The Reagans!

The Reagans!

Photo credit: Miscellaneous

The Reagans is an eye-opening four-part series reexamining one of the most powerful and polarizing political couples of our time. Award winning documentarian and journalist Matt Tyrnauer combines archival footage, exhaustive research and first-person accounts from the couple’s inner circle to craft a revealing portrait of their unlikely rise from Hollywood to the presidency and Nancy Reagan’s powerful position at the helm of their unprecedented partnership. A story of power, its legacy and a political performance few knew until now.” Showtime

In troubled times we often collectively refer to yesteryear as “The Good Old Days.”  Such is the case now with the Reagan administration.  But were they “The Good Old Days?”  Matt walked Hollywood on the Potomac through the events leading up to the shaping of both Ronald and Nancy Reagan.  You’ll be surprised at both the things you may not have known about them as well as what you may have forgotten.  The Reagans offer up a more realistic look at them through a rear view mirror starting from the beginning of “The Myth Machine.”

Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan, 1950s. Photo credit: Photofest.

The Early Years

Q:  “How do you think their childhoods shaped their futures?  Do you think they were so codependent because they both had similar childhood desertion issues?”

A:  “I don’t think that’s a bad theory. It was so long ago and I obviously wasn’t there, so I [speak] with tongue in cheek. It’s hard to do it without excessively playing armchair psychiatrist, but I’ll tell you what the standard point of view is and how my opinion may or may not differ. With Ronald Reagan, generally people fall back on the narrative of the son of an alcoholic leading to certain types of adult behavior. In his case, it has to do with the withholding and mysterious natures of his personality. A lot of that gets attributed to the kind of off the shelf son of an alcoholic narrative. His own son, Ronald Reagan, Jr., in part rejects that and points out as others have as well as those who researched it that Jack Reagan probably wasn’t an alcoholic. Jack Reagan might not have been an alcoholic at all, but the narrative of him as an alcoholic was very much one that Reagan and his mother Nellie Reagan clung to. So I think,  in many respects, the fact that Ronald Reagan pushed the narrative of having an alcoholic father who may have not indeed have been an alcoholic is one of the most interesting things about him.”

“What I conclude from that is that he was like many men of his generation – not terribly introspective – and probably had a number of neuroses that he needed to attribute to something and he and his mother fell back on that. He was also the product of what then might have been called a broken home. His parents didn’t get along and that was something that I think is the most interesting thing about the young Ronald Reagan. Divorce frequently was not a solution to a bad marriage at that time. Reagan was a compulsive editor of his own story and he wanted to control that narrative. It was clear to me that he and his mother formed an alliance and created a story about the failings of a father and Reagan clung to that for the rest of his life and it did affect him no matter what the truth is. He himself was a light drinker, which many children of alcoholics tend to be, but I think that he was above all a fantasist and a compulsive keeper of his own narrative to an unusual extent and the evidence that he shaped and might’ve rewritten the story of his childhood as it relates to his mother and father, I think is the most interesting thing about him.”

The Reagans dining off of TV trays in the White House, 1981. Photo Credit: Courtesy of The Ronald Reagan Library.

“Nancy Reagan was a second marriage for Ronald Reagan and they didn’t meet until he was a man in young middle age. He himself had been deserted by his first wife, Jane Wyman. So, if he didn’t have desertion issues before that he certainly had them after that.  I think Ronald and Nancy Reagan might indeed have bonded over that type of sensation of having been left. What’s incontrovertibly true about Nancy Reagan is that she was an abandoned child. Her mother was herself a great self invented figure who changed compulsively, changed the facts about her own life for the record. She lied about her age when she married her second husband. She shaved eight years off of it. Nancy Reagan herself shaved a year off, showing greater moderation. She really was shockingly abandoned.”

“Her mother, who was a woman who as they might’ve said at the time got around, finally landed a doctor as a second husband and the narrative changed again. Suddenly, the marginal actress Edith Davis who had been more than likely would have been considered a loose woman in the context of our times, became a respectable society lady of Chicago and Nancy Reagan clung to that narrative which was  true enough, but the antecedent to it was anything but that. Nancy Reagan was born relatively lower class. Her father, whom she erased from her life, had no pedigree really, no money and to her reckoning no class himself. But her stepfather and her mother became fancy people in Chicago society and Nancy Reagan wanted that to be her backstory and she made it her backstory.”

Religion and Astrology

Nancy Reagan with Joan Quigley during the State Visit of President Chadli Benjedid of Algeria State Dinner in the Blue Room, 4/17/1985. THE REAGANS, “In The Stars”. Photo credit: Courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

Q:  “Talk a little bit about the interaction of religion and astrology and how that affected everything including the presidency.”

A:  “Religiosity in the Reagans is a complicated story. And again, I think that the truth doesn’t really match the narrative that they compulsively spawn about it. Reagan’s religious roots are much more interesting really than he ever revealed. His mother was a lay preacher and a faith healer who got caught up in the big religious tent revival movement sweeping the Midwest in the early 20th century. That in itself is fascinating. His father was Catholic, but as with everything about his youth sided with his mother and converted or was baptized into her faith which was the Disciples of Christ. The interesting part of that for me is that out of that revival tent religion movement he is caught up in is this strong strand of magical thinking that in his own case expressed itself through her being a blur with no medical degree, but she would go around healing people and a belief in the power of prayer. And all of that is I think fascinating and not illegitimate, but this is where he comes from. And he never really talked about that in his own life. Later in life he was a kind of country club man and had that kind of country club religiosity. I think he was a semi-regular church goer and didn’t wear it on his sleeve . When he needed to – this I think is the important thing about Reagan and religion – when he needed to use religion to aim political traction, he was unabashed and was able to really use it very effectively by bonding with a exploding religious right wing movement in this country. And he was able because of his upbringing to speak their language and that became very important for him, but when he was later in his life when he was president he barely went to church at all, yet, he was able to walk the walk and talk the talk and he really went very far thanks to what was then termed the moral majority. I think that the complexity of that story is fascinating and how it plays into his propensity for magical thinking, It is really interesting.”

