Movie Nights with the Reagans
1 9 TO 5
Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton
Viewed by the Reagans:
February 14, 1981
The Film That Made the Reagans Angry and Propelled a First Lady’s Crusade
It was February 14, 1981, and Ronald Reagan, less than one month into his presidency, was faced with a dilemma. With the press chronicling his moves and Secret Service agents trailing him everywhere, how was he going to surprise his wife with a Valentine’s Day card?
Earlier that week, the president had told his security detail that, like most married men, he had personally selected a card every year during their nearly twenty-nine years of marriage, and he intended to continue the practice. To their consternation, Reagan further informed the Secret Service that he wanted to leave the White House, head over to a nearby gift shop, and purchase a card for the First Lady of his life.
Ronald Reagan could be very stubborn, especially on a matter that he held important. And on this question, he held firm.
So, after a series of troubled glances and murmurs, the agents relented and drove the chief executive to the store, where he picked out an assortment of cards for his wife.I
That was when Reagan fully absorbed just how much his life had changed.
The result of his excursion was not what the president expected: total pandemonium, as stunned customers milled around and a crowd of onlookers formed, causing discomfort for the agents.
“That was just about the last shopping expedition outside the White House,” Reagan recalled later. “It caused such a commotion that I never wanted to do that to a shopkeeper again.” Still, he was quite tickled that he could surprise Nancy with a card that Saturday at Camp David, on one of their first visits to the presidential retreat.II
The Ronald and Nancy Reagan love affair is, of course, legendary. I confess that I did not understand its intensity—or believe in its sincerity—at first. When I heard the president say once that he “could not imagine life without Nancy,” I didn’t get it. Admittedly, I was single at the time, but that seemed a bit much. Yet as I got to know the Reagans over the years, I realized he was telling the truth. (And once I got married, I got it.)
Contrary to my cynical impression, there was nothing fake or staged about their relationship. It was not just for the cameras. Everything seen in public was the same behind the scenes. They held hands, whispered to each other, exchanged glances, and were edgy when the other was gone. Their devotion was so complete, in fact, that it could be, at times, isolating for others.
That isn’t to say the relationship was without hiccups. Some were typical: the president expressing annoyance that his wife was taking too long getting ready to go somewhere, for example. If Ronald Reagan had one long-standing complaint about Nancy, it was that she was on the telephone a lot. It was not uncommon when we would be getting ready to go somewhere for the president, all dressed and ready, to stand with the staff and Secret Service, waiting for Mrs. Reagan. He would look at his watch and grumble, “Nancy is on that damnphone”—he made it one word—“again.”
One time at the White House, he was in his tuxedo waiting impatiently for her. She emerged finally in a beautiful gown, and we got into the elevator that would take us from the family quarters to the ground floor, where the motorcade was staged. The annoyance melted away. Mrs. Reagan said to her husband, “You look pretty, honey.” A quizzical look crossed his face, and he said, “I’m trying to figure out if it’s okay for a man to look ‘pretty.’ ” I assured him that it was.
The first time I arrived at Camp David, that Valentine’s weekend, I was not entirely sure the experience was real. Who was I to be on Marine One with the president of the United States and spending a weekend with him and the First Lady at this famed place? I expected a burly man in a dark suit to come up behind me at any moment, tap me on the shoulder, and say, “It’s over; you know you don’t belong here,” as he escorted me to a waiting government sedan.
My first impressions of Camp David were “Wow! This is amazing!” and yet, shortly thereafter, a sense of “This is it?” The presidential retreat was both overwhelming and understated, which I later came to realize was the point. It was designed to be a contrast to what some saw as the cold formality of the White House, which was really a museum where the First Couple’s lives were constantly on display. Here the president and the First Lady could kick back, relax,
and just be themselves. The facilities were neither fancy nor rustic; comfort was the goal. The devoted and discreet staff at Camp David succeeded in ensuring that everyone felt at home.
Camp David, Mrs. Reagan recalled, offered “a tremendous feeling of release.”III
It helped the Reagans keep a perspective on things and have time to reflect. It was such a special place that they guarded it, being careful about who was allowed to join them there. It was not that the Reagans had anything to hide. It was just that they did not want or need a large entourage when they were at this quiet, picturesque place where they could just relax. And there was nothing that helped them relax more than watching a feature film.
