When that rare celebrity moves from liberalism to conservatism, pundits like to cite Ronald Reagan’s move from New Deal Democrat to Goldwater as pioneering such movement.
Reagan claimed in his famous phrase that “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party; it left me.” But the year he cited for this parting of ways, 1948, doesn’t hold up. In 1948, the Democratic Party had shifted from Grand Alliance partnership to Communist containment. Reagan’s chronology of a Democratic Party becoming too leftist only works if their presidential candidate that year had been Henry Wallace, not Harry Truman.
If conservatives do seek a celebrity whose very presence in their midst gives a more valid chronology of Democratic party lurches to the Left, then they should advertise the late Charlton Heston over Reagan.
Heston had every bit of Reagan’s Democratic Party resume: consistent voter for FDR, Truman, Stevenson, JFK. But at some point during his ferocious campaigning for LBJ, he sensed that the hated Goldwater had the better argument. An encroaching Great Society and America-bashing New Left later–confirmed this feeling. Hearing a replayed JFK speech in the late 1960s, while the New Left pillaged and burned, and the Weathermen practiced their marksmanship, ironically on the surface but logical underneath, served as recruitment effort for Heston into the Tricky Dicky camp. For the remainder of his life, he endorsed Republican candidates.
Viewing the context of his times, one could’ve predicted Heston’s eventual exchange of parties. Even while in the midst of Democratic activism, he was experiencing libertarian guilt about what was collectivizing around him. Unlike Hollywood stars who flocking to a visiting Khrushchev for some face time, Heston made his disdain for the butcher of Hungary known. While marching on Washington with Dr. King, he registered his nervousness about the others stars (Newman, Brando) and their penchant for mass activism over individualist ones. And unlike others who characterized the march as an action that would have made Gandhi proud, Heston saw it as an affirmation of Jeffersonianism.
Heston’s belief system stayed the same, and that alone made it inevitable that the Democratic Party would move on. His reasons cited in 1960 for voting the JFK ticket—tax-cutting, strong anticommunism, effective but smaller government, individualist sacrifice for the country rather than vice versa—resembled reasons offered by “Reagan Democrats” twenty years later.
Heston was so much an individualist that he inadvertently defied popular trends about Vietnam. He was at his most ambivalent about it, 1965-66, when public approval was at its highest. He didn’t become more supportive until he visited there in the 1967-68 period, just as public approval was dropping, and he remained supportive beyond the fall of Saigon.
Today, the issue most identified with Heston was his championing gun rights for law-abiding citizens, but even this was predictable early on. Throughout his public career, Heston worried about trespassing government into individual territory protected by the Constitution, and the elitist celebrities who rationalized it. Today, as the Clooneys, Streisands, and Sharon Stones proclaimed their willingness to exchange their Second Amendment rights (which translates into the rest of the country’s) for security, Heston upheld the right to bear arms to his death (in 2008) the way he always did, even as a Democrat: as an individualist defending principles the Democratic Party would eventually leave him over.
Gun rights so absorbed his energy that not any was left over for movie roles, at least of his own choosing. He appeared as the hobbling villain in Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine, but oddly, the propaganda Moore attempts to fashion around Heston made him more sympathetic than sinister. Moore should have known better simply from an image standpoint, since he lacks the better argument in the debate. Moore’s self-conscious working class image cannot shed the pounds that the hated capitalist system has given him, while Heston possessed a kind of lean-jawed integrity that no amount of good acting can fake. Nor can Moore, with his camera following a cane-leaning Heston off the interview set, created the intended image of a stubborn old man responsible ultimately for murders on the school grounds. Instead, the image of Heston that emerged from Moore’s documentary was that of an individualist star who was defending the little guy’s rights of gun ownership against not only government intrusion, but the stars who wanted it taken away, while they venture out into public behind armed bodyguards the rest of the country cannot afford. If Moore’s hope was to steer viewers toward a championing of populism with this interview, then he did, but not in the direction he hoped.
Moore was playing dirty by even initiating the interview. Heston, at that point, had Alzheimers, but even in his confused state, he was able to recall the defending-the-little-guy sentiments that once made him a Democrat, and also made him refuse to tag along with the Party when it lurched left.