A former entertainment personality decides, in his last years, to get into politics. To attract the favors of the Republican Party whose nomination he is seeking, he approaches the extremists and evangelicals of the Red State via a good dose of racist whistles. He associates this with decrying communists, liberalism and anyone on the streets protesting for social justice. To top it off, it then aligns itself with corporate America, operating in a pro-free, anti-regulatory, tax-cutting market that aims to benefit the 1 percent who make up the most powerful part of its base – and to help him and his family live in luxury.
Seems familiar? Of course it does, although in this case I’m not talking about our outgoing President Donald Trump, but our 40th Commander-in-Chief, Ronald Reagan.
Such similarities are hard to miss in The Reagans, Matt Tyrnauer’s four-part Showtime documentary series (airs Sunday, November 15) about the beloved Republican President (by some) and his wife Nancy. A skillful assemblage of archival footage and talking-head interviews with former colleagues, reporters and academics, he takes a critical look at The Gipper, investigating his rise to power – and his subsequent ability to charm the mainstream even in tumultuous times – of a sober retreat, free from the magnetic charm he cast on the public during his tenure as governor of California (1967-1975) and in the Oval Office (1981-1989). If he sometimes distorts himself by relying too heavily on certain voices, this is a valuable examination of a leader whose legacy is more complicated than it appears and whose political career has thrown the foundations on which the current Republican Party is built.
The concepts of storytelling and myth-making are at the heart of Tyrnauer’s portrait. After growing up during the Great Depression, which his parents survived thanks in large part to FDR’s New Deal, Reagan transformed his beauty and charisma into a cinematic celebrity – or, at least, in many parts and movie roles. B who took advantage of his beautiful build. Thanks to poor eyesight, he was unable to enlist in WWII, but from the start – and, to some extent, with the help of gossip columnist Louella Parsons – he was able to create a character based on all-American healthiness by appearing in wartime propaganda films, westerns and Knute Rockne, all American, which allowed him to figuratively fulfill his grill dreams. He was a self-made man who wanted to be a celebrity. As his son Ronald Reagan Jr. puts it, “We are all the heroes of our own stories. He was just a little better than most people, I think.
Reagan sought, at every turn, to blur the line between the myth of himself and that of the nation, until the two were totally intertwined and indistinguishable from each other. This is true about his run for governor of California, in which he ran as a Mr. Smith visits Washington-Esque good-guy outsider, just as it’s true about Nancy’s careful construction of their image as clean moral conservatives, molded in a 1950s mold, with all of the traditional gender dynamics (and racial intolerance) who accompanied him. More an artist than a political scientist (at the end of the series, he admits: “There were times in this office where I wondered how you could do the job if you weren’t an actor”), Reagan stumbles upon as a figure who both embodies and perpetuates myths as a means to progress, whether it be with regard to civil rights (and his routine speech on Jackie Robinson) or his famous claim that “the government is the problem”.
The Reagans leans more strongly toward the president than his ruling wife behind the throne, who is described as cunning, loving, and devoid of any ideology of her own. The Ron and Nancy revealed here are shrewd, old-fashioned, in love (and beholden to) the rich, and ready to do and say whatever it takes to get their way. Time and time again they have created their own reality as a way to assert control and hide the truth, and they have been so successful in this endeavor that even when their wrongdoing has come to light – most notably with the Iran-Contra scandal – Reagan managed to escape disaster with his popularity and heritage intact. As this history lesson points out, Reagan continues to be defined less by a specific position or decision (or triumph, such as monitoring the end of the Cold War) and more by the alternately harsh but fatherly aura than by it was giving off, and the sunny image it presented. of a flourishing America on the verge of becoming great again.
“Seeking to examine the man rather than the legend, he condemns by giving him credit for transforming the Republican Party into its current iteration: pro-business, pro-status quo, pro-intolerance and pro-right religiosity.“
The Reagans censors Reagan for his complacency towards racists through the coded language of the “Southern Strategy” on “state rights”, demonizing black women as “welfare queens”, for his refusal to face the crisis of AIDS in a timely and compassionate manner, and for him and Nancy to rely on charlatan astrologer Joan Quigley for advice on virtually every important aspect of their lives. Seeking to examine the man rather than the legend, he condemns by giving him the credit for having transformed the Republican Party in its current iteration: pro-business, pro-status quo, pro-intolerance and pro-right religiosity. These attacks are launched with precision, although if there is one flaw in Tyrnauer’s documentary series, it’s that the most pro-Reagan speakers featured – Chief of Staff James Baker, political strategist in Chief Stu Spencer, Grover Norquist – are rarely heard during these long passages that take Reagan to task. It’s as if Tyrnauer doesn’t want to complicate his picture by hearing what the acolytes think about these topics.
This is not a plea for respect on both sides. Rather, it is to say that critical arguments are often reinforced by the idiocy, ugliness or emptiness of those on the other side, and The Reagans feels less sure of himself by frequently refusing to let Reagan’s cohorts and admirers comment on his improper actions (when this happens, like Baker exclaiming “They broke the law” on Iran-Contra, it reinforces the denunciation of series). Nonetheless, Tyrnauer’s in-depth non-fiction effort serves as an insightful fix for the one-dimensional Reagan hero cult that so many conservatives participate in. He tries to understand yesterday from today’s more tempered point of view, and in doing so, exposes surprising and daunting parallels – whether it’s Reagan’s courting of the deplorable, to Dr.Anthony Fauci’s criticism. from an administration that bluntly ignored a health crisis of thousands of lives, or the sight of Walter Cronkite and his CBS cronies laughing foolishly at the prospect of Joe Biden’s future presidency.
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