NewsBusters Interview: Rediscovering the Old Hollywood Right

It’s hard to imagine, but for many years, conservatives and Republicans were rather common in Hollywood. Exploring that history is worth doing not just because it is informative but also because it illustrates that there is no good reason that people on the Right could not have a bigger presence in that industry today.

Arizona State University professor Donald Critchlow has done an important service in this regard with his new book When Hollywood Was Right: How Movie Stars, Studio Moguls, and Big Business Remade American Politics. I had the pleasure recently of speaking with him about his work, the transcript of which follows this introduction.

Although today the top executives at the major studios and television networks are almost uniformly partisans of the Left, the reverse was actually true in the 20th century. The earliest and most successful titans of early Hollywood were actually quite conservative. As Critchlow discusses in minute detail, men like Cecil B. DeMille, Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn, and Walt Disney were active in Republican politics for many decades.

According to Critchlow, the people who later became the Hollywood Right were rather apolitical until 1934 when socialist author Upton Sinclair managed to become the Democratic Party’s candidate for governor of California. Pushing a policy platform that was far more radical than anything that the Roosevelt Administration was promoting nationally, Sinclair’s candidacy energized the founders of the entertainment industry.

Together, the studio heads along with newspaper moguls William Randolph Hearst (San Francisco Examiner) and Otis Chandler (Los Angeles Times) attacked Sinclair with the written word but also through newsreels played before entertainment feature films that slammed the Democratic candidate’s policies. (Media bias, anyone?)

While most of the early media moguls were conservative, many of the most famous actors in the time period also leaned Rightward including Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Robert Taylor, Rock Hudson, and Ronald Reagan.

Beyond the discussion of the Hollywood Right, Critchlow’s book is also worth reading because it takes a fair approach to 20th century Hollywood in his examination of the controversies surrounding the activities of the Communist Party in the United States.

This is important because, as the Hollywood Blacklist has faded into history, the vast majority of the treatments of communists in entertainment have tended to focus on the excesses of their opponents and never really disclose to readers that the Soviet Union actually was deeply interested in infiltrating the American entertainment industry and using it for propagandistic purposes.

While the Communists did not have nearly the success that some of their contemporaries imagined, it is indisputable that many of the scribes affiliated with the Screen Writers Guild were active members of the Party. As loyal members, they were instructed to use their positions to spread the message.

One illustrative anecdote that Critchlow provides about this in his book comes from a successful screenwriter who had been a Party member but later testified before the House Committee for the Investigation of Un-American Activities. According to his testimony, Communist screenwriters were instructed to insert short lines bashing capitalism directly into very expensive scenes. Because of the cost of staging these scenes, it would make it much more difficult for them to be removed in post-production.

In our conversation, Critchlow notes that the Communists’ tenacity “shows how a small group of dedicated people can really influence politics.”

Once these activities came to light and as Communist agents began to attain significant power within top unions such as those representing various backstage professions and cartoonists, the Hollywood Right began to mobilize against them. They also turned their attention toward electoral politics as well.

In comparison to the Hollywood Left during this same time-period, the conservatives in the entertainment business had a much better electoral track record. But this actually turned out to be somewhat of a bad thing because it led many of these same people to focus more on elections and voting while their own industry was changing radically due to the collapse of the studio system which had completely dominated Hollywood for decades.

The irony in all this is that despite being universally known as an actor who decided to become a politician, Ronald Reagan actually had less celebrity support for his 1980 presidential campaign than the famously untelegenic Richard Nixon did in his runs for the presidency in the 60s and 70s.

In conversation, Critchlow notes that even as the American Right was grateful to Reagan as he eventually ascended to the presidency in 1980, it was not really paying attention to many of the things that the Gipper himself considered integral to politics: the importance of communication, the necessity of compromise, and the need to choose issues that will resonate with the public at large rather than just the conservative base.

In our discussion, Critchlow contrasts this to the modern-day Republicans who he says have gotten bogged down in minutiae that does not resonate with anyone:

“We forget that there was this same sense of American in the late 1960s and early 1970s as there is today. Republicans were divided, there was a sense that society was coming apart, that we were failing economically. There was social disorder on the streets with urban riots. And Reagan was able to respond to that like an average citizen and he was able to articulate and enunciate the anger that many people were feeling without appearing anxious himself or angry himself.”

