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Inside Politics

What would Alex P. Keaton do?

By Thom Patterson
CNN
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(CNN) -- After a nearly 20-year absence, Nixon-loving, Reagan-worshipping Alex P. Keaton is again slinging his political views on television.

Michael J. Fox, who played the conservative teen on the 1980s sitcom "Family Ties," says that if the right-wing, tie-wearing Keaton were a real person, Alex would disagree with the Republican stance against increased embryonic stem cell research.

"I was recently asked what my character, Alex P. Keaton would think of me campaigning for stem cell research," Fox said Monday during a speech in Keaton's TV hometown of Columbus, Ohio. (What would you like to ask Fox?)

"First, he would be happy I'm wearing a tie. And I think he would tell me I'm doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do." (Full story)

Fox, who's battling Parkinson's disease, moved from side to side as he spoke about his hope that stem cells can unlock cures to many afflictions, including his own.

He's backing Democratic midterm candidates who agree with his views. Critics oppose research that would destroy human embryos. (Watch Fox make his case -- 2:35)

Whatever happened to Alex?

But Fox did pose the question: What would Alex do? Keaton was never shy about incorporating his politics into everyday life, becoming a true spin doctor years before that term entered the lexicon. Remember when he used to advise his little brother Andrew with Republican cheers or Democrat jeers?

He carried a briefcase to high school. He ran for student council president. He espoused odd ideas for teens, such as capitalism and supply-side economics.

Despite all that, "Family Ties" focused mostly on themes surrounding its title, says Robert Thompson of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television. "It was never a show about politics. It was a way of using politics to frame a fish-out-of-water scenario."

At first, Alex P. Keaton wasn't supposed to garner so much attention on the show, which also starred Meredith Baxter and Michael Gross as Keaton's liberal, ex-hippie, baby boomer parents.

Eventually, Fox's popularity vaulted him on to the covers of teen magazines, which then led to roles in films such as 1987's "The Secret of My Succe$s" and 1991's "Doc Hollywood," where he played characters identified with the young yuppie myth.

Fox himself embellished the Keaton myth by adding the middle initial P to Keaton's name as an ad lib during an audition, according to IMDb.com.

Rep. Alex P. Keaton, R-Ohio

By 1989, after seven seasons , "Family Ties" ended and Alex left the Keaton home to begin a career on Wall Street.

Later, more fictitious information about Keaton surfaced during Fox's final episode of his 1990s sitcom "Spin City," when it was revealed that Keaton was elected as an Ohio congressman, according to IMDb.com.

"Most Americans in their 30s know Keaton's character," Thompson says. "He represented a shifting political demographic in the '80s, a portion of a generation who rejected their boomer parents' Democratic loyalties."

Whatever Keaton might have thought about stem cell research, his hero's widow, former first lady Nancy Reagan, shifted her views in favor of it, as the former president was dying of Alzheimer's disease.

CNN Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider says there are a lot of Republicans who agree with Fox on the stem cell issue and many of them are around Nancy Reagan's age, 85.

In the case of middle-aged voters, they tend to be Republican "especially if they are yuppies like Keaton was," Schneider said. "But they still tend to be liberal on social issues. Fox could be tapping into something here: fiscally conservative voters who are fed up with the Iraq war and the influence of the religious right over the GOP on issues like stem cells."


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Michael J. Fox, front left, as Alex P. Keaton on "Family Ties," which aired on NBC from 1982 to 1989.

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