May 02, 2010

Reagan the Occultist

In a guest post on a Washington Post blog, Mitch Horowitz, author of the very entertaining Occult America, asserts that one of Ronald Reagan's oft-told parables about America's grand mission has as its direct source Manly P. Hall's tract "The Secret Destiny of America."

As Horowitz points out, it would be truly remarkable if such an obscure work had found its way into the hands of the future president when he first told the story in a commencement address in 1957. That would suggest a greater, and clearly more long-standing, familiarity with esotericism than the often-ridiculed interest in astrology during his presidency alone ever indicated. And it is fascinating to speculate on how such an unlikely situation might have come to pass. Occultism certainly played a role, not to be exaggerated but larger than is generally recognized, in the elite cultures of 20th Century Southern California. Reagan the actor could have encountered this or that occult luminary at one of those Hollywood Babylon parties. I admit, I like the idea of that and I kind of want it to be true.

However, the story is an old one, as Horowitz indicates, a part of American folklore that managed to turn up in printed forms that predate the So Cal occult revival. Indeed, that's clearly how Manly Hall himself got hold of it. (A version of the story published in 1911 in a collection of American political speeches was apparently reprinted in the Theosophical Society's journal in 1938.)

Horowitz traces this history, but believes that Manly P. Hall's tract is Reagan's direct source. "It is Hall’s language that unmistakably marks the Reagan telling," he writes.

Well, maybe so. I wish he had adduced some examples of these unmistakable rhetorical parallels to go along with this assertion. I don't have the text of Hall's pamphlet before me, nor do I have the text of Reagan's two documented tellings of the apocryphal story. But I have read quite a bit of Manly P. Hall, and I grew up during the Reagan presidency, so I believe I've heard enough of Reagan's rhetoric to be familiar enough with his style of public speaking. And I have to say, with due respect to Horowitz, the bits of Reagan's speech that are quoted seem way more Reagan-y than Manly-y to me. I mean, they both use the word "destiny," it's true. Is that enough?

As I said, some perverse part of me wants it to be true; but, as with a lot of things I want to be true, I suspect it is not.

Nonetheless, it's a interesting post about an interesting subject for those who are interested in that type of thing. (All twelve of us, I guess.)

Posted by Dr. Frank at May 2, 2010 05:24 PM | TrackBack

Here's a bit about manly having lunch with Ed Sullivan and others. He also wrote at least one film for Warner (Reagan's studio). It seems he was definitely somebody considered pretty cool by the flaky hollywood elite in th 1930s. It wouldn't be surprising at all to find that Regan had familiarity with Hall.

Posted by: josh at May 3, 2010 05:38 PM

Thanks for the link, Josh. I know MPH was "in the mix" as they say in the Hollywood world. It's also interesting that Ed Sullivan (or whoever really wrote the column) notes MPH chiefly for his telling of exotic fables.

The assertion in that post, though, is not just that MPH was a figure in Hollywood that Reagan could well have encountered one way or another, but that he drew the Mysterious Stranger story directly from an obscure work by him, which is a lot less likely. Since there were all sorts of other ways to come by the story, the theory rests on the purported similarity of language, of which no examples are provided. So I remain skeptical.

btw, I hadn't realized MPH had written a film, and it sounds like a hoot:

imdb says "story by" and lists him as the Opening Narrator.

I want to see it!

Posted by: Dr. Frank at May 3, 2010 07:18 PM