonnock which at its narrowest point was about a hundred feet wide. My point is: who cares? Bonnie Rockne, the widow of Knute, cared and she made sure that the 1940 script “Knute Rockne: All American” showed a man flawless in every way. Actually if she had allowed the real Rockne to emerge, the stature of the great coach wouldn’t have been diminished. As the immaculately researched “Shake Down the Thunder” [by Dr. Murray Sperber: 20303] shows, Rockne…who lived as a kid in Logan Square…invented his own rules because when he coached there were very few. Sperber went to the basement of the athletic department and unearthed Rockne’s correspondence. He was no saint nor was he a devil. He was a wildly successful football coach at a small cow college. Catholics disappointed by the defeat of Al Smith…feeling bigotry had something to do with it…turned to huzza’ing for the cow college. Rockne was a sharpie who played all the odds and got away with it since there was no NCAA but there was a Carnegie Foundation which inspected but had no power to enforce. Carnegie frequently called Rockne for hyper-aggressive recruiting, paying athletes under the table and winking when they ditched classes. Nobody got away with more derelictions than George Gipp who was an outstanding baseball player. He didn’t have enough high school credits to qualify but he got in anyhow. He was 20, started in as a school waiter but quit, inventing a unique jobs program—earning money shooting pool (a real pool shark) and playing cards with professional gamblers traveling salesmen and hangers-on around the bars in South Bend. He made so much money that he could afford to move out of the dorm and take up lodging at the Oliver Hotel in South Bend, the best residence hotel in the city and home to business travelers who played high-stakes billiards and pool well into every night. Rockne knew about it; he didn’t snitch to the priests—but then they’d have to be blind, deaf and mute not to know. He knew he had a goldmine in Gipp from the day the kid…who never played football before…drop-kicked a 62-yard field goal into the wind against Western State Normal of Michigan in a freshman game on Oct. 7, 1916. Gipp’s transcript shows that for two of his four full school years he received no grades whatever. Finally the priests couldn’t stand it and expelled Gipp. Every big school bid for him. Rockne fended them off but the toughest time he had was with West Point which offered many more bucks than anyone else—the school’s head being none other than Douglas MacArthur. All the while, Rockne lobbied the South Bend business community and wealthy alumni to get the school to re-admit Gipp. The Notre Dame president yielded, gave Gipp an oral examination which to nobody’s surprise the kid passed. Rockne’s scheme for getting the school publicity was ingenious. He knew that sportswriters in Chicago and elsewhere were underpaid so he hired them as part-time referees. Again, there were no conflict of interest rules. Rockne made sure that if the sportswriter didn’t praise Notre Dame he’d never get hired again. After reading the 635-page book I think if Warner Brothers had made the true film about Gipp it’d have been more of a winner than it had with the heavily romanticized version. But of course Bonnie Rockne wanted her dead husband to go down as a Catholic saint. Now we get to Ronald Reagan’s portrayal of Gipp. “Did you ever see the film `Knute Rockne All American’?” Reagan asked me after I told him I doubted he could cut it for the presidency both for his then rightist philosophy and his largely non-fact-filled speaking style. I said yes—usually on the Night Owl movie programs. Reagan was by no means a big name when he landed the part of George Gipp….a part he incessantly lobbied for—including making a personal visit to Bonnie Rockne. His very first film was shot only three years earlier—a clunker called “Love is On the Air.” By the time he got her approval for Gipp he had done 19 films—including “Dark Victory” where his role was far down the list…topped by Bette Davis, George Brent and Humphrey Bogart. But Bonnie Rockne saw it and she approved Reagan. Interestingly enough, the part of George Gipp lasted only ten minutes in the 97-minute movie. Lloyd Bacon, the director, wanted to show Gipp was a novice in football, was a baseball player—which was accurate. “The script writer would do the script over and over,” he told me. “It would have to pass muster with Mrs. Rockne. We actually shot some rushes which after she saw, she vetoed. She had complete control of the script.” Then he told me of a scene that was shot which she vetoed for one reason or another. Gipp is pictured throwing a baseball to another guy—a very impressive toss that went far-far down the baseball field. Rockne—played by veteran actor Pat O’Brien [1899-1983] fitted with a plastic nose to resemble Rockne’s—is drilling his squad and sees this kid through the baseball far down the field. After the rush was filmed she vetoed it….wanting Gipp to kick a football a huge distance instead. That was a big fight. Gipp authenticists insisted he throw a baseball; she wanted a football. She won as she did every other disagreement. But the failed baseball take was the one that Reagan said was most meaningful to him, even though it wasn’t used. “Pat O’ had the nickname `One Take O’Brien’” said Reagan. “He was a big star—having done `Angels with Dirty Faces’ with Cagney. I was just beginning and if I didn’t do well, they could get rid of me for another replacement—providing Mrs. Rockne approved, of course. “The original script called for him to dazzled by how far Gipp through the baseball. So in this take O’Brien walks over to me and this was his line: `Hey, kid—if you can throw a football like you threw that baseball, you’ve got a job on my team: are you game?’ “My line was to be, `Gee, Rock I sure would like to try.’” Reagan said he did the line at least ten times. Each time O’Brien would have to walk over to him and toss out the same line…following which Reagan would deliver the line with different inflections and each time the director would shout “cut!” At least ten times. Finally the sun went down and shooting was over for the day. Lloyd Bacon, the director, called both Reagan and O’Brien to his office. “He said to me `Reagan, we don’t have to stick with you in this picture! In fact, after seeing those takes I’m ready to ditch you right now! But we’ll try again tomorrow!. O’Brien, take him out and show him what I want! You know what I want! Show him! If it doesn’t work on the second or third try, he’s out!.`” Reagan said O’Brien took him to a bar with a full mirror behind the bartender where the bottles were lined up. “Reagan,” said O’Brien, “how old are you anyway?” Twenty-nine. “Gipp is supposed to be nineteen…ten years younger than you. Reagan, you come across as a cocky Irish kid—know-it-all. Gipp is supposed to be a shy, humble kid, impressed with Rockne. Unsure of himself—which is what you’re not. Reagan, Bacon wants you to look…what’s the word?...deferential. Now here’s how to do it. You’ve always heard that the camera tells the truth. I’m here to say the camera is…seducible! It can be fooled! The way to show deferential…meaning you have a lot to learn…is to bob your head how can I say it…bob your head humbly. I can’t think of any other word but deferential. You bob your head and say `Gee, Rock, I sure would like to try.’ Incidentally Reagan, you have a lot to learn too. Keep that style—head bobbed, deferential. Make it your mark. It’ll serve you well. Now while I drink this bourbon practice it over and over in front of this mirror—bob your head deferentially and say `gee Rock, I sure would like to try’” Reagan said they stood at the bar, O’Brien ordering one after another saying “again…again….again.” After the fifth drink, O’Brien said “it’s getting better. Now go home and stand in front of your bathroom mirror and do it a hundred times and hope you’ll remember how to do it tomorrow.” Reagan said he did—and on the second take Bacon said “excellent.” He said he had to abandon the style for his next film “Santa Fe Trail” where he played the headstrong George Custer (with Errol Flynn as J.E.B.Stuart) but practiced it again for other films, especially his one masterwork…that of a youth maimed by a sadistic surgeon “King’s Row.” “The reason I learned from that one is this,” he told me. “When I was running against Pat Brown for governor I had to debate him and our research people delivered a book this thick”—extending his two hands—“for me to memorize about the details of California government. Brown was a kind of walking encyclopedia of state government since he had been there so long and I was running as a citizen, non-politician. “Well I prepared for that debate but details wouldn’t stick which was funny because I never had any trouble memorizing before. So I called O’Brien. He came over and said, `Ron, your role is to be the good-hearted guy coming in as a citizen not a politician. Remember your old line, `Gee Rock, I sure would like to try’? You know what you want to do with California government don’t you? You got to go back to basics, show the camera you’re humble, have a lot to learn but want to learn it. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to match Brown on details. Give `em three or four points—tell the camera `I sure would like to try.’” When he finished, the two cops and I agreed: he had the formula. “So,” he said, unconsciously bobbing his head deferentially, “when I have to debate John Anderson or Bush or Carter who have all these statistics in their head….I remember the four or five points I want to make—and…” It was time to put him on the plane for Santa Barbara. When he flew off I experienced a strange sense of loss—knowing I’d never see him up close again. But through the years whenever he’d have a news conference and an obnoxious guy like Sam Donaldson would raise his hand and say:”Mr. President….you were wrong about such-and-such..” Details. And I’d see him standing at the podium, head lowered slightly, saying “well…” Gee Rock, I sure would like to try. It presaged a new turn in political forensics. The old wise-guy Hubert Humphrey rat-a-tat-tat rhetoric was over…supplanted by a reasonable, humble, twinkling civility. The only time I saw him flummoxed as president was after Iran-Contra. And even then the style eventually returned to serve his needs. That’s why what I learned that day with him has made all the difference. Style.