(R): A still of Ronald Reagan in THE REAGANS, “The Hollywood Myth Machine”. Photo credit: Los Angeles Public Library.

“On Nancy Reagan’s side of the ledger, she didn’t seem to be terribly religious and went to church with her husband or whenever the family went to church. Her stepfather Dr. Loyal Davis was very right wing, but I don’t think terribly religious and she tended to take after him. So I think the right wing politics was something that she was comfortable with, but I think religion didn’t really play a big role in her household growing up. In terms of astrology for both Ronald and Nancy Reagan, it’s very much under appreciated that they were both fans of astrology and Ronald Reagan followed astrology before he married Nancy Reagan. And he saw regularly then leading astrologer in Hollywood Caroll Righter and was very close with this gentleman.”

“He was a dévoué of Caroll Righter who was dominant in Hollywood in the thirties and forties all the way down into the 1980s. When the Reagans married they were [already] followers of Righter and then throughout their marriage. They talked to many astrologers, among them Jean Dixon who had a very big platform and eventually through the relationship with Merv Griffin who shared a birthday with Nancy Reagan, they got in touch with her. Joan Quigley became the astrologer that Nancy Reagan was dependent upon. I think she did use astrology as a crutch because she was so fearful and even more fearful after her husband was nearly killed by an assassin. Astrology was something that captivated both of them. And again, like with their religion, I think that magical thinking, This fits under the umbrella of magical thinking which I think dominated their lives in many ways and I think it’s not just Ronald Reagan, but Nancy Reagan who I think was a magical thinker also and I think her interest in astrology is a manifestation of that.”

Q: “Did people forget or did they just choose to overlook Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” drug campaign while the administration bought drugs for arms to sell in the US via Nicaragua? How duplicitous was that?”

President Reagan and Nancy Reagan talking in the Oval Office, 5-21-1986. THE REAGANS, “In The Stars”. Photo credit: Courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

A:  “I think that the Reagans to get away with being world-class hypocrites on a whole array of issues. On HIV AIDS they had many gay friends from Hollywood down through their political lives and they did nothing to help or use the presidential bully pulpit to become leaders in fighting it which was a great plague of their time and Nancy Reagan who knew better because so many of her friends were gay said nothing. So she’s a hypocrite and complicit in that. And then further with Nancy Reagan, her using the ‘Just Say No’ publicity campaign to help her smooth over a rough ride she was having with the national press corps for the first part of the administration. I think that was not only ironic, but also hypocritical.”

“She came from a world in Hollywood where many of her friends and their children were regular cocaine and marijuana users. And I know these people myself and they did nothing to try to kick their drug habit by just saying no. And she knew very well that they were drug users, but that didn’t stop her from giving a speech behind the presidential seal in which she said, anyone who uses illegal drugs is an accomplice to murder. Now, was she talking about Janet De Cordova and Hollywood or talking about all, any number of these privilege scions of Beverly Hills who were using cocaine like it was running water. I mean, put a big question mark there. I think that the other aspect of Nancy Reagan and her interest in being an anti-drug activist is that the anti-drug movement at the time was very much a dog whistle which was meant to excite rich Republican voters and suburban voters because drug use was a code for   urban populations who were supposedly addicted to crack and to heroin and other things that created a kind of urban decay. But as you’ve pointed out here was a huge drug trade out of central America that the governments that Reagan was keen to prop up were involved in and the CIA itself was involved in and the Reagans certainly did nothing about that. In fact, they abetted it while Nancy Reagan was running a self-serving PR campaign against drug abuse.”

President Reagan’s Address to the Nation on the Economy from oval office, 2/5/1981. THE REAGANS, “The Great Undoing”. Photo credit: Courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

Q:  “Last question: Is Ronald Reagan responsible for Donald Trump?”

A:  “I would say yes. I think your analysis is keen and correct that Reagan did lay the foundation for a Trump presidency, certainly as a celebrity term politician and a master of media and manipulation of the press and image. He blazed the trail for a celebrity ascending to the presidency. Reagan was a great performer who was in the mold of the gracious movie stars of the golden age of Hollywood. So there, that persona was very polished and to be a leading man in Hollywood was to be the antithesis of vulgar. So Reagan was very well healed as a performer out of that school. And when he, after his acting career went down the tubes and his TV career began to die off, he switched to politics and then began to play the part of a successful politician and president and the way that he chose to play that was as a kind of gracious master of ceremonies and wonderful salesmen for all that was good and traditional in this country. So his idea of how to play a president comes from Frank Capra movies or Michael Curtiz films. And then to contrast him, Donald Trump’s idea of how to play a president comes from the Kardashians. And, we do live in a more course [culture] and it makes perfect sense in hindsight that an actor would be elected president at the end of the 20th century and by that token makes perfect sense that a reality TV star on the skids would be elected president 22 decades into the 21st century.”

End Note

Q:  “If you were historian how would you describe the Reagan presidency?”

A:  “Well, Gore Vidal described Ronald Reagan as a triumph of the embalmers art.” 

“The Reagans” airs Sunday nights at 8 p.m. on Showtime.