Forthcoming movies starring Michael Douglas as Ronald Reagan and another with Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan have sent chills up the spines of Reagan historians as they well might face another long slog of pushing back against mythology and disinformation created to alter or undermine the Gipper’s legacy.
Ideology aside, at 75, Jane Fonda is nearly 20 years older than Nancy Reagan when she and the new 40th president entered the White House in 1981. Douglas is just one year younger at 68 than Reagan was in 1980, but looks more careworn now than the zestful Gipper did then. Reagan’s followers have higher hopes for the biopic now being undertaken by Hollywood veteran Mark Joseph based on books by Paul Kengor.
Several years ago a group of us were invited to a luncheon featuring Rick Pearlstein, who there discussed the forthcoming release of a paperback version of his book, “Before the Storm.” The book is a detailed account of the early days of the conservative movement, the Goldwater campaign, but also a subtle implication of how the rise of conservatism undermined consensus in America.
Overall, it was a good effort and well researched though it overlooked a number of important moments in the climb of conservatism. Also, the author dwelt an awful lot on the “Birchers” of the John Birch Society even though they were beginning to die out by 1964.
As I was recently reminded by Dr. Lee Edwards, the unofficial historian of 20th century American conservatism (his books on the movement, Goldwater and Reagan among others are required reading) mainstream historian Alan Brinkley said conservatism was “an orphan in historical scholarship.” This was the result of, as Brinkley said, “a basic lack of sympathy for the Right among most scholars.” Edwards hold the title of “Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought” at the Heritage Foundation. If anyone should know about how history treats American conservatism, it is he.
What struck me though that afternoon about Mr. Pearlstein was his announcement of his intention to write a new book on the rise of the religious right in the 1970s and was tentatively titling it, “The Age of Reagan.” In explaining his new effort to us, Mr. Pearlstein told of how it would concentrate on the means by which Ronald Reagan brought religion into politics in the 1970s, which Pearlstein viewed as a new (and clearly dangerous) development.
When it was patiently explained to Mr. Pearlstein that it was Jimmy Carter, not Reagan, who first unleashed the forces of the pulpit by running as a “Born Again Christian,” who campaigned openly from church podiums and whose national television broadcast on Election Eve in 1976 was hosted by the Reverend Pat Robertson, Mr. Pearlstein seemed obdurately uninterested in Carter, the foot washing “severe” Baptist who eschewed most worldly pleasures and whose sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton, had been a faith healer.
More recently, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, a sometimes writer of history (“Kennedy and Nixon” was excellent, “Elusive Hero” was good but his forthcoming book on Reagan and Tip O’Neill is very worrisome) has repeatedly insinuated on his TV show that Reagan was a racist.
At this, the 63rd anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s 39th birthday (as he is now joking to friends somewhere) historians are still exploring the man, still attempting to plumb his depths, still trying to fit him into the modern context.
Recent history has demonstrated the bias of liberal historians; rewriting Reagan (or defaming him), downplaying the anti-Semitism of FDR (his support for Harvard’s Jewish quota of 15 percent in 1927 and anti-Jewish immigration policies as president) the racism of Woodrow Wilson (his Executive Order creating “separate but equal” in the federal government) the anti-Indian bigotry of Andrew Jackson (“Trail of Tears”).
Should liberals be allowed to record history? Of course. But should the political views of some historians be taken into consideration, especially when liberals record conservative history? Dr. Edwards points out that while Matthew Dallek and Douglas Brinkley “have written balanced, objective books about the life and career of Ronald Reagan” others have been less dedicated to the truth and more interested in pushing an agenda.
Turn on any cable show and one sees history mangled all the time. As a Reagan Scholar at the Gipper’s alma mater, Eureka College, having spoken at the Reagan Library and the Ranch on a number of occasions, having written books about his campaigns (and am now working on a book about his post presidency) and innumerable articles, it can be maddening to see all the disinformation about Reagan routinely put out in the media.
Liberal historians have existed for many years and often can be good at their trade. Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s “A Thousand Days” is too romanticized because of his deep affection for John Kennedy but his other works, especially on Jackson, were excellent.
As seen with Herodotus, there is a philosophical basis for biased history. The ancient Greek was known as the “Father of History” but also paradoxically as the “Father of Lies.” He subscribed to a school known as “Speculative Philosophy” which said that to the degree history is taught, it could be bent or even “re-imagined” (a favorite liberal word) so as to achieve a form of “social justice.” (A phrase pregnant with ominous repercussion.) Even Aristotle said he preferred poetry to history because verse taught was should be true while history simply taught what was true.
New PBS documentary
The new PBS documentary entitled “The Reagan Presidency” embraces both revisionist history and unawareness of the time. Viewers are advised to watch it with caution. Many of the cameos are interviews with liberals including Robert Reich, Andrew Young, Walter Mondale, Gary Hart, Pat Schroeder, Richard Reeves, Henry Cisneros and others often called upon to criticize or misinterpret Reagan. Only a few Reaganites such as Ed Meese appear and no identifiable historian with knowledge of Reagan is listed in the credits. Missing are Reaganites such as Tom Winter and Allan Ryskind, Mark Levin, Dick Allen, Stu Spencer, Paul Laxalt, Jeff Lord, Peter Hannaford, Ken Khachigian, Newt Gingrich, Jeff Bell and others who knew the man, worked with the man and understood the man.
