Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

On a wing and a prayer

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“It was the greatest career move in the history of entertainment,” David Thomson writes in an entry in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. He’s speaking, of course, of Ronald Reagan:

He was a hugely successful and evasive president, as blind to disaster, inquiry, and humiliation as he was to the Constitution. And he was as lucky as he had been a loser in pictures…To paraphrase Gore Vidal, the wisdom and integrity of someone told where to stand and what to say for twenty years were made manifest. The fraudulence of the presidency was revealed so that the office could never quite be honored again.

When I look at these lines now, especially that last sentence, they can start to seem rather quaint. But Reagan has a lot to tell us about Trump, and not simply because he looks so much better by comparison. “An actor is playing the president,” Paul Slansky lamented in The Clothes Have No Emperor, a book—with its painstaking chronology of the unlikely events of the Reagan Administration—that looks increasingly funny, resonant, and frightening these days. Yet the presidency has always been something of a performance. As Malcolm Gladwell recently noted to The Undefeated, most presidents have been white men of a certain age and height:

Viewed statistically it’s absurd. Why would you limit your search for the most important job in the land to this tiny group of people? But it’s an incredibly common thing. We do a category selection before we do individual analysis.

In other words, we cast men who look the part, and then we judge them by how well they fulfill our idea of the role.

Reagan, like Trump, was unusually prone to improvising, or, in Thomson’s words, “deftly feeding the lines and situations of Warner Brothers in the 1940s back into world affairs.” Occasionally, he would tell a story to put himself in a favorable light, as when he made the peculiar claim—to Yitzhak Shamir and Simon Wiesenthal, no less—that he had personally shot documentary film of the concentration camps after World War II. (In reality, Reagan spent the war in Hollywood, where he assisted in processing footage taken by others in Europe.) But sometimes his reasons were harder to pin down. On December 12, 1983, Reagan told a story in a speech to the annual convention of the Congressional Medal Honor Society:

A B‑17 was coming back across the channel from a raid over Europe, badly shot up by anti‑aircraft; the ball turret that hung underneath the belly of the plane had taken a hit. The young ball‑turret gunner was wounded, and they couldn’t get him out of the turret there while flying. But over the channel, the plane began to lose altitude, and the commander had to order, “Bail out.” And as the men started to leave the plane, the last one to leave—the boy, understandably, knowing he was being left behind to go down with the plane, cried out in terror—the last man to leave the plane saw the commander sit down on the floor. He took the boy’s hand and said, “Never mind, son, we’ll ride it down together.” Congressional Medal of honor posthumously awarded.

Reagan recounted this story on numerous other occasions. But as Lars-Erik Nelson, the Washington bureau chief for the New York Daily News, subsequently determined, after checking hundreds of Medal of Honor citations from World War II: “It didn’t happen. It’s a Reagan story…The president of the United States went before an audience of three hundred real Congressional Medal of Honor winners and told them about a make‑believe Medal of Honor winner.”

There’s no doubt that Reagan, who often grew visibly moved as he recounted this story, believed that it was true, and it has even been used as a case study in the creation of false memories. Nelson traced it back to a scene in the 1944 movie Wing and a Prayer, as well as to a similar apocryphal item that appeared that year in Reader’s Digest. (The same story, incidentally, later became the basis for an episode of Amazing Stories, “The Mission,” starring Kevin Costner and Kiefer Sutherland and directed by Steven Spielberg. Tony Kushner once claimed that Spielberg’s movies “are the flagship aesthetic statements of Reaganism,” and this is the most compelling point I’ve seen in that argument’s favor.) But the most Trumpian aspect of the entire incident was the response of Reagan’s staff. As the Washington Post reported a few days later:

A determined White House is searching the records of American servicemen awarded the Medal of Honor in an effort to authenticate a disputed World War II story President Reagan told last week at a ceremony honoring recipients of the medal…The White House then began checking records to document the episode. Reagan is said by aides to be certain that he saw the citation exactly as he recounted it. The citations are summarized in a book published by Congress, but none of these summaries seem to fit precisely the episode Reagan described, although some are similar…The White House is now attempting to look beyond the summaries to more detailed accounts to see if one of the episodes may be the one Reagan mentioned. “We will find it,” said Misty Church, a researcher for the White House.

They never did. And the image of White House staffers frantically trying to justify something that the president said off the cuff certainly seems familiar today.

But what strikes me the most about this story is that Reagan himself had nothing to gain from it. Most of Trump’s fabrications are designed to make him look better, more successful, or more impressive than he actually is, while Reagan’s fable is rooted in a sentimental ideal of heroism itself. (It’s hard to even imagine a version of this story that Trump might have told, since the most admirable figure in it winds up dead. As Trump might say, he likes pilots who weren’t shot down.) Which isn’t to say that Reagan’s mythologizing isn’t problematic in itself, as Nelson pointed out:

[It’s] the difference between a make-believe pilot, dying nobly and needlessly to comfort a wounded boy, and the real-life pilots, bombardiers and navigators who struggled to save their planes, their crews and themselves and died trying. It’s the difference between war and a war story.

And while this might seem preferable to Trump’s approach, which avoids any talk of sacrifice in favor of scenarios in which everybody wins, or we stick other people with the cost of our actions, it still closes off higher levels of thought in favor of an appeal to emotion. Reagan was an infinitely more capable actor than Trump, and he was much easier to love, which shouldn’t blind us to what they have in common. They were both winging it. And the most characteristic remark to come out of the whole affair is how Larry Speakes, the White House spokesman under Reagan, responded when asked if the account was accurate: “If you tell the same story five times, it’s true.”

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