Interview by Bill Moyers
Conversation recorded on April 30, 1979. This was six months before Reagan announced his run for president and nearly two years before he was sworn into office as the 40th President of the United States.
This interview comes to us from WNET and Bill Moyers Journal.
The Animated Transcript
Bill Moyers has been broadcast journalist for more than four decades, most recently with his show, Moyers & Company. Moyers was elected to the Television Hall of Fame in 1995.
Do you think materialism is the source of our strength and greatness as a country?
Sure because it’s the kind of materialism that is based on individuals wanting better things, more comfort, and there being people with ideas who are free to say, “Hey, I’ll bet the people would like this, I’m going to make it.” Just recently I saw an example of one. Now, you know, if you open a can of soft drink, hold it in your hand, it gets warm very fast while you’re drinking it. There’s a fella that has invented an aluminum stein handle. You’re serving people cold drinks in the can, you just clamp the handle onto it, and people hold it by the handle and the drink doesn’t warm up. And he’s going to make a million dollars.
Tell me something about your mother and father.
He was a shoe salesman, he was a Democrat, he was Irish; it was a divided family. My father was Catholic, my mother was Protestant and while we were poor I don’t think we really were conscious of it because the government didn’t come around and tell you were poor like they do today.
This was when you were in Illinois.
Yes. We lived in a small town. It was from payday to payday with us, and I can remember one dish that I thought was delicious and it was only later that I realized why we had it. Have you ever heard of oatmeal meat?
Well, you make oatmeal, and you mix ground meat with it. Then you make a gravy just out of that, and then you serve that in a big pancake-like thing. Well, that was because we couldn’t afford to have that pancake made of all meat. (Laughing.)
When you first came to Hollywood, as I am told, you were a fairly liberal fellow, almost a one-world liberal.
Well, I was a New Deal Democrat, yes; had grown up that way. My first vote was cast for Franklin Delano Roosevelt the first time he ran. Differing from today, in the Great Depression there was a warmth among people, there was a desire to help each other. Status symbols did not exist. I went to school and worked my way through, a small school in Illinois. First job was waiting tables, second job was one of the better jobs I’ve ever had, washing dishes in the girls’ dormitory. But ….
Now, granted, at that time I thought all of the efforts by the government to resolve the problems of the Great Depression were, you know, the way to go. I look back now and realize they didn’t help at all; they didn’t cure the Depression. In many ways they set it back. It’s tragic, but the cure of the Depression was a very high price — World War II. But I have often thought the party changed much more than I did. How many people remember that in 1932 Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran on a program, the Democratic platform, of cutting federal spending by twenty-five percent, eliminating useless bureaus and agencies, returning to states and local governments, authorities and autonomy that he said had unjustly been seized by the federal government? Now, there’s only one party today in America that I know that would be happy with that platform, and it’s the party I now belong to. (Laughing.)
You still think business is the goose that laid the golden egg?
You have to believe that. For the first time in man’s history, we unleashed the individual genius of every man to climb as high and as far as his own strength and ability will take him. We live in the future in America, always have, and the better days are yet to come.
Do you think those better days mean more consumption of goods, more consumption of things?
Certainly and a wider distribution of the ability to consume those things. That’s the dream of America. The problem isn’t being poor, the problem is — the answer is to get over being poor and people want more and want better, and they …
How do you think people get over being poor?
By this — well — (laughs) — by this same way, of the ability and the freedom to rise as far as you can.
But what about the people …
How did I get over being poor? I got a job as a sports announcer and it led to everything else.
There’s going to be a stampede to the radio stations right away, I’m sure. (Laughing.)
Somebody described Reagan country as “a land of well-kept lawns and chambers of commerce, dull and square, a nice place to raise kids and have a barbecue.” Do you think Reagan country, that part of America, can see and understand the America of dirty streets, crime and poor people?
Yeah, because most of them came from there. I have said that maybe the difference between some of those people and myself is — and people like myself is– that they can have compassion for someone who’s needy; oh, yes; let’s have a government program to help that person. We all have compassion for those people and the needy. But I also have compassion for those families out there in America today where the husband and wife is both working, not because she wants to have a career, but because if they’re going to pay the mortgage on the house in this inflationary age, she has to; if they’re going to send the kids on to school, they both have to work. Fifty percent of the wives now working and all they ask of freedom is freedom itself and they’re getting worse off, not better off and I think that there ought to be enough compassion for these people that are making this system of ours work. They’re the backbone of America and who the devil is passing programs for them?
