Those who compare Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan, two Republican presidents with some of the most fiercely loyal followings in recent U.S. history, often bring up the most obvious parallel: they both showed up on our screens as a reality TV star and an actor long before they got into politics. Many, however, are quick to argue that the similarities end there, largely based on the notion that Reagan played a more polished president than Trump ever could. That’s a mistake, according to Matt Tyrnauer, the director of the Showtime documentary television series, “The Reagans.” On this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” the documentarian joins Robert Scheer to discuss why the presidents’ roles as performers are far from the only links to be made between the two Republicans.
“I would argue that Reagan and the Republican Party that he owned really was foundational for the Trump Republican Party,” says Tyrnauer. “It’s a mistake, in my opinion, to confuse their divergent styles with an analysis that one could not be more different than the other because substantively, they were really singing from the same songbook.”
Scheer and Tyranuer identify the racist ideas that both politicians peddled with their nearly identical slogans about “making America great again,” and discuss how these mythical notions of America were reinforced and mass-produced by the Hollywood from which Reagan emerged. “The Reagans” director argues that Trump benefited immensely from how Reagan shaped both corporate media’s and the American public’s ideas about the presidency. Scheer, who appears in Tyrnauer’s documentary and also interviewed Reagan extensively throughout his career, tells Tyranuer that he found his four-part series illuminating in explaining Reagan’s hold on the American imagination.
The two also discuss another parallel that may escape observers of American democracy: both presidents abysmally mishandled pandemics on their watch. While Trump’s atrocious mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic has claimed more than 300,000 lives to date, it is no less significant that Reagan essentially ignored the AIDS crisis while nearly 90,000 Americans died from what he called the “gay plague.” Listen to the full conversation between Tyranuer and Scheer as they discuss “The Reagans,” and consider Scheer’s difficult question posed to the director and listeners: Is America systemically doomed to forever fall into the hands of manipulative charlatans like Reagan and Trump?
Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Transcript: Lucy Berbeo
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, a great journalist and terrific — became a documentarian, Matt Tyrnauer. It’s spelled differently, but you can still find the movie. It was shown on Showtime, it’s called The Reagans, it’s a four-part series, it was an hour long; before that he did a terrific movie on Roy Cohn, legendary scurrilous lawyer that was involved with Joe McCarthy. But then ended up being an advisor to Donald Trump. And this movie The Reagans is very interesting, because as I recall watching it, you don’t even mention Donald Trump. Is that correct?
MT: That’s right.
RS: You don’t — that’s by design, I’m sure. But the fact is — and the New York Times and others, in discussing the movie, make it very clear that it’s a basis for evaluating the Trump administration, that there are some very direct connections. That the, in fact the very phrase, “making America great again,” was used by Ronald Reagan when he was running for president in 1980 and 1984. The two couldn’t be more unalike. Ronald was a product of the Hollywood film studios, and publicly he was polite to a fault; he didn’t raise his voice, and in the old school and so forth; he was never boorish, he was polite. And in fact Lou Cannon, who’s one of the chroniclers of, biographers of Ronald Reagan, made a point about that, that they were very dissimilar. And in style they certainly were, Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. But in message, and in what they were appealing to in America — appealing to racism — it didn’t matter that one was boorish and one was mild. In fact, Ronald Reagan got away with a kind of subtle racism and elitism more effectively than Trump. So why don’t we begin by discussing that tension.
MT: They’re both performers. They have very different styles, but I would argue that Reagan and the Republican Party that he owned, starting in the very late seventies into the whole decade of the eighties, really was foundational for the Trump Republican Party. It’s a mistake, in my opinion, to confuse their divergent styles with an analysis of them that says that one could not be more different than the other. Because substantively, they were really singing from the same songbook. And of course you point out that Trump plagiarized Reagan’s campaign slogan,
“make America great again,” which in itself was a dog whistle. What was the great America that we were reaching back for in Reagan’s mythology? It was the pre-civil rights America, of course. He even was overtly against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and said that it was an offense to the Southern states. So there’s a lot there, but people that get confused by the different entertaining styles of these two men, I think, are missing the point.
