An orgy of Ronald Reagan worship, including at the Super Bowl, will roll out today to mark the hundredth anniversary of his birth. For those who can stand to wait another day for a more evenhanded, though often critical, assessment, HBO will be airing Eugene Jarecki’s documentary, fresh from Sundance, titled Reagan, Monday night at nine.
Jarecki (left) is best known as the director of the acclaimed docs Why We Fight and The Trials of Henry Kissinger (and, more recently Freakonomics). Reagan is an extremely well-made film, featuring some expected and some surprising talking heads, plus occasional spurts of fun provided by a Daily Show clip, Phil Hartman’s famous SNL skit portraying two faces of Reagan (public bumbler, private strongman) and even a Simpsons moment.
Reagan’s two sons take center stage. That would be the right-wing radio talk show ranter Michael Reagan (who was adopted) and the much more liberal Ron Reagan. Others interviewed include familiar Reaganites such as George Schultz, James Baker and Grover Norquist, and what Jarecki calls “honest brokers,” including Tom Frank, Andrew Bacevich, Will Bunch, Frances Fitzgerald, James Mann and Simon Johnson.
At Sundance, Jarecki admitted he had “an axe to grind,” but not so much to expose Reagan as a bad guy but to dispel various “myths” that absurdly enlarge—or diminish—him. He also revealed that he had received a fair amount of criticism from some who feel the film is too kind to Reagan. Indeed, its first half paints a favorable picture of the man’s early life and rise to the governor’s mansion in California, but the second half, on his presidency and fallout from it, proves largely critical. What that means is that viewers who like the first half are more likely to stick around and learn something in the latter sections.
“The Reagan sales pitch has been going on a long time,” Jarecki told me in an interview this week. “If people see the real Reagan they may learn a lot. What’s amazing is how much we are told about Reagan today is only half true,” if that.
Here are some highlights from my talk with Jarecki, who was in New York (he hails from Rye, and his brother is Andrew Jarecki, who made Capturing The Friedmans), this past Thursday.
On the Inspiration for the Film
The idea to “set the record straight” came to him after watching the massive coverage of Reagan’s funeral. He was working on Why We Fight, which he describes as a “film about Eisenhower and the latter half of the century and how the American military and the policy machine grew into such an out of control system. So I could not do that without looking at the incredible impact Reagan had on America. He’s so much a part of our American conversation.”
The original home for the film was the BBC, but then he hooked up with HBO, which “guaranteed wide viewership, meaning this would encourage that many more Americans to look more closely at Reagan.”
On Those Interviewed
Jarecki drew up a long list of people to interview, but even among those once close to Reagan he did not want people who would merely sell him as “a brand.” He cites former Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson as one who did not treat his boss as a “product.” Jarecki calls the Reagan critics “responsible journalists,” asserting, “We didn’t want to do another shouting match, but have a reasonable conversation.”
Andrew Bacevich, the former military officer now a critic of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was one who “moved” him profoundly in the course of the filming. Bacevich said that he’d voted for Reagan twice but “ultimately revealed the change in his view of Reagan—only decades later did he understand at what great cost he followed him.”
Jarecki found the contrast between the two Reagan sons stark: “Ron was very confident and relaxed in talking about his father, Michael more tortured,” perhaps (as the adopted child) because he felt he had to continually prove his link.
Despite being close to his father, “Ron Reagan amazingly qualifies as an honest broker,” Jarecki said. “I asked him if he was a mama’s boy and he said no, more of a papa’s boy. At the same time he was willing to say that his father had many shortcomings and needed to be held accountable.” For example, it is Ron who points out that his dad was way behind on recognizing the AIDS crisis and also acted callous toward the homeless. “I’d say that his son in the film represents himself and his father deeply and honorably, in willing to show tough love, not blinkered love,” Jarecki asserts.
The “big three” he could not nail down for questioning were Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter and Nancy Reagan, but he says this was mainly due to scheduling conflicts. Ron Reagan had said that his mother was not right for the kind of “rigorous interview” Jarecki always favors, so “not asking her was the better part of valor.”
Jarecki: “Reagan has very significant things to teach us, positive lessons and quite negative lessons. What can we do going forward about the legacy of Ronald Reagan so that the myths stop dominating, and start again with a real vision of Reagan, both the pros and cons? I want people to understand his life, from lifeguard to powerful president, but I would say I would have failed if the biographical material distracted from how the phenomenon of Reagan is regarded.”
Along the way we see Reagan’s assault on unions (notably the air traffic controllers), economic fallout from his anti-regulatory reforms, the growing gap between rich and poor, the Iran/Contra affair—although each earn rather brief episodes in the 100-minute film that should have been a bit longer. (Peter Dreier in a new piece here at The Nation offers a full accounting of Reagan misdeeds.)
On Reagan and the Tea Party
Among the wide range of people Jarecki interviewed or has talked with since, “it was widespread that the politics of Tea Party people would be foreign to Ronald Reagan and they would be seen by him as frivolous and uninformed. Reagan knew where countries were on the map, he knew a good deal about foreign affairs, he had been governor of the most populous state, had been a union leader, had been a Democrat, met people from all walks of life while traveling for GE.” The notion that he would have identified with largely ignorant people who cause such divisions is just “not possible,” Jarecki claims.
Tea Partyers, he adds, “are selling a product to the country and that product would not be popular with Americans if it would be sold to them as is…. Like cutting taxes for the rich would not appeal to Americans if not wrapped in a popular brand like Reagan. They say it’s okay ‘because Ronald Reagan did it.’ The reality is that Reagan when he gave his farewell address expressed deep regrets about the budget deficits. Why did it happen? The Laffer curve, trickle-down economics, and cutting taxes for the rich.”
At the close of the interview, Jarecki was eager to, even insistent on, ticking off what he calls “the Reagan myths that need to be shattered because they are dangerous illusions.”
• For example, “he is held up as example of not negotiating with your enemies. Completely false.”
• “Reagan is held up to us as an example of never raising taxes. Correction: Reagan raised taxes six of his eight years as president. Why? He was a pragmatist, not doctrinaire. He saw problems emerging, and when his policies faltered he changed his views. Flexibility, not rigidity.”
• Reagan as opponent of immigration? He was in favor of immigration and even signed an amnesty bill.
• Rigidly antiabortion? “He signed progressive abortion legislation” in California. While he “identified with ideals of the pro-life movement, he was careful in not using his office for undue pressures on that issue.”
Jarecki says he “could go on and on” in this vein. Somewhere, he suggests, some company is probably saying, ”We clean dishes like Ronald Reagan.” This “misuse” of Reagan, he says, is “unfair to his legacy, and misleads people about who he was, so we can’t learn.”
Obama and Reagan
Republicans insist that Obama should “learn” from Reagan. “Is Barack Obama supposed to emulate Reagan on the economy?” Jarecki asks “Or going behind the back of Congress, as in the Iran/Contra affair?” He points out that when Obama negotiated with the Russians on the START nuclear treaty, “right-wingers said that was not like Reagan, which was completely false. It was a remarkable thing that he reached across a giant gulf to actually become friends with Gorbachev.”
And, anyway, “what should Obama be learning from Reagan?” Jarecki concludes. “He’s more popular than Reagan at this point in office.”
Greg Mitchell’s new book is “The Age of WikiLeaks: From Collateral Murder to Cablegate (and Beyond).”