Our American Friend

Christopher Hitchens pays tribute to the late movie star James Stewart.

Published July 11, 1997 11:43AM (EDT)

Everyone knows the story of what Jack Warner said when he heard that Ronald Reagan was thinking of running for president. "No. That can't be right. Ronald Reagan for best friend. Jimmy Stewart for president." And the reason the story is so well-known is a simple one. In the public mind, the notions of these two genial, optimistic all-American Everymen were hard to dislodge, and the relationship between the two of them hard to disentangle. A lot of effort went into the cultivation of their consoling images, but only a little thought is required to "deconstruct" them.

Stewart didn't quite make it to be "Dead on the Fourth of July." His timing was better than that. He died so that he would be at the front of the national mind on the Fourth of July. And the near-coincidence, coupled with a lot of reruns and retrospectives, made it even easier for the cultural supervisors to resort to a kind of automatic writing. Typical was the moist effort by Edward Guthmann in the San Francisco Chronicle:

We want to remember Stewart ... grinning deliriously in front of the Christmas tree, surrounded by his wife (Donna Reed), four kids and a roomful of adoring neighbors. It's comforting for us -- at a time when movie dads are absent or "addicted" to cell phones, when our lives are fragmented and our streets are dangerous -- to remember when guys like Stewart embodied America and made our communities safe and honest.

Yes, I think that's everything ... father figure ... Christmas tree ... neighbors ... family values ... embodiment. As easy to read as it was to write. Throw in a reference to Norman Rockwell and that's a wrap. But did I see a different print of "It's A Wonderful Life"? My version had a rackety Savings and Loan, a town where ill-health and injury were constant worries, where cultural horizons were desperately low and where George Bailey dissolved in rage and self-pity at the meager hand life had dealt him. And that was the uplifting bit. In order to prevent the whole town from going under to asset-stripping and profiteering, an actual piece of divine intervention was required. Excuse me, but if this isn't noir it's noir-ish.

Look again at "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." When this movie was first made, it was denounced all over the Capitol as anti-American. The Senate majority leader stormed out of the first screening. What an impression to give the youth of the country -- that there was graft and shame at the heart of our national affairs. And remember the way that Taylor's thugs set upon the kids distributing Smith's leaflets? Good triumphs in the end, but only because of a struggle and not because goodness is more Norman Rockwellish than evil. No, it's not just in the Hitchcock movies that Stewart participates in a graphic confrontation with the forces of darkness (though I can still remember the chill I felt when Stewart scrawled "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH HER?" on that piece of paper for Raymond Burr). It's in the Capra movies too, if you can tear aside the curtain of sentimentality through which we now view them.

Partly, I suspect, the confusion arises because Stewart's actual life was a model of decency and bravery and not just a studio press release laying claim to same. Unlike those summer soldiers and sunshine patriots John Wayne and Ronald Reagan, he did volunteer to fight in World War II and was a much-garlanded warrior. Unlike many gung-ho types, he did send his own son to Vietnam instead of somebody else's -- and never saw the boy again. Unlike Wayne and Reagan, he wasn't a jingoist. His conservatism was something essential rather than something feigned. There was the usual airbrushing of the national frontier narrative of course: You would never know from watching "The Spirit of St. Louis" that Lindy was to become a posturing fascist sympathizer. But that wasn't only Stewart's fault. And his slight stutter and aw-shucks act seemed genuine, whereas Wayne's and Reagan's always looked phoney as hell.

Now hold the negative up to the light and re-examine Warner's wisecrack. Ronald Reagan for best friend? He didn't have any friends. He only had cronies. He was lonely and empty and mothered -- after a dysfunctional upbringing -- by a Manchurian second wife. His children don't like him much, and didn't come see him after he'd been shot. His presidency was a showbiz exercise, made of good lines borrowed from other people's movies. So we should have held out for the real thing -- Jimmy Stewart for best friend and for president. He wouldn't have let the S&Ls get away with it, that's for sure. Our failure to recognize this missed opportunity for what it was puts us in the company of Elwood P. Dowd who, as you may remember from your viewing of "Harvey," says: "I've wrestled with reality for 35 years, and I'm happy, doctor. I finally won out over it."

By Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, the Nation and Salon News.

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