RS: Well, I think it’s more than that, though. People are confused by manners. We actually have a tyranny of manners. And you can be absolutely outrageous in the impact that you have on society, but — you know, Bill Buckley was a very good example. He advocated outrageous positions; he was overtly racist, William Buckley, one of the founders of this sort of new conservative movement. But he always spoke in the proper, you know, accented tone, and measured, and so forth. And Reagan’s trade as a studio person was to never offend the press; he coddled the press. You have a great scene in there where Lesley Stahl, who covered him as a young reporter, talked about how they puddled up, the journalists. He owned the journalists.
Well, I’m one of the journalists that he kind of owned, in a way. I always found — I first interviewed him before he was running for governor, and I spent a lot of time, and I actually have a cameo appearance in your documentary, let’s get that out there. But the fact of the matter is, Reagan’s style was more effective in defending outrageous positions than Donald Trump. Donald Trump’s boorishness is a giveaway to his callous position, OK. Whether it’s about the pandemic, whether it’s about race, whether it’s about immigrants or what have you, Reagan was always measured in tone, rarely showed anger; if he did, you almost felt it was contrived at that moment — “I paid for the microphone,” or “I’m not going to put up with that anymore,” or something. But in fact, he was the consummate con-artist, in a way.
And I’m not putting the man down; I actually liked him. But as a journalist, I found him to be effectively deceptive, and it bothered me. It’s the same feeling I have about Bill Clinton. You know, Bill Clinton can turn on the Yale erudite style, and the complexity, and he’s got a great smile. But in fact it was Bill Clinton who carried some of Ronald Reagan’s most outrageous positions to legislative victory. Certainly the attack on the welfare system, which Reagan had started, his big attack on “welfare queens,” welfare recipients. It was Bill Clinton who ended the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, ended the national poverty program. We could go down the list. But I really feel the strength of your movie, of your documentary, is to show that manners can betray us.
MT: I would agree with that, style. The “I’m paying for this microphone, Mr. Green,” line that Reagan used — which was a rare flare of temper on camera for him, in the New Hampshire primary — was, in fact, plagiarized from a Spencer Tracy movie. And all of those things that Reagan did were masterful performances. And I think you’re right to say that the press was bamboozled by him; I think they were kind of dazzled by the hangover of the Hollywood studio glamor. He was playing the part of a politician, very consciously, when he ran for governor. He was branded by Stu Spencer, the pioneering political strategist, as a “citizen politician,” which was very much a take on Jimmy Stewart in movies like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or the Frank Capra movies, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, which was Gary Cooper.
But Reagan knew how to play those parts; those were the parts he in fact wanted to play, but didn’t get cast in as an actor. And he is part of the Bill Buckley era of performative politics and the rise of the conservative movement. And he was in fact groomed by Buckley himself to be a sunnier face of conservatism after the more rough-hewn, less well-mannered for the time — although he seems like Mr. Manners in the context of today — Barry Goldwater, who was a spectacular failure at, I was going to say the box office, but at the polls. Goldwater didn’t fly, and was crushed by Johnson, so they needed someone that could take the anti-New Deal message and bring it to the public, and Reagan was it.
I think, Bob, you would remember more than most that the liberal establishment didn’t think that Reagan could ever be elected, in much the way that Trump was dismissed. I came from the liberal bubble of West L.A., and from a kind of show-business household, and all those people had Reagan’s number. They knew he was a huckster and a fraud, and Reagan as president was unthinkable. And he was considered to be too old to be elected, as well, and the joke was of course on all of the limousine liberals who had underestimated him.
RS: Well, you know, there’s a very powerful scene you have — the documentary, if you didn’t have Showtime — I’ve heard great things about it by people who found it, but cable doesn’t have quite the sway that it once had. And I really very strongly recommend getting familiar with this documentary. Because I know a lot about Reagan; as I say, I knew him before — I knew him in the Jane Wyman connection, I knew him before he was governor and so forth. And I liked him, and he gave me a lot of time, interview time when I was at the L.A. Times and so forth.
But I think this movie captures a phenomenon that is not unique to Reagan. It’s this whole victory of style, of PR, of imagery, that triumphs. And I want to take one specific example. The undoing of — I think the historians will say the undoing of Donald Trump came over the pandemic. He probably would have been reelected. He had the economic numbers, he had been loyal to his base, and had had victories from their point of view over the Supreme Court and so forth. What did him in was a certain callousness on exhibit in the pandemic, and an assumption that somehow it would all work out, and he played the political angles.
