Thursday, June 10, 2004


As I was flipping through the TV channels in an insomniacal haze during the wee hours between Saturday night and Sunday morning this past weekend, I came across a 1991 interview of Lou Cannon by Brian Lamb on C-SPAN concerning Cannon's book published that year, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. The interview had obviously been dusted off upon the news of Reagan's death a few hours earlier.

Lamb looked exactly the same 13 years ago as he does now; it seems that he like Angela Lansbury and Peter Graves was born looking 50 years old, will live for twice that long, and will die looking 50 years old. For his part Cannon may have been the most untelegenic person I have ever seen: round frame and jowly face, a floppy knit tie that he appeared to have knotted with his feet, glasses wrought from the windshield of a 1963 Buick, unkempt hair topped by a hideous comb-over (why do people do that?), and some sort of acid reflux problem that had him suppressing a belch every 15 seconds.

Eh? What about the substance of the interview, you say? Hey, it was the middle of the night and I was half awake. I did get the sense, however, that Cannon did not agree with Reagan on many political issues but was very knowledgable about the workings of the Reagan Administration and had done his best to write a fair account. If the reviews on Amazon are any indication, my sense was not mistaken--indeed, The Role of a Lifetime seems to be very well regarded by people of all political stripes. (I haven't read the book myself, so this is all I have to go on.)

But at the close of the interview Cannon made one assessment that I think is flat-out wrong. Lamb asked him if we will ever elect another actor as President; Cannon responded no, reasoning that the world of Reagan's youth, the world from which Reagan the actor and Reagan the politician emerged, no longer exists.

Now, it's true enough that the world which formed Reagan no longer exists, but the conclusion Cannon drew from this is a non sequitur. When Reagan came of age in the early decades of the 20th century, movies and radio were new, television was science fiction, and the Internet was unthinkable. I imagine that an entertainer becoming a politician in those days was about as likely as a trained seal becoming an accountant. Today the border between politics and entertainment has become so fuzzy that crossing over is easy in both directions--Schwartzenegger, Ventura, Bono, Eastwood, etc., etc., winning elections on the one hand, Giuliani and Gore clowning on SNL and Dole plumping for Viagra on the other. Isn't it precisely because the world of Reagan's youth no longer exists that the entertainment industry seems fated, sooner or later, to cough up another President?

(I mean no disrespect to President Reagan in all this, by the way. He was a great, historically pivotal President, and he was the recipient of my first vote 20 years ago, which I suppose makes me part of the club. I just have no interest in writing the 50,001st encomium to him.)


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