June 10, 2004
One Actor’s Influence
I can't remember many Jews around Ronald Reagan when I met him at the very start of his political career. Politics were simple. Jews were Democrats. Republicans were from country clubs that didn't admit Jews.
Reagan seemed unconnected to all that. His experience with Jews was far different than that of the country club Republicans who followed him. True, he grew up in small-town Illinois, where Jews were a rarity, and he graduated from Eureka College, a puritanical Disciples of Christ school. But his movie career was nurtured and shaped by Jews, who remained loyal to him through his days in films and politics and shaped his political life.
At first, his main contact with Jews was in the film industry. When he was president, he was greatly influenced by the neoconservative movement, with its large number of Jewish intellectuals. Jewish neoconservatives were a powerful voice in shaping American foreign policy during the Reagan presidency.
His agent when he was an actor was Lew Wasserman of MCA, a towering figure in Democratic - and often Republican - political fundraising circles. Another important Jewish movie industry executive crucial to Reagan's career was MCA executive Taft Schreiber.
Schreiber liked the unusual objectivity with which Reagan viewed his movie career.
"He was never fooled by his publicity," Schreiber told me years ago. "The motion picture was just part of his evolution." Like Schreiber, Reagan referred to movies "as the picture business and there was always a heavy emphasis on the business end of it."
As Reagan's career faltered in the post World War II years, Wasserman devised a plan to save it. Jack Warner, another Jewish movie titan and Reagan's boss at Warner Bros., had turned down Reagan for a part he wanted. Reagan's feud with the studio escalated, with Warner Bros. - which was trying to cut down the number of high-paid contract players - in no mood to settle.
Wasserman negotiated an independent deal for Reagan with him making one picture a year at both Warner and Universal. But most of the pictures turned out to be dogs and Reagan's career continued downward.
But in 1954, General Electric (GE) was looking for an unusual combination of talents - a host for its new half-hour television series who could also visit GE plants around the country to improve employee morale. As president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), Reagan had become a spokesman for the movie industry, traveling around the country giving speeches advocating tax breaks for actors and promoting a positive image for Hollywood.
Schreiber was then in charge of MCA's Revue Productions. When GE began looking for a host, Schreiber said "I could think of only one man, Reagan." He was so good at the job that there was a joke in Hollywood about someone who saw him deliver an institutional advertisement for GE and said, "I really didn't need a submarine, but I've got one now."
The Reagan-MCA relationship was a two-way street. As president of SAG, Reagan biographer Lou Cannon wrote, Reagan gave MCA a secret waiver from the industry practice of forbidding actors to retain agents who were also producers - a huge help to a company that had combined agenting and producing.
Schreiber continued to be close to Reagan. He was one of the original backers of the Reagan-for-governor campaign and one of the "kitchen cabinet" of rich men supplying him with advice when he was governor.
These all-business Hollywood types had little in common with the Jewish neoconservatives who became so influential during the Reagan presidency - except that they were Jewish and shared a fierce anti-communism belief which Reagan espoused even during his days as a Democrat. As he told movie columnist Hedda Hopper in 1947: "The Reds know that if we can make America a decent living place for all our people, their cause is lost here. So they seek to infiltrate liberal organizations just to smear and discredit them."
That philosophy, which deepened as he aged, made him receptive to the former New Dealers who felt that their party had become too accommodating to the Soviet Union and was softening its support for Israel. They also felt college campuses were too liberal, dominated by leftist intellectuals.
Even Richard M. Nixon was too soft on the Soviets for the neocons. When Reagan, comfortable with Jews from his movie days, became president, the neocons found a place in his administration. A surprising number of Jews around the country apparently felt comfortable with him, too. In 1980, he received almost 40 percent of the Jewish vote - a number that dropped to 31 percent four years later.
An example of the influence of Jewish neo-conservatives was Richard Perle, Reagan's assistant secretary of defense. Perle got his start in Washington working for Sen. Henry Jackson (D-Wash.), who was Soviet Jewry's most effective congressional advocate in the 1970s.
Journalist and diplomatic scholar Strobe Talbot said, "Perle ended up having more impact on policy in arms control than any other official in the U.S. government."
Most Jews voted against him. His espousal of the religious right, his destruction of Great Society social programs, his opposition to liberal thought and his conservative politics were offensive to a community that, despite Republican attempts to make inroads, remains staunchly liberal.
But even today, the Reagan-supporting Jews, noting the power of neo-cons in shaping foreign policy, warmly look back on the Reagan years and at the relationships with the Jewish community, first formed in the negotiating pits of Hollywood.
Bill Boyarsky's column on Jews and civic life appears on the first Friday of each month. Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.