Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Reagan (Charlotte Street Films, HBO, BBC, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched a quite remarkable documentary on PBS called simply Reagan, which was advertised on the KPBS Web site as if it were an in-house production (“Ronald Reagan has been heralded as one of the architects of the modern world and since his death many Americans have been working to cement his legacy. But some critics argue that the aftershocks of Reaganomics is still causing economies to crumble the world over and that the hubris of Reagan’s foreign policy continues to propel America into a cycle of overseas ventures. To such critics, Reagan is an ominous figure who did more harm than good. But who was Ronald Reagan, and how did he come to shape world politics in the way he did?”), but which turned out to be more interesting than that even though it shouldn’t be surprising, given who the filmmaker was, that it told much more of the “black legend” of Reagan than the “white legend.” The filmmaker was Eugene Jarecki, credited as both writer and director, whose previous credits include The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002) — which I reviewed when it first came out and called “a liberal film” because it presented Kissinger as an aberration — and Why We Fight (2005), a history of post-World War II American militarism and imperialism which I called (again in a contemporary review) “a radical film” because it showed how continuous the U.S.’s desire to maintain an empire and dominate the world militarily had been no matter what political party was nominally in power. Reagan is a fascinating film because it attempts to be even-handed even though Jarecki’s view is clearly closer to “the ominous figure who did more harm than good” than the secular saint of Republican mythology, which ever since Reagan left the White House in early 1989 has recast him not only as “one of the architects of the modern world” (which he certainly was) but as an example of perfect dedication to conservative principles and unbending resistance to compromise — which he wasn’t. One reviewer compared Jarecki favorably to Michael Moore, essentially saying that Jarecki was one filmmaker who didn’t wear his prejudices on his sleeve or push them on us with the sort of sledgehammer force characteristic of Moore’s documentaries — and indeed Jarecki deserves credit for at least some attempt at balance: he has key architects and supporters of Reagan’s policies (notably Pat Buchanan, Grover Norquist and Arthur Laffer) giving the Reaganite side of some of the controversies surrounding his administration and its policies, though if anything they tend to come off more as buffoons than serious Right-wing intellectuals. One point Jarecki makes is that liberals and Leftists often underestimated not only Reagan’s political appeal but his intelligence; he was not, Jarecki argues, the amiable bumbler of Left-wing legend (I remember when it was announced that Reagan had Alzheimer’s disease, just about all my Leftist friends thought the same thing: “You mean they’re just figuring that out now?”).

The film offers the obligatory portrait of Reagan’s pre-political years, starting with his childhood in Dixon, Illinois (mentioning that he was the child of alcoholics, which in his case gave him even more of a sense of responsibility and a commitment and determination to succeed than he otherwise might have had — something I’m familiar with since my own father was like that as well); his early work as a lifeguard even though he was so heavily nearsighted he once joked he couldn’t recognize anyone, including his brother, from more than 12 feet away; his stint as a radio announcer (it did not mention that one of his jobs as such was to announce baseball games even though he wasn’t at them and his only source of information was a wire report he received with the outcome of each at-bat, from which he was supposed to spin a yarn that would give listeners the impression that they were at a live broadcast; once the wire connection went down and he had to improvise a ballgame for nearly an hour, then hurriedly synchronize his fictitious ballgame with the real one once the wire was restored); and his odd start in Hollywood — courtesy of an early girlfriend, Joy Hodges, who’d already been signed to a starlet contract at Warner Bros. and encouraged Reagan to test as well. Reagan got signed — interestingly there’s a clip here either of his screen test or a promo film Warners shot to introduce him, and he’s pronouncing his last name “RAY-gun” (as he did in his political career) rather than “REE-gun” (the usual way it was spoken during his acting days) — and built up a solid career, occasionally playing supporting roles in big films like Dark Victory and King’s Row but mostly playing leads in “B”-movies. Reagan’s nearsightedness kept him out of actual combat in World War II, but he contributed to the war effort by making propaganda films for the U.S. Army Signal Corps — including Winning Your Wings, in which he plays a hotshot pilot training for military service, which is introduced with front-and-back appearances by President Franklin Roosevelt and is therefore the only movie I can think of offhand that stars two real-life U.S. Presidents. Jarecki also mentions Reagan’s early days as a New Deal liberal (he notes that his father and his brother were both bailed out of financial straits by New Deal programs that got them jobs), and though there’s been quite a lot of dispute as to what caused his politics to shift so radically from Left to Right, Jarecki dates that from the same incident I do: the bitter jurisdictional battle from 1945 to 1947 between two unions over which would represent Hollywood’s set builders. One, the International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE), was controlled by the Mafia; the other, the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU), was secretly controlled by the Communist Party USA — and Reagan, like the rest of liberal Hollywood, originally supported the CSU. Then he learned that the CSU was a Communist front and shocked his liberal friends by abruptly switching sides and backing IATSE on the theory that compared with the Communists, the Mafia were definitely the lesser of two evils.