As had quickly become the practice since the Reagans began traveling to Camp David, the small group of staff with them was invited to join them in their residence to watch what was usually the latest popular movie. President and Mrs. Reagan had a strong desire to provide some entertainment for aides like me who, as he put it, “have to go with us” to Camp David. (As if we had better options.) The president was sometimes criticized for leaving the Oval Office at five o’clock every day, contributing to the false impression among some in the pundit class that he was old and lazy. Actually, it was an intentional practice. He left then because he knew that if he was in the office, the staff would stay as long as he did. He wanted them to go home at reasonable hours and be with their families.
Once he got to the family quarters, he would spend several hours at work at his desk in an office adjacent to his and Nancy’s bedroom. The Reagans also scheduled their December trips to California to begin after Christmas Day, so that staff, press, and Secret Service could be with their families for the holiday.
That chilly February evening, Mrs. Reagan greeted all of us for the showing of the evening’s film, the comedy 9 to 5, which had been released to great success the previous December. The film grossed nearly $4 million in its opening weekend, a huge take at the time, and became the second-highest-grossing film of 1980 (behind only The Empire Strikes Back and Superman II). The combination of the movie’s star power and timeless message helped to make it one of the first real hits of the Reagan era.
The critics, as is often the case, were tougher to impress. The New York Times found the social commentary ham-handed. “ ‘Nine to Five’ begins as satire, slips uncertainly into farce . . . and concludes by waving the flag of feminism as earnestly as Russian farmers used to wave the hammer-and-sickle at the end of movies about collective farming,” grumbled Vincent Canby, who at the time was one of the preeminent film critics in the country. The legendary film critic Roger Ebert called the movie “a good-hearted, simple-minded comedy.” But he praised the debut performance of the country music star Dolly Parton, calling her “a natural-born movie star; a performer who holds our attention so easily that it’s hard to believe it’s her first film.”
Parton wrote and recorded the movie’s theme song, also called “9 to 5,” which became one of her biggest hits. One wag almost immediately renamed the song “9 to 10” to poke fun at President Reagan’s age (he had just turned seventy) and his alleged love of naps, a recurring joke that would resonate throughout the Reagan years. A 1979 Saturday Night Live spoof joked about Reagan’s “dentures,” his need to eat soft foods such as rice pudding and cottage cheese, and his need for frequent napping during the day. Reagan himself would make jokes in this regard. But in fact, the president hated taking naps during the day and did so only when required by his doctors, such as after the March 1981 assassination attempt.
Shortly after Reagan left office, however, the mostly good-natured ribbing about his alleged dozing crossed a line. After all, at that point, he wasn’t even around to be in on the joke himself. Word reached us at the postpresidency office in Los Angeles that some on George H. W. Bush’s White House staff were still cracking sleep jokes. Specifically, we had heard that on an overseas trip that began very early in the morning, a staff member said laughingly to the press, “Can you imagine the Gipper up at this hour?” It was understandable for a new president to want to establish his own identity, but taking a crack at his predecessor seemed mean-spirited to us.
Somehow word got back to Mrs. Reagan. One of the offending staffers wrote an apology note to her (which was answered by the staff). I spoke about it with President Bush’s press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, who had been my boss during the last two years of the Reagan administration and was a friend. He was certain that the crack came from a place of genuine affection, but nonetheless, he promised to take the matter to the top. True to his word, Marlin walked into the Oval Office and told President Bush of our conversation. Bush immediately handwrote Ronald Reagan a note (which began “Dear Ron” and mentioned Marlin and me by name) assuring President Reagan that he had nothing to do with such comments and that he’d ordered his staff to say no such things anymore. He added that he had the greatest respect and affection for the president and Nancy. When the note reached Los Angeles, President Reagan read it and completely accepted his successor’s apology. He put Bush’s note in his desk drawer, and that was that. Silly political squabbling never bothered or even interested Ronald Reagan. To this day, I wish I had asked him if I could have that note.
