"I'm running against an actor, and you know who killed Abe Lincoln, don't you?”
Those were the words California Governor Pat Brown used to attack Ronald Reagan, forty years ago. Unfortunately, he was speaking to a group of school children at the time ...
While harsh, this was, perhaps, not the most egregious attack politicians have launched against actors (or the relatives of actors). In one of the most famous political attacks of all time, George Smathers allegedly accused Florida Congressman Claude Pepper of having a sister who was once a “thespian” in New York … Of course, the goal was to confuse people about what a “thespian” was – so that one doesn’t really count. Still, it represents the tension between politican and those effete, immoral actors.
In Reagan’s case, he went on to beat Brown, and ultimately to become President of the United States. But while ridiculous, Brown’s attack underscored the fact that many in America – especially the political elite – rejected the idea of a movie star becoming a politician. Of course, this was no typical movie star -- or politician, for that matter ...
Even after being elected president, Reagan was criticized by his political enemies for being “just an actor.” Liberals assumed (wrongly) that he was just a pretty face who wasn’t up to the intellectual challenges (being underestimated helped him). Of course, we now know that Reagan was well-read and had deep philosophical moorings, but most Americans didn't discover the extent of that until after his death and the publication of his letters and diary ...
Others accused Reagan of using his acting skills to manipulate the public. His defenders often argued that if being a great actor automatically translated to electoral success, then why didn’t liberals like Paul Newman – better, more famous actors, for sure – get elected president? (This defense reportedly upset Reagan who prided himself on his acting ability).
… Of course, all of this leads me to talk about Fred Thompson, the man who was supposed to be the next Ronald Reagan. So far, of course, he has failed to live up to expectations (it is ironic that the two most successful political movie stars have both been Republicans).
And while this certainly has a downside (we are still lacking a conservative savior for ‘08), it may also have an upside.
One of the reasons given for Fred Thompson's failure to catch fire has been his lack of ambition and vision – both ingredients Ronald Reagan had in surplus (after all, he ran for President twice before winning).
Should a fine actor such as Fred Thompson fail in his quest to be elected president, it will at least further buttress the argument that Ronald Reagan was, indeed, a special man whose vision – not his acting ability – made him great.