There was a time, long before Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, when Alex P. Keaton was the only conservative on TV. For most of the Reagan era, an estimated 35 million viewers tuned in week after week to watch the teenager, who was the ultimate disciple of the supply-side gospel.
For him, it was always morning in America. He read the Wall Street Journal (of course), wore sweater vests, carried a briefcase to high school, and had a poster of Bill Buckley on his bedroom wall. While Alex’s views frustrated his former-hippie parents, Steve and Elyse, they delighted the tenant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., who considered Family Ties his favorite show.
It was Michael J. Fox who brought Alex to life on Family Ties, which ran from 1982 through 1989 on NBC. But the man who created him was Gary David Goldberg. As it turns out, Goldberg’s life has a touch of the Reagan narrative arc. Born to modest means (in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1944), Goldberg traveled to the West Coast as a young man (initially living in Berkeley, Calif.), landed a contract in Hollywood, worked his way up through the ranks (writing the occasional script for The Bob Newhart Show, M*A*S*H, and The Jeffersons), and with the sensational success of Family Ties rose to a preeminent position at the top of America’s cultural landscape.
So what would Alex make of politics in the Age of Obama? There was some indication last year, when Goldberg sketched out a scenario in the New York Times
. “He would be unhappy with the plan to tax the wealthy at a higher rate,” Goldberg wrote. “But Obama’s slogan is very similar to Alex’s own personal mantra: ‘Of Course I Can.’”
To get a better understanding of Alex Keaton, and of the magic behind one of America’s best-loved shows, I sat down with Goldberg in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles on the occasion of the paperback edition of his memoir, Sit, Ubu, Sit: How I Went From Brooklyn to Hollywood with the Same Woman, the Same Dog, and a Lot Less Hair.
NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE: You’re a liberal Democrat, so don’t you think it’s strange that you created one of the most famous conservatives of all time?
GARY DAVID GOLDBERG: Friends used to ask me, “What in the world are you doing?!” However, I was struck by how appealing Alex’s political beliefs were. We did one episode where Alex is listing candidates whom he had supported, comparing them to the ones his parents backed. He was trying to show who was more in touch with the country. Steve and Elyse had supported all these losing campaigns — McGovern, Carter, Mondale — but there was Alex, behind all the winners. He was so excited. For whatever reasons, I wouldn’t vote Alex’s way. I vote mostly for Democrats, but not exclusively.
NRO: Reportedly, President Reagan enjoyed the Alex P. Keaton character and considered Family Ties his favorite TV show.
GDG: Yes. I was in Washington the weekend that Reagan made that statement. I must have received a hundred messages at my hotel. People who knew about my Berkeley background were calling and asking, “How do you feel about the President’s support for your show?” (laughs) I answered, “Uh, it’s always good to add older viewers.” (laughs) I said, “On this point, I completely agree with the president.”
NRO: Having the president as a fan of your program has to be gratifying, even if you don’t favor his program.
GDG: It was impossible to spend time with Ronald Reagan and to not like him, regardless of political disagreements. A special tour of the White House was arranged for me, and a young aide who kind of reminded me of Alex showed me around. Then there was a quick handshake from the president, and he waved goodbye from the helicopter. This was during the Iran-Contra scandal, but within 15 minutes of being around Reagan, I was cheering him on: “Go get those guys!” I found that I was on his side. And it wasn’t just the allure of the Oval Office. Ronald Reagan himself was a captivating person.