Did Ronald Reagan inspire one of the most famous lines in movie history? The widely quoted Dirty Harry "Do you feel lucky?" line.
That is what The Atlantic senior editor, Christopher Orr was wondering. Most of us would enjoy that premise. In the case of Orr, he found it "creepy." The Atlantic had posted a fascinating video clip from a 1954 General Electric Theater episode in which Ronald Reagan as a doctor confronts juvenile deliquent James Dean. Here is the analysis of that video from Orr:
...It's commonplace (and, I think, entirely accurate) to describe the "Dirty" Harry Callahan persona that Clint Eastwood wore to such effect beginning in 1971 as a harbinger of the Reagan Revolution. But who could possibly have imagined that, nearly two decades before Harry uttered his iconic, "Do you feel lucky, punk?" monologue--yes, I know the quote's not exact, but it's the accepted shorthand--Reagan himself would have uttered lines so uncannily alike? As Dean points his pistol at Reagan, the latter replies (shortly before the four-minute mark in the clip):
It's only a .32. It's not a very big bullet....You gotta be lucky, and if you're lucky--very lucky--then you've killed another man.... If you're not lucky, that bullet isn't gonna stop me.
Sure, the direction of the gun barrel is reversed and, with it, the precise nature of the threat. Nonetheless, the aggressive invocation of weapon caliber (this time to belittle, not boast), the repeated demand that his opponent surrender either to him or to a potentially lethal luck--I, for one, found the confluence at once creepy and oddly unsurprising: the missing piece of a long-abandoned puzzle, the belated drop of the other shoe. As remarkable as I found this forgotten clip, on some level I feel we knew it was out there all along.
Creepy? Why would this make you feel creepy, Christopher? Most people would probably find this fascinating. Of course, media liberals were also upset by Reagan's use of another Dirty Harry line as you can see in this Time story from 1985 when The Gipper was still Commander-In-Chief:
"I have my veto pen drawn and ready for any tax increase that Congress might even think of sending up. And I have only one thing to say to the tax increasers. Go ahead--make my day."
--Ronald Reagan, to the American Business Conference
The threat was one that Reagan had voiced many times before. But the words, echoing a celebrated Clint Eastwood line, marked a new high in cocky combativeness, even for a President who has never been exactly deficient in that quality. Both the business executives who greeted the dare with applause and laughter and the members of the Senate Budget Committee at whom it was aimed were aware that Reagan was mockingly embracing the very swaggering-cowboy image his detractors have long been trying to pin on him.
One of the commenters on Orr's article pointed out why his analogy with Dirty Harry isn't exact:
The juvenile delinquent is only a "big man" because he holds a gun (this isn't subtext - he actually SAYS IT). But, at the end, when Reagan tackles Dean and the gun flies into the next room - Reagan runs, retrieves the pistol - and Dean cowers then under the table.
If Reagan had turned the pistol on Dean - then yes - it would be been an early Dirty Harry moment. But he doesn't. This story not about vengeance - unlike Harry Callahan. It's just an ordinary citizen trying to protect his family.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the General Electric Theater clip for your humble correspondent comes at the 1:17 mark when James Dean began performing a sort of jazzy bebop type dance that seems to have prefigured rock 'n' roll. So was this the first recorded instance of rock 'n' roll dancing? And does Christopher Orr also find that "creepy?"