President Reagan addressed the Centennial Convention of the Knights of Columbus in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1982. His message was received by scores of cardinals, hundreds of bishops, and thousands of the Knights. The convention floor was a swirl of red and black.
“My opponents like to tease me about having been in the movies,” he said genially. “I don’t mind. I was very proud of being in the movies. In those days, there was a lot to be proud of.” Vintage Reagan — he never banged the podium to complain of violent and sleazy Hollywood pics. The Knights laughed heartily.
Then he turned serious. When Birth of a Nation came to Reagan’s small, mostly Protestant hometown in Illinois, all the kids went to see it. But not Ron and Neal Reagan. “That movie glorifies the Ku Klux Klan,” Reagan’s Catholic father Jack Reagan told his sons. “They’re not heroes, they’re murderers, and we’re not going.”
The president acknowledged that that famous movie had blazed a trail in filmmaking and was studied in film schools. Then he said: “That’s one movie I’ve never seen — and I never will!” The Knights cheered so thunderously they nearly blew the roof off the convention center.
At the time, Reagan was in a lot of political trouble nationally. The New York Times licked its chops, saying a “stench of failure” surrounded the Reagan administration. Most of the president’s hearers that day were Democrats. His speech shows why there were millions of Reagan Democrats. Connecticut had the first small batch of pebbles in what grew to be a Reagan landslide in 1984. Nowhere was he more beloved than in the Naugatuck Valley. Reagan’s electoral comeback may have begun that day with the Knights of Columbus.
— Ken Blackwell is a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission and a fellow at the Family Research Council.