Well, Ronald Reagan — and this is really, I think, the most powerful part of your documentary — did it in an even more callous way around AIDS. He thought AIDS was somebody else’s problem, that the people being hurt, even though he knew gay people and so forth, were not important to his sense of power and ambition and responsibility. And I found that in the documentary to really be the great revelation about Ronald Reagan. The one thing you just cannot excuse was his indifference to a community that personally, being in Hollywood, he knew. He knew Rock Hudson. And it took finally, I think, the threat of exposure by Elizabeth Taylor, or at least her cajoling him, and Nancy coming to her senses, to actually step up, but very late in the day, on the AIDS crisis.
MT: Correct. It isn’t excusable. I think what consigns Reagan to the innermost circle of Dante’s hell is that he ignored his charge to protect the people, by dereliction of duty in the face of the HIV/AIDS crisis. He didn’t use the presidential bully pulpit; he actually played politics with a pandemic, and he never even came close to atoning for it, really. And it was Elizabeth Taylor who was subtly threatening to shame Nancy Reagan directly, because she was in communication with her, but Nancy Reagan saw the threat of that type of shaming, and really responded to it, ultimately.
But it doesn’t excuse Nancy Reagan, either. I mean, the Reagans had lots of gay friends. They helped Roy Cohn, getting him preferential treatment at the NIH for HIV, even as they were ignoring the pandemic and consigning millions of people to an early death, and not really paying attention to the funding aspects or the bully pulpit aspects. This should all sound familiar, because it resonates to what’s even happening this week with Trump, by getting his cronies special medical treatment while obviously trying to B.S. his way through the worst pandemic of the century. You’re absolutely right to pick up on the aspects of PR and massaging the press and style over substance.
And Reagan’s America was a mythic America. It was the America of the thirties and forties in Hollywood, which in itself was an invented America, formed by the fantasies of Jewish fur-traders who had invented Hollywood and were trying to throw off the kind of stigma of their émigré status. And there you had movies like the Andy Hardy movies and all of those films that had a whitewashed version of what America and to be American was. And Reagan was a part of that system; he was schooled at Warner Bros., at the elbow of Jack Warner and the publicity mavens. And he did have a belief system that was quite coherent, but it conformed to thirties and forties movies. So if you want to understand Ronald Reagan’s mind, look at thirties and forties films. And gay people don’t figure in those movies, and African Americans are servants or even slaves in the systems of those films, the belief systems of those films. And Reagan believed that totally, and that was the nation he was governing, but it was a nation that didn’t exist. Which is part of the twisted reality of the Reagan presidency.
RS: Well, what it is is the notion of American innocence, and the reinventing of American history, which most of us — you know, I’m much older than you are — I was raised on that, you know. They certainly didn’t tell us we committed genocide against Native Americans. I mean, the cowboys were the good guys, and you know, every war we were in, we were in reluctantly, but on the side of the angels. And capitalism had some rough spots, but we got over it and learned how to do it. And you know, Reagan for opportunistic reasons came to really believe that. He was a kind of a liberal Democrat, and so was his first wife, Wyman. And he was the head of the Screen Actors Guild, and he was certainly against the Hollywood Left and the Communist influence, but he was definitely pro-Roosevelt and the Democratic Party in that respect. And he wrote an autobiography very early on, Where’s the Rest of Me?, where he talked about the New Deal had saved his family, that his father had worked for the New Deal or they would have starved. And Franklin Roosevelt was a hero in his home.
Then he invented this idea that somehow he didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left him, you know. And it’s very interesting — it’s just that he got a better script. And it was given to him by the kitchen cabinet, by these kind of business people in L.A. who circled the wagons around him. And your documentary really captures that. What I found interesting about the documentary is that your thesis is pretty much endorsed by what leading Republicans said, you know — and you should talk about that a little bit — but really most compellingly by Ron Reagan Jr., his son. And I have always had great respect for Ron Reagan, Jr.; I met him when he was young and when I was interviewing Reagan and around them. I know that his father had a lot of affection for him, but was confused by him; why was he interested in ballet dancing, and he just wasn’t marching to the drums that Reagan thought he should. I don’t know if he was ever interested in football. But in your documentary, you have established Ron Reagan, Jr. as really the great witness to that era. So why don’t you talk about that?
