It had been a busy week for President Ronald Reagan, and I was expecting a low-key evening watching a movie at Camp David with him and Nancy Reagan. What I wasn’t expecting was for that movie to yield a little insight into Reagan’s nostalgia, and the force that pulled him out of it and onward. Nor did I expect a mention of the president’s ex-wife, which made for one of the most awkward nights we ever shared together.
The year was 1985, and, as a presidential press aide, I had become the regular companion for the president and first lady on their weekends away. The idea of having someone from the Press Office accompany the president to Camp David was White House Press Secretary Jim Brady’s. He thought it was essential that there be a point of contact with the chief executive at all times—someone who could act as Brady’s eyes and ears “just in case.”
Just a couple of weeks earlier, the president had had major surgery to remove a cancerous growth. Before the Camp David retreat, which was scheduled for July 26-28, 1985, the president had endured an exhausting week for someone who was recovering from such a major surgery. There was a state visit by Chinese President Li Xiannian; meetings on a variety of topics, including the deficit and budget; sanctions against South Africa; the case of John Anthony Walker Jr., an officer in the U.S. Navy who had recently been arrested and charged with having operated as a Russian spy for more than 25 years; a Cabinet meeting; and an interview with Hugh Sidey of Time magazine.
By the time Reagan boarded Marine One on the south grounds of the White House that Friday afternoon, he was tired and ready for a relaxing weekend. But he hardly showed it. When he and Mrs. Reagan emerged from the diplomatic entrance, he beamed—clearly happy to be on the way to a place that remained one of his favorites throughout his eight years in office. A larger-than-usual press contingent had gathered to witness their departure.
As Marine One took off, the feeling set in that everything was back to normal. On the helicopter with the Reagans were the president’s personal aide, Jim Kuhn, his army aide, a physician, two Secret Service agents—and me. After we landed at Camp David, we traveled in a mini-motorcade to Aspen Lodge, and just before the president entered, someone suggested that he might prefer a quiet evening off instead of inviting the rest of us over for the usual movie showing. None of us wanted to tempt fate or tax Reagan, who was already in his mid-70s, as he continued to recover his surgery.
Nothing doing. “No, no,” the president said. “I’ve been looking forward to this and want you all to come.”
“Yes sir,” we said almost in unison, and that was that. Even though the “call time” for the movie was 8:00 p.m. as usual, we gathered at the front door of Aspen at 7:45. It was a typically warm, muggy July evening. As always, Reagan opened the door at 7:50.
The lights dimmed, and the movie started.
The Reagans were looking forward to seeing Back to the Future, maybe because its star, Michael J. Fox, was already well known for playing a precocious Republican teenager on one of their favorite television shows, “Family Ties,” then entering its fourth season. Fox played Alex P. Keaton, the son of two aging hippie parents growing up with his two sisters—and in the final seasons, a brother—in suburban Ohio. Young Alex, to the bafflement of his liberal mother and father, had grown up into a staunch conservative, fond of quoting the economist Milton Friedman (a Reagan favorite), wearing tailored suits and carrying his schoolwork in a briefcase.
In the film, which had just been released three weeks earlier, Fox plays Marty McFly, a high school student from a loving but struggling family. Through his friendship with a local scientist, inventor and all-around eccentric, Doc Brown, Marty is transported from the present year of 1985 back to 1955 in a time machine made from a converted DMC DeLorean sports car. As he adjusts to the shock of living in his hometown of Hill Valley, California, 30 years in the past—and falls in with a younger but no less wacky Doc Brown—Marty’s unexpected mission is to help the teenage incarnations of his parents meet each other and fall in love and then, as the title suggests, return successfully to the year 1985.
Both Reagans appeared engrossed in Back to the Future, often laughing heartily. The president got a kick out of the fact that when Marty first goes back to 1955 and walks past Hill Valley’s movie theater, the marquee shows Cattle Queen of Montana, the 1954 film starring Barbara Stanwyck and Ronald Reagan.
At the time, Roger Ebert compared Back to the Future to Frank Capra’s 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life and speculated that executive producer Steven Spielberg was “emulating the great studio chiefs of the past.” The timeless quality of the storytelling was not lost on the two veterans of old Hollywood sitting with us in the darkened living room.
But beyond that, I could not help but wonder if the president may have seen parts of himself in certain aspects of the film. Marty journeys back to a simpler time—when patriotism mattered, when the town square was kept a little cleaner, when everyone seemed to smile a little easier and the music the kids listened to was just a little softer. Reagan often implored us to embrace the simple values that informed this earlier era, to recapture the grit and spirit of togetherness that helped win World War II and usher in the prosperity of the 1950s. Indeed, America’s booming economy at home and unrivaled standing abroad, which characterized Reagan’s 1980s, in some ways mirrored the country’s similarly strong footing in the 1950s.
Of course, the 1950s were far from perfect—in reality or in the movie. Marty’s goal is always to get “back to the future,” back to 1985. It would have been far more difficult to make a movie chronicling a character’s struggles to get back to the eve of Reagan’s election in 1980, with its gas lines, stagflation and the Iranian hostage crisis in full swing. Or even worse, back to the mid-1970s, when the Watergate scandal had ratcheted up national tension to nerve-wracking levels.