Reagan’s utter loathing of Communism was his first entrée into the Right — well before he broke up with his first wife, Jane Wyman (to this day Reagan is the only divorcé who has ever served as U.S. President), illustrated here by a headline and a short bit of a news story from the time in which she’s quoted as blaming “politics” for their breakup, and met Nancy Davis and her (adoptive) father, Dr. Loyal Davis, who in some accounts is credited as the magus that moved Reagan Rightward. What drove Reagan into the arms of the Republican party and the radical Right appears to have been not only his fear of Communism (as Jarecki notes in his narration, Communism as practiced by the Soviet Union and, after 1949, China was an existential threat to the U.S., but it was also exploited by Republican politicians who wanted to reverse the New Deal by labeling any economic and social policies other than lassiez-faire capitalism as “socialist” and therefore beyond the ideological pale) but his love of order: though Jarecki doesn’t explicitly make this parallel, it’s striking to note the similarity between his jeremiads against student demonstrators at UC Berkeley as governor of California in 1969 and his determination to fire the striking air traffic controllers in the early days of his Presidency in 1981; in both cases he comes off as a stern parent lecturing children who have misbehaved and insisting that he’s going to show them who’s boss and punish them as severely as possible for their transgressions. The film elides over Reagan’s governorship (though Jarecki later mentions some actions Reagan took as president, including a tax hike that partially made up for the economy-destroying effects of his original tax cuts and signing the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli immigration bill and proudly proclaiming its “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants as if that were a good thing, that run directly counter to Republican orthodoxy, he doesn’t mention that in 1967 Reagan signed into law the California Therapeutic Abortion Act, the most liberal abortion law in the U.S. at that time) and focuses quite a bit more attention on the periods of transition: the 1950’s, when as host of General Electric Theatre and spokesperson for the company (he was hired by GE’s CEO, Lowell Boulware, to travel to all its factories and give talks about Hollywood and general inspirational Americanism to boost the workers’ morale, but he increasingly filled his speeches with Right-wing politics and was finally fired in 1960 for doing so), his emergence in the 1964 Goldwater for President campaign as a more effective spokesperson for Goldwater’s policies than Goldwater himself, and his years in the political wilderness between leaving the California governorship in 1974 and winning the presidency in 1980.

Jarecki notes that Reagan ran unsuccessfully for President twice before winning the big prize (in 1968 and 1976), challenging the Reagan myth that he was a reluctant Cincinnatus called away from the Reagan Ranch to save the country from the depradations of the Democrats in general and Jimmy Carter in particular. (The footage of the 1980 campaign is especially interesting now that the Republicans are pretty obviously preparing to make 2016 a rerun of it — a Republican man on horseback riding in like the heroes of Reagan’s Westerns to save the country from a hapless Democrat who’s led the nation into economic doldrums and military weakness — and Hillary Clinton as the presumptive Democratic nominee has shown signs she intends to run as hard against Obama’s legacy as against George W. Bush’s, essentially presenting herself as her husband redux and “triangulating” herself as the rational choice between Right-wing crazies like Scott Walker and Ted Cruz and Left-wing crazies like Elizabeth Warren.) Needless to say, most of the show is devoted to Reagan’s presidency, and in particular to the embrace of so-called “supply-side economics” (the theory invented by the appropriately named Arthur Laffer — who comes off as a blithering idiot in Jarecki’s interview of him — that cutting taxes would stimulate so much new business activity that the government would actually raise more revenue), which in practice meant a massive redistribution of wealth and income from everyone else to the very rich; and the defense buildup (which actually had a Keynesian stimulus effect and was the prime cause of the end of Reagan’s recession in 1982 and the relatively good economic times that prevailed for the rest of his presidency and allowed him to win the sweeping electoral victory of 1984). Pat Buchanan noted that Reagan actually sent U.S. troops into harm’s way only three times in his presidency — in Lebanon in 1982, Grenada in 1983 and Libya in 1988 — he preferred to do most of his fighting through proxies like the mujahedin in Afghanistan and the contras in Nicaragua, channeling them aid whether it was technically legal or not. (One set of notes from Reagan’s defense secretary, Casper Weinberger, during a meeting on Iran-contra mentions that Reagan was warned he would be committing an impeachable offense if he approved the diversion of money from weapons sales to Iran to the contras, and Reagan said flat-out he didn’t care.) Oddly, the most interesting interviewee in the entire program is Reagan’s son, Ron Reagan, Jr. (who looks a lot like his dad but has a far craggier, more angular face than Reagan, Sr. had at his age), who’s clearly mixed — he has fond memories of his father personally but is quite mixed about his feelings towards Reagan’s politics.

What’s most interesting about Reagan is its clear statement about the difference between Reagan’s reputation and reality — it even begins with a radio interview from Reagan himself about how myths form around individuals and prevent us from seeing them clearly — and in the 2008 Presidential campaign it was fascinating to note how totally we’d become “Reagan’s America” that both major parties were citing his legacy, with Republicans seizing on his militant Right-wing rhetoric while Democrats (including Obama, who raised hackles on the Left by publicly praising Reagan for his ability to move his agenda) cited the pragmatic conservative he had actually been in office. Clearly Ronald Reagan is the most important figure in American politics in the second half of the 20th century (as Franklin Roosevelt was in the first half), and Reagan has largely succeeded in undoing the New Deal and the entire idea that government owes its less fortunate citizens help — the modern-day Republicans, who claim Reagan’s legacy and have pushed his politics even farther Right than Reagan did himself, now dominate both houses of Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court and need only to win the presidency in 2016 (which seems quite likely given that since the passage of the 22nd Amendment limiting the President to two terms — a Republican initiative that proved remarkably short-sighted given that both Eisenhower and Reagan could easily have won third terms if they’d been allowed to run for them, though it’s arguable Clinton might have as well) to complete the “Reagan revolution” and wipe out organized labor, the social-service network, regulations on business, environmental protections and restraints on the U.S. military once and for all.