MT: Yes. Ron Reagan, Jr., I agree with you, is probably the best analyst of his parents, and I think he’s the most credible, because he was there. Of course he was born late; he’s the last child of the second marriage. But he was there enough, born in the late fifties, I think. And he chimes in when the Reagans are kind of hard up. They’ve really lost their careers, and certainly in film, and the TV career is winding down, and the General Electric spokesman period is over. And as you point out, the Reagans didn’t have many options. They needed to reinvent, and Reagan reinvents himself as a right-wing politician because, in part, I think, that was the opportunity that was presented to him. I think he had migrated to the right, and I think he had begun to sort of delude himself about what the real America was. The sixties helped him with that, because as Ron Reagan, Jr. points out, the sixties and its hippiedom and civil rights aspects and disorder and unrest freaked out Ronnie Reagan. So when he went around saying “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me,” that was a very clever dog-whistle slogan to tell people that the unrest of the sixties stood for, in his political scheme, the Civil Rights Acts, basically, of ’64 and ’65, and that that Democratic Party that used to have a big Southern wing, that was segregationist, was visibly becoming right-wing Republican at that time, and Reagan was going to throw his lot with those people. And he was very good at combining the hippie threat, the student unrest, the civil rights — what were then called riots, now referred to more accurately as uprisings — were a grand threat. And I believe you make this point a couple times in the course of the series, that his demagoguing that array of issues was what really brought him to success as a politician. And he started to align with the hard right, and then really define, redefine what it was to be a hard-right politician. But he was such an exquisite spokesperson for it.
And his son really gives you the insight to that. In fact, there’s an anecdote that Ron Reagan, Jr. told me where he as a rebellious teenager was saying, you know, in these cowboy movies that you’re in, you’re attacking the Indians; the Native Americans were innocent, it was their land, et cetera. And he said that Reagan just couldn’t tolerate that type of discussion on a father-and-son basis. And it would end in anger, and Reagan would throw up his arms. And this is one of the most effective anecdotes that Ron Jr. delivers. Reagan would throw up his arms after a certain point where you were trying to have an enlightening discussion with him, and he would sort of make a pushing-away motion, and say “Well, all I know is” — and Ron Jr. says that’s him literally trying to push away all of the uncomfortable facts that he just didn’t want to believe in and didn’t want to accommodate in his belief system. And he believed in what the wicked Kellyanne Conway unfortunately coined “alternative facts,” another parallel to Trumpism that was incipient in that period with Reagan.
RS: But you know, what’s confusing to some people about Reagan — and it comes up in the New York Times thing on your documentary. And there’s actually a lot of quotes from people like that: how can you compare Reagan or make a line between Reagan and Donald Trump? And again, it’s always about the manners. And then the argument is, well — you know, it’s almost a caricature — Reagan had some Black friends. You know, as if Donald Trump never knew any Black people or something. But you know, the ability to separate a label from the people. And that’s what he did with welfare. “I’m not against hardworking, Negro people,” you know. “I’m against the ones that are on welfare.” And then the implication is they’re all on welfare, and the implication is they’re there because they’re lazy, or they don’t want to work, or what have you, and so forth. And then you have this racist stereotype. And I think your documentary addresses that gap, that Reagan was able to pretend to love everyone, and just assume that the people he was attacking were the bad apples in the bunch. That was sort of the trick here.
And I want to make one comment about Hollywood,because you talk about the studio system and the people. And the two people, I mean the people that really were influential at Warner Bros., they were Harry and Jack Warner, right? And then with the Music Corporation of America, Jules Stein — and at the end of the show I’m going to thank Jean Stein, Jules’s daughter; it’s interesting how the offspring of these people help set the record. But I remember going to their house, her parents’ house, when Reagan was running. And they thought of it as sort of, as you correctly say, sort of a joke — Ronnie’s doing this. But they also thought well, you know, it’s a good role for him, and it won’t be bad for people like us. Jean didn’t feel that way; she was like Ron Reagan, Jr. But I remember her father sort of did, yeah, this’ll be good for business, and he’ll be on our side of this, and there’s too much trouble with these young people in this cultural revolution, and all this agitation out there.
