Judge Maurice Cobbs remembers "Morning in America" because that's when all the best cartoons came on.
"We have every right to dream heroic dreams. Those who say that we're in a time when there are no more heroes, they just don't know where to look."—Ronald Reagan, from his first inaugural address
Today's crop of politicians could learn something from Ronald Reagan.
It's not enough to say that the other guy is screwing things up. Certainly, Ronald Reagan—and the American people—had enough to complain about in 1980: The presidency of Jimmy Carter had brought us high inflation, higher unemployment, ruined relations with the Middle East, a fuel crisis, a hostage crisis, and an economy in tatters. But Mr. Reagan didn't dwell for too long on any of that—he knew that we knew already what was wrong. An endless tirade of complaining and whining and criticism isn't enlightening; it's tiresome. In the tradition of the great presidents who preceeded him, like Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, and John F. Kennedy, Mr. Reagan's message was one of optimism. Mr. Reagan told us that no matter how bad things were, we as a nation could handle it. He reminded us that we had a right to be proud of what we've accomplished and encouraged us to accomplish even more. He urged us not to look to a top-heavy and bloated government for help but to look to each other and help ourselves as he attempted to remove the oppressive bulk of government from our path. And, spurred on by Mr. Reagan's encomiums, America recovered its pride and prestige even as our friendly enemies across the sea collapsed under the weight of their own oppression.
Pride, humor, humility, and faith in the American public—that is the difference between becoming one of the most beloved political figures in American history and finding yourself forgotten on the rubbish heap of failed presidential contenders.
Facts of the Case
NBC News Presents: Ronald Reagan, the first of a new series of documentary features from NBC, is an overview of one of the most beloved and influential leaders of the 20th century. This DVD explores the president's humble roots as the son of a Midwestern shoe salesman through his brief brush with fame in Hollywood, his election to the governor's office in California, and finally to the White House and beyond.
NBC has done a pretty good job here of presenting an interesting portrait of the 40th president of the United States, even if they don't give anything even approaching a complete portrait. Hosted by an NBC news anchor with the impossible name of Stone Phillips, the main body of the DVD is divided into four sections. The first segment, "Farewell to the Chief," is standard biography stuff about Mr. Reagan: who he was, how he came to be, and so forth. The second chapter focuses on President Reagan's reputation as "The Great Communicator." It emphasizes Mr. Reagan's personality and his ability to bring both earnest sincerity and a wide array of screen tricks to his public persona. This leads into "The Gipper," an overview of Mr. Reagan's mildly successful career in Hollywood. It's pretty interesting—I actually learned quite a bit about the man here. And the fourth segment, "Picture Perfect," discusses Mr. Reagan's personal style. For the most part, the main feature does a rather good job of giving you a sense of the kind of man he was, even if it really reveals nothing about his presidency, and interesting insight is offered by such people as the presidential historian Michael Beschloss and former White House Chief of Staff Jim Baker, among others.
What's far more remarkable than the rather brief 41-minute main feature is the wealth of special features also included on this disc:
•"A Day With President Reagan," presented by David Brinkley, is a behind-the-scenes look at the workings of government from the early years of the Reagan administration. Interesting, perhaps, to political science students, but not terribly so for the average viewer, although it is amusing to see things like a caucus of governors sneaking jellybeans while waiting for a meeting with the prez, or Mr. Reagan, after being handed a rather hectic and packed schedule, asking in jest if his staff can work in time for him to get a drink of water.
•"Love Letters" to Nancy is a feature showcasing the great love and powerful bond shared between Mr. Reagan and his wife of over fifty years. Really, the playful and affectionate tone of the letters presented in the feature was a real treat for little old romantic me, and it serves once more to drive home what a warm and wonderful person Mr. Reagan was in his personal life.
•"No Skin Off Me": This was a particularly interesting glimpse at Reagan the actor—an episode of General Electric Theater, an anthology series similar to Studio One that was hosted by Mr. Reagan for almost a decade and occasionally starred him. In this episode, he plays a washed-up prizefighter struggling with his conscience as he trains an arrogant young contender who's unwittingly being set up for a big fall. It's average stuff, as far as TV drama goes, but it is a good showcase of Mr. Reagan's abilities and average-Joe charm.
•"1981 Inaugural Address": Mr. Reagan at his best: confident, warm, and utterly optimistic. This and the speech that follows it—the one in Berlin where, in front of that famously oppressive symbol of Communist tyranny, Mr. Reagan challenges Gorbachev to "tear down this wall!"—give the best sense of Reagan the politician. He sincerely believes what he's saying, and the power of his speeches is firmly rooted in this fact. Audiences used to repetitive sound bites and slick, prepackaged political presentations may find the speeches a bit corny or even boring, but I personally found them to be compelling stuff. It's incredible to remember that there was a time when politicians spoke with high regard for, and not snide condescension toward, the American public. This regard for the average citizen is nowhere more evident than in the final, inspiring farewell address from the Oval Office.
