Monday, March 26, 2007


In the midst of my thoughtful, well-researched and otherwise delightful treatise just below on bringing Canadian television back to some semblance of reality; I happened to mention that I once wrote a speech for Ronald Reagan. This has generated more email than comments on the posting, which goes a long way to showing why we get the television we deserve.

But, since you asked. Here's the story.

To debut our 2nd season on "Top Cops" we did a special episode called "The Memorial Show" which combined stories about Cops who had died in the line of duty with the dedication of the Law Enforcement Officer's Memorial in Washington.

As a quick aside, if you're ever in Washington, this local landmark is well worth the visit. It's a beautiful monument engraved with the names of fallen officers, constantly updated with the unfortunate addition of one or two names each week. The best time to go is at night, when the dark marble motif of fallen lions is lit by the eerie glow of a blue laser representing the "thin blue line" of the police.

The "Top Cops" format was real police officers narrating their stories as we dramatized them with lookalike actors. In the memorial episodes, the narration was handled by a wife, child or partner of the deceased. Tough to write and tougher to shoot, but we never had a single person turn us down and the result was some very moving television.

Because the Washington Memorial was being dedicated just prior to our first such show, we used footage of President George Bush senior's dedication speech. When the premiere of our next season rolled around, the network wanted another presidential opening. For reasons I forget, Bush Sr. wasn't available.

We were already prepping an episode on Secret Service Agent Jerry Parr, who had been in charge of the unit protecting Reagan when John Hinckley Jr. tried to assassinate the President. Jerry learned of our dilemma and asked if we wanted him "to call Ron."
We did. He did. And Reagan agreed to open the show.

You have no idea how something like this "excites" network people. No matter their politics, what they thought of the man or where they stood on Iran/Contra, they all went into an exceptional state of activity to turn this moment into a major television event. I was suddenly dealing with an entirely new echelon of network lawyers and officials to make sure everything went smoothly.

The first thing that had to be done was write what Reagan was going to say. I knocked out the 90 seconds we had alloted for the opening and sent it in. The thing went back and forth for days, with people parsing phrases to make sure nothing in it could be misconstrued or otherwise cause embarrassment to our guest. Somebody with a connection to the Republican party searched out some of Reagan's old speech writers in the belief they were better suited to the job.

They probably were, but we had a show to put out and all this additional attention and caution was making it harder to meet our deadlines. When we discovered just how much one of these speechwriters wanted for writing 90 seconds, we told the network that we "might" have a problem with the Writers' Guild if we went in that direction.

Since "Writers' Guild" meant WGA to them and not the Canadian version, that scared them enough to let us move ahead with what we already had.

So my two page speech was sent to the California Ranch for approval.

Up to that point I'd had two very, very indirect connections with President Reagan. I was living in LA when he was elected and a friend of mine was in the local reporter pool covering him. He told me of trailing Reagan as he went horseback riding a couple of day's after his election. The riding party reached a fence on the edge of the property and spotted a phalanx of photographers training lenses on them from a distant ridge. Reagan turned to one of his friends and said, "Okay, here's the plan. I'm gonna grab my chest and fall off this horse. You pretend to panic!" The man may have been a politician, but I thought that showed some class.

Years later, I was sharing an office with a writer deeply involved with the Democratic party. He came in one morning, incensed because Reagan had made a speech somewhere claiming the American armed forces were desegregated on December 7th, 1941 when a Philipino Houseboy at Pearl Harbor had picked up a machine gun and shot down a Japanese Zero.

After spending the morning phoning all his buddies to vent, he got the number of an old acquaintance working on the White House Staff. Connecting with the guy, he punched the speaker button so I could listen and harangued him for not knowing that the American forces were desegregated by an act of Congress signed by President Harry S. Truman (a Democrat) in 1948.

White House Guy: "You and I know that, Don. But the President remembers it differently because he was there. He saw it happen."

Don: "Saw it happen? What do you mean?"

White House Guy: "He saw that Philipino houseboy shoot down a Zero!"

Don: "Reagan was at Pearl Harbor?"

White House Guy: "He was there for the master, the two shot, the close-ups..."

I laughed my ass off.

Anyway -- my speech got to Reagan about two days before we had to shoot it. Which was the day before the episode would air. We had booked a CBS News studio in LA and one of our Executive Producers there would supervise, satellite feed it to us, so we could feed the completed show back to CBS before nightfall, allowing CBS to run special promos during that night's World Series game. (Toronto/Atlanta -- we won!)

Our guy called me the morning of the shoot, really nervous. We hadn't heard a word since the speech was delivered and had just gotten a call from Reagan's limo saying he wanted some changes. Because the rest of the show was cut and we were waiting to drop in his 90 seconds, our guy was now worried about coming in too long or too short. I told him to call back if he needed a rewrite.

Ten minutes later he called from make-up. Reagan was in the chair and needed to talk to me. It seemed important. Our conversation went like this...

Ron: Jim, it's Ron Reagan.

Me. Mr. President...

Ron: I wanted to change the speech.

Me. Okay...

Ron: I'd like to say "Thank You" at the end. Is that all right with you?

Me: Sure. That's great.

Ron: Okay, then. Nice to talk to you.

And he was gone. Less than ten minutes later, our guy called back. The shoot was done. One take. No cue cards. No teleprompter. The timing -- exactly 90 seconds.

I never thought much of Ronald Reagan as an actor. I didn't think much of him as a politician. But I'll say this -- he was a real pro, and nice about it as well.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great story