The transcript of our conversation follows.

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SHEFFIELD: My first question to you is about your topic itself. You note repeatedly in your book that the notion of what were conservatives doing in Hollywood tends to get totally ignored. Tell us about why you think that is.

CRITCHLOW: Well, I think most historians of Hollywood and people writing about Hollywood have primarily looked at the blacklist and these allegedly horrible times in Hollywood and they haven’t generally looked at those people who were involved in the anti-communist movement and also the movement to regain power for the Republicans in California. This was during a time in the 1930s where Democrats had increased registration and the state looked like it was going to be a Democrat. So it’s a very exciting story not only of getting another side to what happened in the anti-communist hearings in Hollywood but also an important story, in my view, of how Republicans were able to elect Ronald Reagan in 1966 as governor and that helped launch an epic change in American politics.

SHEFFIELD: Yes, and we’ll get into that later on in the interview. But in the beginning of the film industry, the industry, as you put it, was not really political. And I guess part of that might have been the simple remoteness of the entire business from Washington, D.C. and New York. But things sort of began to change around the 1934 California gubernatorial candidacy of Upton Sinclair, a guy who is known today primarily as an author but he was actually also a politician in his time. Tell us a little bit about Upton Sinclair’s political career and the people who were against him.

CRITCHLOW: Yes, Hollywood was not very political, they were primarily concerned, rightfully so, with establishing the film industry and making movies and making money. It was primarily making entertainment. And most of the studio heads and film stars were not very political in this period. But then in 1934, Upton Sinclair who was a socialist, an avowed socialist, won the Democratic Party nomination running on a socialist program, End Poverty In California. And at that point, the studio heads were frightened about the possibility of him winning the governorship and it looked like he was going to. So they organized a very effective campaign against him, supporting the incumbent Republican and they were able to defeat him. And they did this through propaganda, some of it was misleading propaganda but a lot of it was quite accurate about what Upton Sinclair was calling for. So they defeated him and that was kind of the beginnings of activism of a few Republicans in Hollywood mostly coming from studio heads.

SHEFFIELD: Now you mention them and that was the next thing I was going to ask you about, the studio heads. Why don’t you talk about them specifically by name and then tell us a little bit about what happened to the political activism they started as well as their empires. Because in the early days of Hollywood, things were driven by just a small number of executives and companies and things sort of changed politically and also in terms of business.

CRITCHLOW: Well, one of the key people was Cecile B. DeMille who is well-known for making these kind of spectacular movies. He started off in silent films and then made movies like The Ten Commandments and later. And he had actually voted for FDR in 1932. Some of the other key people were the studio heads from MGM and they became active. The other studio heads, the Warner brothers who tended to be Democratic-leaning in the 1930s, they became increasingly conservative as the New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Program continued. It was a kind of a reaction against what FDR and the New Dealers were calling for, especially FDR’s business program and his work programs and the expansion of the federal government as you began to see the development of those hyper, super regulatory state that has its roots in the 1930s.

And one of the problems that allowed for Hollywood to really swing more to the Left was the breakup of the studio system so you had a lot of independent film-makers who would make films outside of the studios and at a time when you had the country swinging to the Left in the late 1960s, the Left was going to be able to really sink deep, deep roots into Hollywood. So Hollywood today tends to be, it’s more than just liberal, they’re left-liberal.

So today, you have an environment that makes it very difficult for a young actor or screenwriter who would think of themselves as a conservative or a Republican of finding work in Hollywood. It’s not a conscious blacklist that they have going on or a white-list excluding these people. It’s a little bit like academia: if you’re an avowed conservative, you’re going to have a hard time getting into graduate school or if you do get into graduate school and write a dissertation that’s on the Left, you’re going to find it very difficult to get jobs. And it’s not going to be that you’re going to be denounced as a conservative by a search committee, they’re going to find that you’re not talented enough.

