May 28th, 2011

The arc of political change: David Mamet, Whittaker Chambers, Ronald Reagan

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.

11 Responses to “The arc of political change: David Mamet, Whittaker Chambers, Ronald Reagan”

  1. Bob From Virginia Says:

    Neo wrote: “In the (symbolic?) year of 1984, Reagan rewarded Chambers by honoring him with a posthumous Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.”

    It is worth noting that Obama awarded a medal of freedom to Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland who was one of the people behind the anti-Israel hatefest in Durban, South Africa.

  2. Scott Says:

    You know, I’ve been keeping a mental note of Hollywood types who I have learned consider themselvea to be conservative. It’s actually more than just a token few.

    Something prompted me to check out John Malkovich’s wiki entry a while back. I was pleased to read that he is conservative and that a British actor described his views as “so right wing, you have to wonder if he’s kidding.”

    Then the other day, Stephanie Zimbalist was referred to in a story. I had always wondered if she was related to actor Efram Zimbalist, Jr., so I used my Google machine to find out. I learned she is in fact Efrem’s daughter, and that she is dscribed as “religious and conservative” in her wiki entry. The obvious next click was to go to her father Efrem’s wiki entry. There I learned that not only is he still alive, but that he is so strongly conservative that he, Walter Brennan (and two other actors whose names I did not recognize) were four Hollywood actors who strongly supported Goldwater in ’64 (strangely, Reagan was not listed in that wiki entry as a Hollywood actor who had supported Goldwater).

    I’ve known about Gary Sinise since the Bush years. But more recently I’ve learned about James Caan. Robert Duval. Joel Surnow. Jerry Bruckheimer. Sydney Penny. Janine Turner. John Nolte. Victoria Jackson. Raquel Welch. Leann Tweeden. Pat Sajack.

    Oh heck. I just did a Google search and found a more thorough list (though it does not include some of the people I have noted):

  3. Gary Rosen Says:

    I believe James Woods also leans to the right.

  4. J.J. formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    Scott, thanks for your list and that link to the list of Hollywood conservatives. There were no surprises there except the numbers. I was aware of all of them, but had never bothered to tote up the numbers.

    Reagan began to turn conservative while he was working as president of the Screen Actors Guild. It was a time when Communists were hard at work to gain control of the unions. He recognized that they were not looking to solve the problems of the workers, but to gain power and control. When the democrats seemed soft on Communism, which they were and still are, he began to look for other answers. He always said that he never left the democrat party, it left him. That may have assuaged his feelings about his change, but it seems to me he intellectually could not accept being soft on Communism or growing government to control society.

    I have just read the book “RONALD REAGAN, THE NOTES.” Not much in there about his conversion, but the book consists of notes that he had on index cards, which he used when he made his speeches.

    Here’s one note that I think describes his feelings about American Communists:
    “A nation can survive it’s fools and even the ambitious but it cannot survive treason from within. For the traitor appears no traitor; he speaks in an accent familiar to his victims and wears their face and their garments….he rots the soul of the nation. He works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city; he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to be feared.” Cicero

    Or this concerning his philosophy of government:
    “Doing for people what they can and ought to do for themselves is a dangerous experiment. In the last analysis the welfare of the workers depends on their own initiative. Whatever is done under the guise of philanthropy for social morality which in anyway lessens initiative is the greatest crime that can be committed against the toilers. Let social busy bodies and professional morals experts in their pads reflect upon the perils they rashly invite under the pretense of social welfare.” Samuel Gompers

    Or this by Gompers:
    “The comapny that doesn’t make a profit is the enemy of the working man.”

    The book is filled with the wit and wisdom he distillled and used in his speeches as a representative of GE and then as a politician.

  5. kolnai Says:

    Scott – a lot of the people on that list aren’t really conservative (Ron Silver, for instance, supported Bush because of war on terror issues, but was always a liberal and remained so till he died). But the one who always made me smile was Johnny Ramone.

    Ramone was true-blue red, and I always remembered a speech he gave before he died, I think before the rock and roll hall of fame, where he closed by saying,

    “God bless George W. Bush.”

    Now that’s hardcore.

  6. kolnai Says:

    OMT: An interview with Mamet from the New York Times:

    Unlike many so-called Hollywood conservatives, Mamet is serious and unequivocal. The interviewer seemed to be trying to trip him up and flummox him, and he didn’t take the bait. Good for him.

  7. Scott Says:

    kolnai: I loved that NYT interview.

    Granted he’s making the rounds to promote his book, but when he so freely cites Friedman, Sowell, and Steele, you know he’s done his homework. He’s a genuine convert.

    It’s almost like he enjoys sharing his new found knowledge, kinda like he’s proselytizing to the unconverted.

  8. SteveH Says:

    Sam Elliot is a conservative. As is Patricia Heaton from Everybody Loves Raymond.

  9. George Says:

    About 20 years ago I saw an interview with Charlton Heston in which he said that the liberal – conservative split in Hollywood was 80-20. That might be accurate, assuming many conservatives are in the closet. However, based on what I see in various media, I would say the split appears to be 95-5, even higher with the high-profile stars.

  10. Ken L Says:


    I had always meant to thank you for putting “Witness” on your sidebar as a recommended book. It was one I had been meaning to read and your recommendation ended up being the push that got me to download it on my Kindle.

    The book stunned me in its beauty, clarity and clear vision of a man at odds with the spirit of the times but with the courage to face down the most powerful forces of the day to stand up for truth. It was a religious tract for the times and showed how the pursuit of righteousness will be beset with trials. How sad though that it was our culture that pursued him and what does that say about us.

    It has not become any better over the last 50 years.

  11. stu Says:

    If you came of age during the height of the Cold War as I did, Witness had a special meaning to you. When I read it in the early 70’s I was profoundly affected by Chamber’s anguish over his betrayal of the West and his pessimism about our ability to survive as a free people. Looking back, I believe this book and The Road to Serfdom had the greatest influence on me in growing out of a “soft socialist” view cultivated in college and developing the strength to defend my new found conservative views. Freedom within the context of the Western tradition is and will always be our most valuable political achievement.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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