In a new book entitled The Education of Ronald Reagan, Thomas W. Evans discusses the huge effect exerted on the future president by the years he spent working for General Electric after his acting career went south. People of a certain age will remember that Reagan served as host of CBS’s enormously popular General Electric Theater from 1954 until 1962, but may not be aware that Reagan was much more than an affable host.
Evans, a lawyer who served under Reagan, points out that Reagan was not merely a talking head, but GE’s official spokesman. He gave speeches, visited factories, and explained corporate policy. Evans notes that the famous speech Reagan gave on behalf of Barry Goldwater at the 1964 Republican National Convention was a recapitulation of a stock speech he had been giving for years. To those who had heard it before, it was a greatest-hits compilation.
Unlike most washed-up movie stars, who have little or no philosophical connection with the companies or products they pitch, Reagan was tremendously affected by the free-market ideas he came into contact with while working for GE. According to Evans, he was particularly influenced by a brilliant anti-union “mentor” named Lemuel Boulware who transformed him from a wishy-washy liberal into the patron saint of modern conservatism. One can trace a direct line from Boulware’s laissez-faire mentality to Reagan’s epic confrontation with the nation’s air traffic controllers in his first term. During the GE years, Reagan was not merely collecting a paycheck. He was girding for battle.
Whatever one may think about Reagan’s politics or his mentor’s attitude toward labor unions, the GE saga is worth reviewing if only to answer the question: “Why haven’t more companies taken on pitchmen with the specific purpose of planting a congenial ally in the White House a few years down the road? Val Kilmer, Christian Slater, Danny Glover and Jeff Goldblum are bright, charismatic fellows no longer getting top billing in
On the distaff side, the larder is equally well-stocked: Madeleine Stowe, Angela Bassett, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Elizabeth Shue and Mimi Rogers all seem like savvy, personable, over-the-hill movie stars who could easily make the leap from the silver screen to the corporate arena and thence to the rarified world of politics.
Reagan-bashers, always critical of the Great Communicator’s intellect, will probably sneer that for the experiment to be repeated, a company would need a tabula rasa on which to imprint its philosophy. This is where Paris Hilton comes in. Unsuccessful in her attempts to get her acting career off the ground, Hilton seems perfect for a Reagan-like makeover. Like Reagan, she has been ridiculed as an intellectual lightweight by detractors and appeared in at least one humiliating role. (He got upstaged by a monkey in Bedtime for Bonzo; she got turned to wax in House of Wax.) Like Reagan, she has consistently been underestimated by the media and is adored by a large segment of the population.
This being the case, it is hardly inconceivable that she could soon go to work for a major corporation-Bed, Bath & Beyond or perhaps the Hilton Corporation itself-and evolve into a corporate spokeswoman and eventually a serious candidate for the White House. True, she’ll have to do some studying, but so did Reagan. True, she will always be the object of ridicule in certain quarters, but so was Reagan. Whether or not this experiment works, it is worth a try, if not with Paris Hilton then perhaps with some other slightly shopworn star like Kevin Costner, Michael Keaton or Bette Midler.
That said, for best results, Dennis Hopper should probably not be included on the list of potential candidates. Ditto Keanu Reeves.