And that’s the way it works in Hollywood today. So if you’re a young screenwriter, actor, or producer, generally if you’re conservative or Republican, they won’t say ‘well, we’re not hiring you because you’re conservative,’ they’ll say ‘well, you just don’t have the talent that another left-wing star or screenwriter has.’

But what really activated the Republicans was the Communist issue and a desire to really promote Southern California business as well as a concern with individual economic freedom that became an evident concern of theirs by the late 1940s and early 1950s.

SHEFFIELD: Let’s talk briefly about that, the Communist infiltration. Your book is primarily about the activities of conservatives in Hollywood but you obviously have a lot of familiarity with this subject as well. Are there any other books out there that you’d recommend people read if they are interested in hearing more about the history of the Soviets in Hollywood?

CRITCHLOW: I think Ronald Radosh’s book on the communists in Hollywood really kind of alerted many people, that is later generations into how extensive communist infiltration was in the Hollywood studios, especially in certain guilds, the screenwriters guild as well as the technical unions. They had a very, very orchestrated campaign to take over the unions as well as the guilds. One of the consequences of this was that if you were a screenwriter in the 1930s, it was very difficult if you weren’t left-leaning to get hired to write movies.

So the communists really were quite influential in Hollywood at the time. Another example was that they took over the cartoonists guild and that caused studio head Walt Disney to become an active Republican and active in the anti-communist movement.

SHEFFIELD: One thing you do mention is that in terms of the actual number of people, there weren’t actually that many communists but they tended to have an out-sized influence because of how dedicated and obsessive that they were. And so as a result, a lot of studio heads that were really apolitical or didn’t really care about mixing their politics and business were letting these guys run wild, they were literally inserting communist dogma into scenes as a result. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about that?

CRITCHLOW: Yes, Hollywood was just looking for talent, people who could write screenplays or scripts. So they were willing to hire people like Dalton Trumbo who was an avowed communist. And at the same time, they let the screenwriters guild basically control the guild as well as the newsletter. There were still a few conservative and anti-communist writers around but one of the things they discovered in guild meetings was that the communists (most of whom were not publicly communists since membership was secret) were devoting themselves fully to the cause of communism and the cause of the Communist Party.

And those who weren’t were mainly concerned with entertainment and enjoying the good life that you could live if you were making money in Hollywood. They had other interests but they were confronting a well-organized movement of devoted people that would work actively for their cause and would caucus before meetings and had an agenda.

Actually what communism in Hollywood shows is that not only a gameplan to ensure that the film industry was going to be left-wing, it also shows how a small group of dedicated people can really influence politics. And this is a lesson that the Right should learn as well. They don’t need to be secretive in what they’re about but this kind of dedication for their cause should be a lesson for those people who are conservative who want to confront the issues that are confronting America today. Dedication matters.

SHEFFIELD: But it was not conservatives only who were against communists. It’s now kind of forgotten but a lot of the people who were leading the fight in Hollywood were Democrats and liberals. Even Upton Sinclair did not actually like the communists.

CRITCHLOW: Yes that’s right. Upton Sinclair had been attacked by the Communist Party. The Communist Party did not support his candidacy in 1934. I go into a pretty interesting take of it as to why the communists didn’t like Upton Sinclair because he had relations earlier with the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein to film this documentary in Mexico and eventually Sinclair finally had enough with Eisenstein’s shenanigans and took over the project, seizing the film that he was making And as a result was denounced by the worldwide communist movement, Sinclair was, for having taken this film—and he produced two documentaries from it. So the Communist Party didn’t support Upton Sinclair.

But the turning point for many liberals was during the Popular Front as it continued in the Second World War when they began to realize that the Communist Party members acted as a cohesive and dedicated movement and they became increasingly concerned about communism. But moreover, I think it was in 1946, the Soviet Union under Stalin and Communist parties worldwide changed their line and rejected the Popular Front and denounced liberals. And at that point, a number of liberals really reacted against this turn in the party line and they began confronting the Communist actions in the 1940s. So we have people such as Ronald Reagan who was actually a liberal Democrat having to fight the communists in the Screen Actors Guild became an anti-communist and eventually became a Republican.

SHEFFIELD: In a sense then, the irony is that the effectiveness of the Communist Party actually could be said, as you do, to have led to the conservatism of Ronald Reagan.

