There are now some 1,000 books about Ronald Wilson Reagan and, according to Amazon, 86 documentaries. The bad ones are sloppy; the worst sloppily push a political narrative.
The latest documentary has a few good moments, but it breaks no new ground. The Reagan Presidency doesn’t cover the old ground accurately, either. But the greatest failing of the film, tentatively scheduled to air on PBS in mid-February, is its lack of texture. It doesn’t convey the great arguments of the era, many of them brought to the surface by Reagan. The Clintons derided the 1980s as the “Decade of Greed,” but as things turned out, that was an appellation more properly applied to their own decade. The 1980s were a time of decisive debates about freedom and tyranny, good and evil. The Reagan Presidency touches upon none of this.
The three-hour documentary is presented in three parts, the first on domestic affairs and the second and third on foreign policy. It starts with Reagan’s early years, but moves quickly into the falsehood that Reagan “waded into controversy” in 1980 by launching his postconvention campaign from the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi in an attempt to appeal to white racists. This is a slander often peddled by liberals, and to repeat it here, writer-director Chip Duncan must overlook Reagan’s speech to the Urban League in New York two days later, which was warmly received. While in New York, Reagan called on Vernon Jordan, the head of the league, who was recovering from a gunshot wound. Also unmentioned are the endorsements Reagan received that year from Hosea Williams, who was Martin Luther King’s top lieutenant in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Charles Evers, a civil rights activist who worked alongside his assassinated brother, Medgar.
Nor does the documentary report that President Carter began his own campaign in Tuscumbia, Alabama, a former Ku Klux Klan hotbed. Carter was joined on the dais by the old “seggie” George Wallace, whose wheelchair Carter personally pushed onto the stage. In point of fact, neither Reagan nor Carter was racist, but this documentary predictably leaves the impression that the Republican nominee was and the Democrat was not. Andrew Young, Carter’s first ambassador to the United Nations, declares of Reagan’s Mississipi appearance, “It was a clear message to the reactionaries and racists of America that they were going to be back in charge.”
The 1980 presidential debate was one of the most significant in American history—it actually changed the outcome of the election. But here
the narrator merely says, dismissively, that “many pundits suggested that Reagan exceeded expectations.” This is not a throwaway line; it gets the story completely wrong. The punditocracy said Reagan had lost, but the polling showed the American people thought he’d won. They rewarded him with their votes.
The Reagan Presidency includes extensive interviews with Robert Reich, Richard Reeves, Henry Cisneros, Gary Hart, Walter Mondale, Bill Bradley, Steve Weisman of the New York Times, and Andrew Young, whose anti-Semitism became such an embarrassment for the Carter administration that he was fired as ambassador. During the 1980 campaign, Young continually played the race card against Reagan, making references to the KKK and white hoods and, incredibly, said if Reagan was elected, it would be “alright to kill n—.” The other critics of Reagan don’t offer much insight either. Reich insists, “Reagan won because of cynicism.” Reeves says Reagan “turned the country against government”—as if that were a bad thing.
The film summons Reeves, a journalist and author critical of anything that smacks of Republicanism, including in his books on Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, and especially Reagan, as a witness against the Reagan administration’s Central American policies. Duncan asserts that the Soviet threat in that region was “debatable.” This was a time when the Soviets were using submarine tenders in Cuba for their nuclear missile attack subs, actively arming rebels in El Salvador, and supporting the Communist regime in Nicaragua with arms and funding. Reeves’s ideology can be discerned from his description of the contra rebels fighting Nicaragua’s Communist Sandinistas as “thugs.” It’s no surprise that he dismisses Reagan’s policy of arming them as “total folly.” The liberation of Grenada is mentioned only in passing; the poignant scenes of hundreds of American medical students kissing U.S. soil when rescued by troops dispatched by Ronald Reagan didn’t make it on screen.