Showtime docudrama on Ronald Reagan rests on conspicuous parallelisms between his and Donald Trump's presidencies

The Reagans, a four-part documentary streaming in India on Voot Select, is a consistently revisionist enterprise, resting on the premise that Ronald Reagan has been treated far too well by history — that he is seen today as an exemplary president.

The New York Times November 18, 2020 13:17:03 IST
Showtime docudrama on Ronald Reagan rests on conspicuous parallelisms between his and Donald Trump's presidencies

The response to The Reagans, a four-part docudrama beginning on Showtime, most likely reflects the stark cultural divide underscored by the recent presidential election. Half of the US will already know and agree with the case it makes against Ronald Reagan, while the other half will never be persuaded.

Directed by Matt Tyrnauer, the series provides the basic timeline of the Reagan presidency and the lives of him and his wife and White House counterpart, Nancy. A small roster of journalists, biographers, and academics (for a documentary of this length) provides analysis while a gallery of Reagan-era luminaries offers personal testimony: James Baker, George Shultz, Grover Norquist, Ed Rollins, and Ken Khachigian, emerging from the mist of the 1980s.

The Reagans is a consistently revisionist enterprise, resting on the premise that Ronald Reagan has been treated far too well by history — that he is seen today as an exemplary president. That assessment is not as widely shared as the series indicates, but Tyrnauer is on firmer ground with his corollary argument that Reagan’s election was the pivot that brought US politics and public life to where they are today.

To that end, the series provides a steady succession of parallels between Reagan and US President Donald Trump, none labelled as such but all difficult to miss. Reagan campaign posters declare “Let’s make America great again”; Reagan poses with tall stacks of paper representing his bold initiatives; references are made to third-rate appointees dismantling the government and to regulations being rolled back; the Christian right ascends as a voting bloc and source of money; a new and deadly disease is ignored.

Showtime docudrama on Ronald Reagan rests on conspicuous parallelisms between his and Donald Trumps presidencies

The Reagans, a documentary on Ronald Reagan, argues the president engaged in "dog whistle" racism, and his economic policies were fundamentally shaped by racist stereotyping and fear-mongering. Image from Twitter

The charge it levels most strongly and at greatest length, especially in the earlier episodes, is that Reagan engaged in “dog whistle” racism as a campaigner, and that his economic policies as president were fundamentally shaped by racist stereotyping and fear-mongering. (“Reagan’s reputation as a dog whistler has not had a sufficiently negative impact on his legacy,” a historian opines, making the revisionist impulse literal.) The series makes a familiar and convincing case, and an ugly taped snippet of Reagan discussing African delegates to the United Nations (with Richard Nixon, no less) suggests that his attitudes were not simply opportunistic.

The prominence of race in the analysis of the series — critical theory, in a mild form, manifesting in a mainstream television project — can seem both entirely appropriate and slightly out of balance.

While the documentary also gives a detailed portrait of Reagan as a fantasist, who believed in and embodied a mythical American ideal, it could do a more comprehensive job of showing how race, nostalgia, and American exceptionalism were inextricably woven together in his politics.

The focus of the series also has a practical effect on its storytelling, which is that a lot of the things we remember the Reagan years for — Iran-Contra, AIDS, the Strategic Defense Initiative, the Gorbachev summit — get squished into the final episode. 'Tear down this wall' is not heard until four minutes from the end.

And from the standpoint of entertainment and surprise, the material that grabs you may have less to do with the inherent biases of tax cuts and anti-drug campaigns (or of Reagan’s legendary affability), and more to do with calibrating the extent to which Nancy Reagan, and her astrologer Joan Quigley, were in charge of our federal government for eight years. Tyrnauer’s best-known documentaries — Studio 54Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, Valentino: The Last Emperor — have covered less weighty topics, but with a similar focus on image-making and public style, and it is those aspects of The Reagans that he handles most fluidly.

If you are of a certain age and cultural disposition, there is a particular sensation The Reagans might lead you to recall. The series does not really go into it, but the sense of disbelief and panic among a large swath of Americans when Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980 was very similar, in all but degree, to the reaction many felt on election night in 2016. There is a lesson there, but even after 40 years, it is too early to tell exactly what it is.

Mike Hale c.2020 The New York Times Company

The Reagans is streaming in India on Voot Select.

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