CRITCHLOW: I think so. I think without confronting the communists in the Screen Actors Guild, more than likely he would have continued to be a liberal Democrat.

SHEFFIELD: So we have the communist underground in Hollywood which got a lot of attention later in the 1940s and 50s but one of the other forgotten aspects of history is that the federal house committee that was investigating these things, the House Committee for the Investigation of Un-American Activities, was also actually started by Democrats, one of whom was actually on the payroll of the Soviet Union. Tell us a little bit about the history of that committee and what it was originally for.

CRITCHLOW: The committee on un-American activities was primarily set up by the Democrats in the 1930s and it was first charged with looking at fascist infiltration into political organizations and HUAC remained concerned with fascism. And then Martin Dies who was head of that committee finally started looking at communist activities. And he was really vilified nationally and forced out and then it was taken over by New York congressman named J. Parnell Thomas. One of the problems with HUAC was—and this might sound familiar with congressional committees today—is that committee congressmen were just grand-standers. They saw a Hollywood investigation as a way to gain publicity and national prominence for themselves.

The first committee hearings in 1947 were primarily aimed at Soviet propaganda in film and they weren’t concerned in any kind of detail with how the party was organizing with actual infiltration into the technical unions and the guilds. Soviet propaganda was seen in some films in Hollywood but often the Communist Party screenwriters would just try to put in a line or two against businessmen or corrupt policians. So they weren’t writing entire films that were propaganda so much. So it was difficult for the committee to sort out general New Deal sentiment from what communist propaganda was. And during World War II, there were a couple of pro-Soviet films that were made, Song from Russia and so forth, but that was basically kind of New Deal, Popular Front-ism ‘the Soviet Union is our ally’ and so it was hard to determine whether this was actual Soviet Propaganda.

SHEFFIELD: So eventually the investigations got a lot more publicity and continued to go on and on and I guess eventually people lost interest in the subject. But did the Soviets ever lose interest in Hollywood?

CRITCHLOW: I think the Communist Party which followed the Soviet line, they came under attack and the party suffered a lot of turmoil in the late 40s and 50s. And they just didn’t have that kind of membership. The other thing that was going to occur was that Hollywood, even during the so-called Hollywood Red Scare and the blacklist generally remained liberal in its sympathies. And in the 1960s, Hollywood became increasingly left because of the anti-war movement and civil rights. So in other words, you didn’t need the Communist Party because you had directors, producers, screenwriters who were basically left-wing.

SHEFFIELD: You make a distinction in your book which I think is important toward the end where you say that beginning in the early 60s and especially 70s and onward, Hollywood became less politically diverse but at the same time the leftism that emerged was not nearly as far-left as what was on the offing before. Talk a little about that and why do you think that sort of not-exactly-communism became more popular than official communism.

CRITCHLOW: Well I would agree with that. They still shared the anti-business and the kind of pseudo social justice but the left that emerged did not have the kind of systematic ideology like the Communists had. They weren’t avowed Marxists, they weren’t really studying The Communist Manifesto as the way people used to at party meetings. It was this kind of incoherent leftism without a specific agenda, it was given more to whatever the cause of the day was in Hollywood whether it was the Vietnam War or later overpopulation, the green movement, Styrofoam cups at McDonald’s, or racial justice, that is what they would be supporters of.

They didn’t have any kind of viable, well-thought-out program of what they wanted, what actual social justice meant. So today you have a lot of leftists in Hollywood who rally behind Obama or whatever the cause of the day is. It is not a systematic ideology that they’re following.

SHEFFIELD: And that’s the ironic thing in my view, once the central planning of their politics kind of collapsed on itself, the values that they were trying to propagate became more successful.

CRITCHLOW: Right.

SHEFFIELD: It’s actually a testament to the power of decentralization in a way.

CRITCHLOW: Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: So besides not liking communists, what were some of the other things that the Hollywood Right was trying to do? You talk a lot about California politics.