So he became a useful tool to a lot of people, some of whom you interview in your movie, who had a lot of power. And there’s an interesting thing where I believe it’s Baker who defends Reagan’s view of things, even though he didn’t cotton to the style. And you have Shultz in there, also. You have some very powerful people, Spencer and others. Why don’t you talk about that? Because this is a powerful documentary, because it’s endorsed, really, by the participation of the people who were closest to the whole Reagan operation from the beginning.
MT: Yes, well, it’s always important for me to get people who were in the room if I can, especially if the subject of the documentary is no longer alive. By the way, it’s called The Reagans — and I cover Nancy Reagan’s influence, and her secret power, which we can talk about in a little bit; it’s quite fascinating how they operated, really, as a couple, but she tried to hide her influence.
Among the people that participate, very crucially, are Secretary of State Shultz, who just turned 100 a couple days ago; he was 99 when I interviewed him, and huge points for being compos mentis at 99. He talked candidly about Reagan and the arms control efforts that took place after Reagan had a kind of bizarre convergence to being a pro-nuclear war hawk — and you wrote books about this — to being a kind of weird sort of anti-nuclear peacenik in comparison to the way he used to be. And that was influenced by, typical of Reagan, his being knocked sideways by a TV movie called The Day After, that was about a supposed nuclear attack on the United States, starring Jason Robards. This had a huge effect on him, as well as his psychic, Joan Quigley, who told him that Gorbachev would be a good negotiating partner for him, and that he should probably try to retool his image for the history books.
And that’s where James Baker comes in, who was probably the most effective White House chief of staff; certainly was effective for Regan in sort of smoothing the rough edges of those sharp-elbowed conservatives who were in the West Wing. And Baker gives lots of nods and winks to the bizarreness of the Reagan West Wing, where there was an astrologist behind the scenes really dictating not only schedule but policy when it came to U.S.-Soviet relations. This was Joan Quigley, I just mentioned her, who was working through Nancy Reagan and Mike Deaver, who was the deputy chief of staff. You cannot get weirder and more oriented toward magical thinking. Which is another one of the big points I make in this series, is that magical thinking — which is something Trump is labeled with a lot now — was endemic to Reagan and the Reagans. They really believed in movie magic, and this kind of casting of astrological charts. And that really did guide them, those two structures: the Hollywood belief system of the Golden Age, and this kind of strange astrological guidepost that they got from Joan Quigley.
And all of this was just, more importantly than the fact of all of this, all of it was just basically buried in the news coverage. It never caught up for them. The press was their greatest constituency. Reagan especially knew how to charm the press, and they just took it hook, line, and sinker. I think the way that the news business was being restructured at the time helped a lot; corporatism was creeping into newsrooms and dementing editorial judgment. The network news was degenerating. Bill Paley and Newton Minow and the public trust behind the network news divisions was eroding, and Rupert Murdoch, with big support from Reagan and Roy Cohn, actually, was getting a foothold. The bottom line became king in all of these news organizations. And it just fell into place perfectly for Reagan to be able to be a sort of charming master of ceremonies with really dangerous beliefs in a really wicked economic program that undermined the social contract of the New Deal in this country and caused a great deal of damage. [omission for station break]
RS: Let me cut to the chase here. You know, I’ve spent — yeah, I was critical of Ronald Reagan, I’m on the left, a peacenik and so forth and so on. But I’ve spent a lot of time interviewing him. And I learned from your documentary, because I found it a struggle to really understand Reagan. As I said earlier, I interviewed him before he was governor, when he was running for governor; I got to know his family quite well; I considered myself, you know, able to talk to Nancy Reagan with some honesty. And I felt, when he became this larger-than-life figure — he was not the worst governor. But when he ran for president as an older person, I really wondered, what is it about our democracy that we are sort of left with a Ronald Reagan? And you know, of limited ability, one would have to say, but yet enormous appeal. Enormous appeal as a movie star, he worked the system, he was truly a politician of mass media, in much the way that Donald Trump is.
