Reagan Biographer: RFK Got Reagan Fired From General Electric Theater

December 14th, 2014 6:39 PM

Americans owe the Kennedys, more specifically the late Robert F. Kennedy, a huge debt of gratitude. Without him, we might never have gotten President Ronald Reagan.

This was hardly Kennedy's intention, however, when he unscrupulously threatened to cancel government contracts with General Electric unless the company fired the popular host of its Sunday evening television show, General Electric Theater, according to Reagan biographer and former aide Thomas C. Reed in his new book, "The Reagan Enigma: 1964-1980."

Reed, who also served as Secretary of the Air Force under presidents Ford and Carter, appeared on Meet the Press Press Pass this morning and described how Kennedy eventually got his comeuppance in a debate with Reagan several years later--

MTP HOST CHUCK TODD: He (Reagan) gets invited to debate Bobby Kennedy. Tell me how that came about and tell me about how this relationship really became pretty antagonistic.

REED: It has its basis in the early '60s when Mr. Bobby Kennedy became attorney general. He was a very hard-edged politician and once he was attorney general he pursued organized crime but he also began to use the powers of office to harass the political opponents of the Kennedy family. In February of 1962 Kennedy's Justice Department hauls Ronald Reagan before a grand jury in Los Angeles to look into the activities of the Screen Actors Guild and their relationships with the agencies. Two weeks later, after that interrogation, the Justice Department subpoenas Reagan's tax returns. That is bad enough in itself but then, two months after that, Reagan gets the word that his gig on the General Electric Theater has been canceled. He tells his son who I've talked to, he said at a Sunday lunch, he said, Michael, I lost my job today, that I learned that from Ralph Cordiner, the chairman of General Electric, that Bobby Kennedy called and threatened contract cancellations if they don't get me off the air.

Now other writers have said the Screen Actors, the General Electric Theater was losing market share and so forth, but Reagan thought Kennedy called to get him ...

TODD: In his mind he believed Bobby Kennedy cost him his job. Now the debate, the infamous debate between Bobby Kennedy and Ronald Reagan which, you know, if "A Time for Choosing," the speech in '64 sort of put Ronald Reagan on the national map with conservatives, that '68, the debate with Bobby Kennedy before '68, that in your book, you say that is what essentially convinced Reagan to give a presidential run a shot.

REED: He absolutely did. It was called the Telstar debate, it was a satellite in the early days of satellites, Kennedy in the east, Reagan in California, students over in the city of London asking questions about American foreign policy. Reagan studied for that as though it was a presidential debate, he was ready. Kennedy staffers admitted that he didn't do much preparation. Reagan absolutely mopped the floor with Kennedy, it was a big triumph. But that wasn't enough. Suddenly, not suddenly but when it's 1968 (the Reagan-Kennedy debate took place in May 1967), Johnson's out and Kennedy is suddenly running for president, that was the trigger that really energized Reagan to say, here's a chance for settlement with Bobby Kennedy on the biggest stage in the world. And that's one of the key reasons why his '68 campaign really came to life.

Notice how Todd refers to the Reagan-Kennedy debate as "infamous." Would he label it such in the unlikely event that RFK had mopped the floor with Reagan?

Reed isn't exaggerating in his description of the satellite exchange between the two rising stars. In a May 2007 National Review article titled "The Great Forgotten Debate," Paul Kengor catalogued the media consensus of Reagan as the clear winner --

There was total agreement, including among media sources who revered Bobby Kennedy, from the San Francisco Chronicle to Newsweek, that Reagan overwhelmingly won the debate. "To those unfamiliar with Reagan's big-league savvy," reported Newsweek, "the ease with which he fielded questions about Vietnam may have come as a revelation." Newsweek judged that "political rookie Reagan ... left old campaigner Kennedy blinking when the session ended." Not having a crystal ball into the tragic year ahead for Kennedy, Newsweek pondered whether the debate might be a "dry run" for a future set of "Great Debates" between these two promising presidential aspirants.

The late historian David Halberstam acknowledged that "the general consensus" was that "Reagan ... destroyed him." Lou Cannon, in a 1969 book on Reagan and California assemblyman Jesse Unruh, agreed that "Reagan clearly bested Kennedy." Another of Reagan's first biographers, Joseph Lewis, recorded that the "tanned and relaxed" Reagan "talked easily and precisely without a hint of uncertainty or hostility" and "deflated" the "anguished" Kennedy, who "gulped in restrained agony" when answering questions." Kennedy, said Lewis, "looked as if he had stumbled into a minefield."

... Reagan performed so well that his presidential boosters sought to use clips from the debate during the 1968 Oregon presidential primary, and requested a copy from CBS. Kennedy, however, reportedly did not want the video to be made available; CBS, naturally, acceded to his request.

CBS's apparent acquiescence may explain why only a 10-minute clip from the debate is available on YouTube, nor is there footage to be found at ReaganFoundation on the video outlet.

Decades later, Kennedy sycophants in media were still providing useful cover. The index of my copy of Newsweek editor Evan Thomas's "Robert Kennedy: His Life," published in 2000, contains only two references to Reagan, neither of which mention the debate, tax audit or firing by General Electric. 

Reagan's son Michael was convinced that Kennedy's actions had the unintended effect of pushing his father toward politics. In a February 2011 column at, Reagan wrote that Kennedy "in a backhanded way" had "launched" his father's career in politics --

It was a classic case of liberals outsmarting themselves. If Bobby Kennedy had let Ronald Reagan continue hosting his successful TV show, would my father have run for governor? Doubtful. And if he had not been elected governor, he certainly would not have run for president of the United States.

Sometimes the Law of Unintended Consequences is a good thing!

In his interview with Todd, Reed implies, no doubt unintentionally, that Kennedy ran for president in 1968 after incumbent Democrat Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek re-election. It was actually the other way around. RFK, after initially stating emphatically that he would not run that year, abruptly launched his campaign in mid-March after fellow Democrat Eugene McCarthy nearly defeated Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. Two weeks later, LBJ declared he would not run for re-election.

Reagan and Kennedy both won their party's primary in California that year -- on the night that Kennedy was shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, his life and campaign brutally ended by an assassin. Even though Reagan received more primary votes in 1968 than eventual GOP nominee Richard Nixon, California was the only state Reagan won and Nixon finished far ahead in delegates.

Twelve years later, when Reagan was elected president in his third attempt, another Kennedy ran on the Democrat side -- Ted Kennedy. As was the case in 1968, if only briefly that year, a Kennedy was challenging an incumbent Democrat in the White House. And once again, a Republican was elected that November.