CRITCHLOW: By the 1930s, the Democratic Party had more registered voters that the Republicans. It seemed very clear to most people that California was going to become a rock-ribbed Blue State—I guess is what we would say today—so what occurred was that studio moguls such as Cecil B. DeMille or Louis Mayer and others such as businessmen such as Walter Knott and Walt Disney and others joined in with actors and Republican operatives in California to really rebuild the Republican Party.

One of the things that they did was that not only did they become involved in presidential campaigns with Eisenhower and later Nixon, they got involved in local activities so you had major stars of the day, Robert Taylor, Gary Cooper and others being sent out to talk to local Republican women’s clubs and public chambers of commerce and fraternal organizations like the American Legion all throughout Southern California urging people to become Republicans and actively engaged.

At the same time, the studios and screenwriters became involved in presidential campaigns giving media advice. Robert Montgomery, a major star of his day, became involved in the Eisenhower presidential campaign of 1952 and then he was—and Eisenhower was so impressed with Robert Montgomery’s work that he hired him in the White House and Robert Montgomery set up the first White House TV studio and gave advice to Eisenhower to position himself before the television cameras, how to smile. And that kind of media advice continued when Nixon ran in 1960 so it was going to be—and this was a point of the book—a very, very successful movement in rebuilding the Republican Party that would eventually lead to Ronald Reagan’s success in the governor’s election in 1966 as well as two years earlier with George Murphy who was going to be elected U.S. senator from California.

SHEFFIELD: And on that point, one of the things you mention is that the Hollywood Right seemed to have a better record when its celebrities got into politics than the Hollywood Left did. With the exception of Helen Gahagan Douglas, there weren’t really any left-leaning politicians who came out of the movie industry. Is it possible, do you think the fact that there was so much of a migration of the entertainment Right into politics that they just sort of lost track of their own field, the entertainment field? What happened to the Hollywood Right and why don’t they exist any more today?

CRITCHLOW: Yeah well that’s a really good question what happened to the Hollywood Right. I think what’s important to understanding the success of people like George Murphy and Ronald Reagan isn’t that they were just coming out of entertainment and knew how to talk and give good speeches and appear on television. I think what was really important, and this is a point I make in the book, is that they had a message that resonated with the American people especially as liberalism began to overextend itself with the Great Society. So they had a message. At the same time, they were—one of the problems was that the Hollywood, the old Hollywood Right, they were aging. And they just weren’t the stars they had been in the 1930s. You still had John Wayne and a few others who were around but by the 1960s, most of the Hollywood Right just weren’t the celebrities that they used to be. A whole new cast of younger stars had come on-board.

So as I describe in When Hollywood Was Right, when Ronald Reagan ran for the presidency in 1980, his entertainment committee was basically targeted toward corporate executives and agents. He didn’t have any major stars he could draw upon. John Wayne had died, they just didn’t have that kind of celebrity oomph any more.

SHEFFIELD: Yes. One of the sort of interesting things that I discovered in reading your book is that Richard Nixon actually had more major celebrities come out in favor of him than Ronald Reagan did. Would you agree with that?

CRITCHLOW: Yes, absolutely. Nixon had in his 1960 campaign and again when he ran in 1968 and 1972, he had a lot more celebrities endorsing him than Ronald Reagan did. When Ronald Reagan ran in 1980, he couldn’t find very many well-known celebrities that would endorse him.

SHEFFIELD: My theory on all of this is that the American Right became too interested in elections and not enough in intellectual or cultural pursuits.

CRITCHLOW: Yes, definitely.

SHEFFIELD: And so as a result, the money that formerly was being spent on entertainment was just getting spent on politics. People lost site of art as art or journalism as journalism. Instead, everything became about elections and policy. The few things which do exist which are not explicitly partisan or connected to policy and politics tend to be tainted with politics. There was a movie that came out several years ago it was called An American Carol and it was just an awful movie that was nothing but obvious propaganda. It non-stop partisanship and it had none of the grace or humor that you normally expect from a quality film even going back to films which were being written by Communist Party members in the 1940s. The Right tends to over-politicize things because there’s such an interest in elections.

