Monday, February 14, 2011

A Tale of Two Presidents, HBO Style

Presidents Day isn’t until next Monday, but so far this year, two important milestones have given the American Presidency a fair amount of attention: the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s inauguration, and the centennial of Ronald Reagan’s birth.

JFK and Reagan are political icons revered by different constituencies. Still, I have always seen more similarities than differences between them.

Both were pragmatic. Both were cold warriors. Both were exceptional communicators. Both believed in the power of tax cuts to stimulate economic growth. Both were proud Irishmen. Both had legendary hair.

Being a fan of presidential history, I was therefore pleased that HBO decided to run programs focusing on each man’s presidency. Unfortunately, however, the programming decision to air each documentary hints at the ideological bias of HBO executives.

The Kennedy program – “JFK: A President to Remember” – consisted almost exclusively of archival footage dating back to the Camelot years, with Alec Baldwin providing occasional narration. Content-wise there was nothing I had not heard or seen before, but it was a good, nostalgic retelling of the highlights of Kennedy’s ample achievements and legacy.

The Reagan documentary, however, was quite a different matter.

Directed by liberal filmmaker Eugene Jarecki, “Reagan” debuted on HBO fresh from the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. It is an obvious and somewhat clumsy attempt at revisionist history aiming to present Reagan as a well-meaning if naïve and ultimately damaging figure in American history. A few Reagan loyalists (including James A. Baker, Martin Anderson, and George Schultz) are interviewed throughout the documentary, but the dialogue is dominated by obscure liberal economists and academics critical of Reagan. Anchoring “Reagan” is commentary by Ron Reagan – Reagan’s son and (arguably) his most strident critic.

I am not one of those types who routinely whines against liberal bias. For example, I am a tremendous fan of PBS’s “The Presidents” series. Though the Reagan biography PBS produced a few years ago was clearly not scripted by conservatives, I regarded it as a fair, even-handed, appropriately critical retelling of the Reagan tale.What sets “Reagan” apart is the manner in which it seems to distort historical facts to serve the filmmaker’s agenda. Here are a few examples:
  • The film mentions the well-known fact that Reagan, while president of the Screen Actors Guild, was an informant for the FBI. “What does this tell you about Ronald Reagan,” asks one of the film’s talking liberal heads, “when in 18 months he goes from being a Hollywood liberal to informing on his colleagues?” Well, as Reagan biographers Edmund Morris and Lou Cannon establish in their own biographies, after years of being a New Dealer, Reagan’s tenure as SAG president alerted him to the pervasive nature of Communist influence in Hollywood. He wasn’t snitching on his colleagues for the sake of doing so. He saw a threat he was previously unaware of, and was genuinely alarmed by it. 
  • “Reagan” asserts that, except for Nancy, the president “had no friends.” Reagan’s inscrutability is a common theme in many biographies written about him. But, to say he had no friends is hyperbole. Actor William Holden was Reagan’s best friend in Hollywood, even serving as his best man at his wedding to Nancy. Judge William P. Clark, as Edmund Morris writes, spent hours with Reagan at his ranch, working the property together and engaging in numerous cowboy pursuits. 
  • Reagan is described as becoming a “salesman” for GE when his movie career ended. But Willy Loman, he wasn't. Rather, Reagan was the company’s national spokesman, and honed his political stumping skills visiting GE factories across the country. Also alleged is that GE's then-CEO had a major Svengali-like influence over Reagan's political thinking, in effect completing Reagan's transformation from a one-time New Deal liberal into a corporate pawn.  Agree with Reagan or not, all evidence I have seen or read indicates that he came to his political views completely on his own. 
  • In one of the most bizarre moments of “Reagan,” footage of one of the network’s commercial breakaways during coverage of the 1981 inauguration was included. “The Reagan Inauguration,” it intoned, “brought to you by…” with the sponsors read by the network spokesman. I guess this was a crude attempt to buttress the point that Reagan was merely a “salesman” pitching a product. Every presidential inauguration broadcast on network TV before or since presumably ran for free, not requiring commercial interruption (sarcasm intended). 
  • Regarding the end of the Iranian hostage crisis, one of the anonymous talking heads asserts that Reagan “had nothing to do with it,” and that Jimmy Carter negotiated the deal. Never before have I heard anyone – including Reagan – claim that Carter did not deserve credit for ending the hostage crisis during the final days of his presidency. The pundit also claimed that the unearned credit Reagan got for it helped launch his presidency on a positive trajectory. Perhaps, but replacing a failed president who left office with a 34 percent approval rating might have had something to do with that, too.  
  • One of the documentary’s resident pundits is filmed driving around economically depressed areas of Dixon, Illinois – Reagan’s home town – to find evidence of the “real impact” of Reagan’s policies. So, does that mean that the bad economy we’ve been experiencing since 2008 is secretly Reagan’s fault, and not attributable to what President Obama called, “the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression”? And, if that’s the case, is George W. Bush off the hook? 
  • One of the pundits said that Reagan’s firing of the striking air traffic controllers in 1981 was purely to “send a signal” to organized labor. After warning them to resume their posts, Reagan fired the controllers for one reason and one reason only: Their strike was against the law. Tellingly, the term “illegal” is not used once when the strike is discussed during the documentary. 

At one point, the younger Reagan says of his father, "(he) was both smarter and better than people on the left think he was, and less the giant than many on the right think he was." This is a fair and reasonable critique and, for me, the highwater point of "Reagan."

The low point of “Reagan” involved an interview with a retired career military veteran (the interview takes place in a cemetery, as if to imply that Reagan was more militaristic than he actually was). This veteran explains that he strongly supported Reagan in 1980 because of the perception that America’s military had become weak. By the time Reagan left office, he had become disillusioned. He then points nostalgically to another president, who he credits for telling the truth in one of his Oval Office addresses. The president in question: Jimmy Carter. The address: The so-called “Malaise Speech,” still remembered as one of the worst presidential addresses in American history.

At that point, I changed the channel.

I am not the kind of person who only wants to hear from people with whom I agree. But, the disparity in tone between the Kennedy and Reagan documentaries bothered me. Why didn’t the Kennedy piece reference the RFK-supervised plots to kill Castro, or the assassination of South Korean president Ngo Dinh Diem, or the bugging of Martin Luther King, Jr. approved by Bobby Kennedy, or the Judy Campbell/Ellen Rometsch scandals?

The answer to that question is that they had no place in a program meant to highlight a president’s achievements on an important historic anniversary.

Both JFK and Ronald Reagan were great, consequential presidents. Neither deserves extreme hagiographic or revisionist treatment. Hopefully HBO will strive for greater balance in the future.


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