9 to 5 centers on the lives of three career women: a widow played by the comedian Lily Tomlin, a recent divorcée played by Jane Fonda, and a southern secretary played by Parton. Jane Fonda’s
role in the film, and others that we viewed in the 1980s, was problematic, especially for the military members who traveled with the president to Camp David. Memories were still fresh over her role as “Hanoi Jane” during the Vietnam War, where she was seen, at least by conservatives, as a traitor to the nation. As a result, some members of our small Camp David staff expressed reluctance to watch anything in which she appeared—but did so as a courtesy to the Reagans. Ms. Fonda was then married to the liberal activist and fierce Reagan critic Tom Hayden, but if that bothered the president, he did not mention it. That was politics. I think he just wanted to see a funny film.
In the movie, all three women cope with lecherous sexual advances and other forms of discrimination from their male boss, played by the talented character actor Dabney Coleman. When Coleman’s character, Franklin Hart Jr., discovers that Tomlin and the other women had accidentally poisoned his coffee and then attempted to cover it up, he sees an opportunity for blackmail. An outlandish series of events then leads the women to hold Mr. Hart hostage at his home until they can prove his own criminal misdeeds.
It is a silly but fun plot. Looking back, it is amazing how dated it is. The film shows what was then a state-of-the-art Xerox machine that takes up a whole room. The women are still being called secretaries and use giant electric typewriters that they cover every night. There are rotary telephones and what would now seem like over-the-top creepy bosses, such as the one played by Coleman, who wear three-piece suits and mustaches, and refer to their female employees as “girls.”
Still, there was plenty of laughter throughout, including from the Reagans. However, one scene left the president angry. Early in the movie, the three women strengthen their friendship by sharing revenge fantasies against their boss while smoking marijuana. This
scene would have been “truly funny,” Reagan said, “if the three gals had played getting drunk, but no, they had to get stoned on pot.” The president found that to be a distasteful endorsement of pot smoking.IV
The scene caught Mrs. Reagan’s attention, too, so much so that she cited it during the launch of her most visible and important initiative during her husband’s presidency: her antidrug campaign, which was dubbed in the press as “Just Say No.” “Just Say No” was never envisioned as a slogan, but rather it was the answer to a question Mrs. Reagan gave to a child who wanted to know what to do when urged to use drugs. Mrs. Reagan’s answer was, “Just Say No!,” which became part of pop culture. “When I am out talking to kids, more and more often they ask me why the media glamorizes drugs, and I’m afraid I don’t have an answer,” she said in a speech on her initiative. “However, the fact must be faced that, all too often, the media—and here I’m talking about those in entertainment, advertising, and news—present the idea, perhaps unconsciously, that drugs are acceptable. Well, drugs are not acceptable. Drugs injure individuals and shatter families.” Referring to the film, without naming it, she went on to describe “a scene in a popular movie” in which three female coworkers “get hilariously high on pot.” This kind of drug use in entertainment, she said, would only support “the notion of drug acceptability” to American youth.V
The film presented other themes that resonated with the Reagans. Tomlin and Fonda were prominent feminists and supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). First introduced in 1923,
and re-introduced several times thereafter, the ERA is a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution designed to ensure equal rights for all citizens, regardless of gender. It failed to be ratified by the required number of states within the time frame allowed. Over time 9 to 5 itself became something of a cause célèbre for women during the Reagan era. It was especially played that way by feminists against a Republican administration that some prominent women’s rights groups tended to oppose. In 1983, for instance, the National Organization for Women (NOW) declared that Reagan’s reelection the following year would constitute “a crisis for American women.”
When it came to women, Ronald Reagan had an interesting (some might say contradictory) pattern of behavior. He never viewed women as anything less than men. To him, there was no job a woman could not do. From what I saw, those who influenced him the most—and those for whom he had the greatest respect and relied upon most heavily—were women.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain was every bit as influential on the fortieth president as any man was. Maybe even more so, because she did not have designs on his job or an agenda to enhance her status in American politics. Nor, of course, did his wife, who was indisputably the most influential and relied-upon person in his life.
Ronald Reagan knew Nancy had the best instincts of anyone in his inner circle and that her only agenda was his success. He valued her counsel. Sometimes he sought it, and sometimes it was “volunteered.” In different ways, his two daughters were also significant influences on him. Maureen, his oldest child, from his marriage to Jane Wyman, shared her father’s interest in politics. She served as cochairman of the Republican National Committee, sought elective office, albeit unsuccessfully, and became a trusted advisor to the
president. And while he and his first child with Nancy, daughter Patti, often did not agree on political issues, he listened to her with an open mind—even when she was staunchly opposed to something he might have said or done—and was proud that she was passionate about things.
