Ronald Reagan and his private movie nights at Camp David
Ronald Reagan's presidency was not a straightforward one. While his time is fondly remembered, he was the target of an assassination attempt and had numerous documented health issues. His way of escaping the hectic lifestyle was to escape with wife Nancy Reagan to Camp David and catch up on movies.
Ronald Reagan's two terms as president between 1981 and 1989 are still looked back upon by conservatives as a halcyon period punctuated by a reduction of inflation, economic growth, tax cuts, and other sweeping political and economic initiatives. For his first term, he beat incumbent Jimmy Carter by a landslide, and in a then-unprecedented event, won his second-term by an even larger margin, winning with the largest electoral college victory in American history. His approval rating when he finally vacated the office for Bill Clinton stood at 68%, depicting his general standing amongst the American people, both liberals and conservatives.
But as is evidenced by the stark contrast in the appearances of presidents before and after their terms, the Oval Office takes a toll on the person occupying it. Presidents are often tasked with making decisions that have implications beyond just US shores, and the pressure tells. They visibly lose weight, their hair grows grayer, their demeanor changes. As an escape, they take a trip to Camp David, the country retreat located in the wooded hills of the Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland.
While every US president has used the camp from time to time, no one visited the retreat more than Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan. To the couple, the camp provided an escape from the constant political tension that plagued the country during the 80s and some much-needed private time to themselves, away from media scrutiny.
As Camp David became a tradition for the Reagans, so did Saturday movie nights at the Camp's Aspen Lodge, where the first couple would gather along with staff to watch both current, as well as vintage Hollywood movies; some of which starred the president and his wife. As reported by the Daily Mail, this private aspect of their life has been chronicled by Mark Weinberg, who formerly served as special advisor and press secretary to the president, in his new book "Movie Nights with the Reagans, A Memoir."
Writing about his journey in putting together the book, Weinberg says that he paid a visit to the Reagan home in Bel Air in 2016 to get Nancy's blessings before her death in 2016. Then 94-years-old, he says that the First Lady was as regal as ever, writing that she "looked and acted like Nancy Reagan" and that her hair was a little less puffy than when she was at her iconic best but that it was still "very nicely styled and her makeup - essentially only lipstick - looked perfect."
Weinberg says that Nancy was eager to see their movie night experiences in print, not only because they represented a time that she fondly recalled upon, but also because of the relevance it held to their personal lives.
They had met in 1949 under mitigating circumstances when Reagan was still the president of the Screen Actors Guild and Nancy had found her name unwittingly on a Communist blacklist in Hollywood.
There was also the other factor that Nancy probably wanted to relive some of her best memories with her husband, back from when he was not suffering from Alzheimer's and slowly losing a grip on who he was. The couple had always been very close to one another - Nancy reportedly slept with Reagan's shirts when he was in the hospital after surviving an assassination attempt in 1981 - and Alzheimer's had slowly sapped Reagan of his energy and wit.
The first couple made it a point to invite staff members to watch movies along with them but insisted that anyone interested show up for the screening at 7:40 pm at the latest for an 8 pm show. Once the movie was done, they would often gather and discuss what they had just watched.
9 to 5
Both were fiercely opinionated on the issue of drugs - Reagan had accelerated Nixon's war on drugs in response to the crack epidemic and Nancy founded the 'Just Say No' drug awareness campaign - Weinberg writes that the president was infuriated by the movie "9 to 5."
Starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton, the comedy film revolved around the three women getting even with, and their overthrow of, the company's 'autocratic, sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot boss.' But it was not the revenge fantasy that irked Reagan, it was the fact that the three women were portrayed smoking marijuana while doing so.
Reagan was of the opinion that it would have been fine if the women were shown to be drunk, but them doing weed was a 'distasteful endorsement of pot smoking.' Nancy was said to be similarly impacted and would use the movie as inspiration to launch her drug awareness campaign.
However, Weinberg says that the movie did have a positive effect on them as well. Reagan was said to have been impressed by the trio's quest for equality in the workplace, writing: "He never viewed women as anything less than men. There was no job a woman could not do. Those for whom he had the greatest respect and relied most heavily upon - were women."
Here are a few of the movies Weinberg says the Reagans watched at Camp David:
Oh, God! Book II
"Oh, God! Book II" appealed to the Reagans for a myriad of reasons, the most important one being the fact that it starred their longtime friend George Burns, who plays the role of God in the movie. Nancy was always said to be fond of Burns because his demeanor was similar to that of her husband and because he was 'really a simple man, not full of himself or being in pictures. And he was always happy.'
She also credits Burns with imbibing a sense of self-deprecatory humor in her husband. Reagan used to constantly make fun of his own age and how he was then the oldest person to ever be elected to the presidency, once quipping: "I never drink coffee at lunch. I find it keeps me awake in the afternoon."
Another aspect of Oh, God! that spoke to the Reagans was the movie's defense of God and faith. The couple was both deeply religious, and Reagan had the religious right to thank for both his landslide victories in the presidential elections. Weinberg writes that Reagan was pained he could no longer regularly attend Sunday worship services. But this was not because he had lost his faith, but because he worried that his presence at a church would mean that the regulars would be imposed to go through metal detectors.
