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.
But the documentary truly touches bottom when Weisman ridiculously claims that Reagan “brilliantly exploited the assassination attempt.” Reagan’s near-death experience is only dealt with in political terms, not spiritual, except for brief insights from Douglas Brinkley and former Democratic congresswoman Patricia Schroeder, who says the president handled the shooting with “a style and grace uniquely Reagan.”
Those who knew or have studied Reagan will recognize one giant omission in the film: There is no mention of how influential and important Nancy Reagan was to his career. Someone once said that if Reagan had wanted to be the best shoe salesman in the world, she would have made sure it transpired. It just so happened that he wanted to be president. Without her behind-the-scenes counsel, cajoling, and combat with those she felt were not helping “Ronnie,” he never would have won the White House.
Reagan’s character and philosophical maturation go largely unexamined. The redoubtable Ed Meese is there to explain his old friend, but other than cameos from Bud McFarlane, George Shultz, Peter Robinson, and Kiron Skinner, there are few identifiable Reaganites, or even people with an intimate understanding of the life and times of Ronald Wilson Reagan. There’s no one from the Reagan Ranch, the Reagan Library, or the family. There are no interviews with Fred Ryan, Jim Baker, Dick Allen, Lou Cannon, John Sears, Frank Donatelli, Peter Hannaford, Ken Khachigian, Jim Hooley, Joanne Drake, Dennis LeBlanc, Mike Reagan, or any of the dozens of other people who really studied, reported on, knew, worked for, and observed Reagan. Not even Peggy Noonan, who it seems is required to appear in every Reagan documentary, makes the cut. Only Brinkley gets the chance to attempt an explanation of the meaning of Reaganism beyond the man and his term of office.
The worst flaw of The Reagan Presidency is its moral equivalency between East and West. We see the inevitable footage of Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate telling Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” To the filmmaker’s credit, he also excerpts Reagan’s May 1988 speeches at Spaso House and Moscow State University, both arguably more consequential than his Berlin Wall declaration. But at no time in the three hours are the horrors of the Soviet regime recounted. There’s no mention of the Gulag, the ruthless treatment of Jews and many others, or the victims in Warsaw Pact countries and Afghanistan, where invading Soviet troops routinely murdered men, women, and children. The documentary dwells more on the accidental downing of an Iranian airplane by the United States in 1988 than all the atrocities by the Kremlin combined. It even finds a parallel between the Iranian incident and the Soviet shootdown of Korean Air Lines flight 007 in 1983, which killed hundreds, including a U.S. congressman.
The film won’t say that the West “won” the Cold War, but it repeatedly states that Reagan and Gorbachev “ended” it. Throughout, it refers to Mikhail Gorbachev as Reagan’s “partner,” and once as his “partner for change.” In fact, the Cold War ended in the same fashion as a referee calling a boxing match—because one fighter is getting pummeled so badly. Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II are barely mentioned. Lech Walesa, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Natan Sharansky, and other towering figures in the global struggle against communism are airbrushed out of the 20th century.
Winston Churchill once refused a pudding offered at a dinner party, stating it “lacked a theme.” This new documentary on Reagan not only lacks a theme—it misses the essential theme of the era it examines. Perhaps 87 documentaries on the man who saw the fight against communism in starkly moral terms—and helped win that fight, one of the most important battles of his century, with moral courage—are not actually enough.
Craig Shirley is the author of two books on Reagan’s campaigns and the bestselling December 1941. The president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, he is a Reagan scholar at Eureka College and working on a book about his post-presidency.