Because Ronald Reagan never judged people on the basis of gender, he was bothered that historically in America women had been denied certain opportunities simply because of that. In that sense, some of the themes of 9 to 5 undoubtedly struck a chord with him.
During his 1980 campaign, he’d said that if elected president, he would seek out the most qualified woman and nominate her to the Supreme Court. He did not pretend otherwise. That’s not to say he was willing to compromise standards so that a woman could serve on the high court. He just believed that among jurists “qualified” to serve on the nation’s highest court were many women, and it was high time one was appointed. He kept his promise just six months into his first term by nominating Sandra Day O’Connor to replace retiring justice Potter Stewart.
Women occupied many staff positions at the White House in the Reagan administration. Ronald Reagan was the first president to have a female military aide. At his insistence, the White House Military Office identified a woman with the background and skills to be one of those who walk a few paces behind the president carrying a briefcase—the “football,” with the codes for launching a nuclear strike. Her name was Vivien Crea.
Many times over the years, Reagan shared an anecdote he’d heard. In one such story, there was an accident. The victim was stretched out, and a man elbowed his way through the crowd that had gathered. Seeing a woman bending down over the victim, the man shoved her aside, saying, “I have had training in first aid. Let me take care of this.” He then started doing all the techniques he’d
learned. Finally, the woman tapped him on the shoulder and said, “When you get to that part about calling the doctor, I’m right here.”
While I never knew him to judge people on the basis of gender, Ronald Reagan did not treat women the same way he treated men. While with men he could share and appreciate a salty story or joke, he would never do so in the presence of women.
Once, former President Reagan and I were in the car on the way to a portrait unveiling at a swanky club in New York City, and I thought I would be very clever with him. “Sir,” I said, “have you looked at your remarks in the briefing sheet for this event? You know the club is hanging a very fine portrait of you, and it’s very important to be well hung.” Without missing a beat, he looked in the front of the car to make sure there were no women agents present, then at me, and with that Reagan twinkle in his eyes, said, “Well, Mark, I’ve never had any complaints!” Even the Secret Service agents in the front of the car broke up in laughter. He would never have said that had there been a woman in the car.
The one exception to that rule was his mother-in-law, the actress Edith Luckett Davis. “The president and Edith had a special relationship,” Mrs. Reagan’s stepbrother, Dr. Richard (Dick) Davis, told me. “When the Reagans would visit Loyal [Nancy’s stepfather] and Edith in Phoenix, the president and Edith would retreat someplace and exchange Hollywood gossip—Edith knew everyone—and off-color jokes.”VI
(Nancy’s mother divorced her biological father and later married Loyal Davis, who adopted Nancy when she was fourteen.) He always insisted that women precede him when doors were held open. That became an issue years later when, as a former president, he was announced onstage for a speech. If any woman accompanied Reagan, he would insist that she walk in front of him.
A booming voice would intone, “Ladies and gentlemen, the fortieth president of the United States,” the curtains would part, and out would walk a woman no one had ever seen before, smiling awkwardly. Eventually, when women were doing the advance work in such circumstances, they would slip away just before President Reagan was announced onstage.
Getting back to the movie, 9 to 5 ends with a sort of feminist wish fulfillment: each of the women proves her value; they move on to new adventures through their merit; and the evil Mr. Hart is transferred to South America, where he’s never heard from again. The American Film Institute named the film one of the top movies of all time, and it is continually referred to as a Reagan-era symbol “for women seeking equal treatment in the workforce.” Whether it should be or not. I
. Ronald Reagan, An American Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990). II
. Ronald Reagan, The Reagan Diaries, ed. Douglas Brinkley (New York: Harper-Collins, 2007), 4. III
. Nancy Reagan with William Novak, My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan (New York: Random House, 1989), 255. IV
. Ronald Reagan, Reagan Diaries, 4. V
. Donnie Radcliffe, “First Lady Says Some Media Glamorize Drugs,” Washington Post online, April 24, 1982, www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1982/04/24/first-lady-says-some-media-glamorize-drugs/16f2c36f-3e70-44da-a0ac-c967b43f1a97
. Author conversation with Dr. Richard Davis via phone, summer 2016.