•"Dear Ron" turned out to be my favorite of the special features. It tells the story of Mr. Reagan's lifelong pen pal, a woman who'd written him as a 13-year-old member of the Ronald Reagan fan club. That innocent fan letter spawned a friendship that lasted through Mr. Reagan's stint in the White House, and this feature offers a personal perspective on the former president from an average American citizen who happened to be privy to his thoughts.
•"Golden Anniversary" is an interview with Nancy Reagan conducted by Katie Couric, and it tells us two essential things: The love that the Reagans shared was deep, powerful, and complete; and Katie Couric is an insipid interviewer.
•"The Long Goodbye" is a brief look at the week-long period of national mourning that followed Mr. Reagan's death. Unfortunately, like too many other things on this disc, it is too brief, too shallow, and lacking in important personal perspectives and remembrances from the people who knew Mr. Reagan best.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If NBC has done a good job of giving viewers a sense of Reagan the man, it's done a simply awful job of presenting Reagan the anything else. Major events of Mr. Reagan's presidency, such as the Iran-Contra affair and the assassination attempt by Hinckley, are mentioned only briefly and in passing. Other defining events, such as the air traffic controllers' strike and the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, are not even addressed. Nor is Mr. Reagan's controversial stand against antiwar protesters while governor of California ever explored; indeed, his entire stint as governor receives little in the way of mention.
This is a sad trend throughout the disc; whole aspects of Mr. Reagan's life that should be simple biographical background, such as growing up with an alcoholic father, are omitted, and hardly any information is given regarding his first marriage to actress Jane Wyman or his and Nancy's volatile relationship with their children. Even the special features—which are admittedly rich by any standards—lack important material that would seem to be almost necessary for such a retrospective: the address to the nation following the 1983 Challenger disaster, for instance, which is an example of Mr. Reagan at his most eloquent, or the infamous "Evil Empire" speech, which displayed Mr. Reagan's rectitude and scared the bejeezus out of the Reds.
Infuriatingly, not even Mr. Reagan's successes in office receive any substantial coverage here. The American economy performed better during the Reagan years than during the years before or after him: Real median family income grew by $4,000 during Mr. Reagan's term after experiencing no growth at all in the Carter years, not to mention the fact that interest rates, inflation, and unemployment fell faster under Mr. Reagan than they did immediately before or after his presidency. Furthermore, from 1981 through 1989 the U.S. economy produced 17 million new jobs, or roughly 2 million new jobs each year. (In comparison, the Clinton administration averaged 1.3 million new jobs per year.) Under Mr. Reagan, productivity grew at a 1.5 percent annual rate—lower than in the '50s and '60s, to be sure, but certainly much higher than in the post-Reagan years. (Again, by way of comparison, under Mr. Clinton productivity increased at an annual rate of 0.3 percent per year.) And hello? Does the collapse of the Communist empire ring a bell? To call this a "tribute" to Mr. Reagan while failing to mention what he'd accomplished in office is highly questionable, especially from a news organization.
If Mr. Reagan's successes receive no attention, his political missteps are even less in evidence. The budget deficit exploded in the '80s, and the national debt doubled from $1,004 billion in 1981 to $2,028 billion in 1989. Also, despite his promises and, we must assume, his intentions, the federal budget was not cut under Mr. Reagan—in fact, it was 69 percent larger when Mr. Reagan left office than when he entered it. This information, along with the events and speeches mentioned earlier, might have given viewers unfamiliar with Mr. Reagan a clearer picture of his strengths and weaknesses. But you wouldn't know any of this from watching NBC's profile.
Even more glaring in their omission are thoughts on Mr. Reagan by his contemporaries and fellow presidents. It would have been interesting to have gotten perspectives on Mr. Reagan from the presidents who followed him and the one who preceded him, to be sure, but how NBC could have produced this feature and not gotten footage or statements from George H.W. Bush, Margaret Thatcher, or Mikhail Gorbachev is beyond me. The fact that his wife Nancy is featured only in archival footage and his children aren't even interviewed is practically insane. All in all, this feels like a hasty attempt to cash in on a wave of national mourning, and NBC's glaring omission of facts and personalities intimately connected with President Reagan makes this compilation seem shoddy and poorly thought out, instead of the comprehensive study of a former world leader it might have and should have been. We should expect more from the "leader in television news."
The picture quality runs the gamut from not bad to pretty crappy. The General Electric Theater segment is remarkably clear in both picture and sound (which may have contributed to the decision to include it), but the "Day With President Reagan" segment has that annoying color bleed and halo that comes from bad TV reception. On the other hand, you can pretend that it's actually 1981, before everybody had cable—remember those days? The main feature itself is all right, but only all right—it aired as an NBC special shortly after the president's death, and the sound and picture are about what you would expect from TV news.
I'm not terribly impressed by this disc. I remembered more about the Reagan era from having lived in it; this disc's lack of depth did nothing to enlighten or supplement my memories of the man or of the world he helped shape. Such oversight results in a poor tribute to one of this country's most memorable leaders.
This disc has been impeached for dereliction of duty. And the verdict is guilty.
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