Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday will be celebrated this Sunday with several high-profile events (including a video tribute at the Super Bowl), but the next day, Eugene Jarecki's HBO documentary Reagan will investigate whether all that mythologizing of the 40th president has done more harm than good. The real Reagan was more complicated than his supporters realize, says Jarecki, and many of the politicians who invoke his name and policies are distorting his legacy to sell their own agenda. Last week, Jarecki sat down with Vulture to discuss some of the biggest falsehoods perpetuated about the president, evaluate the current crop of Republican contenders, and draw a comparison between Reagan and Matt Damon as Jason Bourne.
Republicans always decry Hollywood, yet they elect so many actors to office — far more than Democrats do. How do you explain that?
It's all about having your cake and eating it too. It's about being able to criticize Obama but standing by while he actually does most of what you want him to do. Last night, he declared a spending freeze on everything but the military. That is exactly what Ronald Reagan did in a scene [included in] the movie. So the Republicans can stand by and have that conduct in office happen, and still have the cake-and-eat-it-too capacity to criticize it. I actually think the Democrats probably do the same kind of game-play, but yeah, the Republican party has fashioned over several decades a kind of anti-elite lingo which is meant to appeal to everyday Americans, but they have to work very hard on it because they are dominated by elites and their agenda is an elite agenda. That is why you see them work so hard to act folksy and talk in slang and eat corn dogs, that's all behavior meant to compensate for the principal economic ideas and sociopolitical ideas of Republicanism in recent years — and this has not always been the case, and I say this as an Eisenhower Republican myself.
Was that a strategy propagated by Reagan, or one he's been used as the figurehead for after the fact?
Reagan was used by General Electric in the 1950s, and then after that, by a kitchen cabinet of millionaires from California when he was a potential gubernatorial candidate that they wanted to run, and then by larger forces when running for president, and now even in his passing, he's continued to be used for that very dynamic. They want a really folksy, affable, very American hood ornament to stick on the front of their Rolls Royce. Effectively, what they want is a Ford Pinto hood ornament to put on their Rolls Royce — that way, it'll drive through town and you're just captivated by that hood ornament and you don't look too far beyond it. Reagan functioned that way for General Electric when they hired him as a salesman to go around the country and promote policies that were in the interest of General Electric's bottom-line but probably not very much in the interest of the workers. And yet Reagan was so attractive to the workers that if anyone could get them to buy into these anti-union policies, it would be him, despite the fact that he had been a union president in Hollywood. So there are a lot of these contradictions like the one you pointed to at the beginning. The story of Reagan is full of contradictions, and part of what my movie is trying to do is take a big flashlight and shine it into these dark spaces where these contradictions are allowed to continue.
Wasn't he responsible for cultivating his own image, though? There are a lot of iconic images of Reagan as a cowboy, for example, though he grew up in very different circumstances.
Yes, absolutely. An almost classic example is the work Reagan did during World War II where privately he regrets not having seen military action, but from the public's perspective, they saw him in uniform in countless films. The line between reality and fiction becomes blurred, and before long, you're scratching your head and thinking, "Well, didn't he serve in the military?" Yeah, he served in the Signal Corps like a lot of Hollywood actors who did Hollywood things in the service of the troops. That's like saying you're in the U.S.O. and therefore, you saw combat. You saw it from a stage, wearing makeup, and having having floodlights on you. That is the kind of illusion and captivating narrative that has dominated so much of the public imagination as it concerns Ronald Reagan, really throughout his career. We're about to celebrate his 100th birthday, and the same parade of illusions is going to be brought out again to continue to deploy Ronald Reagan to shape and I would argue disfigure the national discourse in an unjust way to his legacy.
How much did Reagan's acting career influence him as a politician?
