I Could Have Met Nancy Reagan

Published by Rick on Tagged Uncategorized

Chances would have been slim, but around this time 17 years ago, I was still living in LA and had been working as a stage manager for various independent stage productions in and around Hollywood. Through one connection, I got hired to stage manage a big propaganda fest in Santa Monica for an offshoot of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign. It meant swallowing a lot of pride and prejudice and allowing myself to be at the beck and call of a roomful of Republicans, but hey there’s harder ways to make $500. Fortunately for me, I’d been off recreational drugs for nearly a decade, or I’d have been surely jonesing for a hit of anything after two days of this. As it was, I was almost tempted to start again.

This was the new 1999 version of bringing the anti-drug rhetoric to kids in primary schools, but just to complete the brainwashing and whatever else, there was also a big-time emphasis on abstinence. There were three groups of about 20 pre-teen girls from East LA and Pasadena middle schools involved in this particular presentation, and guest speakers included news anchor Chris Matthews, columnist and Republican spokeswoman Arianna Huffington, and the biggie, former First Lady Nancy Reagan, who would be taking a break from caring from her ailing husband to come back into the limelight for a moment.

I had to be there for rehearsal for two afternoons, and running the rehearsals was a very Republican couple from the East Coast who’d brought along their 17-year-old daughter to also work backstage. The rehearsals were tedious, with numerous stops and starts while trying to get the three groups of girls to respond to simple stage directions (Maybe THEY were on drugs?), and look reasonably slick as they ran to stage positions to sing their original song. And Oh, what a song it was! Full of testimonials about “We don’t need drugs, We don’t need sex,” which from my experiences of being a kid just means if some adult tells you not to do something, your curiosity is aroused, and you’re more likely to do it than if the subject weren’t mentioned at all. It would have been intriguing to be able to check up on these girls five years down the line, and see how well the messages were taken.

What truly annoyed me about the couple was whenever the husband needed to address his wife, he’d call her “Mrs. Johnson.” FFS, you’re not in a classroom, Dude! You’re married to this woman, surely that makes you familiar enough with her that you can call her by her first name, but no, apparently you want to keep this formal division between adults and children, and the vulnerable kids might decide to also dispense with the Mrs. and call her the name her parents gave her. Every time he’d address her that way, it would grate on me, but then he’s the guy paying me, so I can’t say anything. In fact, silence was pretty much the rule for all of us lowly staff, and I was told in no uncertain terms to shut up when I saw some of the organizers bickering and actually knew (and voiced) the solution to their problem. Thank god they never found out where my politics leaned.

But one person who did was in fact, Arianna Huffington, who only a year or two later, and after divorcing her Republican congressman husband who had also outed himself as bisexual, switched sides and co-founded Huffington Post, which initially skewered conservatism pretty fully, though not quite so much now. She had always impressed me in debates on National Public Radio as a Conservative who knew what she was talking about, and upon meeting her, I confessed, “Hey, I’m a Lefty at heart, but I gotta say the Right wing needs more people like you on their side.” She was very gracious and thanked me for that.

I didn’t get to meet Chris Matthews, who back then was not particularly open as to which side he was on, but for the last decade or so with his show Hardball on MSNBC, he’s pretty clearly aligned with the left. Still, in his speech, he managed to get out the meaningless and uncontested statement that “drug use among teenagers has declined by over half since the Just Say No campaign has been instituted.” Huge applause! Didn’t matter that he offered no further proof behind his statement, but maybe he was just playing to the crowd.

After Matthews’ speech, it was time for the girls to sing the song about the choices they were making, though they couldn’t choose to not sing that hypocritical song. This was followed by some dance routine they’d sort of choreographed to Whitney Houston’s “Step By Step,” the first song of Whitney’s that I ever really cared for, but almost changed my mind after two days of hearing it. It did make me giggle when the couple’s teenage daughter, in a moment of down time, told me she’d had sex and taken drugs before, and that this whole program was bullshit. Why she chose to tell ME that I can’t really remember, but I do remember my first response was, “Do Mom and Dad know,” which got a resounding no. In the background to this conversation was considerable onstage banter about family values.

Now it was time to introduce the guest of honor, but whoops! About a half hour before the whole program had started, Nancy Reagan called to say she wasn’t going to make it, but a lot of people were unaware of this. I was among those unaware, and since we underlings were not told directly that she was canceling in favor of being told she was delayed, I almost volunteered to get up and tell some jokes to kill some time. What was decided then was to bring the girls back up for an encore, which meant, oh just one more chorus of that crap song and one more try with the “Step By Step” routine, which by now they were sort of getting good at. The girls didn’t need much incentive, just some sweets and a couple days off from school, and they’re there.

Mr. Johnson paid me at the end of the night, and I wondered then, and still do now, what I’d have said to Nancy Reagan had I actually been in her presence. I’ve certainly made my feelings about her husband pretty out front over the years, that there is no president I’ve had more animosity to in my lifetime, and even after Dubya, I still feel that way. I’m sure had I been in her presence, I’d have pulled the old Hollywood charm, asking her how they’re doing, sending best wishes, maybe even mentioning films of his or hers that I liked. Then later on I’d have punched myself.

There’s much to criticize them over politically, but now that she’s gone to join her husband at whatever version of the afterlife one believes in, I have to give them credit for truly loving and trusting one another. I have no doubt about that, and that’s about the nicest thing I’ve EVER said about Ronald Reagan. Let’s quit while we’re ahead.

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