Liveblogging the American Revolution: October 17, 1777: Surrender of General Burgoyne
Things to Read for Your Morning Procrastination on October 17, 2015

Weekend Reading: Hendrik Hertzberg: Reviewing "An American Life"

Hendrik Hertzberg: Reviewing "An American Life": "We knew about Reagan and war movies...

...What Cannon adds is that Reagan loved peace movies, too.

He couldn't stop talking about "War Games", a Matthew Broderick vehicle about a teenage hacker who breaks into the NORAD computer and saves the world from being destroyed by trigger-happy Pentagon generals. He watched "The Day After", the 1983 made-for-TV nuclear holocaust weepie that his own people spent weeks trying to discredit, and found it powerful and affecting.

His strategic defense proposal was strikingly reminiscent of one of his own movies. "Murder in the Air" (1940), in which the future president, playing Secret Service agent Brass Bancroft, foils a foreign plot to steal the 'Inertia Projector,' an American my gun that can shoot down distant enemy aircraft. And according to Colin Powell, Reagan's last national security adviser, Reagan's proposal to share strategic defense technology with the Soviets was inspired by "The Day the Earth Stood Still", a gripping 1951 science fiction movie in which a flying saucer descends on Washington. The saucer disgorges Michael Rennie, the urbane representative of an advanced civilization, who warns earthlings to put aside their petty quarrels among themselves or face the consequences.

If the war-movie side of Reagan had been all there was to him, as many of us feared in the early 1980s, all of us might now be radioactive ash. But because he also had his peace-movie side, he turned out to be a somewhat less predictable and altogether less frightening character. He was, in fact, a precursor, a kind of spiritual grandfather, of what has become a standard Hollywood type: the autodidactic, self-righteous, 'issue-oriented' star who is full of opinions about politics and who also dabbles in, and is fascinated by, 'New Age' phenomena. These last, in Reagan's case, include (besides astrology) extrasensory perception, precognition, sci-fi, people from other planets, and prophecies about Armageddon. It was only natural for him to be interested in such things, given that the Reagans spent most of their lives (as Nancy puts it with screwball reasonableness in My Turn) 'in the company of show-business people, where superstitions and other non-scientific beliefs are widespread and commonly accepted.'

Reagan's staff kept most of the wigginess from spilling over into the public arena. 'Here come the little green men again,' Powell used to tell his staff whenever the subject arose of Reagan's preoccupation with how an alien invasion would unify the earth. Powell, Cannon writes dryly, 'struggled diligently to keep interplanetary references out of Reagan's speeches.' They couldn't be kept out of informal conversations, though--much to the bafflement of Mikhail Gorbachev, who, when Reagan started in about invasions from outer space at the 1985 summit in Geneva, politely changed the subject...

Hertzberg's tone seems to me to be rather off here. He scorns the "wigginess". But insofar as the dreamwork of humanity is concerned, The Day the Earth Stood Still is worth infinitely more than the negative value of the neocon corpus of working papers and scholarly studies, and worth much more than the realist foreign-policy output of, say, Brookings. Would that more presidents--and more New Republic editors--were profoundly influenced by "The Day the Earth Stood Still", "War Games", and "The Day After"!