Marty knows he must get back to 1985 because his future is there, and while he can’t see what it holds, he knows he must return to experience it. But to do that, he has to make sure his future parents get together so that Marty himself can be born in the first place.
Marty’s future father, George McFly, is a loner and a bit lost, but he is madly in love with Marty’s future mother, Lorraine. When Marty encourages George to tell Lorraine that “destiny”—or as George famously flubs the line, “density”—has brought them together, he is speaking literally as a part of that destiny himself.
Reagan believed in the concept of destiny and the guiding hand of providence. It was plain to see in their everyday interactions that he and Nancy believed they were destined for each other. But he also had a long-standing vision of destiny for America and its people. As early as 1952, Reagan said to a graduating class at William Woods College that he “always thought of America as a place in the divine scheme of things that was set aside as a promised land.”
It was this unshakeable belief in America’s boundless future that drove Reagan throughout his presidency. In his disdain for limits and his endless capacity to look ahead, he resembled the movie’s Doc Brown. Like Brown, Reagan was a visionary, a dreamer, a man whose imagination was among his greatest assets—yet always a realist. As it turned out, both Brown and Reagan were right: There is such a thing as destiny, though sometimes it needs a little push.
In only one brief instance did the mood in the room darken. It was during a scene after Marty McFly arrives in 1955 and meets the younger Doc Brown:
DOC: Tell me, Future Boy, who’s president of the United States in 1985?
MARTY: Ronald Reagan.
DOC: Ronald Reagan? The actor? [Rolls his eyes.] Ha! Then who’s vice president, Jerry Lewis? I suppose Jane Wyman is the first lady?
MARTY: Whoa, wait. Doc!
DOC: And Jack Benny is secretary of the Treasury!
The movie continued, but for me—and, I suspected, those around me—it felt as if the air had gone out of the Aspen Lodge. Something lingered in the room. A discomfort. That evening was only the second time in all eight years of my service in the White House that I had ever heard Jane Wyman’s name mentioned or referred to by anyone other than reporters.
Mrs. Reagan rarely mentioned her husband’s first wife, an actress to whom he was married from 1940 to 1949, though she did once recall going with the president to Jane’s house to visit their children, Michael and Maureen. “Jane was perfectly nice to me,” Mrs. Reagan wrote in her autobiography, “but those visits were awkward. Not only had she been married to Ronnie, but she was the star, and it was her house and her children. I felt out of place, and I was a little in awe of her.” She also noted that Jane “knew how to play on Ronnie’s good nature” and had somehow managed to convince him not to remarry until she did. (Nancy convinced him otherwise: The couple wed on March 4, 1952, eight months before Wyman tied the knot for the fourth time.)
Still, the unspoken ban on mentioning her was pretty clear. In 1983 a staffer was riding in the limo with the president after some routine event. For reasons that I will never understand, my colleague happened to ask the president if he had ever seen Falcon Crest, the popular 1980s prime-time soap opera that starred Wyman as the conniving wine baron Angela Channing. Falcon Crest, which began airing on CBS in 1981, the same year Reagan took office, was routinely a top-ten show in the Nielsen ratings. It was hard to imagine that it escaped either of the Reagans’ attention.
The president did not get easily riled. But when he did, we knew to watch out. He stared at his aide with an intensity the man had never seen before and said, in the iciest tone imaginable, “No. Why do you ask?”
There was no good answer to that question. The aide attempted none. The staffer told me later that he wanted to jump out of the moving car but instead resigned himself to shrugging his shoulders and looking out the window for the rest of what seemed like an interminable ride back to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
That was the weird thing about Wyman, at least to the Reagan staff: It was as if she didn’t exist to the president anymore. It was as if he had willed himself to forget about that period of his life, and was startled and resentful when asked to return to it. Throughout his administration, he never mentioned her name publicly, and she never mentioned his, even though she was given ample opportunity to do so over the years. Nonetheless, Wyman let it be known that she voted for him both in 1980 and 1984.
Only once in all the years that I knew Reagan did he mention Wyman to me. Shortly after he left the White House, we were in the back of a car in Los Angeles on our way to some event. He was reminiscing about Hollywood, and particularly about the disparity between actors’ salaries in his day and now. At one point, he said, “That’s back when I was married to Wyman.” Wyman. I was struck that he mentioned her at all, and particularly by the fact that he said just her last name. Never did I hear even that from him again.
Fortunately, at the Back to the Future screening, Doc Brown’s reference to the president’s first wife passed without comment, and our breathing returned to normal. The discussion after the movie was pleasant, and the Reagans seemed particularly impressed by Fox’s performance. The president commented on how clever the movie was and how this was the type of movie that Hollywood should be making, as opposed to some of the more controversial, violent or adult-themed films that seemed all too common at the time.
Six months later, on February 4, 1986, President Reagan channeled Doc Brown in his State of the Union address, as he exhorted Americans to remember that the sky—not the street—was the limit.
“Never has there been a more exciting time to be alive,” the president said, “a time of rousing wonder and heroic achievement. As they said in the film Back to the Future, ‘Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.’”
That was how Ronald Reagan saw America. It is how those of us who knew him and loved him see it still.