By Matthew Kredell
Ronald Reagan’s unorthodox rise to the presidency only could have happened in California, noted California historian and USC professor Kevin Starr said Feb. 1 in his keynote address for the Ronald Reagan Centennial Academic Symposium.
Reagan didn’t have the usual presidential pedigree. He attended small, unremarkable Eureka College in Illinois. His preparation for politics came not from academia but from radio announcing, motion pictures, home-front Army public relations service, union leadership, television and as a spokesman for General Electric.
“When he first declared for governor of California in 1966, so many in the academic world were, at their most charitable, amused and, at their most usual manner, dismissive that a mere actor should aspire to become governor of California,” Starr said. “By the time he left the presidency, these very same individuals had become strangely silent in dismissing his intelligence. Years later, following his passing, they are increasingly acknowledging his achievement, his eloquence, his sheer brain power.”
Starr spoke in front of students, faculty and community members gathered at USC’s Davidson Conference Center. He was introduced by provost Elizabeth Garrett. The symposium was sponsored by the USC School of Policy, Planning and Development.
“I think his maturation process starting from a sports analyst to salesman and then the presidency was particularly interesting,” said Alexa Ekman, a senior majoring in political science. “I think for young aspiring leaders, it shows you don’t always need to have that Harvard education and you can end up leader of the free world. I think it’s interesting and effective for us to hear because we only know Ronald Reagan the president.”
Reagan first came to California in 1937 traveling with the Chicago Cubs as a sports broadcaster for WHO radio in Des Moines, Iowa. During the trip, he took a screen test that led to seven-year contract with Warner Bros. Though he had several notable roles, including the portrayal of George “The Gipper” Gipp in the film Knute Rockne, All American (1940), Reagan was known and sometimes mocked by critics as a “B” actor.
“Had he been a great actor, he would have remained exactly that, a great actor across his lifetime like Clark Gable or his good friend Robert Taylor, and he would be remembered that way,” Starr said. “As an actor, he was good enough to get by. But he was never so good at it that he became imprisoned in a role of playing roles.”
It was when his film career began showing signs of waning that Reagan looked for new opportunities and found politics. His success as a negotiator, later demonstrated with Congress and other world leaders, was first honed bargaining with studio heads as president of the Screen Actors Guild.
Reagan married actress Nancy Davis in Studio City’s Little Brown Church in 1952. He was elected governor of California in 1966 for the first of two terms. One of the most quotable presidents of all time, Reagan learned the value of wit and brevity from his time as an actor.
Starr concluded: “California helped him onto a wider stage where, for a bigger studio, he wrote a script of global importance.”