Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Recollections of Reagan: A Confounding Centennial

President Reagan (Credit: Ronald Reagan Library)
While visiting embattled Nicaragua as a journalist in 1984, I met the grieving mother of a four-year-old killed by the Contras. These vicious mercenaries, not-so-secretly funded by the United States, had been firing mortars into the remote mountain town of Teotecacinte. After residents spent 17 consecutive days in rudimentary bomb shelters, Carmen Guttierez Suyapa was allowed to play outside when it seemed as if the attacks had finally ended. She died under a sapodilla tree, where someone later planted a tiny flowering begonia in her memory.

Ronald Reagan lost his memory to Alzheimer’s disease, at the end apparently no longer able to recall having been the 40th president. Upon his death in 2004 at age 93, he had lived 89 more years than the Nicaraguan child whose blood essentially was on his hands. The Contras – he referred to them as “freedom fighters” and “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers” – got their weapons and other supplies with his blessing.

There is, of course, no mention of little Carmen in Reagan, a thought-provoking and beautifully crafted profile that's perhaps a bit too kind to its controversial subject. The documentary premiered at January’s Sundance Film Festival before a February 7 broadcast on HBO (with a repeat at 8 p.m. on February 9) during a week that marked what would have been his 100th birthday. Director Eugene Jarecki, who divides his time between New York City and Vermont, covers that 1980s period of intervention in Central America primarily to examine the Iran-Contra affair: Proceeds from illegal arms sales to the Ayatollah supported the counterrevolutionaries trying to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, who spearheaded the entire operation, has since said of Reagan’s participation: "I have no doubt that he was told about the use of residuals for the Contras, and that he approved it. Enthusiastically."

Enthusiasm appears to have been a trademark of the Great Communicator, as Reagan was often dubbed. Jarecki provides examples of this ebullience with a look at the early years as a dashing lifeguard in his Illinois hometown, followed by careers as an Iowa radio sportscaster, a performer in B-movies such as Kings Row (1947) for almost three decades, and president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1947 to 1959.

Reagan as lifeguard, 1927 (Credit: Ronald Reagan Library)
During that SAG stint, he switched allegiances. The lifelong Democrat became a Republican, even clandestinely serving as an informant for the FBI in order to name names of Hollywood’s supposed communist sympathizers. Quite possibly, he ruined the lives of many innocent people with his enthusiasm. By the time Reagan landed a gig as the TV pitchman for General Electric, the guy was a full-fledged conservative. On nationwide tours to GE plants, according to Jarecki, he demonstrated a talent for persuading blue-collar citizens to forego labor unions and embrace the idea that patriotism meant awaiting eventual largesse from unfettered corporations.

Once the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy sparked a turn towards liberalism in the country, Reagan was fired for politicizing a job that theoretically only entailed selling products. Lucky for him, the state of California wanted just such an ideologue for two terms as governor, from 1967 until 1975. The film offers a brief clip of John Wayne, in cowboy regalia, endorsing his buddy during the campaign.

It was a restless era, with scraggly youngsters protesting the Vietnam War. Reagan faced them down on college campuses. He also delivered the kind of belittling comment we now associate with Sarah Palin: “For those of you who don't know what a hippie is, he's a fellow who has hair like Tarzan, who walks like Jane, and who smells like Cheetah." Perhaps the simian odor was familiar to him as the human star of Bedtime for Bonzo, a 1951 comedy featuring the very same chimpanzee that had graced the jungle in a dozen Johnny Weissmuller flicks. (To boot, the remark smacks of homophobia, not surprising in that Reagan neglected to utter the word “AIDS” in his first seven years as chief executive, even while the epidemic swept through the land.) 

A U.S. hostage outside the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Nov. 1979
With a platform of sunny optimism (a new "morning in America”!), he launched a successful bid for the Oval Office. His predecessor, Jimmy Carter, had become mired in a 444-day hostage crisis on the heels of the 1979 revolution in Iran. Jarecki never mentions “the October surprise,” in which Reagan forged a nefarious deal: Although ready to release the hostages before the election, the Iranians agreed to wait until after his January 1981 inauguration to give him all the glory. But the filmmaker does point out they were freed 40 minutes after the swearing-in. America was too busy sleepwalking to notice the dirty tricks.

The dark side of the smiling bobble-head doll that was Ronald Reagan involved regressive policies (“Approximately 80 percent of our air pollution stems from hydrocarbons released by vegetation, so let’s not go overboard in setting and enforcing tough emission standards.”), a combative attitude against anything he opposed (“Unemployment insurance is a pre-paid vacation for freeloaders.”) and the occasional really sick joke (“I just signed legislation which outlaws Russia forever. The bombing begins in five minutes.”)

The world’s threat level rose. The symbolic Doomsday Clock ticked upwards of eight minutes to midnight, as Reagan minions seemingly worked to heat up the Cold War with their belligerent stance against “the Evil Empire.” One Pentagon official suggested that people could survive a mushroom-shaped cloud “if there are enough shovels to go around” – meaning that we could simply dig a hole in the ground and cover it with all the doors from our house. To borrow a line from a Country Joe and the Fish song, “Whoopee, we’re all gonna die!” 

Reagan with Mikhail Gorbachev, 1985
Nonetheless, Reagan later signed some peace treaties. “He went from saber-rattling to rejecting the morally indefensible and logically weak idea of mutually assured destruction as a guiding principle in the nuclear arms race. I wanted to set the record straight,” Jarecki noted, adding that those who currently worship him as a Tea Party idol probably don’t realize he promoted amnesty for undocumented immigrants and raised taxes during six of his eight years in office.

Arguably tougher in 2002’s The Trials of Henry Kissenger (co-directed with Alex Gibney) and 2005’s Why We Fight (a treatise on the military-industrial complex), Jarecki strives for an even-handed approach when it comes to the more mainstream Reagan. He managed to lure several impressive talking heads still loyal to the Gipper, though not the most loyal of all: wife Nancy, who adored her “Ronnie”. Their progressive younger son, Ron Reagan, offers a balanced perspective on the father he loved. His half-brother, Michael, is merely a rabid Republican. Their dad generally gets credit for defeating the Soviet Union with a single salvo in a Berlin speech: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall.” Never mind that the Iron Curtain collapsed of its own accord.

Director Eugene Jarecki in 2008
In a recent telephone conversation, Jarecki said he opted for “a wide range of voices that give an unprecedented glimpse of his real fabric ... Many Americans believe Reagan was driven by ideology, but he was inscrutable. The story arc of Reaganism is full of contradictions.”

The messier aspects of Reaganism encompass his trickle-down economics, which resulted in a nine percent unemployment rate, as well as significant increases in the budget deficit and federal debt. He claimed impoverished masses were homeless “by choice.”  When terrorists massacred 240 Marines in Lebanon, few Americans appeared to blame the “Teflon President” who put them in harm’s way. After he fired all the striking air traffic controllers, America’s skies devolved into chaos. A former CIA agent, Frank Snepp, argues that the Iran-Contra scandal was an attempt to “pervert the Constitution.” So why memorialize such a divisive historical figure?

“The plan was to commemorate Reagan at a respectful time, but also be critical when that’s warranted,” explained Jarecki. “It’s been a passion of mine to come to understand him ...There’s so much mythology. I was trying to figure out if the right wing has chosen a false god. The question doesn’t yield an easy answer. Those invoking his name and legacy often have drummed up an interpretation of who he was for their political convenience. I found that this was a complex man, very smart, and far more textured than people think.”

And then there’s Carmen Guttierez Suyapa, whose life was needlessly cut short by the decisions of that complex, smart and textured man.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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