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Movie Nights at Camp David: Lessons of Love, Life, and Death from Inside the Reagan White House

08-09-2018
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WASHINGTON – The elusive and somewhat mysterious Camp David has played double duty for more than a dozen US presidents. 

It's been host to foreign dignitaries and nerve center for major policy decisions.

But for former Reagan Press Secretary Mark Weinberg, it was home away from home.

"On Friday afternoons we would get on the helicopter on the South Lawn of the White House. The president would wave to everybody, and then disappear essentially for 48 hours," Weinberg recalled. 

In his book, Movie Nights with the Reagans, Weinberg recounts those weekend getaways at Camp David. 

An actor himself, those movie nights at Camp David's Aspen Lodge allowed the president to relive his years on the silver screen. 

The Time Art Imitated Life

The Reagans viewed hundreds of films during their years in office, from "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" to "Crocodile Dundee." 

Sometimes the art imitated life, like the aftermath of "Rocky IV." 

"This was at a time the Cold War was really heating up, to use a phrase, and it did have an influence. At one point the Soviets complained to American diplomats about 'Rocky IV' and said, 'You shouldn't show that – that's not a good movie to show,'" Weinberg recalled with a laugh. 

"The American diplomats said to the Soviets, 'We don't have anything to do with that. In our country, the government doesn't control the movies.' And they couldn't understand that," said Weinberg. 

The Rocky-Reagan Connection

While Reagan loved the franchise, particularly the part where the American boxer defeats the Soviet, the administration's use of Hollywood would only go so far. 

"A representative of Sylvester Stallone contacted the White House during the '84 campaign and wanted to have Stallone come in and present President Reagan with the gloves and the robe that he wore in the Rocky movie – and of course, take a publicity photo and put it out there for their benefit," Weinberg recalled. 

That request was sent to a White House lawyer for review. 

"The young lawyer wrote back up the chain of command and said, 'There has already been enough publicity for Rocky, President Reagan has been more than generous with his time. I recommend we decline.' And you know who wrote that? John Roberts, who is now Chief Justice of the [Supreme Court of the] United States," said Weinberg.   

When a Movie Influenced a Platform

Sometimes the movies influenced platforms. Case in point, the 1980 film "9 to 5."

"There was a scene with Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and I believe Lily Tomlin, smoking marijuana. You have to remember it was the 80s it was illegal back then. And this movie glamorized it. He thought that was a terrible message to send to young people," said Weinberg. 

"Mrs. Reagan was so bothered by it, she called them out on it a speech," he continued. 

That iconic scene pushed the first lady further into her anti-drug agenda and those famous three words, 'Just Say No.' 

Remembering the Nancy-Ronnie Love Affair

Weinberg says despite the media's narrative of a cold first lady, those moments gave him insight into the relationship between Nancy and her Ronnie. 

"She was very warm. She took an interest in people. She listened to you when you were in the room," he recalled with a smile. 

"She was protective of her husband, as well as she should've been," Weinberg defended. 

While the Reagans enjoyed their privacy, that didn't stop the press from going to great lengths to catch a glimpse of the president. 

"They took the lens that they use for the space shuttle, the biggest lens that CBS owned. They took it out there so they could get the president, riding on a horse," Weinberg said. 

"He [Reagan] knew it and he said, 'I'm going to have some fun with them.' And he did this and pretended to fall off the horse," he said with a laugh.   

An Extra-Terrestrial Captures the Reagans' Hearts

While Mrs. Reagan usually decided which film to review, President Reagan found a particular love of an extraterrestrial and his best friend Elliot. 

"'ET' was a movie that touched both of their hearts. They had tears in their eyes at the end. It was a very wonderful story," said Weinberg. 

"Those kinds of themes of letting your imagination go wherever it could and believing in the impossible and wondering what was out there, and what the future could be, those were very Reaganesque themes," he reflected.  

Even after the credits rolled on the Reagans' time in the White House, those weekend memories forged a friendship that would last until the end.

Weinberg conducted an interview with Mrs. Reagan before writing the book, and he says that the interview would be her last.

Deep Conversations About Life and Death

He also recalls those deep conversations of life and death with the president.  

"I told him I was considering leaving the staff after having been there 10 years and it was time for me to move on. He said, 'Mark I understand, you're a young man. I expect you to do that. And by the way Mark, I'm not going to be here forever.' I knew what he meant. But I didn't want to acknowledge that," Weinberg confessed.  

Despite his own denial, the former press secretary says Reagan was at peace with this life and the next. 

"He said 'Mark, It's okay. I'm not afraid of that and in fact, I look forward to it.' Because he knew God had a plan for him, and that he lived a life on earth and that he would be reunited with people after that. He was very grounded, because of his faith," he finished.  

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