CRITCHLOW: Yes, well absolutely. The conservatives and Republicans having won the White House and winning elections and taking the Congress with Newt Gingrich they became primarily concerned with elections. And meanwhile, the Left was organizing on the grassroots level on all kinds of movements, health care reform and the green movement and these various causes. And they were also promoting entertainment culturally that was basically a left-wing outlook. And I think that one of the ironic consequences of the successes of the conservatives in turning the Republican Party into the party of conservatism that we lost the culture war. And the Right hasn’t done as good of a job on that cultural front.

As you said, they tend to over-politicize things and the only place that you see kind of a conservative values finding expression now and then is religious films or occasionally children’s cartoons or movies. But we’ve lost the cultural war. And the question is what we’re going to do about it. Because not only have we lost the cultural war, I think in many ways we’re losing the intellectual war. You look at conservatism in the 1950s and I think I’m speaking to the choir here, you look at National Review and you look at conservative magazines at the time, there was an intellectual quality to them. Today it’s all about Washington and inside-the-Beltway kind of orientation. So you don’t see books getting reviewed very often even though they’re intellectuals. It’s all inside DC players and a lot of times, they’re reviewing books by leftists. It’s all inside-the-Beltway orientation.

SHEFFIELD: I guess one way of putting it is that the Right has learned all the wrong things from the Soviet Union and not any of the right things.

CRITCHLOW: Right. That’s probably a good way of putting it.

SHEFFIELD: Do you think that the general decline of religion in elite circles and the Republican Party sort of becoming the de facto party of people of faith might have contributed to the decline of the Hollywood Right? I ask because a lot of these early directors like John Ford or Frank Capra were actually rather devout people but the new Hollywood class was was decidedly anti-religious or irreligious at the very least.

CRITCHLOW: Yes. And what was also occurring was a growing secularization of American culture. Obviously many Americans continued to be devout Catholics and devout Protestants and Mormons but generally the culture has become more secular, and this is particularly the case with younger people. And younger people tend to go to the movies. So while some films such as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ did extremely well but Hollywood is basically secular in its outlook, as you put it, anti-religious. They just find religious values abhorrent really. They don’t quite come out and say that but that is their general sentiment.

SHEFFIELD: I would say that you do see statements like that in a lot of films or television shows that have been made where the bad guy tends to be a priest or a very religious Protestant who is leading a double life.

CRITCHLOW: It’s hard to find a film in which you’re going to get a priest who is really kind of a noble character as in On the Waterfront with Karl Malden. In today’s films, too often the evangelical ministers are just leading double lives or you find businessmen who is a Republican or Christian and you’re going to see that they’re really actually hypocrites.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And that is not to say that one ought not to have characters like that since religious hypocrisy has certainly been a staple of literature but it’s just that now we’re actually sort of getting to the opposite point where almost all of these people are being portrayed as evil. It’s quite the opposite from the way things were before when father knew best and priests and businessmen were always honest. Whatever happened to shades of grey?

CRITCHLOW: Well as you see in Bing Crosby movies where he played a priest or Pat O’Brien who was also a Catholic, they made films depicting priests as really devout people who were concerned with helping people. You had films like Boys Town, The Bells of St. Mary’s which showed priests as simply devout people who were not hypocrites. And no one is suggesting, as you said, that there shouldn’t be nuance in film and we know that inconsistencies or contradictions add depth to characters but today, a lot of depictions of religious people are just stereotypes. They’re portrayed as pretty much overt hypocrites so everybody watching the show can obviously see that and snicker.

SHEFFIELD: Back to the book, one of the other things that was happening during the middle of the 20th century was that the Republican and Democratic parties were losing their ideological diversity. Whereas before you had conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, the parties were shifting toward a single ideologies. Why don’t you tell us a little about that?

