'They created a false image': how the Reagans fooled America

‘I really do think Nancy had a greater sway than keepers of the flame would like us to think’ ... The Reagans
‘I really do think Nancy had a greater sway than keepers of the flame would like us to think.’ Photograph: Courtesy of Photofest/Photofest
‘I really do think Nancy had a greater sway than keepers of the flame would like us to think.’ Photograph: Courtesy of Photofest/Photofest

A new docuseries studies the damaging reign of Ronald and Nancy Reagan and the insidious myth-making that still surrounds their legacy

Last modified on Thu 12 Nov 2020 12.28 EST

Ever since Richard Nixon’s sweaty upper lip during a debate with John F Kennedy cost him the election in 1960, television has been the most crucial proving ground for any presidential hopeful. Granting the gift of sight to the general public changed the game, as campaigners and office-holders have been forced to school themselves in careful image management and conscious branding. In American politics, a well-crafted position on foreign policy won’t get a person nearly as far as the easy telegenic charm that makes voters feel comfortable grabbing a pint, a dissonance that’s allowed some dubious characters access to the highest stations of authority.

The Reagans, a new four-part documentary airing on Showtime, pinpoints this flair for PR as the genesis of Ronald Reagan’s swift rise in government and the secret to his administration’s sweeping popularity within the Republican party. The 40th commander-in-chief and his first lady, Nancy Reagan, exercised a then-unprecedented degree of control over how they were seen, and for it, they were anointed as the new saviors of the rightwing way of life during their stint in the White House during the ‘80s. “More than any modern president, the myth-making around Ronald and Nancy Reagan has been extensive and effective,” series director Matt Tyrnauer tells the Guardian from his home in Los Angeles. “They created a false image that doesn’t conform with reality, one that is only now being fully examined.”

As a longtime Vanity Fair correspondent turned documentarian, Tyrnauer has inspected the corridors of influence for the better part of his working life, and there’s no case study more revealing than Reagan’s. He first delved into the complicated persona while editing essays for Gore Vidal, a professional role model and eventual friend. “Gore wrote a pretty powerful essay called Ronnie and Nancy: A Life in Pictures,” Tyrnauer says. “That was, in many ways, my departure point. That stripped the bark off of the Reagan myth for me. My other key figure was Gary Wills, who wrote what I consider the best book about Reagan, called Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home. It’s by no means a scorched-earth biography, but it’s the most clear-eyed assessment of who this man was, what he was up to, and the levels of self-delusion and magical thinking that shaped his worldview and methods of governing.”

The overarching project of Tyrnauer’s new documentary is to trace the line connecting Reagan’s background in Hollywood to his second act in Washington, where his lessons learned from showbiz would be put into practice. As a novice politico in California, he rose fast due to a well-honed charm that could seemingly sell any bill or talking point, no matter how “hard rightwing kook”, as Tyrnauer puts it. Ads placed him on horseback in a cowboy hat, a vital rough-riding rebuke to namby-pamby liberalism.

“Media, and how the Reagans manipulated it, forms the central part of this story,” Tyrnauer explains. “As the academic Jason Johnson says in the series, Reagan gave the press the televised presidency they had been waiting for. That’s irrefutably true, and there are other aspects of the Reagan legacy more attuned to the American psyche. Voters vote on perception and feeling, which the Reagans knew how to tap into.”

The Reagan administration’s insistence on documenting its every move supplied Tyrnauer with a treasure trove of archival footage, some of it rather damning. In one scene, we hear Reagan, then a sitting governor on a private call with Nixon, refer to African UN delegates as “monkeys”. As he conducted his research, the director was surprised by how open the uglier sides of Reagan’s personality were permitted to be. “It was very informative about how the press covered Reagan that all the archival materials – even the unflattering ones – were on the record and quite available,” Tyrnauer says. “It shows you how selectively he’s been cemented in the public’s memory, that what he said on hot microphones would be shocking today.”

