"One of my favorite quotations about age comes from Thomas Jefferson. He said that we should never judge a president by his age, only by his work. And ever since he told me that, I've stopped worrying. Just to show you how youthful I am, I intend to campaign in all thirteen states."
- Ronald Reagan
PBS made a four-hour documentary about the life of Ronald Reagan. The documentary could be described as somewhat of a hatchet job. It does reluctantly admit that Reagan's defense buildup succeeded in its goal of hastening the fall of the Soviet Union, though it follows this admission with a left-wing talking head saying this enormous accomplishment was not worth its financial price, and then blaming the deficits of those years on Reagan, rather than on the spendthrift Democrat Congress of the time (where the blame really belongs). They also said that the most controversial speech of Reagan's presidency was the "Evil Empire" speech, implying that they disagree with this assessment of the Soviet Union. (How anyone, even an ardent communist, can deny that the Soviet Union was an Evil Empire is beyond me.)
They also imply that Reagan's Alzheimer's disease began during his White House years, which could charitably be called nonsense; and one gets the sense that the video clips from the time of Reagan talking have been taken out of context, as Reagan's quotes usually were. The worst things they claim that Reagan said are either unsourced statements, or assumed to be true because of hearsay evidence from Reagan's two liberal children or a Reagan administration defector. (Not very reliable, in my opinion.)
They did have interviews with Reagan's family, both liberal and conservative (including his wife Nancy), but one gets the sense that the conservative interview clips were likewise taken out of context. The filmmakers don't have (or perhaps don't show) the Reagan Derangement Syndrome that most liberals have, but their left-wing bias definitely shows through in this film. The film is excellent and well-done propaganda, though without much basis in truth.
Mikhail Gorbachev, dictator of Soviet Union, 1987
Interviews with Gorbachev and Thatcher
Most challenging to the stomach is the left's usual revisionism about Mikhail Gorbachev having a role in ending the Cold War, portraying him as the reforming savior of Russia and Eastern Europe, rather than as the self-serving communist dictator he really was. He is interviewed in this documentary, and portrayed much more respectfully than Reagan or Margaret Thatcher. (Lady Thatcher is also interviewed in this documentary, but like the interview clips of the other conservatives, one gets the sense her comments were taken out of context by the liberal filmmakers.)
This leaves much to be desired
The film felt more like a story about current events than a history, and in fairness, some of that is inevitable when talking about events so recent. I watched it to get the liberal version of the Reagan presidency, and conservatives looking for opposition study would be well-served by watching this - and in fairness, this film does have a lot of fascinating footage of Reagan. But I cannot recommend this documentary to those who only want what really happened. PBS does superb documentaries about older history, but their programs on recent history leave much to be desired.
Other sources of information
Fortunately, PBS is not the only source of information about Ronald Reagan. I am happy to report that his autobiography "An American Life" is quite good, quite accurate, and quite readable. There's a vastly disproportionate emphasis on his presidency, but that's not bad; and that tends to be the norm with presidential memoirs. That's the part of their lives most people are interested in anyway, and certainly the most significant for their legacy and the broader history of the country.
Reagan was a great president
Reagan left office when I was two, so I have no memory of his presidency; but I have now made up for that deficiency by reading this book. I don't always agree with him, but few things make him look better than comparing him to his immediate successor (Jimmy Carter), or comparing him to the current president. I think Reagan was one of the greatest presidents in American history, and I wish he was here now.
Footnote: Some excerpts from Reagan's letter announcing his Alzheimer's disease
"I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer's Disease. Upon learning this news, Nancy and I had to decide whether as private citizens we would keep this a private matter or whether we would make this news known in a public way."
"So now, we feel it is important to share it with you. In opening our hearts, we hope this might promote greater awareness of this condition. Perhaps it will encourage a clearer understanding of the individuals and families who are affected by it."
"I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead. Thank you, my friends. May God always bless you."
- Ronald Reagan's "Letter to the Nation Announcing Diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease," 5 November 1994 (five years after he had left the White House)
DVD at Amazon
Can be viewed online at PBS website
If you liked this post, you might also like:
Jimmy Carter movie
Cold War miniseries
Reagan's "Star Wars" program
George H. W. Bush movie
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