Ronald Reagan defeated President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Here’s our episode with Carter.
Reagan’s Hollywood Years
Reagan began his career in media a radio announcer for the home games for the Chicago Cubs and the White Sox. The story goes that while the Cubs were in California for spring training, a friend introduced him to an agent in Hollywood who took him over to Warner Brothers for a screen test. In 1937, Reagan signed a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers. After several years of bit parts in B-movies, his performance in Knute Rockne put his star on the map.
Knute Rockne, All American (1940)
Santa Fe Trail (1940)
King’s Row (1942)
Reagan’s blossoming career was interrupted by World War II. While he did not serve overseas (he was nearsighted and classified for limited service), Reagan was part of the Army’s motion picture unit that made training and propaganda films. After the war, Reagan struggled to regain the level of success he’d tasted earlier in his career. He spent most of the 50’s working in television and established himself as a leader in Hollywood politics, serving multiple terms as president of the Screen Actor’s Guild.
Check out these additional quotes from the full interview with Bill Moyers:
Don’t tread on me
“I believe that government exists to protect us from each other, not to protect us from ourselves. For example, I’ll support anything that government does in the line of ensuring that your headlights are bright and your brakes are right and you know how to drive and all of that. I won’t support compulsory helmet-wearing for motorcycle riders even though I think they’re crazy for not wearing one. But that’s their own business, that’s for their protection. I will insist that everything else be done to make sure they can’t come across the center divider and hit me.”
“But we affected welfare enough with our reforms that we reversed that 40,000 a month increase to an 8,000 a month decrease in the welfare rolls. But at the same time, the welfare needy in California, the truly needy, hadn’t had a cost of living increase since 1958. We not only saved billions of dollars in the reduction of those rolls of people who were unnecessarily there, but we were then able for the first time to increase the grants forty-three percent to the truly needy. Because they were still needy under the welfare system because we were spread so thin. Now, when I say we reduced the rolls, Bill, there was never a single case of anyone who ever was heard from who rose up and said, “I am destitute, I was on welfare, they took me off welfare.” Those people just disappeared. And the only thing I can say about it is, they must have been paper people. There is no one in the United States today who knows how many people are on welfare. They only know how many checks they’re sending out.”
Just three years after this interview, and one year into Reagan’s first term as President, Bill Moyers filed this story for CBS Report on Reagan’s budget cuts and the effect on the lower and working-classes.
“Social programs were cut almost $30 billion this year. A new budget proposes cuts of $26 billion dollars. The burden falls most heavily on the poor, and some of the truly needy are truly hurting.”
Reagan compares Democrats to…the Continental Army?
“If it were 200 years ago, the conservatives would have been at Valley Forge and the Tories would be what today so often we call liberals. Because the Tory was a person who wanted to maintain the great central power of the throne, and the men at Valley Forge were the men who wanted more freedom and less centralized authority running their lives. The line of the Declaration about the King: “He has sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.” Well, today there are swarms of officers harassing the people and eating out our substance.”
“[I was] very deeply involved as an officer of the Screen Actors’ Guild, when there was an attempt by the Communist Party in this country, by virtue of jurisdictional strikes, to take over the motion picture industry…In Hollywood, most people aren’t aware that immediately after the war, in 1947, we had a horrendous experience here in which a little group of unions that had been taken over, infiltrated and taken over and were Communist-controlled, formed a rump group outside the AF of L Film Council — this was before it was AF of L-CIO. And they called a jurisdictional strike, and the goal was to stop the motion picture industry, to halt it until — their eventual goal, since documented, was to then, with everybody out of work, propose one giant union. Everybody from the producers to the men on the back lot, to the maintenance men would be in this one union; and of course we found out who would control that one union.”
Reagan was actually the president of the Screen Actors Guild during the events he describes above, and staunchly anti-Communist. He testified in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and as president of the actor’s union helped facilitate the FBI’s investigation into communist supporters in Hollywood.
Reagan’s Mic Drop Moment
“Another Version Of You” Chris Zabriskie
“Wild Ones” Jahzzar
“Chunk of Lawn” Jahzzar