His big-screen career fading, Ronald Reagan signed a yearly contract in 1954 with General Electric to host a company-sponsored television show and travel the country speaking with GE workers. The gig paid $125,000, about $1 million in 2009 dollars, four times what he’d earned on his last film.
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“He was joining a company so obsessed with conservatism that it was not unlike the John Birch Society,” according to Edward Langley, the public-relations man who helped Reagan with his new role.
Over the next eight years Reagan polished his 20-minute presentation, addressing more than 250,000 employees in 135 factories, and GE broadened his speaking engagements to include business organizations and civic clubs.
By 1960, the once-liberal Democrat was writing to Richard Nixon and describing John Kennedy as “still old Karl Marx,” and his New Frontier program as “government being Big Brother.”
In 1961, Reagan officially switched his allegiance to the Republican Party, joining a long and influential line of Hollywood conservatives.
Steven J. Ross, author of “Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics,” says that Reagan’s practiced charm and charisma sold right-wing beliefs to former skeptics and helped make the conservative revolution possible.
I spoke with him on the following topics:
1. Political Hollywood
2. MGM’s Louis B. Mayer
3. American Triumphalism
4. Charlie Chaplin on the Left
5. GOP Tactic of Fear & Reassurance
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(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)