Last fall, in the run-up to the midterm elections, Republicans and Democrats engaged in a heated debate about the politics and ethics of stem-cell research. In the midst of these momentous deliberations, America relied on CNN to ask the really important question: "What would Alex P. Keaton do?"
The question was prompted by a TV ad in which Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, swayed uncomfortably from side to side while speaking directly to the camera about the need for research. The ad became a national story after Rush Limbaugh declared that Fox was exaggerating his condition, either acting or off his meds. In the ensuing controversy, Fox became a hero to the left—ironically, many proclaimed, since he began his career as a pop-culture role model for the right. From 1982-89, he played Alex P. Keaton, a briefcase-wielding teenage Republican, on Family Ties, a popular NBC sitcom. As Alex, Fox was rakishly clean-cut—strange as that may sound—and he made conservatism seem at once upstanding and rebellious. Whatever edge the fairly conventional show had came from the conflict between Alex and his ex-hippie parents, Steven and Elyse, and their two (much less interesting) daughters: Mallory, ditzy and boy-crazed, and Jennifer, a tomboy.
The answer to CNN's question eventually showed up on YouTube, where one devoted fan posted nine minutes of a "very special epsiode" that first aired in 1987 (winning two Emmies, and helping Fox win one as well). About four minutes into the clip, an off-screen psychologist asks Alex—who is struggling with the death of a young friend (and is wearing, as always, a shirt and tie)—if he believes in God. "The analytical side of me says no," he replies. "On a straight cost-efficiency basis, you can't prove it. There's no annual report. There's no pictures of the board of directors. I mean recent ones." For Alex P. Keaton, being a Republican was not a theological proposition, but an economic one—if he objected to federal funding for stem-cell research, it would have been the federal funding he opposed, not the research.
In the episode that first nudged Fox toward stardom, Alex, a high-school senior, meets a college girl named Stephanie (played by Amy Steel) who is writing her thesis on Milton Friedman—Alex's favorite economist. She's surprised to learn that Alex has a favorite economist, but when he tells her that "high interest rates are primarily a psychological phenomenon" and that "the banks just don't have enough confidence in the economy to take the risk of lowering them," he wins her over with his earnest enthusiasm. Fox punctuates the exchange with his familiar, self-deprecating smirks, deflating any hint of pretension without seeming insincere. During the second commercial break, Alex loses his virginity. By the end of the episode, he's discovered that rushing into things was a mistake: Stephanie breaks his heart, and he learns a valuable life lesson.
That episode, "Summer of '82," was the fourth in the show's first season, now available on DVD as a bare-bones box set with no extras—not even so much as a booklet. (Its release date was finally announced, after two years of delays, just after the stem-cell brouhaha.) "Summer of '82" got a big response and convinced the show's producers to re-center the series around Alex. Ex-hippie and longtime TV writer and producer Gary David Goldberg had originally intended the show—drawn largely, he said, from his own life—as a showcase for Meredith Baxter-Birney and Michael Gross, who played the parents. The original opening credits feature a long montage of Gross and Baxter-Birney as young hippies, followed by just a few seconds of the kids.
That initial idea for the show, "hip parents, square kids," suggests the self-regard baby boomers are famous for—and, indeed, in the show's very first scene, Steven and Elyse Keaton literally regard themselves, subjecting the family to a slide show of their march on Washington, before the kids were born. The Keaton children mock their parents ("What were you protesting," Alex asks, "good grooming?"), but the show's attitude toward their hippie past still seems unquestionably reverent. In "No Nukes Is Good Nukes," Steven and Elyse participate in a rally improbably scheduled on Thanksgiving. They're arrested and then refuse to sign a pledge that, even more improbably, would free them from jail so long as they never again protest nuclear arms. The episode ends, of course, with the whole Keaton family lovingly enjoying a jailhouse Thanksgiving, all having learned a valuable life lesson.
Even after the show shifted its focus to Alex, it trapped him in scenarios seemingly contrived to refute his free-market-über alles worldview. When we meet Alex's hero—his uncle Ned, a rising young executive memorably played by Tom Hanks in a two-part episode—he is on the run for embezzling $4.5 million. (Hanks used Family Ties to come out as a dramatic actor, reprising the role the following season in another "very special episode": Uncle Ned had become an alcoholic.) And when Alex leaves his job at a mom-and-pop grocery for a big-box store offering higher pay and possible advancement, he finds himself in charge of cat toys and referred to only as "junior stockboy No. 28." Alex returns to his old job, having learned—well, you know.
And yet Alex P. Keaton became a hero to conservatives anyway. Ronald Reagan said Family Ties was his favorite show and reportedly offered to appear in an episode. Even today, young Republicans cite Fox's character as an early role model. When California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman's 25-year-old opponent in the last election was asked why he joined the Republican Party, he explained: "It started with Michael J. Fox on Family Ties." And Tucker Carlson has built an entire career by channeling the character.
How did this happen? Partly, no doubt, it was the sheer absence, before Family Ties, of explicitly conservative young people on network television. And much of the credit must go to Fox himself, whose specialty as an actor was playing the smug, arrogant brat that you like in spite of yourself (see also Back to the Future, The Secret of My Success, The Hard Way, etc.). It seems unlikely that, say, Andrew McCarthy could have exuded such likable sincerity while explaining that "God wants me" to "make a lot of money … because if he didn't, he wouldn't have made me so smart," as Alex tells that off-screen psychologist after his friend has died. (Even Matthew Broderick, the producers' original choice for the role, might not have pulled this off.)
Still, it's tempting to conclude that Keaton's near-iconic status requires more explanation. Last summer in the New Republic, Rick Perlstein, the left-leaning author of a book on Barry Goldwater, argued that, even now, after years of Republican rule, the "culture of conservatives still insists that it is being hemmed in on every side." Having been "shaped in another era [the mid-1960s], one in which conservatives felt marginal and beleaguered," conservative culture—Perlstein had in mind everything from "Goldwater kitsch" to Fox News—still feeds on this antagonism, reflecting a sense that righteousness is always at odds with the decadent mainstream.