And it really, to my mind, goes to a defect in the system. We don’t have a parliamentary system, we don’t really have the accountability of parties that have some ideology, the way they do in countries as different as Italy and Israel and so forth. And it’s kind of a bizarre charade. And every once in a while, a Donald Trump or Ronald Reagan, or even a Bill Clinton who could work the media, comes along, and they own it. And your movie is really about how Ronald Reagan owned the media. And I think one of the things that happened, the difference between Reagan and Trump, is that Trump, rather than owning the media and manipulating it, decided to take the path of intimidating and playing that reality TV role of the bully. And if not for the pandemic, he probably would have been able to parlay that into a second term. But really, your documentary is an examination of the weakness of mass media in society when it comes to trying to have representative governance.
MT: Yes, well, Trump and Reagan are similar in that they’re both masters of the media, and they both knew how to manipulate the media, and the media couldn’t resist them. And in the era of mass media, this is one of the keys to being an effective politician. Not necessarily a good politician or a good president, but you have to be able to make the media into your most important constituency, in many ways, in order to be successful. And Reagan knows this; he gives the game away in my series, in an interview he gave to David Brinkley, really at the end of his presidency, where he says, Brinkley says you’re the only actor I ever knew who became president; what do you have to say about that? And he said well, I don’t know how anyone could do this job without being an actor.
And no truer words were ever said by Ronald Reagan; that’s much truer than “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” and we are a shining city on the hill. That, I think, is the most important thing that Reagan ever said, because it really explains to you what the modern presidency is. But the two men have very different styles, of course; Reagan is a school of thirties and forties Hollywood, tutored by Jack L. Warner himself, and learned at the elbow of publicity mavens, and even had a gossip columnist, Louella Parsons, as his mentor; they were actually from the same small town in Illinois, Dixon. Reagan had a lot of luck in his life, and being a young actor who was taken up by this very powerful gossip columnist was certainly a huge stroke of luck for him.
RS: I think that’s an important point. And let’s see if we can tighten this up. Because you know, after all, we all get agitated about who’s going to be president, for good reason. The most powerful individual in the world. They can do a lot of damage, no matter how they present. I mean after all, Harry Truman made the decision to drop atomic bombs on schoolchildren and others, civilians mostly, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And he had a different style.
But to get all involved with their style, which the media tends to do — you know, so Harry Truman had the image of just that haberdasher from, you know, Missouri. Or you know, Jimmy Carter was the peanut farmer from Plains. And as a journalist, I always would be annoyed — why am I spending so much time with central casting here? You know, where people have figured out, let’s present Jimmy as the peanut farmer — well, he wasn’t that. He actually had a pretty solid education, he was something of a physicist, he’d been a naval officer, he was a pretty shrewd businessman as a farmer, he was not some yokel. But they invented this.
And every candidate — and you know, I covered almost all the modern presidents — they gamed the system. Ronald Reagan just happened to be incredibly effective at doing that. Bill Clinton, though, with his aw, shucks, and biting his lower lip, and great sincerity and [humor], and good old boy. Barack Obama played a certain role of hope, and so forth. So I want to ask you as a journalist, as a filmmaker, and somebody who’s been able to capture these people: can the system work? Aren’t we always going to be hustled?
MT: Yes, I think we are always going to be hustled. I think that the real tragedy of the American media political-industrial complex, and the polity where it intersects with that, is that for many Americans, life the movie is more real for them than life itself. And this is, I think, exacerbated by the great power of the movie industry in the 20th century, and Reagan was a direct product of that, a literal product of it. And that lingua franca of American movies became the common tongue of everyone. And he was a very experienced player, in that he knew how to play this role, and was trained in Hollywood at one of the big studios, Warner Bros., to do that. And he was always playing the part of the citizen politician, the kind of roles that Jimmy Stewart did in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And the American public and the American media, as importantly, fell for it, in large part. And it made perfect sense in hindsight that a movie star, even a washed-up one, would be elected president of the United States at the end of the 20th century; and it makes great sense in hindsight that a fading reality TV star, who had a strange flair, has a strange flair for social media, would be elected president 20 years into the 21st century.
