As a spokesman, adviser, and speechwriter to former President Ronald Reagan, Mark Weinberg spent countless weekends with the Reagans at the Aspen lodge at Camp David where the pastime of choice was watching iconic movies from the 1980s. Mr. Weinberg, who has just released his memoir, “Movie Nights with the Reagans,” gives readers a seat on the couch next the president and first lady as they laughed, cried, and were moved to action by some of Hollywood’s most famous blockbusters.
The author spoke with the Monitor about his impressionable moments from those movie-watching days.
What do we need to know about President Reagan, as a person and a historical figure, and what does his choice of films to screen at the White House say about him?
The book takes the reader back to a nostalgic time in American history, and an important time in American history, and gives them a never before seen look at the Reagans at Camp David watching movies. It also shares their thoughts on these movies, it shares their thoughts on Hollywood and how it evolved over the years, it tells the readers how Hollywood influenced them and prepared them for their national leadership role, and it shares some interesting never before told anecdotes and insights, including my interview with Nancy Reagan for this book, which was the last interview that [she was] known to give.
Why did you decide to write about your experiences at Camp David now?
This is a look at the Reagans that hadn’t been offered before, and this is one that I could uniquely write. I went to Camp David with them more weekends than anyone else on the White House staff, saw more movies with them than anyone else, and I thought it was a side of them that should be shared. It was a fun side, a revealing side, an interesting side. When I met Mrs. Reagan for that final interview I found that she thought so, too. The influence of Hollywood, and the importance of Hollywood culture in America can’t be understated, and the 1980s were extraordinarily exemplary of that.
How did you come to be on the guest list for the Reagans’ movie nights?
I was among a small group of staff that accompanied the Reagans to Camp David on the weekends. And I asked Mrs. Reagan, “how did movie nights come about?,” and she said, “Well we were all here, it just seemed like the thing to do.” The Reagans watched the movies in their lodge every Friday and Saturday night, that was one of their favorite forms of relaxation having come from the movie picture business, and they just thought it would be nice to include the people who had to be up there with them.
Why were movies so important to the Reagans?
They could sit on their couch, put up their feet, and just be themselves and spend a couple of hours enjoying a story. The movie business is where the Reagans met each other, it’s where their lives together began. They understood the movie business, they felt tied to it, they were very proud of it. They also understood, too, that movies were a reflection of popular culture, and knowing what was out there in the theaters was important to the leaders of a nation.
Of all the more than 300 movies that you watched with the Reagans, which one was your favorite? Why?
My favorite was “Hellcats of the Navy” because it was the one they were both in. That was a golden oldie, and it was an extraordinary experience ... to watch the Reagans watch the Reagans. They had wonderful memories of that, and they shared those memories with the small group that was there after the movie what it was like to make the movie, what it was like to act together, and what they remember from the Hollywood days. It was interesting to hear their perspective on how Hollywood had changed, what it was doing right, what it was doing wrong, what they liked and what they didn’t like.
How do you think President Reagan would have responded to the kinds of films that are blockbusters today? Would he have liked ‘Black Panther’?
I don’t know, he favored movies that were wholesome, that didn’t have gratuitous sex or violence [and] that did not glamorize use of illegal drugs. There’s a story in “Movie Nights” about how they felt about a movie that glamorized the use of illegal drugs, and that bothered them a lot. [That movie, “9 to 5,” which features characters smoking marijuana, deeply upset the Reagans and prompted the first lady to launch her anti-drug campaign “Just Say No.”] They liked movies that were entertaining, he would like movies that had someone to root for, [and] he certainly liked patriotic movies, so it depends. I think he would be bothered, generally, by the way Hollywood has moved away from wholesome movies and allowed its political agenda to sometimes influence what they’re making. They both had a great respect and affection for the movie industry, and would be paying close attention.
How did Reagan feel about the Oscars?
Ronald Reagan was very fond of the movie industry, and very proud of it. He never hesitated to talk about the fond memories he had working in Hollywood. On one occasion, after he was president and we were in California, we were talking in his office about Hollywood has changed over the years and it was very rare note of disappointment in his voice. He said, “You would think that after what I’ve accomplished, being the only one of the movie business to have done so, you would think that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would have acknowledged it in some way, perhaps even by an honorary Oscar. But I guess their political agenda has taken over good manners.” He was a little wistful and it was clear his feelings were hurt by that and he felt a little bit snubbed.
And it occurred to me that he was right. Had any other president, [like] Mr. Clinton or Mr.Obama, had they come from movies, I’m sure the academy would have acknowledged that one of their own had ascended to presidency. Sunday night, we’ll hear a lot of speeches and I’m sure many of them will be political, and it just reminded me ... of how Ronald Reagan felt about Hollywood and the Oscars. It would be nice for the academy to recognize what one of their own accomplished.
What did you learn from all those years of movie watching with the Reagans that has stayed with you today?
The greatest lesson from behind the scenes at Camp David is that the Reagans weren’t who you thought they were. Through these anecdotes from Camp David and elsewhere, you’ll find that they were nice, warm, and welcoming people with a sense of humor, and genuine appreciation for filmmaking, and [they were] people that treated others respectfully all the time.