Maybe one of the reasons our fortieth president gets such short shrift in textbooks is because he had the academic left’s number, as we used to say. Ronald Reagan’s unique perception and foresight are on display in vintage form in a never-before-seen interview he gave to veteran journalist Lee Edwards 20 years ago.
“I was probably burned in effigy on California campuses more than anyone else when I was governor,” President Reagan told Edwards in an interview conducted in the White House. “I could start a riot just by going near the campus.”
And there were already a lot of riots on California campuses in those days, particularly at Berkeley. “But even at Berkeley in the 1960s, you had 2,500 demonstrators but you had 25,000 students who were going to class and having nothing to do with the demonstrations,” President Reagan told Edwards. “I often wished that the 25,000 would speak up and tell the 2,500 to ‘shut up and stop trying to paint us in the same corner.’”
Governor Reagan would go on to win the Cold War. The Berkeley Left would go on to lose it, although many of them would get consolation prizes in the form of college professorships.
When the aforementioned riots occurred, they frequently got violent. The violence led Governor Reagan to call out the National Guard, which brought him the undying enmity of the campus radicals, not that they had much of a soft spot in their hearts for him to begin with.
As a former actor turned politician, President Reagan had the misfortune of working in the film industry where it was always politically incorrect to be conservative, even before that adjectival phrase entered the popular lexicon. “I believe that there is a career penalty not just for me but for many others,” President Reagan said to Edwards. “In all the years I was on the other side I never got letters telling me that people would stop seeing my pictures because of what I said but once I went public [as a conservative], you should have seen the mail I got.”
“Before the war, Reagan got more fan mail than James Cagney and rivaled Errol Flynn as a box office attraction and made great films like King’s Row,” Edwards told the audience at Heritage, where he is now a senior fellow. “After the war when he started giving conservative speeches, he made pictures like The Hasty Heart and Bedtime for Bonzo.”
The motion picture industry’s loss is the nation’s gain.
Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.