At one point, the narrator intones, “Throughout his presidency, huge crowds had gathered to protest his nuclear policies” but in fact, the nuclear freeze movement largely dissipated in 1983 when Reagan went ahead and deployed the Pershing II missiles in Western Europe when the Soviets refused his “zero option” in which he proposed to not deploy these if the Soviets withdrew their missiles. The documentary also failed to mention that much of the nuclear freeze movement in Western Europe and the United States had been funded and orchestrated by covert Soviet operatives.
Of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, the narrator says “Reagan took advantage of the crisis…” but in fact, the evidence is far stronger that Carter politicized the plight of the Americans imprisoned in Tehran, and not Reagan. At least that’s what Carter’s primary opponent, Ted Kennedy, thought.
It generally follows the Reagan Era chronologically, but often wanders off into long irrelevant tangents, such as a long riff on Lebanon and an implication that the Reagan Administration knowingly turned a blind eye when thousands of Palestinians were massacred by the Phalangist Christians or that the decline in the number of farms in the 1980’s was due to less subsidies even though they only increased in that time.
Reeves is known as a long time critic of anything moving that smacks of right-of-center thought. He accuses Reagan of a “fundamental misunderstanding of American populist” but in fact, Reagan was against all concentrations of power, either governmental or corporate.
The documentary veers into the realm of the ridiculous when it features liberal New York Times writer, Steven Weisman, who ridiculously says that Reagan “brilliantly exploited the assassination attempt.” I know of no time when Reagan or Mrs. Reagan said that his getting shot was a good thing.
Reich accurately sums up the firing of the air traffic controllers, but makes the bizarre claim that Reagan’s actions “encouraged” businesses “to go after unions.” When the political account favors Reagan, it is not mentioned that the PATCO union was one of the very few unions to endorse Reagan in the 1980 campaign.
Reich is also seen saying that through increased defense spending, Reagan brought back the torpid American economy but by 1985, when the Reagan military buildup had kicked into high gear, it still account for only around 7 percent of GDP. He also mistakenly says that Paul Volcker got the economy going under Reagan by lowering interest rates but in fact, the real threat was inflation and to “wring it out” of the economy, Volcker raised them up to make borrowing more difficult.
Homelessness is also laid at Reagan’s feet, and the film makes it clear that he was indifferent to the issue. AIDS could be the biggest faux pas in “The Reagan Presidency.” Henry Cisneros is seen on tape blaming Reagan for the deaths of people, many of whom died before anyone really understood the disease and even the documentary said “little was known in 1984” but also said Reagan tried to “downplay” it without giving any evidence how he managed to manipulate the national media and the public health system. Cisneros appalling says “a lot of people died who didn’t need to die.” Hmmm. During Reagan’s presidency, 237,428 individuals died as a result of AIDS according to American Federation for AIDS Research. During Bill Clinton’s eight years in office, 3, 328, 978 people died from AIDS. By the sophistry of Cisneros, Clinton was far more indifferent to AIDS than Reagan.
“The Reagan Presidency” ploughs no new ground and often drags, especially in the second half. Boeing put up &1 million and BNSF Railway, owned by Warren Buffett, put up $600,000. Also Ambassador Robert Stuart, Jr. an heir to the Quaker Oats Co. and Reagan’s one time representative to Norway put up some of the funding.
The fault of the documentary is that is has a reverse Panglossian cast to it: the worst of both worlds. Its overuse of liberal commentators and much of the commentary give it a liberal cast, plus, there are great historical gaps and mistakes.
Dr. Edwards said that too many liberal historians (and others) “cling stubbornly to a conviction that conservative leaders like Reagan…are tiny footnotes in the grand story of an ever liberal America. Which means that…conservative historians, for the most part, can be trusted to recount the full story of American conservatism, because they can tell the difference between Barry Goldwater and George Wallace, between Bill Buckley and Ayn Rand, while most liberal historians cannot.”
John Heubusch, Executive Director of the Reagan Foundation said, “Conservatives look back and admire him because, well, he was one. Even liberals claim they admire him now to suit their own present day purposes. They evoke Reagan the compromiser, Reagan the statesman. They conveniently forget that while he accomplished much, he never compromised on conservative principles. For that, the American people…hold him dear. Year in and year out they claim him along with Washington and Lincoln as their most admired of Presidents.”
Heubusch has a critical point. It would seem that the American people have a firmer grip on the legacy of Ronald Reagan than do the authors of this new documentary.
Craig Shirley is the author of two books on Reagan’s campaigns and the bestselling “December 1941.” The president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, he is a Reagan scholar at Eureka College and working on a book about his post-presidency.