A four-part Showtime documentary series, The Reagans excoriates the epic failure of journalism to reveal the Reagan White House as it really was, not the fairy tale of near-sainthood of Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan, Jr., the only son of the Reagans, is the primary source for details about his parents’ most private moments and their secrets behind closed doors. One of his more frankly understated comments: “My father was a strange fellow to be president of this country.”
How the carefully curated story becomes the reality is the emphatic warning of The Reagans. Beginning in the 1950’s, when Reagan first testified in front of Senator McCarthy to support investigating and expelling film industry professionals as communists, we see the former Screen Actor Guild president rewrite the facts of his own life. From being a World War II combat veteran (which he wasn’t) to fighting for corporate interests (while the young Reagan was pro-union), Reagan and his uncannily astute wife Nancy construct a confabulist’s story of a dream they both had for him to be president of a country that never was. Scanning the political landscape with her bird-of-prey eyes and instincts, Nancy was a force to be ignored at a politician’s own peril. Nancy’s stagecraft is in play when announcing her husband’s presidency in Philadelphia, Mississippi –the notorious site of a Ku Klux Klan massacre. The viewer sees Reagan’s dog whistle raise the attention of those who will be his first believers.
Sometimes jaw-droppingly shocking–based on rarely seen footage–we witness the previously unexamined tactics and strategy that laid the groundwork for the Tea Party, trickle-down economics and the Trump administration. What was planned sixty years ago foreshadows what is going on now. The insightful analysis of the parallel between the cult of the telegenic personality and political campaigning since the rise of television is particularly unnerving. Does it take a seasoned performer to be the most probable candidate for the highest office in government?
Watch this and draw your own conclusions.
People who worship Ronald Reagan will hate The Reagans. They will see more of the man behind the curtain than they would prefer. For those comfortably used to seeing Reagan canonized as a patron saint of moderate Republicanism, exposing the veneer of a highly polished television image should be unsettling. For those who want to better understand how the current conservative movement was primed for performers to become POTUS, this is a disturbing documentary indeed.