The Reagan Connection to R.E.M.’s Rise

On the blog Weeping Elvis, Patrick Ferrise interviewed R.E.M.’s longtime manager Bertis Downs, who was so associated with the group that he became known as the fifth member of the band. But he got the job by fate: He had wanted to work in public interest law in Washington at what was the start of the Reagan era.

Downs says, “I got out of law school in 1981, in the spring. That was the spring after Ronald Reagan had been inaugurated president.  I graduated from Davidson where I thought I was going to become a public interest lawyer.  I thought I was going to be an advocate on issues around poverty, prison and public service. There were no jobs. Places like Legal Services or Legal Aid, anybody I wrote to, wrote me back to say: “Dear Mr. Downs, thanks for your letter, we think you are very qualified, but we have no money, we’re not hiring, we don’t think we’re going to be around in a year.

“I stayed in Athens to sort of tread water—to pay the bills, I taught at the law school and I moonlighted by helping these guys out in a band. A few years later it became like a job. I’d gone to DC; I’d done my clerkship. I came back to Athens and there was enough work that we had a career. That was kind of gradual from ’81-85. If it hadn’t been for Reagan getting elected I probably would have gotten a job in Virginia, or West Virginia, I applied at various places and I got all rejections because nobody was hiring because it was such a bad time for the public interest sector.”

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