[disinfo ed.’s note: The following is an excerpt from ONE SIMPLE IDEA: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life by Mitch Horowitz.]
The nation’s most fateful evangelizer of the positive in the latter half of the twentieth century was neither a mystic nor a minister. Like many of the shapers of positive thinking, he had a modest formal education, possessed a self-devised philosophy of life, and showed a willingness to experiment with a wide range of religious ideas. Friends and adversaries alike experienced a sense of wonder that he became the twentieth century’s most influential president next to Franklin Roosevelt. This was Ronald Reagan.
Every historical writer who has approached the life of Reagan experiences the same sense of perplexity over who the man really was. Pulitzer-winning biographer Edmund Morris was so confounded by his subject that in his epic biography, Dutch, the writer made himself a character, finding it more useful to chart Reagan’s influence on those around him than to part the curtain on the man himself. (Morris wondered if there even was a man behind the curtain.) Many biographers were left to plumb Reagan’s movies, his penchant for homegrown wisdom, and his bevy of moralistic stories for keys to the man’s outer actions—such as his stare-down of the Soviet Union (followed by his role-reversal as a peacemaker); his chimerical (though to the Soviets alarming) pursuit of “Star Wars”; and his bread-and-butter conservatism (clung to even though his family was rescued by the New Deal). In every respect, Reagan was a pairing of opposites.
The skeleton key to Reagan’s career is not found in his films, his flights of idealism, or the pivoting of his internal moral compass, though each of these things is important. To be finally understood, Reagan must be seen as a product of the positive-thinking movement. Indeed, it was Reagan’s song of the positive—as articulated in thousands of speeches as a conservative activist, California governor, and U.S. president—that, more than any other factor, made the principle of brighter tomorrows and limitless possibilities into the idealized creed of America.
The code in which Reagan spoke is the key to the inner man—a fact sensed by President Gerald Ford, who called Reagan “one of the few political leaders I have ever met whose public speeches revealed more than his private conversations.” (Reagan, it should be noted, had produced his own political speeches starting in the 1950s, and, as president, crafted the basic boilerplate and stories for many of his talks.)
In a 2010 reassessment of Reagan, Newsweek erroneously called him a born-again Christian. For all the admiration that born-again Christians felt for Reagan, and he for them, he cannot be described in that way. Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s proclivity for astrology is already well known, but it is just one branch from a larger tree. One of the most overlooked facets of Reagan’s career, and an aspect of his life with which few admirers have come to terms, is the strain of avant-garde thought and mysticism that touched him as a young man, and Reagan’s enduring taste for the New Age spirituality of his Hollywood years.
Reagan didn’t experience Hollywood as an interlude in his life. He spent nearly three decades of his adulthood there; it was, in all its facets, an integral part of him. He complained to biographer Lou Cannon about “this New York Times kind of business of referring to me as a B-picture actor.” In a late-night discussion, after speaking with Cannon about his string of substantial film roles, Reagan concluded somewhat sheepishly, “I’m proud of having been an actor.” He was similarly proud of being part of that community’s spiritual and social customs.
One of his closest friends in California was astrologer Carroll Righter, who in 1969 became the first and only astrologer to appear on the cover of Time magazine. In Reagan’s best-known movie, Kings Row from 1942, he costarred and became friendly with actress Eden Gray, who went on to write some of the twentieth century’s most popular guides to Tarot cards. (Gray recalled Reagan gamely reading aloud from his horoscope and those of other actors before shoots.) And when Reagan began his political rise in the 1950s, his early speeches, and those he later delivered as president, featured themes and phrases that can be traced to the writings of a Hollywood-based occult philosopher, Manly P. Hall.
None of this was a source of embarrassment to Reagan. Throughout his life he was at ease discussing premonitory dreams, astrology, number symbolism, out-of-body experiences, and his belief in UFOs, including personal sightings in the 1950s and ’70s.
During his 1980 presidential campaign, he sat for a three-hour interview with journalist Angela Fox Dunn, the daughter of Malvina Fox Dunn, Reagan’s drama coach at Warner Brothers in the 1930s. Reagan never opened up so much as when he was around people with ties to his movie days. With surprising frankness, the Republican nominee expounded on topics ranging from the astrological signs of past presidents, to his mother’s religious beliefs, to the prophetic qualities of psychic Jeane Dixon, another old Hollywood friend. While Dixon was “always gung ho for me to be president,” Reagan related, in the “foretelling part of her mind” the prophetess didn’t see him in the Oval Office. (A prediction that, more or less, squared with Dixon’s record.) He also boasted to Dunn of being an Aquarius, the most mystical of all the zodiac signs. “I believe you’ll find that 80 percent of the people in New York’s Hall of Fame are Aquarians,” he said.*
At the back of his personality, Reagan was the man he proudly described to Dunn: an Aquarian. He was influenced by various mystical and mind-power cultures, whose mark he left permanently stamped on America.
Excerpted from ONE SIMPLE IDEA: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life by Mitch Horowitz with kind permission from Crown Publishers. Available in bookstores everywhere and at Amazon.com.
Mitch Horowitz is also the author of Occult America: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation, which received the 2010 PEN Oakland/ Josephine Miles Award for literary excellence. Horowitz is vice-president and editor-in-chief at Tarcher/Penguin, the division of Penguin books dedicated to metaphysical literature. He frequently writes about and discusses alternative spirituality in the national media, including CBS Sunday Morning, Dateline NBC, All Things Considered, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, BoingBoing, Time.com, and CNN.com.