Thirty-two centuries ago, when Ramses II wanted to project an image of himself, he assigned swarms of artisans to carve his likeness out of the rock at Abu Simbel, not once but four times, decreeing that his quadruple gaze should scan the desert from a height of 66 feet or more while mere humans milled below the level of his soles.
Today, to make us look on his works and despair, our pharaoh simply types 140 characters.
It’s a familiar story, this evolution of the tools of persuasion. Lincoln grasped the new opportunities presented by photography; FDR, radio; Kennedy, television. And when you consider that the means of communication have changed far more in the blip between Lincoln and Trump than they did in all the time from the New Kingdom to the American Civil War, it’s understandable that we often speak as if what’s novel in our situation is the technology, rather than how we use it.
Pancho Velez and Sierra Pettengill don’t make that mistake in their documentary The Reagan Show. Using only archival materials—principally news broadcasts from the years of the Reagan presidency, and selections from the miles and miles of videotape that the administration recorded and distributed through its White House Television Office—The Reagan Show pieces together a narrative about a historic shift that happened some 30 years ago, when images devised for mass distribution became more than instruments for winning political power and enacting policy. For the first time, it seemed as if manufactured images were the policy.
That, at least, was what many people thought, to their dismay. In The Reagan Show, you can see Chris Wallace grouse to the audience of NBC News about Reagan’s spending two-thirds of his time on ceremonial occasions and PR opportunities. In Wallace’s account, this disproportion made Washington question whether Reagan was in charge of his own administration. But in other contemporaneous clips, White House insiders argue that Reagan’s continual selling of himself was an act of governance. Michael K. Deaver, the deputy chief of staff, told Barbara Walters that policy-making is all a matter of “how you stage the message.” David Gergen, Reagan’s director of communications, claimed that the White House has always been a stage. The only question is whether you allow the TV networks to manage that stage or step up and do it yourself.
Perhaps most telling of all is a comment that Reagan himself made in a 1988 farewell interview with David Brinkley. When asked whether his career as an actor had taught him anything that had been useful in the presidency, Reagan chuckled and hesitated, then said, “There have been times in this office when I’ve wondered how you could do the job if you hadn’t been an actor.”