Today the WSJ‘s Bari Weiss tackles playwright David Mamet’s political conversion from left to right . It’s an old story to readers of this blog, not just because such political conversions are a theme here, but because I’ve written before about Mamet’s change experience.
But a couple of new things struck me in the WSJ essay. The first was the fact that Mamet doesn’t appear to have been too badly ostracized by the Hollywood crowd (at least, not yet—or perhaps they need to stay in his good graces to get the chance to work with him):
When I [Weiss] meet the apostate [Mamet] in a loft in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, he’s wrapping up a production meeting. “Bye, bye, Bette!” he calls to the actress walking toward the elevator. That’d be Bette Midler. Al Pacino gets a bear hug. The two are starring in an upcoming HBO film about Phil Spector’s murder trial.
The second was the following observation by Ms. Weiss:
[Mamet] starts, naturally, with the most famous political convert in modern American history: Whittaker Chambers, whose 1952 book, “Witness,” documented his turn from Communism.
I admire Chambers’s book; I’ve recommended it on my right sidebar, in one of my Amazon widgets. I’ve read a goodly portion of it—which takes some doing since, although it’s fascinating, it’s a very lengthy tome.
But I’ve got to say that Chambers, once a household word, may not have such great name recognition at this point in time, except with history buffs, changers, and conservatives. And a sizable percentage of those who vaguely think they know who he is and what he did are probably getting him confused with Alger Hiss, the man he accused of being a Communist and who reacted by suing him for defamation in a notorious trial of the late 1940s.
I would argue that there has a been a far more famous American political changer since: none other than Ronald Reagan. Perhaps Ms. Weiss omitted him because it may not be all that well-known that he was a changer. But he was. The parallels to Mamet are actually more apt than to Chambers, because when he underwent his change, Reagan was in Hollywood (he’d even started out as a union guy):
When [Reagan] got to Hollywood as a young man in his twenties, he shared and was impressed by the general thinking of the good and sophisticated people of New York and Hollywood with regard to politics. He was a liberal Democrat, as his father was, and he felt a great attachment to the party. He was proud that his birth of a nation father had refused to take him and his brother Moon to the movie, Birth of a Nation, with its racial stereotypes. And he bragged that his father, Jack, a salesman, had, back long ago when Reagan was a kid, once spent the night in his car rather than sleep in a hotel that wouldn’t take Jews. Ronald Reagan as a young man was a Roosevelt supporter, he was all for FDR, and when he took part in his first presidential campaign he made speeches for Harry Truman in 1948.
When Reagan changed, it was against the tide. It might be said that the heyday of modern political liberalism, in its American manifestation, was the 1960s, when the Great Society began and the Kennedys were secular saints and the costs of enforced liberalism were not yet apparent. And that is precisely when Reagan came down hard right, all for Goldwater in 1964. This was very much the wrong side of the fashionable argument to be on; it wasn’t a way to gain friends in influential quarters, it wasn’t exactly a career-enhancing move. But Reagan thought the conservatives were right. So he joined them, at the least advantageous moment, the whole country going this way on a twenty-year experiment, and Reagan going that way, thinking he was right and thinking that sooner or later he and the country were going to meet in a historic rendezvous.
Far more historic, actually, than Chambers’s earlier notoriety.
But Chambers is not just a bit player in the story, because we learn that his book Witness had actually been highly influential in Reagan’s political change:
In 1952, Chambers’s book Witness was published to widespread acclaim. The book was a combination of autobiography and a warning about the dangers of Communism. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called it one of the greatest of all American autobiographies, and Ronald Reagan credited the book as the inspiration behind his conversion from a New Deal Democrat to a conservative Republican.
In the (symbolic?) year of 1984, Reagan rewarded Chambers by honoring him with a posthumous Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.
Change, it’s catching.