She Knew the Score

Lauren Bacall Was Deeply Liberal and Deeply Anti-Communist

Of course we know Bacall, who died Tuesday at 89, for her wonderful acting. But we should remember her also as a smart and sharp liberal and anti-communist.

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Lauren Bacall was an amazing actress. The great black-and-white films are fading now from our collective memory now that the video stores are gone, and with Netflix keeping just a fraction of them available to us. But Robert Osborne, the godhead of TCM, will certainly ensure that Bacall’s great films take up most of the channel’s next two days, and rightly so.

You should know all that. But here’s something else you should know about Bacall. She was a great liberal. And Bogey, too, in fact. They were, in those days when things like this really mattered, deeply liberal and deeply anti-communist. Which was the right thing to be, after all, because communism is as illiberal as fascism. Bogart reportedly once said: “We’re about as in favor of communism as J. Edgar Hoover.”

This places them in space that is, to me, hallowed: alongside Arthur Schlesinger, whom I had the privilege to get to know a bit before he died; John Kenneth Galbraith, whom I never met but whose eminent sons and biographer (Richard Parker) I know; Reinhold Niebhur, to whom I claim no connection at all. These are heroes—to me, as they should be to any liberal. And Bacall was right there with them.

I know this history mostly because of my dear friend Russ Hemenway, another hero of mine, who knew “Betty” well and who even squired her around New York for a time. Russ, who died just last year, was—with Eleanor Roosevelt, among others—one of the founders of the “reform movement,” the tendency in the 1950s that challenged the dominance in Democratic politics of the old-line political machines that ran New York, Jersey City, and other municipalities. Russ told me, I remember, that he met Bacall during an Adlai Stevenson campaign. She was smart and sharp and knew the score. Bogey died in 1957, right after Stevenson’s second failure; Bacall soldiered on in politics, supporting Russ’s National Committee for an Effective Congress, which worked to elect progressives to Congress, and other organizations.

An important point: She wasn’t a “cause” person. Many Hollywood stars today care about the environment, or gay rights, or animal rights, or what have you. Bacall wasn’t a single-cause person. She was a worldview person. That, I think, bespeaks a much deeper commitment.

She backed Bobby Kennedy in his Senate run in 1964. That was Russ’s doing, I suspect. Bobby wasn’t really a reformer in ’64; he’d made the alliances he needed to make with the machine to win. But some reformers backed him, and he eventually affirmed their faith—the last great man, the last candidate who might have united white and black working and middle classes behind a platform of generosity and compassion, just before those were chased out of style.

Bacall told Larry King in 2005 that she was “anti-Republican...A liberal. The L-word.” She went on to say that “being a liberal is the best thing on earth you can be. You are welcoming to everyone when you’re a liberal. You do not have a small mind.” You may agree or disagree with those words, but they are the words of someone who has thought this through. For someone who was a star, and who could have thrown that all off to the side, and who was probably pressed repeatedly by her handlers to do just that, I say it’s pretty good.