The moment Ronald Reagan died almost six years ago, he lost all control over his legacy. You could even argue he lost control much earlier, owing to his Alzheimer's disease, which was diagnosed in 1994 but may have been around, by his son Ron's estimate, as early as the 40th president first term. But Reagan's legacy went up for grabs the moment he died in 2004, and religious conservatives proved to have the highest vertical leap. Last week, as the keynote speaker for a Young America's Foundation banquet in honor of Reagan (who would have turned 100 yesterday), Sarah Palin lamented "the same old tax-and-spend policies" of the Obama administration and our "devastating" national debt. "The past two years, Americans learned to appreciate like never before the meaning of Reagan's famous line," she said. "Remember, he said the nine most frightening words in the English language are 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'"
Palin might surprised to learn, then, that federal spending and the government workforce increased during Reagan's two terms, and the deficit doubled. Reagan also raised taxes and favored amnesty for illegal immigrants. Diligent students of American history, unlike Palin, are already aware of these facts, but you'd be forgiven for believing otherwise. The realities of Reagan's policies serve little purpose in today's political climate and instantaneous news cycle; only his popular perception — the myth rather than the man — carries any currency, however distorted that perception. Not a few articles in recent days have sought to correct the record, but none does so as fairly and elegantly as Eugene Jarecki's latest documentary, Reagan, which airs at 9 p.m. tonight on HBO.
"I definitely strive to be thorough and human. I think we suffer most in America [from] having our thoughts and conversations dominated by hyperbole," he says. "These times in which we're living, these concerns we face about America and the world, are too important for us to miss our chance to properly address them, to be distracted by this continuing cycle of shallow political ambush theater."
Jarecki, who directed The Trials of Henry Kissinger and Why We Fights (and describes himself as an Eisenhower Republican), says his goal in making the film was to "stop the hyperbole" and "get as close as I could to the real Reagan." To accomplishes this, he interviewed those who knew Reagan best, includes sons Ron and Michael (who don't get along), former White House Chief of Staff James Baker, official biographer Edmund Morris, and even trickle-down economist Arthur Laffer, one of the few remaining defenders of Reaganomics. Reagan is anything but a hit job, and instead achieves what Jarecki calls "a democratic chorus of consensus."
"The closer you get to him, in a certain sense, the less you know. He has a lot of contradictions," he says, citing Reagan's allegiance, as a young man, to FDR and the New Deal. In tracing the president's life, from heroic lifeguard to handsome actor to G.E. spokesman to politician, Reagan presents such contradictions without resolving them. Not that they could be resolved, anyway. Reagan was an inscrutable figure, even to those closest to him, and is marginally less so after viewing this documentary. If nothing else, though, Jarecki has presented as representative a portrait as can be known, making it harder for certain politicians and talking heads to get away with outright ignorance.