A Lambasting by Liberals
by Thomas E. Simmons
Released in November, The Reagans is a four-part documentary produced by Showtime. It is comprised of film clips of President Reagan and others close to him along with an assortment of journalists, activists, biographers, and former Reagan aides. The President’s son Ron Reagan Jr., journalist Lesley Stahl, and attorney Maya Wiley get the most screen time. They heap blistering and often unfair criticism upon President Reagan. Other interviewees, such as George Will, James Baker, and Robert McFarland receive less screen time, but also contribute their perspectives.
The younger followers of Dakota War College (by which I mean the under-40 crowd) who do not recognize names like Don Regan, Robert McFarlane, Ed Rollins, and George Shultz (all Reagan appointees or advisors) will be enriched by studying this film. It’s a slick production, accessible, and addictively binge-worthy, clocking in at under four hours in total running time.
Make no mistake. This is a thoroughly biased production which sets out to paint a very unflattering portrait of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. A number of the film’s jabs do land solid punches on the deficiencies of Reagan’s legacy. One would be surprised if any human being who served two terms as Governor and two as President didn’t commit a few blunders. Some of them serious.
Within the first three minutes of the first episode (“The Hollywood Myth Machine”), we hear three different interview subjects proclaiming (1) that Reagan acknowledged that “if you cannot be a good actor, you cannot be a good president,” (2) that Reagan “was kind of a strange fellow to be President of the United States,” and (3) that his own cabinet had to “protect him from himself.” The last of those three quotes comes from General Colin Powell. So, do not expect a nuanced assessment of Reagan’s accomplishments. At least the film broadcasts its intentions right from the start.
Still, I recommend this film – even to those who hold Reagan in high regard. It’s instructive to see where the liberal attacks can score a few points and where they’re simply clawing at air. There is, for example, an unsupported assertion ribboning through the quartet of episodes that the claim that “government is part of the problem and not part of the solution” is not only a falsehood in whatever context it might appear within, but a fantastic myth – an unadulterated lie. There is another dishonest assertion that every time a conservative makes reference to local empowerment or state’s rights, it is simply code for diluting civil rights protections (i.e., “dog whistle politics”).
The film’s structure also contains a dishonesty of its own. In the first half or so, it portrays Nancy Reagan as shrewd and caring, an essential and positive component of Reagan’s political achievements – indeed, of Reagan himself. In the second half or so, the supplied narrative turns on her. It viciously vilifies her for relative trivialities like her loaned designer dresses and her selection of expensive White House place settings. The allegations of governance by astrology horoscopes, however, are more serious. If you’re unfamiliar with these allegations, then this documentary is a decent starting point.
Although the film is upsetting in several respects, it’s refreshing to see the kind of serious emphasis that was once placed on fiscal conservatism. It’s inspiring to see Reagan speaking honestly about the proper role of government. But ultimately, the film’s agenda renders its narrative incomplete and misleading.
Still, for the documentary viewer with his or her thinking cap firmly in place, The Reagans presents an opportunity to consider, in a condensed format, a summary of Reagan’s alleged shortcomings. Even within a framework which lambasts Ronald Reagan, the man’s warmth, empathy, and genuine love for his country are infectious. It’s a productive enterprise to reflect on what he accomplished for the United States.
Thomas E. Simmons
University of South Dakota School of Law
All of the views and opinions Professor Simmons expresses here on are his as an individual and do not reflect the views of the Board of Regents, the University of South Dakota, its School of Law, their employees, faculty or administrators. The foregoing editorial represents only his views as a private citizen.