You can imagine an actor that we would meet today who's been in some movie of note ... I'll give you a fun example of this. I would find it hard to be Matt Damon and not conduct myself in public a little bit like Jason Bourne. Like, it's so cool to be Jason Bourne, why would you want to be anybody else? And I'm guessing that Matt Damon is extremely cool also, but Jason Bourne can do everything! People would lay down in traffic for him. So to a certain extent, once you've been that movie figure and been idolized in a certain way, I would find it hard for an actor to develop an absolutely rigid line between themselves and the characters they've played in the movies. Certainly, Reagan attested to this and would tell apocryphal stories later in his life, stories that never happened but happened in his movies. The entire Star Wars program, as it turns out, is in some ways [taken from] an experience Reagan had in the 1940s in a movie called Murder in the Air ... You couldn't believe that he would have made a movie like that and then 40 years later actually be influencing global policy with those ideas, but that interaction between fact and fiction and reality in Reagan's life is a fascinating thing about who he was, and part of what continued to feed the blurring of fiction as fact.
Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and Mitt Romney are all vying to be the heir to Reagan's throne. Do you see elements of Reagan in any of them?
I don't think anyone who knew Ronald Reagan sees any elements of him in those people. Any of the names you just raised, when I proposed them to members of Reagan's inner circle, they see those people as opportunists, publicists, and mis-users of Ronald Reagan's legacy, without exception.
In what way?
In every way. Ronald Reagan was a thinking person, an incredibly versed scholar about vast aspects of public policy. He was not a person who prides himself on the politics of ignorance.
You don't think his folksy persona was part of that?
Yeah, but he had a folksy persona that was folksy in demeanor, affable and simple in demeanor. Behind the scenes, it's like the Saturday Night Live skit: He was incredibly aware and in command of large parts of his public policy. There are areas of disconnect where I think there are areas that he doesn't care that much. I think the sad part about the economic legacy is that the people around him did machinations that were hurtful to certain groups, and I think Reagan let that happen out of it just not being a priority for him. For example, AIDS: Not much of a priority for him until Ron and Nancy made it a priority for him.
But I think that what you're seeing today, much of what comes out of the mouths of those people ... "Ronald Reagan was for small government!" False. The government grew under Ronald Reagan. "Ronald Reagan said to never raise taxes!" Ronald Reagan raised taxes six of the eight years he was in office. "Ronald Reagan would have been against amnesty for illegal immigrants!" Correction: Ronald Reagan was in favor of amnesty and signed a bill giving it to 2.6 million immigrants. "Ronald Reagan would never negotiate with our enemies the way Obama is talking to the Russians!" Really? Ronald Reagan did exactly that, and Obama is doing something entirely Reagan-esque by pursuing a START 2 to follow Reagan's negotiations for the same with Gorbachev. "Ronald Reagan was a fiscal conservative!" No. Ronald Reagan spent enormously and grew federal spending incredibly on his watch.
Dick Cheney, who could be added to your list if you like, says that Ronald Reagan taught us that deficits don't matter. Dick Cheney should watch Ronald Reagan's farewell address, where he takes his time in his last words to the American people to publicly lament having contributed to the American deficits as he did. The lies that surround [Reagan] ... this is publicity. These are publicists. The three people you mentioned are professional publicists, and what they are doing is spinning a tissue of self-serving illusions that are meant to give their privately held agendas and their political goals the Reagan brand. It's like putting a cheap cigarette into a fancy cigarette pack. You're used to those cigarettes so you'll smoke a few and they seem kind of similar, but they're counting on the public not looking too deeply into what they're saying. They can tell you, "Reagan did it like this," and you won't take the time to Google it, because you're busy and overworked. They'll hope that you don't look at the fine print, but I hope by making one movie where the truths about Reagan are manifest is to trust the public, not to treat them in a patronizing way as these elites do. And these are elites, by the way, these are people who makes hundreds of thousands of dollars per speaking engagement, and have multi-million-dollar book deals, and are backed by multi-multi-million-dollar backers, and have multi-multi-million-dollar ad campaigns. No one should ever think that these "folksy people" are folks. They are elites, and they are deploying tremendous economic resources to manipulate the public mind.