[30 June 2003]
Ronald Reagan once observed: “One of the things about the Presidency is that you’re somewhat apart.” It was perhaps the most self-descriptive statement that the notoriously private 40th President ever made. One of the United States’ most affable and gregarious leaders, Reagan also had a personal side that the public - and even those closest to him—never saw.
Ronald Reagan: A Legacy Remembered offers an intimate glimpse, with the help of those who knew him best. Wife Nancy, daughter Patti Davis, and sons Ron and Michael share candid memories and address the distance that their father kept—even from them. Ron Jr. says that while Reagan was approachable enough, he never let anyone into “That last 10 percent—not even his family.”
The man had a famously complicated upbringing, with a physically present but emotionally absent father who was largely unsupportive of the young Ronald Reagan and his dreams. Attributing Reagan’s ambition to his small town upbringing in Dixon, Illinois (and to overcome effects of his father’s alcoholism), A Legacy Remembered uses home movies and rarely seen archival footage from early commercials and television appearances. These images make clear that Reagan early on spoke his mind and his heart. He delivered blistering anti-Communism speeches as a bit player in Hollywood, and in 1964, his speech in support of Presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater cemented his reputation as an orator.
While evident that, from day one, he had the charisma that most politicians spend their careers cultivating, it was Reagan’s deep sense of patriotism that appealed to many U.S citizens. He had big plans for the economy, for dismantling the Soviet Union, and for protecting the United States from a nuclear threat. These plans sometimes made him a target for pundits and public servants alike, but his earnest efforts and demeanor usually won out in the end.
A Legacy Remembered glosses over the many criticisms levied against Reagan, mainly by not addressing them at all. In a sense, the documentary handles the issue the way the President himself did; it ignores it. While one of the most beloved Presidents, Reagan was also one of the most controversial. Even so, when interview subjects are critical of Reagan, their concerns are couched with affection. They disagreed with Reagan, but acknowledge his charm—despite their disagreements, he was just so darn likable.
For example, ending the Cold War was number one on Reagan’s list of priorities, and Mikhail Gorbachev says how clear to him it became during the jarring “Tear down this wall” speech that “[Reagan] had a PR side to him that was always present.” Anyone who remembers anything from the era knows that speech in particular was looked upon with great disdain by Democrats and Republicans alike, and especially by Gorbachev. It seems almost surreal, then, that the former Soviet leader would look back on the time almost fondly.
Gorbachev’s interview alone makes A Legacy Remembered important as a bit of history, but the number and rank of those interviewed by CNN Washington bureau chief Frank Cesno are impressive throughout. Both George Bush and George W. Bush talk about the respect that they have for Reagan and the policies he instituted. Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, much like Gorbachev, recalls the clashes he had with the President over environmental policy, but how in the end, Reagan would not waver from his beliefs, which led to a great deal of respect, despite their differences. Mike Deaver, Deputy White House Chief of Staff under Reagan, reveals the shock and chaos that came in the wake of the 1981 assassination attempt, which came only six weeks into the President’s first term.
Not surprisingly though, it is Nancy Reagan who offers the most insight into her years with “Ronnie.” Even more dignified today than while First Lady, Nancy openly recounts the harrowing aftermath of the shooting, when a serious bacterial infection (kept secret from the public) threatened the President’s life. Glowingly recollecting her husband’s triumphs, when she comes to Reagan’s 1994 announcement that he was afflicted with Alzheimer’s, she movingly demonstrates her dedication and love.
As he has disappeared from the public spotlight in the ‘90s, it’s obvious the debilitating toll the disease has taken on Reagan. It has also affected those closest to him. Particularly painful is adopted son Michael’s admission that his father no longer recognizes him, but when Michael starts to leave, Reagan still stands with outstretched arms until Michael embraces him.
Chronicling a tragic end to a storied life, A Legacy Remembered is a nearly a companion piece to last year’s spectacular biography by Peggy Noonan, When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan, which also focused more on the man, less on the politician. Reagan was a hard person to get to know personally, even though much of the electorate felt more of an affinity for him than for any President since John F. Kennedy. The stories told in A Legacy Remembered, by those who were given a fleeting look into Reagan’s human side, enhance one of the greatest political legacies of this generation. While the film largely avoids critical perspectives, it also portrays the former President without too much nostalgia.