Is it possible to devote 90 minutes of prime TV time to Ronald Reagan as an actor who changed the presidency through his use of the mass media and still miss why he was a great communicator?
CNN did it with its all too predictable documentary, “The Reagan Show.”
The producers presented all the liberal clichés: Democratic Vice President Walter Mondale, declaring that Reagan was “out of touch, never in charge;” liberal arms controller Paul Warnke, dismissing SDI (the Strategic Defense Initiative) as “Star Wars;” ABC reporter Sam Donaldson, saying that Reagan lived in a “Norman Rockwell world;” TV anchors intoning in the wake of the Iran-Contra affair that Reagan “had a last chance to save his presidency.”
What the producers did not provide was even a minimum of context for the soundbites. For example, Mondale carried only one state—his home state of Minnesota—when he ran against Reagan in the 1984 presidential race.
And although Warnke and other liberals had mocked SDI, the Soviet Politburo was in despair over it. Gen. Makhmut Gareev, who headed the department of strategic analysis in the Soviet Ministry of Defense, later revealed what he told the Politburo: “Not only could we not defeat SDI, SDI defeated all our possible countermeasures.”
That is why, in his summit meetings with Reagan, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev tried so hard to limit SDI to the laboratory.
As for Reagan’s “Norman Rockwell world,” it must have an amazing number of inhabitants because Reagan left office with a final public approval rating of 63 percent, the highest of any president up to that point.
At the same time, The New York Times/CBS News poll gave Reagan an approval rating of 68 percent. When the public is asked to rank presidents, Reagan is always in the top five and sometimes places third, behind only George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
As for Iran-Contra—CNN offers a clip of Reagan admitting that he traded arms for hostages—this was not Watergate redux. Reagan did not try to cover up the affair, but directed his attorney general to conduct an immediate and thorough inquiry.
Reagan invited former Sens. John Tower, a Republican, and Edmund Muskie, a Democrat, and President Richard Nixon’s former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft to undertake an independent investigation. He also asked for the appointment of an independent prosecutor to determine if any laws had been broken.
Every official inquiry concluded that Reagan had not personally authorized the diversion of funds to the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua.
In fairness to the producers of “The Reagan Show,” they do show several positive scenes—Reagan at the Berlin Wall challenging Gorbachev to “tear down this wall;” Reagan welcomed home by a cheering crowd upon his return from Moscow where he signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Gorbachev; and Reagan on his last day in office looking around the Oval Office one last time, and walking away without looking back.
Well over half of “The Reagan Show” focuses on U.S. foreign policy, specifically nuclear arms, and therefore does not mention the unprecedented level of economic prosperity that Reagan sparked with his top-to-bottom tax cuts and other reforms.
Nor does it touch on Reagan’s boundless optimism and belief in the American spirit that lifted a traumatized country out of a great psychological depression, induced by the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, sustained by the lies of the Vietnam War and Watergate, and intensified by President Jimmy Carter’s malaise.
Most importantly, the CNN documentary fails to explain that Reagan was a great communicator—not because he had spent more than 20 years acting in Hollywood and television, but because he communicated great ideas like the one that animates the Declaration of Independence: that “government is beholden to the people, that it has no other source of power except the sovereign people.”
What the producers fail to understand is that Reagan was a great president and remains an enduring presidential model because of his firm commitment to the declaration and the Constitution (whose anniversary we will celebrate in another week or so) and his deep respect for the Founders. Indeed he often sounded like one of them, quoting the Founding Fathers more than any president in living memory.
Reagan ended his farewell address by referring to America as the “shining city on a hill,” a phrase he had borrowed from the Pilgrim leader John Winthrop and modified, adding the word “shining.” The implicit reference to that first city on a hill—Jerusalem—was clear to Winthrop and his followers, and to Reagan as well.
The president reassured the men and women of the “Reagan Revolution” that they had made a difference—that they had made that shining city on a hill stronger and freer and left her in good hands. “All in all,” he concluded, with the suggestion of a twinkle in his eye, “not bad, not bad at all.”
Reagan was a transformational president who changed the presidency, not because he knew how to use a teleprompter or had a remarkably warm and inviting voice, or sought dramatic backdrops for his speeches like the Berlin Wall or the Statue of Liberty or a cemetery above Omaha Beach—but because he believed in ideas like individual freedom and responsibility, our Judeo-Christian heritage, and peace through strength.
The title of the documentary has been corrected.