RS: But it seems to me — and that’s why, you know, I said earlier I love to see documentaries by you on other presidents. Because it seems to me you’ve gotten not at the heart of this exceptionally effective president, Ronald Reagan, but they all succeed through obfuscation. They all succeed by constructing a narrative and a role, and people writing a script for them. And one of the powerful things about your documentary is you show how determinedly particularly Nancy Reagan, or with Nancy Reagan’s guidance, Ronald Reagan, stuck to the script. Very carefully stuck to the script, you know. And I remember, the reason I spent time in that airplane traveling, sitting with Reagan asking him tough questions, is that Nancy Reagan had been convinced by Norman Lear and others that it mattered what I wrote, but that he could get to me. You know, after all, I was writing for the L.A. Times, the California primary was important, Ronald Reagan came from California, I was doing a lot of coverage. And they had the confidence that he could convince me. Not to vote for him, necessarily, but that he was OK, and knew what he was talking about.
And I must say, I was shattered by your movie. Because for all of my knowledge of Reagan — and I’ve read all the books and I was there, as I said, throughout his career, I was observing — I learned something from your movie. And I learned about cynicism. The degree of manipulation, and how effective it is. And it really came home to me, because we’re in a pandemic now, in the discussion of the AIDS crisis. And I don’t want to let the mass media off the hook. Because while Ronald Reagan did not address the AIDS crisis, I was covering it for the L.A. Times in the early eighties, you know, and before. And you know, the media didn’t cover it. The L.A. Times didn’t cover it, the New York Times didn’t cover it. In fact, the New York Times much earlier had even been into gay-baiting and so forth, but it certainly didn’t get the attention early on that it required.
So maybe we should end on that, because the really inescapable power of your movie is the analogy with the current time of Trump, and that in fact Ronald Reagan may have committed a more serious offense in terms of mishandling a medical crisis with AIDS. Because that was even, in some ways, more extreme: a denial of even incubators, and things to do the science on, and rudimentary money. And the reason people like Elizabeth Taylor, with amfAR and others, had to play a big role is because the public money and support was not at all coming for that crisis.
MT: Yes, and when you watch the series you’ll see that it was Anthony Fauci himself who was in the same job then; he was new in the job, but he was trying to get Reagan’s attention and to bring awareness about the emerging pandemic to the White House, and to get them to do something and to use the bully pulpit. And Fauci himself says that he was really, really gutted by the fact that Reagan wanted nothing to do with an emerging catastrophe which was the HIV-AIDS crisis at the time. And I think it’s one of many very deep flaws in the Reagan presidency and Reagan himself. Of course Reagan comes from a mythic American world whose roots are in the fantasies of pre-civil rights Hollywood, the thirties and the forties, where everything had a white picket fence around it, and there were no gay people, and African Americans were happy servants or slaves. Reagan really believed in this mythic America, and there wasn’t room for a pandemic that affected mostly gay men and IV drug users.
And then he played politics with it, because the Christian right was an enormous constituency for him, and the Christian right was busy blaming the victims in the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and saying that it was God’s revenge on an immoral society. And Reagan toed that line. I mean, this was really evil, and a really shameful aspect, and he never atoned for any of this. And Nancy Reagan was a hypocrite along with him; they had gay friends from Hollywood and New York, and sort of all these courtiers to Nancy Reagan were all gay men. Their own son, Ron Reagan Jr., says well, you know, they didn’t consider the gay people who were affected by AIDS to be their kind of gay people. I mean, all of this just digs them deeper and deeper and deeper into the hole of hypocrisy and malign neglect. And that they played politics with it was even worse.
So yes, it’s a real, a black mark on the record, and it resonates with today, because we’ve seen the pandemic bungled, and we’ve seen politics played with something that should just be viewed through the lens of science. And the bully pulpit of the presidency, we see how important it is when a pandemic emerges. And both of these Republican presidents completely dropped the ball and let the American people down.
RS: So finally, the takeaway. And it’s interesting, you mentioned that your movie was attacked on MSNBC the other day, what, on the Scarborough show maybe. You should talk about that. Generally I have heard nothing but positive comment about the documentary. And you know, people can readily see, yes — first of all, Ronald Reagan didn’t accomplish very much, you know, for all of the thought that it was a good presidency. He had absolutely disasters — we haven’t even gone into that — of the Iran contra; I mean, there was one disaster after another. Yet the image continues of somehow this is when conservatism in America had its most splendid period.
