‘The Reagans’ Review: Challenging a Leader’s LegacyHistorians in the News
tags: Ronald Reagan, documentaries, television
Toward the end of “The Reagans” (begins Sunday, 8 p.m., Showtime)—a blistering four-part assessment of the Reagan White House years (1981-89) enlivened by nonstop denunciation of the 40th president’s policies and beliefs—a strange but familiar realization sets in. Which is that, despite the vitriol directed at him in this indictment—at his character, his ideological rigidity, his blind faith that aid to the needy undermined some basic tenet of Americanism, his preachment of the gospel that government is the enemy, his lack of attention to the AIDS crisis—Reagan emerges, ultimately, as an admired, even a beloved figure. Exactly as was true when his presidency ended, and nowhere was this truth more evident than in the fond farewell commentaries emanating from the media. One of this series’ many commentators observes, not altogether happily, that the press had allowed itself to be seduced by the president.
“The Reagans” (directed by Matt Tyrnauer) is frank in its intention—namely, to strip the Reagan presidency of its mythic status, the illusion, which still clings to it, that this was ideal leadership. Ronald Reagan and his family, we’re reminded, were the grateful beneficiaries of government—that of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, specifically, whose programs provided them with jobs. It was government that had created Social Security and unemployment insurance, that had built the nation’s highways and bridges, and that had made the emergence of a middle class possible. Reagan had not only turned his back on such realities, including the experience of his own family—he had become a man whose philosophy, boiled down, was “Real men don’t need government.”
The testimony—from journalists, academics, sociologists, historians—is steeped in acid, especially about matters like the Reagan administration’s passion for cutting social services. There’s a clip of Reagan himself apologetically announcing to an audience that some bureaucrat in his administration had concluded that ketchup should be counted as a vegetable in school lunch programs—and that this would be corrected. The ketchup as vegetable was to become part of the legend of the Reagan years.
It was the sort of misstep that Nancy Reagan would have abhorred. As the White House years passed, she became an increasingly militant guardian of her husband’s legacy. Ron Reagan—their son, and one of the show’s commentators—says that his father was a man who trusted people. But trust, he notes, was not his mother’s default position.