Politics & Policy

My President, Way Back

R.W.R.'s SAG days.

Editor’s note: This remembrance by Charlton Heston appeared in the June 28, 2004, issue of National Review.

Ronald Reagan was my president before he was yours. This was long before the governorship and the presidency; his film career was already over but he was still president of the Screen Actors Guild. We were then facing the first strike in our history, and the studios were determined not to give us the health and welfare plans we were aiming for, nor the residual payments for films and reruns.

“I’ll be with you through this strike, I promise you,” he said. “We’ll win this one; I promise you that, too. But then I’ll resign, and you should know that, of course.” To my surprise, he appointed me to the board, and put me on the negotiating committee as well. I decided it was something I should do. Of course I was a green hand at negotiating then, but I had a good teacher.

Strike negotiations are no fun. Arguing for hours on end, waiting for the other side to give a little, keeping a relaxed and confident front in the midst of endless disputes, sitting over cups of cold coffee with your shoes off while the other guys are caucusing — definitely a miserable way to spend the night. Playing on that field for the first time, I was stunned by Reagan’s negotiating skills. Hearing out a fierce assault from the studio people, he’d smile and say, “Yes, that’s a very good point indeed. But let me just say this …,” and undercut them completely.

After a particularly arduous session, I walked into my own house at about 4 A.M. My wife Lydia wakened enough to ask me, “How did it go, Charlie?”

“It’s hard to tell, honey,” I replied, rolling into bed. “We’ve got a long way to go. But I’ll tell you one thing: We’ve got a leader.”

So we did, as the rest of the country would learn before long. He kept his promise to the Guild, gaining for us the best pension and welfare plan in organized labor. He was also responsible, I think, for my succeeding him as SAG president. I held the job longer than he, but didn’t do it as well.

I saw little of him in the next year or so, as he geared up for the governor’s race, though I recall seeing on TV one of the most disastrous campaign blunders in the history of politics. The incumbent governor, Edmund “Pat” Brown, was extolling his own skills in office as opposed to Reagan’s inadequacy as a mere actor. “Remember,” he said gravely, “it was an actor who killed Lincoln.” “And that, sir,” I said to Lydia, “just cost you the election.” (That may not have been literally true, but over the next ten or twelve years, an awful lot of actors voted for one of their own.)

When his two terms as governor were over, his campaign for the White House was already well under way. I did a couple of campaign stops with him, but I was only along for the ride. In my experience, every president, in the end, elects himself. Certainly Reagan did. He was an enormously charismatic figure, irresistibly likable — arguably the most impressive man in American politics since FDR.

During this time, Lydia and I had our share of White House dinners. (No, even hardy D.C. veterans don’t turn them down.) I did a month at the Kennedy Center, acting in and directing The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. The president and Nancy attended, then came onstage after the curtain calls and met every member of a very large cast. I know, this is the kind of chore presidents are supposed to do; Reagan just did it better. He was not a great actor, but he understood the idea of performance, and its function in the presidency.

Incidentally, he appointed me chairman of a commission examining the role of the arts and humanities in American culture. It was widely assumed, especially by the Left, that our mission was to dismantle the national endowments for the arts and humanities — but the two dozen or so members of the commission came to agree with me that the agencies, despite their problems, were meeting their responsibilities.

Reagan launched and ended every one of his campaigns for office in San Diego; I was asked to take part in a rally there the day before the 1984 election. It was the final rally he would ever attend on his own behalf. The program was the appropriate mix of country-western, comics, talk, and fireworks (both black powder and rhetorical). The audience response to the president was volcanic; it made the Rolling Stones’ audience sound like the polite patter of applause for a harpist at a tea dansant. Milling around in the backstage crowd, I ran into Nancy Reagan, who offered me a lift to L.A. in Air Force One. I doubt that many people decline that invitation; I certainly didn’t.

Air Force One took off from a military facility and was covered en route by four F-14s. It was full of very tired people, at the end of an exhausting campaign. Meese, Deaver, Baker — all looked at the end of their energies. Not President Reagan. He was in high spirits, glowing with health; I do believe he could’ve undertaken another campaign the next day.

The next day was the election. A few months earlier Nancy Reagan had expressed some anxieties to me about the result. So I asked Jim Baker, who’d run the campaign, “Well, what does it look like for tomorrow?”

“Oh, we’ll lose the District of Columbia, probably Minnesota, too. We’ll take everything else.” I was stunned. “What do you mean, ‘everything else’?” “We’ll win all the rest of the United States.”

And so it proved.

– Mr. Heston is an Academy Award-winning actor and former president of the National Rifle Association.

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