They embodied the myth of the ideal presidential couple. She, elegant and thoughtful, devoted to her husband; him, the spitting image of honesty and patriotism. Ronald and Nancy Reagan in perfect symbiosis managed to conquer the American electorate in the eighties. But the myth of Reagan as a model president was forged in reality thanks to his ability as a storyteller, his highly skilled use of television, and his acting skills. While Nancy was the Lady Macbeth who fueled her husband’s political ambition, in addition to monopolizing great power. The very superstitious first lady had her own oracle: the astrologer Joan Quigley on whose predictions she relied to make the president’s agenda.
This is the perspective from which the story of the couple is told in The Reagans, a documentary series produced by Showtime in 2020, which has just been released by Movistar +, directed with solvency and quite partisanship by Matt Tyrnauer, a former journalist for the magazine Vanity Fair. The documentary, divided into four parts, simplifies too much and in its eagerness to deny Reagan the least quality, it falls into contradictions. It is said that he triumphed in the Hollywood myth factory of the forties and fifties thanks to the support of a famous journalist, and at the same time the construction of the myth of his presidency is attributed to his great acting skills.
Reagan’s emergence on the political scene takes place in the sixties at the hands of his second wife, Nancy Davis, ten years younger, and also an actress. Nancy abandons her career (we see her declare in an interview that her highest aspiration was marriage) to turn to that of her husband, who would become Governor of California between 1967 and 1975 and President of the United States between 1981 and 1989. The differences between them are remarkable. Reagan, born in 1911 in an Illinois town, is from a working family, a voter in the Democratic Party. New York-born Nancy had grown up in Chicago with her mother and stepfather, the famed ultra-conservative neurosurgeon Loyal Davis.
One after another, the biographers, lawyers, political scientists and journalists who participate in the documentary draw a devastating portrait of the couple. It is true that some of the president’s former collaborators also speak in it, but they limit themselves to releasing disjointed phrases, when not openly critical, that do not balance the balance. Reagan is blamed for being reactionary and racist for the decisions he made as Governor of California, in a few years of upheaval on college campuses and violent protests from the African-American community. What is incomprehensible, points out the series, is that his racism has not taken its toll. Perhaps, it must be added, because it was part of the social landscape of the United States of its time.
The last two chapters are dedicated to the Reagans in the White House, where they settle in January 1981, after the presidency of Jimmy Carter. With the country in full recession, the new tenant implements his neoliberal recipes with drastic tax cuts, reduced public spending, deregulations, and measures to contain inflation. Thanks to this, there was an economic recovery, but at the cost of aggravating the situation of the most disadvantaged, underlines the documentary, which accuses Reagan of having been the champion of large corporations and capital.
Not even the couple’s youngest son, Ron Reagan, who also participates in the miniseries, breaks a spear in favor of his parents. He is rather cold and ironic with them and takes care to make it clear that he is in the ideological antipodes. He describes them as a couple of “carcas”, scared even of the Beatles. Reagan Jr. even hints that Nancy’s growing power in Reagan’s second presidential term could have been due to the appearance of the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease that the president was diagnosed with in 1994, ten years before his death. Nancy (who died in 2016) is also described as a capricious person, aware of her wardrobe, who as the first lady of California refuses to reside in the official residence, in downtown Sacramento. And as soon as he gets to the White House, he insists on getting a new and expensive tableware (financed by rich donors). The reproaches also come from the group of activists against AIDS, complaining of the late attention of the president to the fearsome disease that appeared in the eighties.
Donald Trump is not mentioned in the documentary, but Reagan is presented as his clearest antecedent. Although it is omitted that the exactor was re-elected in 1984 with an overwhelming majority of 525 electoral votes out of a total of 538. Something that cannot be explained solely by his ability as a storyteller and his photogenicity.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.