A review of "Movie Nights with the Reagans," by Mark Weinberg (Simon & Schuster, 304 pages , $17)

Hanging with the Gipper

Before banging out my own take on “Top Gun: Maverick” a few weeks back, I checked out other reviews. Most were raves. The big outlier was Leo Robson’s notice at the left-wing New Statesman, which was less a critical assessment of the new film than a polemic about the “avid Red-baiter” who was president when the original “Top Gun” came out in 1986 (and when Robson was not yet born). 

Red-baiter? What a tame label for the man whose policies brought the Soviet Union crashing down and freed the captive states of Eastern Europe! 

“Top Gun, sneered Robson, exuded a “loathing of abroad” that, he thinks, typified the Reagan era. No, Reagan didn’t loathe “abroad”—he loathed Communism. Robson went on to quote from a memoir, Movie Nights with the Reagans—which he contemptuously described as “dewy”—wherein Mark Weinberg, who worked as Reagan’s assistant press secretary, writes that the Gipper appreciated the “unabashedly pro-military” “Top Gun” and that the movie helped America get over Vietnam. 

After reading Robson’s piece, I knew what to do: I immediately ordered Movie Nights with the Reagans. Published in 2018, it’s described on Amazon as “an intimate, behind-the-scenes look inside the Reagan presidency—told through the movies they watched together every week at Camp David.” How could this not be loads of fun? And how come I’d never heard of it?  

Well, the book arrived. And yep, it’s a fun read. In the opening pages, Weinberg explains that he was one of a small number of lucky staffers who almost always accompanied the Reagans when they went to Camp David for the weekend, and who had standing invitations to join them when they screened movies—some of them recent releases, some of them “golden oldies”—after dinner. Weinberg gives us glimpses of the Reagans’ reactions to some of these films. During “E.T., for example, “the president seemed enchanted,” and at the end “both he and the First Lady were crying.”

But for the most part, Weinberg uses the movies thematically. Case in point: the George Burns comedy “Oh, God! Book II” serves as a springboard for some reflections on Reagan’s faith. If you’re old enough, you’ll remember that the media frequently mocked the Gipper’s professions of piety because he wasn’t a regular churchgoer. In fact he told Weinberg more than once “that one of his biggest regrets about life in the White House was his inability to attend regular Sunday worship services,” because—characteristically—he didn’t want to inconvenience fellow congregants by forcing them “to pass through metal detectors” or to endanger them in case malefactors should try to take him out while he was in prayer.  

Similarly, the feminist farce “9 to 5” provides Weinberg with an opportunity to discuss Reagan’s attitude toward women. Yes, he had old-fashioned manners, always insisting that women precede him when entering a room and never telling an off-color joke in mixed company. But although the media depicted him as an enemy of women’s rights, he “never judged people on the basis of gender” and, in fact, “those who influenced him the most—and those for whom he had the greatest respect and relied upon most heavily—were women,” first and foremost his wife and Margaret Thatcher. 

In the “9 to 5” chapter, by the way, Weinberg clears up a decades-long misconception for me. I’d always been under the impression that “Just Say No” was the official slogan of Nancy’s anti-drug crusade; as Weinberg notes, the media came up with that label, as a way of making her approach seem simplistic. There’s nothing original, then, about the media’s current “Don’t Say Gay” fiction. 

So it goes: “The Untouchables” triggers an account of Reagan’s largely unsung efforts to wipe out organized crime; “Chariots of Fire” offers the chance to examine his Anglophilia, his famously close bond with Thatcher, and the Reagans’ far less well known—at least to me—friendships with several members of the British royal family. 

Weinberg also discusses the Reagans’ relationships to some of the stars of the movies they watched. Henry Fonda (“On Golden Pond”) was an old Hollywood pal. In the 1950s, when Reagan began doing turns as a master of ceremonies, George Burns (“Oh, God! Book II”) gave him pointers. And Katharine Hepburn (also in “On Golden Pond”) was a longtime chum of Nancy’s mother, staying with the Davises when visiting Chicago and playing hostess to Nancy when the latter went to New York to start her acting career. (As a Hepburn fan, I was disappointed to discover that she cut Nancy off after discovering she was a Republican.) 

But by far the most winning parts of Weinberg’s book are, quite simply, the many glimpses he gives us of the Reagans away from the cameras, being entirely themselves as they interact with him and other staffers. Weinberg worked for the Reagans for a decade—eight years at the White House, and two more afterwards in California—and during all that time he never saw them be anything other than polite to strangers, friendly with underlings, and affectionate toward each other. 

Weinberg records overhearing only one argument between the First Couple—less an argument, really, than a very mild disagreement about a haircut, for which Reagan apologized to Weinberg the next day. He recalls the time Reagan summoned him to the Oval Office—to hand back a ballpoint pen he’d borrowed, and to apologize for having neglected to return it earlier. And he recounts the time that chief of staff Don Regan, whose “imperious style” turned Weinberg off, ordered White House spokesman Larry Speakes to fire him; when word got back to the First Couple, the president phoned Weinberg and un-fired him, saying, “there must be some misunderstanding. I told Don that you are part of the family.” 

Movie Nights with the Reagans turned out to be a nice complement to Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher, which has been my bedtime reading during the last few weeks. I’m well into the second of three volumes, and my admiration for the lady just keeps growing. She wasn’t just a brilliant stateswoman; she was a human being of extraordinary character—unwaveringly honest, uncommonly courageous, and always considerate with subordinates: a combination of attributes that are found in precious few top-level politicians, but that, as it happens, Thatcher shared in spades with her counterpart and compeer in the White House. 

No, Weinberg’s charming anecdotes don’t mean that Reagan was never wrong about anything, that he was always a model of ethical perfection, or that none of his policies ever damaged anyone. But they do provide yet more evidence that he was, as Weinberg puts it at the end of his acknowledgments, “a uniquely decent, kind, gentle, principled, exemplary, and wise man.” Compared to the deceitful, corrupt shell of a creature who sits in the Oval Office today, and to the gallery of conniving, self-dealing sociopaths on Capitol Hill, how almost unbelievably fine and noble a figure he cuts! 

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