CRITCHLOW: I think that one of the major themes in my book is that the Republican Party in California and in Hollywood itself was very divided between kind of moderate conservatives and very conservative wings. And so the Republican Party as it was being rebuilt really, especially after the 1964 Goldwater nomination, was divided between moderate conservatives and the deeper Right. And one of the greater successes of that time was how Ronald Reagan in his 1966 candidacy managed to reunify the party when he ran for governor. And he did that by using principled pragmatism. He was very, very pragmatic. He had core values and core issues, he was deeply conservative but he also understood that there would have to be compromises in order to bring the two factions of the party back together. And that was the success of Ronald Reagan. We tend to forget, those people who are conservatives today, just how pragmatic Ronald Reagan was. He was principled, he had core values, he brought that message to the voters, but inside his political campaigns and in his political career, he was willing to compromise on the issues that he thought were necessary to advance the larger cause. But he was not willing to compromise on the issues that were his core issues: lower taxes, national defense, and trying to reform the government bureaucracy. So he compromised. And I think that’s a lesson that Republicans today need to learn. There is no such thing as a totally perfect candidate and that there was compromise in order to win elections. And at the time, for Reagan to defeat Pat Brown who was governor at the time and later with Jimmy Carter, that’s a major lesson that can be found in When Hollywood Was Right.

SHEFFIELD: One illustrative anecdote on that that you tell is that in 1964 when Reagan was nominated to be chairman of Citizens for Goldwater, many other conservatives were actually suspicious of this young upstart trying to come in and tell them what to do. Tell us about that.

CRITCHLOW: There were many people who were very upset by Ronald Reagan who had just registered as a Republican. A few years earlier, he had declared himself an independent but then changed over so he was new to the Republican party in 1964. So he went to a meeting of Citizens for Goldwater shortly after he had been appointed the chairman and at the convention, he was openly attacked by speakers and on the floor by grassroots activists who thought that he wasn’t a genuine conservative.

And he was seated next to Cliff White who had run the grassroots effort that had won Goldwater the nomination and White leaned over and whispered, I can’t take these attacks on you. And Reagan gently said, this is my fight, you don’t need to do this. So Reagan got up to the podium and said in his way that I know people are very upset with my appointment but we shouldn’t be fighting with ourselves, we’re all Republicans. And I have an idea: why don’t we have a co-chairman. And so the favorite of the grassroots Right agreed to that.

And that was the kind of display of what a masterful politician that Ronald Reagan was. And he did this in his 1966 campaign for governor. There were still moderates such as Caspar Weinberger who had been on the Republican central committee, there were people on the Right who really disliked him and others like him. But Reagan was able to reconcile the factions. He was often able to go to one side or the other and offer them a concession and keep them together and by doing so, he was able to win the election which really surprised a lot of people. He was a masterful politician and we often tend to forget that politics is about personal compromise and it’s about having masterful politicians. I think that Reagan should be a hero to conservatives not just because of his principles but because he was so politically adept.

SHEFFIELD: He also understood the importance of being able to communicate to everyone, not just the people who agreed with him. I think that’s something since his time that has kind of been lost on the Right. People tend to think so much about turnout that there’s not enough thought about how to create more people who might theoretically vote conservative who are not currently doing so.

CRITCHLOW: Absolutely. Ronald Reagan in 1966 as well as in 1980 was able to reach out and talk to people. He had kind of a populist message when you listened to it. He was able to talk to people that didn’t sound kind of inside-the-beltway. He could talk about policy issues but he was able to articulate the principles in a way that the average American could understand. I mean we forget that there was this same sense of American in the late 1960s and early 1970s as there is today. Republicans were divided, there was a sense that society was coming apart, that we were failing economically. There was social disorder on the streets with urban riots. And Reagan was able to respond to that like an average citizen and he was able to articulate and enunciate the anger that many people were feeling without appearing anxious himself or angry himself.

And that’s what the Republicans today need to learn. It wasn’t just policy wonk talk and it wasn’t just looking like the Republicans were looking to protect big business. They represented the citizens of American and that was all citizens and all working people with the great diversity of America. And that’s what Ronald Reagan tended to do.

It’s a contrast when you see the Republicans of today that they start talking about policy issues that are going into the weeds. Most people don’t follow politics in America, they don’t follow policy issues and they don’t want to get into the weeds about the policy. They want to hear leaders talk about their concerns within a larger framework. That is what’s kind of missing today in Republican politics.

SHEFFIELD: And with that, I’ve got to wrap things up here. Thanks for joining me Donald Critchlow. The book is When Hollywood Was Right: How Movie Stars, Studio Moguls, and Big Business Remade American Politics. It’s definitely worth checking out and adding to your book collection.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013