But I think what’s really revealing in your documentary is how poor most documentaries and most journalism is. And I felt the same way about your documentary on Roy Cohn, and basically the origin of McCarthyism to the present. It’s not just Ronald Reagan who whitewashes history. You know, we’re right now in a situation where finally the Cleveland Indians are giving up that racism, and the Washington Redskins had to give it up. It’s been a long time since Native Americans were massacred, you know, victims of genocide, really, and a mythology that Hollywood maintained, or that we always fight good wars, or that there were happy Negroes in the South, happy to be, if not slaves, at least in the segregated South and so forth. Or that women liked having unequal pay and unequal status, and even denied the vote for many years.
So what you’ve tried to do — this is a good point on which to end — and it’s interesting, because I originally knew you as a Vanity Fair writer, and you know, didn’t think of you as a sort of major rebel against this mythology of American history. But in these documentaries you’ve really cut close to the bone, or deep into the infection, of American society. Which is the mythology that Ronald Reagan, probably better than or more effectively than anyone, championed — of American innocence.
MT: Yes, well, Reagan comes at this American mythology from within. He grew up on the Mississippi, and sort of internalized and misinterpreted, really, these Mark Twain images of Huck Finn. And he never read those books, I don’t think. But he kind of modeled himself from an early age as the all-American boy, and was famously, in all of the sycophantic biographies you can read about him, being this heroic lifeguard on the Rock River. And then he goes to Hollywood as a young man and lands a seven-year contract with Warner Bros.
And I call the first episode of this “The Hollywood Myth Machine,” because in order to understand the self-mythologizing of Reagan, and his role as the spokesperson and pitch man for a mythic America, the white picket fence America of Hollywood, you have to go back to those origins. And what we’ve seen — and I think it was a big wake-up call over the last four years — is that about, I don’t know, forty-plus percent, fifty percent of the American public wants to cling to this myth of an America that never existed. An America that doesn’t have voting rights for Black and brown people, where gay people don’t exist in polite society, where marriage is defined as something between a man and a woman, and all of the sins of society are kind of just whitewashed and painted over, and made into a Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland movie.
And Reagan really believed that. Garry Wills wrote the best biography of Reagan, it’s called Reagan’s America. The subtitle is Innocents At Home. And he really gets at the fact that Reagan ultimately was a purveyor, a huckster, of an American mythology that wanted to turn back the clock to before the Johnson legislation that gave African Americans civil rights. And that’s where Reagan’s dog-whistle politics became so effective. He was able to speak to those constituencies. He saw the emergence of the Christian right as a political coalition, and he took cynical advantage of that, and he was very successful.
And this is the real point: the point is that he became a brand for the Republican Party that was a winning brand. And even the never-Trump Republicans don’t want to let go of that. They like the polite, dog-whistle racism of Ronald Reagan. And that is why the series, I think, has struck a nerve with some. There was a sycophantic Reagan biographer on MSNBC, allegedly liberal MSNBC, who referred to the series as “worse than ‘Triumph of the Will.'” Because, I suppose his point was that it was insidious propaganda that was defaming the legacy of this greatest of presidents. But there’s a lot of really ugly racism, manipulation, cynicism, and corruption, and magical thinking in the Reagan presidency that helped build the foundation upon which Trump was able to build his authoritarian brand of politics.
RS: Well, that’s a good summary of it. So that’s it — we’re talking to [someone who] I think is a great — well, certainly a great director, and a very important film. And I think people just have to develop a much more realistic sense of what politics and mass media in America is really all about. And Ronald Reagan was the bellwether — well, he was the warning. So that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW for posting these podcasts, and thank the station in Santa Monica for being so independent and terrific. Natasha Hakimi Zapata for writing the introductions, Lucy Berbeo who does the transcription, Joshua Scheer, our producer.
And I want to — we talked about Jules Stein and his relation to Ronald Reagan. But I want to thank the JWK Foundation, honoring the memory of Jean Stein, Jules Stein’s daughter, who was actually the first person that I had a long discussion with — she was a terrific writer — about Ronald Reagan when I first interviewed him back in the sixties when he was running for governor, and Jean Stein is one of the people that knew him, knew him through her family, and gave me great insight. So that’s it. I want to thank her, and I say good night, thanks and see you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.