SPEAKING OF the State of the Union address last week, I promised to explain why Grant Matthews was never elected president and Ronald Reagan was.
In the movie version of the play, "State of the Union" (1948), Spencer Tracy is a liberal Republican industrialist named Grant Matthews. He is impeccably honest and uncompromising. A conniving relic of "the Harding Gang" (Adolphe Menjou) and an ambitious newspaper publisher (Angela Lansbury), both of whom have been scorned by the party establishment, decide to draft Matthews to run for president.
It is their way of winning power and settling old scores. In Lansbury's case, there is also a love interest. She is the girl friend of Matthews, who is estranged from his wife (Katherine Hepburn).
To launch his candidacy, Tracy goes on a nationwide speaking tour. Lansbury and Menjou convince him to take Hepburn along to make voters think they are still the happy couple. Support for him booms, especially after he begins to compromise his views. Hepburn hates to see him change. Just before he broadcasts a speech from their home, she gets drunk on Sazeracs. In introducing him over the air she boosts him with tearful, clearly painful lies.
Tracy sees how politics has made them both phonies. He rushes to her side. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is Grant Matthews. I'm sorry to interrupt, but I can't take anymore of this." Alarmed, his handlers move to silence him. "Don't you shut me off!" he roars. "I'm paying for this broadcast!" Thus he lost the presidency but regained his soul and his wife.
Ronald Reagan "favored long remembered one-liners of such pTC vintage that younger people who heard them wrongly assumed them to be original," as his biographer Lou Cannon once wrote. "Many of the one-liners in Reagan's mental card file were scraps of film dialogue that popped out at unexpected but often appropriate occasions."
In New Hampshire in 1980, Reagan and George Bush were to debate one on one. Bush didn't want the other candidates involved, but Reagan did. A newspaper was supposed to sponsor the debate. The Federal Election Commission said that was a no-no. So Reagan put up the dough for the broadcast.
Bush and the newspaper's editor, Jon Breen, who was still the moderator, insisted right up to the moment the candidates gathered that it had to be a two-man debate. When Reagan started to explain why he wanted all the other candidates involved, Breen turned to the sound technician and said, "Turn Mr. Reagan's microphone off."
Reagan exploded, "I'm paying for this microphone, Mr. Green [sic]!"
That was Saturday night. Reagan was ahead in the New Hampshire polls by just a few percentage points. By Monday, he was ahead by some 25 points, and won on Tuesday by 27 points.
Maybe he would've been elected president if he hadn't seen "State of the Union." But maybe not.