Sunday, February 06, 2011

Remembering Reagan at 100

The centennial of Ronald Reagan's birth has unleashed a veritable flood of new books, articles and documentaries on the 40th President and his place in history. Some of them appear to be fascinating; others are little more than hit pieces disguised as "objective" journalism.

Today's Washington Post has a review of three new films on President Reagan, all airing this week. Based on the paper's favorable comments, I'd say HBO's "Reagan" is worth skipping. Post critic Hank Stuever describes it as "artfully nuanced and intellectually curious," which means it presents Mr. Reagan in less-than-reverent fashion. At one point in the documentary, former CBS anchor Dan Rather announces that Americans still view Reagan "through the prism of their prejudices, for and against." As if we'd expect anything less from ol' "Documents Dan."

And, if that's not enough, film maker Eugene Jarecki secured an extended interview with Reagan's youngest son, Ron, with predictable results. Asked his father's complexities, Ron Reagan describes his father as someone who relate to human suffering on a personal level, but rarely in the abstract. That allows Jarecki to resurrect one of the time-tested criticisms of President Reagan, and his refusal to acknowledge the AIDS crisis, even as it claimed some of his friends from the entertainment industry.

In fact, as Reagan biographer Lou Cannon has reported, Mr. Reagan hardly ignored the AIDS epidemic. He began allocating government money to battle the disease in 1983, and doubled funding during each remaining year of his two terms in office. In his last budget (FY'89), President Reagan requested $2.2 billion for AIDS research and related programs. True, Mr. Reagan never spoke publicly on the issue until 1987, but claims he ignored AIDS are demonstrably false. We wonder how much of that "record" made the final cut in "Reagan."

A more honest film is the History Channel's "Reagan," a two-hour documentary that premiers on Wednesday evening. The production begins with the attempted assassination of President Reagan in 1981 and traces his life and career as he is transported to George Washington University for surgery that saved his life. The History Channel production is anything but hagiography, but unfortunately it lacks the 80s-era soundtrack that, according to Stuever, evokes the "80s that he remembers...based on mutual loathing of a president who seemed painfully detached."

If that sort of revisionist dreck is your cup of tea (or you're a card-carrying Democrat), the Jarecki film is right up your alley; as for us, we'll take a pass. Memo to the cable company: stuff like this is one reason we don't want HBO, period. Please stop calling an offering all those wonderful deals so we can "watch" character assassinations like "Reagan."

We'll take a pass on the week's third Reagan documentary (from PBS's NewsHour), but for different reasons. The PBS production concentrates on the "expanded" role of Nancy Reagan within her husband's White House. In 2011, it's hardly a surprise that any first lady (past or present) has a major say in an administration.

So, instead of wasting time on the HBO film or the PBS documentary, fire up the laptop and read (or re-read) some outstanding articles on President Reagan and his legacy at National Review on-line. In particular, we recommend Steve Hayward's "Reagan Reclaimed," an insightful piece on how liberals are blurring his record, and attempting to claim a part of Reagan's mantle, and Deroy Murdock's " "Reagan Revealed," detailing how the former president's files and letters continue to surprise--even among those who served under him.

The first example cited by Murdock is well-known. A few years ago, scholars Martin and Annelise Anderson (who served in the Reagan White House) published Reagan: In His Own Hand, a collection of radio commentaries delivered by the former California governor in the late 1970s, before his successful campaign for the presidency.

A personal note: during that period I was a high school student, bitten by the broadcasting bug. I worked at a small station in Missouri that aired the Reagan commentaries twice a day. We weren't a Paul Harvey affiliate, so Reagan was a sort of "second choice" for the station's general manager, a life-long Democrat who understood the preferences of his conservative listeners.

I was filling in on the morning show when the GM walked into the control room during a Reagan commentary. I don't remember the topic, but like all of his commentaries, it was well-reasoned and delivered as only Mr. Reagan could. "He reads a script well," the manager intoned, before launching into a little sermon about Reagan's supposed lack of intellect. "For God's sake, he starred in "Bedtime for Bonzo," my boss laughed. Being a young skull full of liberal mush (at that point) I went along with the little dig.

Boy, were we ever wrong. As the Andersons later discovered, Reagan wrote most of the commentaries himself, in longhand, on yellow legal pads. All of the radio scripts reveal a man of strong insights and positions based on years of reading and research. Yes. Mr. Reagan was reading a script, but he wrote the script and delivered it in a manner that was genuinely compelling.

But perhaps the most important aspect of those radio scripts is how Reagan handled them once the taping sessions were complete. They were tossed into a box and forgotten. Today, a politician would collect them into a book and rush it into print before the next campaign, as evidence of their intellectual heft. Mr. Reagan didn't lose his curiosity after a commentary aired, but he saw no reason to trumpet those scripts to disprove claims he was a lightweight or dimwit.

The reason speaks to his character and greatness. Despite his considerable media skills (and those of his advisers) Reagan saw no need to respond to the chattering classes. Mr. Reagan knew who he was and was quite comfortable in his own skin. His positions were based on deep convictions, reflecting years of serious study and reflection. They were bedrock principles that never wavered and guided his administration through countless challenges.

That's one reason that Reagan's presidential reputation has risen so sharply in the decades since he left office, and will continue to ascend for years to come. Too bad the documentary producers can't capture the real measure of an extraordinary man.

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