Thirty-six years ago, a third of a century and rather more, American liberals, broadly the American left, gathered in Washington to regroup after the war and to heal the schisms occasioned by communism and Joseph Stalin. The result was one of the more durable of liberal organizations—Americans for Democratic Action. We—for I was one—looked for allies wherever they might be discovered, and especially we looked in those days to Hollywood, where, more than anywhere else in the republic, liberalism was associated with money—not just money but easy money, as then it was called. And there, from 1947 to 1952, one of our notable allies was the youthful head of the Screen Actors Guild, a committed trade unionist, a solid Roosevelt man, and a financial contributor to our cause. This was the talented actor Ronald Reagan. He was, geographically and in other ways, a somewhat distant figure. But he was one of us nonetheless.
In ensuing years we had a certain sense of being deserted. His acting career having diminished, our former colleague began giving lectures for General Electric on the unparalleled virtues of the uninhibited free enterprise system. And, it was thought, he had come to believe what he was saying. He went on to be a Republican governor of California for two terms, and by reputation a notably conservative one. It was still said in his liberal defense that he was more conservative in principle than in practice, in rhetoric than in tax and expenditure reduction. The chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley told me in later years that he much preferred Ronald Reagan as governor to his Democratic successor, Jerry Brown. I remember his exact words: “When Brown cuts the budget, you have to take it seriously.” Still, it seemed clear that our old coreligionist was gone.
Now Ronald Reagan has been president for approaching three years, and I for one am no longer sure. I’m prepared to argue, not as a liberal, not plausibly as a conservative, but merely as an observer of the political scene, that, for all this time. Ronald Reagan, in his own most famous words, has stayed the course. Popular opinion is gravely against me; only the evidence is powerfully on my side. It tempts one to believe that Ronald Reagan has been biding his time all these years, waiting to do something for the faith into which he was first initiated. Perhaps this was unconscious. By his own admission and oratory, Mr. Reagan is a profoundly religious man. Who can tell, including the president himself, by what inner occult forces he has been kept faithful to his deeper past?
The proof begins with the political, and particularly the liberal, dialectic in the United States. A basic and sadly overlooked tendency in our frequently comfortable land is to relaxation. In particular, liberals and those upon whom they depend for support are only slightly stirred by their own efforts, adjurations, and oratory, impassioned as these may be; it is only a vital…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.