The documentary gains a more intimately exposing vantage point on Reagan through commentary from his son, Ronald Jr, who sat for an eight-hour interview in which he paints a picture of his mother as the power behind the throne. When the cameras stopped rolling, she advised her husband on the nonexistent response to the Aids crisis, a punitive “war on drugs”, and the deregulatory bonanza known as Reaganomics. A brazen West Wing redecorator at steep taxpayer cost, she supported her husband’s preoccupation with appearance over all else. “I really do think Nancy had a greater sway than keepers of the flame would like us to think,” Tyrnauer says. “It’s also interesting to look back at her through a post-Hillary Clinton lens, which hasn’t really been done. They both wielded enormous influence as first lady, but Nancy was determined to hide that.”

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Photograph: Courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

A dutiful cataloguing of the harm the two Reagans did in the black and LGBTQ+ communities segues into an illustration of how the damage he did has trickled down into present-day politics. Though no one utters the name of Donald Trump in any of the four parts, his presence looms over the Reagans’ speeches and rallies, the separate generations joined by their shared Make America Great Again catchphrase. “Reagan opened the door for Trump,” Tyrnauer says. “He used dogwhistle racism to gain political power.”

Tyrnauer continues: “Trump and Reagan do a lot of the same things, only with different performance styles. Reagan is playing a president. He gives his version of a president, no different from Michael Douglas or Kevin Kline or Martin Sheen. This isn’t to take away from Reagan being a diligent student of political philosophy, even if he used those ideas in an uninformed way. But he’s performing.”

Both presidents created their own insular ideological universe and promised fabulous rewards to all those willing to join them there. The most lasting, deleterious lesson of the Reagan tenure was that it doesn’t matter if something is true or not, so long as enough people believe that it is. As daily life continued to worsen for every American not lucky enough to be on Wall Street or run a business, Reagan’s own words assured his constituency that they were actually enjoying the greatest surge in prosperity that the nation had ever seen. In conversation, Tyrnauer speaks more candidly about Reagan’s failures than the professional decorum of his work can allow.

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Photograph: Courtesy of Photofest/Photofest

“He knew what he knew,” Tyrnauer says. “He wasn’t intellectually curious. He wasn’t a deep thinker. He was, at heart, a reactionary. He was given the nuclear codes and the Oval Office and the greatest bully pulpit in the world, and what did he do with it? He tried to short-circuit the federal government in really detrimental ways. He implemented policies that hurt African Americans and economically disadvantaged minorities. He believed things that weren’t true and repeated them publicly. He was into science denial, he was a seeming believer in creation theory over evolution, he ignored and denied the Aids pandemic. He said trees cause pollution, which reminds us now of Trump saying wind turbines cause pollution.”

The actor who became the most powerful man on earth remains a potent Republican fable, in part for how it suggests that a lack of experience can be a strength rather than a weakness. The inexplicable ascendancy of Trump re-established that a total absence of political bona fides will pose no impediment to success, instead plowing through criticisms and obstacles a more knowledgeable candidate would be expected to address. A noisy, ultraconservative, often racist razzle dazzle proves more than sufficient to get the job (of hoarding and exploiting clout, not safeguarding American citizens) done.

“As Reagan himself admitted near the end of his last term, he said, ‘Sometimes, I wonder how you could do this job if you hadn’t been an actor,’” Tyrnauer says. “I don’t think this is a bad thing, necessarily, Franklin Roosevelt, who I consider our greatest president, mastered the prevailing medium of his time, which was radio. Presentation and the ability to work through the media is an important part of being a capable leader. It gets more problematic and interesting when we think of him in the role of presenter and frontman, which Reagan was throughout his acting career, often playing a master of ceremonies part in movies. He was a radio emcee and a hybrid corporate shill-slash-TV host in his job with General Electric. He came by this role so naturally because he’d been type cast into it for three decades. It was easy to cast him again.”

  • The Reagans begins on Showtime on 15 November with a UK date to be announced