We’ve reached the point of such hysteria and the stupidification of the American discourse that to simply approach a subject in a measured fashion is to totally jam the circuits that currently exist for that kind of communication. There are just so few channels for moderation. There are only channels for the radio-static noise of hyperbole on all sides.
“People are always more complicated than the images that grow up around them, the mythology that grows up around them,” observes Ron Reagan. “My father was both smarter and better than many people on the left think he was and less the giant that many people on the right think he was.” Reagan is sitting poolside, a visual tribute to one of his father’s early jobs, as a lifeguard at Lowell Park in Dixon, Illinois.
The famous photo of Reagan as that lifeguard is central to Reagan, Eugene Jarecki’s excellent documentary. While it’s most often held up as an emblem of the president’s small-town beginnings, Ron adds that the image illustrates something more specific, “What he was like as a human being and what informed his character: he grew up seeing himself as someone who saved people’s lives.” Ron also notes that he’s squinting in the photo, whether in reaction to the sunlight or as a function of his famous nearsightedness. The film uses the nearsightedness as a metaphor: as Ronald Reagan sought to “save people’s lives,” he didn’t always see full contexts.
The metaphor helps to situate many of Reagan’s policies and choices, from trickle down economics to the Iran Contra scandal. It’s also an effective way to complicate the typically simplistic views of Reagan, whether as an unflinching standard bearer for conservative principles or an amiable performer. These and other mythic constructions of the man serve particular purposes, a point made clear in the montage that opens the film, a collection of public figures—from Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney to Barack Obama and Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin)—all claiming Reagan in support of a range of positions.
Reagan‘s investigation of the myths surrounding Reagan benefits from the wealth of images that he helped to make, not only as a Hollywood actor, but also as president of the Screen Actors’ Guild and spokesman for General Electric. He was, the film contends, a consummate salesman, whether he was pitching products, ideas or his own image. Reagan evinces awareness of the process quite beyond the generalizations that characterize his acolytes. “Someday it might be worthwhile to find out how images are created and even more worthwhile to find out how false images come into being,” he tells an interviewer. “All of us have grown up accepting with little question certain images as accurate portraits of public figures, some living, some dead.”
The film points to repeated inaccuracies about Reagan, underlining how they’re exploited to make political, personal, or other sorts of hay. Grover Norquist, for example, introduces himself as the creator of the Reagan Legacy Project, which aims to “name things after President Reagan,” things like libraries and airports and parks, “Something big in all 50 states, something significant in all 3000-plus counties in the United States,” he pronounces. Reagan’s son Michael likewise insists that it is his mission, bequeathed to him by his dying sister Maureen, to preserve his father’s legacy.
Other interviewees offer more nuanced views. Several remember that Reagan began his public life as a liberal Democrat (suggested by a photo showing him at a Harry Truman event) and also that his shift in attitude and belief had roots in a rather fierce anti-communism as well as a rather practical change in his career direction. Ron echoes his father’s insight into the power of images to move people, and suggests that as his acting career began to wane (citing an obvious shift in popular taste, as James Dean was more popular than John Wayne in the late ‘50s), Reagan figured, “If I can’t be a performer in this way, I’ll be a performer in another way.” Will Bunch argues that Reagan’s campaigning for GE linked an older generation’s discontent with changing popular culture, and, “In many ways, he set the stage for the conservatization of the blue collar worker.”
This long process of conservatization led to the culture wars of the 1980s and beyond. Though, as Thomas W. Evans observes, GE initially sent Reagan out to talk to workers and communities in order “to give them a sense of belonging to the company,” Reagan was affected by his encounters with both workers and the company. Mark Hertsgaard says, “GE gave him an ideology, a very conservative, pro-corporate view that, you know, the business of America is business, and this made sense to Reagan.” Such “sense” would inform Reaganomics, from deregulation to reduced corporate taxes: the film shows brief images of inner city devastation during the ‘80s as Hertsgaard explains, “The essence of Reaganomics was a massive transfer of wealth towards the rich and away from the poor.”
Reagan ties this economic thinking with the administration’s shifting foreign policies, as Reagan continued to seek ways to “save people.” Here the film includes a remarkable interview with retired career Army officer Andrew Bacevich, describing his changing thoughts on Ronald Reagan, as a commander in chief, as well as a myth and symbol. Much like the interview with Karen Kwiatkowski in Jarecki’s previous, equally intelligent documentary, Why We Fight, Bacevich’s indicates the complicated relationship between the U.S. military and civilian leadership, and between policy and politics.
While Bacevich recalls appreciating the Reagan administration’s commitment to defense—in spending and ideology—now, he looks back on a speech made by Jimmy Carter as revelatory. Where Reagan announced his candidacy for president in 1979 by insisting, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” Bacevich is now troubled by this suggestion that “the accumulation of history over the past two centuries doesn’t matter, that we can choose anything we want and it will be ours.” Sitting near a cemetery for his interview, Bacevich concludes, “It’s nonsense: you can’t start the world all over again.”
If it sounds harsh, Bacevich’s assessment also respects and does justice to Reagan, his myth as well as his history. Ron Reagan seems to have an especially acute sense of this tension, as he believes his father’s involvement in Iran-Contra, however wrong and illegal, was motivated by right intentions. The film insists on such complications: as Ron sits poolside, he’s approached by a couple of kids who offer him a red, white and blue cupcake. Ron smiles. And when Jarecki asks, “What was that?”, he explains, “That was people coming over and obviously still feeling very warm thoughts about my father, as many people do.” It’s a legacy, all right, simultaneously fraught and beloved.