Review: Showtime's 'The Reagans' Neither Objective Nor Fair-Minded

Ronald and Nancy Reagan wave during the inaugural parade in Washington, D.C., in 1981 (National Archives)

The network’s The Reagans doc traffics in misstatements, partial truths, and strategic omissions to pin Trump’s rise on the late president.

In making its programming decisions for the interval between the end of the 2020 presidential election and the holiday season, the top brass at Showtime reverted to what had once been standard fare in Hollywood and elsewhere: Reagan bashing. Over four successive Sundays, the network released yet another hour of its tedious and repetitious documentary, The Reagans.

Warning to the uninitiated: Do not mistake what comes before you as an update of anything like PBS’s extraordinary presentation of Reagan and his era as part of its “American Experience” repertoire. What you see on Showtime is neither objective history nor a fair-minded attempt to review past controversies through the perspective of the present. Its creator, Matt Tyrnauer, to his credit, is straightforward about that. He is a man with a mission.

His thesis is simple: that Ronald Reagan, through a series of “dog whistles,” carefully woven into his rhetoric, paved the way for Donald Trump’s angrier form of populism, with policies that promote white supremacy as the intended legacies of both presidents. Whatever history’s final judgment of Trump may be, few would doubt that this is a lot to pin on Ronald Reagan. In comparing the two presidents, the creators overlook some essential facts: Reagan twice won the presidency in two landslides, both in the popular vote and in the Electoral College. Trump twice lost the popular vote and prevailed in Electoral College once and narrowly. Hidden in the numbers are the hopes and expectations the American people placed in both presidents and how the presidents regarded them.

The only obvious similarity the documentary draws between Reagan and Trump is that both were entertainers. Both knew how to reach and move audiences, the filmmakers say — as if the calm reassuring Sunday night host of G.E. Theater, who entered into American living rooms every week after Ed Sullivan for eight years, was anything like the carnival-barking star of reality television, famous for his loud utterance of the two words: “You’re fired!” Both had audiences, but they related to them in different ways.

A former junior Democratic operative, Tyrnauer attempts to do to Reagan 16 years after his passing what his one-time superiors could not do to him in life: Bring him down. He will have as little success. To paint the portrait of the 40th president he presents, he had to excise other aspects of Reagan that detract from it. This is done though occasional misstatements, partial truths, and strategic omissions. Examples abound.

The filmmaker presents, unexamined, California governor Pat Brown’s contention that Ronald Reagan never disassociated himself from the conspiracy theory-based (“Know that Ike was ALWAYS Communist”) John Birch Society. Never mind that Reagan did precisely that in a special issue of National Review a year before ending Brown’s political career at the ballot box.

Elsewhere in the series, several figures say or imply that Reagan’s arms buildup was unnecessary, given that the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse before Reagan came to power. Really? No serious person engaged in the workings of national security and defense believed this when Reagan took office. And every Soviet and American official who wrote a memoir of the final days of the Cold War argued that it was defense increases, along with the emphasis Reagan placed on IT and SDI, that rendered the USSR unable to compete with the West.

“Pain” is a word commonly used in the series, especially when referring to the economy during Reagan’s time of office. When Reagan took office, inflation was running at over 12 percent, unemployment stood at over 10 percent, and mortgage rates were averaging above 13 percent. Reagan and the Federal Reserve concluded that higher-interest rates were the appropriate tool to tame inflation and were willing to endure a short recession to achieve this. The U.S. economy boomed under Reagan’s pro-growth tax and deregulatory policies. Real GDP growth soared to 4.6 percent in 1983 and 7.2 percent in 1984 and remained above 3.5 percent every year in Reagan’s second term. In the course of Reagan’s administration, 18.1 million nonfarm jobs were produced, the unemployment rate fell by one-half from 10.8 percent to 5.3 percent, and the labor-force participation rate rose from 64.1 percent to 66.1 percent as more women entered the labor force.

All of this will come as news to the documentary’s viewers. Structural poverty among those in certain segments of the population was a challenge that confronted every president from at least Carter through Obama, with Reagan being no exception.

Tyrnauer and his team turn their sharpest swords upon Reagan on matters pertaining to race. In an interview with the New York Times, the filmmaker voiced dismay that, while other politicians, to whom he ascribes the same attitudes as he does Reagan, have been “held to account” (presumably before the bar of history), Reagan has not. Tyrnauer sees rectifying this as his major mission. He fails, however, because he takes his hypothesis as his conclusion, and his subject’s record easily eludes such a conclusion. He even neglects a staple of documentary filmmaking: he shies away from testimony of those people who have spent large portions of their careers investigating Reagan.

Richard Perlstein, for instance, author of the recently published REAGANLAND, shares Tyrnauer’s disdain for many Reagan policies but does not regard Reagan as racist. In the same New York Times interview as Tyrnauer, Perlstein opined that “liberals . . . are always looking for a smoking gun to prove that conservatives are racist.”

For Tyrnauer, that “smoking gun” was Reagan’s campaign appearance in Neshoba County, Miss., where he pledged fealty to the doctrine of “states’ rights.” Reagan and his team were aware of the sensitivity those words might evoke, especially when uttered not far from the site where three civil-rights workers had been slain years earlier. His campaign even considered pulling this stop from Reagan’s itinerary. In his examination of footage of Reagan making his remarks, Perlstein discerned a look of discomfort on Reagan’s face. Was this bad acting? Good acting? Or the real Reagan showing embarrassment? (Message to Tyrnauer: Sometimes nuance matters.)

Instead of hearing from people offering more than a point of view and allowing them to debate issues, the series’ creators rely on commentary from familiar regulars on MSNBC, who offer similar commentaries as they do regularly elsewhere. Moving the narrative along is none other than Kitty Kelly, whose “tell all” book about Nancy Reagan raised many an eyebrow back in the day, and not only among Reagan acolytes. She is listed in the credits as “consulting producer.”

Those who seek to come to terms with Reagan and race inevitably have to tackle certain givens: that he was not always consistent, that he was capable of changing his mind on issues, and that he had the capacity to improvise as he went. All this was also true of his hero Franklin D. Roosevelt. Reagan had misgivings about establishing a holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., but he signed the measure into law with considerable fanfare and follow-up.

Reagan started out thinking that the Voting Rights Act had achieved its objective, but ended up negotiating its renewal. In a recently televised film about the late representative John Lewis, the congressman tells of receiving a telephone call from the White House. “Was he available to meet with the president?” a voice inquired. He had not previously met Reagan. As Lewis entered the Oval Office, Reagan called out, “John, we were just talking about you.” Reagan escorted his guest to a gathering of awaiting school children. “I wanted them to meet a man who actually changed history,” he told them.

We have heard much in recent years about the lack of empathy our current president has exhibited, especially toward those affected by COVID. If Trump suffers a deficit in this department, Reagan had an abundance of it. His message during the Challenger tragedy and address before the “Boys of Pointe Du Hoc” will long remain in the pantheon of inspiring and inspirational presidential addresses.

The contrast between the two chief executives could not have been greater than in how they regarded and addressed American people. In the last public remarks he delivered, at the Republican National Convention of 1992, Reagan said of himself:

And whatever else history may say about me when I’m gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears, to your confidence rather than your doubts. My dream is that you will travel the road ahead with liberty’s lamp guiding your steps and opportunity’s arm steadying your way.

Some “dog whistle.”

Alvin S. Felzenberg — Mr. Felzenberg writes about American politics. His most recent book is A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr.

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