The studio that produced the film, Warner Bros., also held a special connection to Reagan. It was Warner Bros. who gave him his first opportunity at the big screen back when he was still just a radio announcer from Des Moines, and Reagan made it a point to never forget his humble beginnings.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Reagan was a fan of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," the first installment in the supremely popular Indiana Jones franchise that went on to make hundreds of millions of dollars in the years since.
Reagan was enthralled with the movie because of its plotline: Indiana Jones was up against a group of Nazis who are searching for the Ark of the Covenant, which Adolf Hitler believes will make him invincible.
Reagan had long condemned Nazism, with Weinberg writing: "Reagan spoke passionately about the Nazis and the evil they brought to the world. He told us that for a long time, he kept a film of American soldiers liberating Nazi concentration camps so that he could show actual evidence to anyone who questioned the reality of the Holocaust."
There was also the fact that Reagan was fascinated by Indiana Jones' swashbuckling, cowboy persona. When an actor, Reagan was said to have preferred playing the role of a hero to that of a villain - he only played the bad guy twice - with Weinberg stating: "Indiana Jones was a hero, a role Reagan did not get to play often in Hollywood."
On Golden Pond
The Reagans were taken by "On Golden Pond" because of how the film's aging couple Ethel and Norman Thayer, played by Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda respectively, represented a similar love to theirs - that of a couple so devoted to one another that they had little time for anyone else.
There was also the fact that Reagan associated with Norman, who had begun facing memory problems. Norman could no longer recognize several family photographs and copes with it by frequently talking about death and growing old, something Reagan himself soon enough began to experience with his diagnosis of Alzheimer's.
While it is still hotly debated whether he had while he was still in office, it's an open secret that he was having memory problems as his reign came to an end. Weinberg notes once instance where he had to wake up the president in the morning but did not get a response even after repeated knocking on the door of his suite. He then went in and called out in a loud voice, but still received no response. Finally, he shook the foot of the bed, waking Reagan up, following which the president put on his glasses, looked back at the clock and said: "Oh, good lord. I'm sorry. I took out my ears (hearing aids) and I guess I did not hear the alarm."
Chariots of Fire
"Chariots of Fire" was reportedly one of Reagan's favorite films and told the fact-based story of two British athletes at the 1942 Olympics: Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian who ran for the glory of God, and Harold Abrahams, an English Jew who ran to overcome prejudice; both sentiments which Reagan understood and was captivated by.
There was also the fact that it celebrated a British triumph. Reagan equated this with Margaret Thatcher's election in 1979, as well as his own victory in 1980, with the British Prime Minister treated to a visit at Camp David in 1984, honoring her with a state dinner.
The Reagans also established a close relationship with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. The British royalty paid a visit to the Reagan ranch in Santa Barbara in 1983 and even dined at Trader Vic's, where the Queen was said to have had a wonderful time. Their camaraderie showed as well, with the Reagans themselves flying over the Atlantic to visit Buckingham Palace.
E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial
Considered to be one of the greatest movies of all time and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,' the Steven Spielberg directed ET was the highest-grossing movie of all time for 11 years.
Unlike their usual tradition of watching a movie at Camp David, ET was screened at the White House, with several Washington and Hollywood luminaries in attendance.
In the audience were director Steven Speilberg as well as several members of the cast, astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, several of his peers, and even US Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Reagan used the screening - which took place a fortnight after the movie's actual release - as an opportunity to announce America's second space shuttle, the Challenger; the first, the Columbia, had been successfully launched only hours before.
Weinberg says that the scene where ET lays looking as if he was about to die brought tears to the Reagans' eyes and that the movie made the president question whether there was actually any intelligent life out there in space.
Bedtime for Bonzo
Released in 1951, "Bedtime for Bonzo" is one of the most remembered of Reagan's acting career and renewed his popularity as a movie star. It featured Reagan in a leading role as a psychology professor who attempts to teach human morals to a chimpanzee, hoping to solve the eternal 'nature vs nurture' question. However, Reagan would not watch the movie himself until over 30 years later, screening it in 1984.
Reagan had invited friend and Republican strategist Stu Spencer to the screening. Spencer had successfully managed Reagan's 1966 campaign for California governor and his 1980 presidential campaign but was said to have been less than enthused by the president's choice of movie, instead hoping for a John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart picture.
Spencer was not taken by the movie even after watching it, telling Reagan that it wasn't very good. When Reagan attempted to defend himself, Spencer reportedly said: "Ever since I have known you, you've been bitching about playing second fiddle to Errol Flynn, and in this movie, you play second fiddle to a chimpanzee. How in the world can that be a good movie?"
Rocky IV was released at a time when the US was still in the throes of its cold war with the Soviet Union, and the plotline of the movie - where Rocky Balboa attempts to defend the honor of his friend as well as country by fighting the Soviet Union's top boxer in the Soviet Union and then proceeds to defeat him - sat well with Reagan.
Stallone was also one of Reagan's most prominent supporters and had invited the Reagans to his wedding in Brigitte Nielsen in 1985. However, the first couple was unable to attend.
Because Rocky was advertised to be a Republican, the White House wanted Rocky IV to expedite production so that the film would premier just before the election was set to take place and encourage Republicans to come out and vote for Reagan.
The Reagans had previously seen all the Rocky films and Reagan was said to have been particularly happy with the ending of Rocky IV, quipping: "It had a very happy ending. He beats the Russians!" He also reportedly infatuated with Stallone's physique, saying: "The time he must spend at the gym!"
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