By Heather Hendershot.
One week after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here reached the #9 position in book sales on Amazon. Brave New World held the #15 slot. Sales also spiked for Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. At the same time, according to Penguin USA, sales of 1984 increased by 9,500 percent. The 1984 uptick began when Kellyanne Conway appeared on Meet the Press. Responding to the bald-faced lie that Trump’s swearing-in had had the highest attendance ever, Conway stated that in supporting this claim press secretary Sean Spicer had simply been presenting “alternative facts.”
Meanwhile, the second season of Man in the High Castle asked viewers what it meant to collaborate or resist a dystopian, oppressive regime. A few months later, Hulu premiered its exceptional production of Atwood’s classic. And women protesting the G20 summit appeared on the TV news dressed in Handmaid’s outfits. Clearly, dystopian real-life has led to an increased interest in dystopian fictions.
At the same time, there has been a surge in the consumption of straight-up informational media. In the Obama years, serious newspapers and magazines seemed to be at death’s doorway. Yet since Trump’s election New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Atlantic, and New Yorker subscriptions have increased substantially. And though I have not found official confirmation, it is hard to believe that the numbers are not up also for journals of opinion such as the Nation and the National Review. Left, right, or center, any intelligent person is disturbed by the current commander-in-chump and looking for insights to understand our country’s dilemma.
This is, I believe (perhaps too optimistically), one of those best-of-times-worst-of-times moments, when, even as our country suffers a tremendous crisis, many are not only marching in the streets but also rallying intellectually to find frames of understanding. Presidential historians are in high demand on CNN and MSNBC as discussions of Watergate move front and center and journalists ponder how Nixon and his impeachment might help us understand Trump’s crises. There is a freshly renewed sense that history will help us contend with the present moment. And through it all, a recurrent question has been, what role has the media – both old and new – played in Trump’s rise and, more generally, in the current Newspeak environment?
Given this context, there really could not be a better time for the release of The Reagan Show, a new film about America’s “Great Communicator.” Can the B-movie star who became president tell us anything that will help us understand the reality TV star who became president? The short answer is: sort of. Reagan was not the first media savvy president, and, even though he had been a film star, he was no amateur as a politician. We can disagree about how competent he was, but it is indisputable that he understood how government worked, what the duties of the president were, and, unlike the current president, what it meant to be dignified and statesmanlike, notwithstanding some truly ridiculous gaffes – like suggesting that trees caused pollution. He could seem ignorant (“Facts are stupid things”) or simply rude (“A hippie is someone who looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane, and smells like Cheetah.”), but he never suggested that sexual assault was a terrific idea or that it was acceptable to describe one’s own daughter as “a piece of ass.” Obviously, when the bar has fallen so low, even the worst former presidents start to look better. In any case, The Reagan Show provides one angle on Reagan’s savvy manipulation of media, without providing a direct map to answer the question “how did we get from there to here?”
Rather than over-viewing all of Reagan’s greatest hits, such as his career-making 1964 speech for Barry Goldwater, the film concisely conveys the president’s penchant for style over substance and shows how an actor could take the image-control obsessions that have long characterized US presidents to the next level of slickness. Then, the Reagan Show narrows its focus by centering on nuclear proliferation, the promotion of the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars), and Reagan’s multiple attempts, finally successful, to negotiate an arms deal with Gorbachev.
The film is composed of news footage as well as outtakes from the White House Television Office (WHTV), the in-house video operation set-up by the Reagan administration – conveniently, for the filmmakers, the footage is in the public domain. Directors Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill sporadically include explanatory text (this is not a “pure” found footage film), and viewers are thereby informed that WHTV produced as much footage as the previous five administrations combined. What a shocking image whore Reagan must have been, we are led to conclude. Well, yes, Reagan was very aware of the potential of images to convey and manipulate feelings, whether in the context of a real-life political drama like the Iran-Contra crisis or in the phony context of the Hollywood potboilers with which he was intimately acquainted.
Yet, the WHTV factoid is somewhat misleading. Previous administrations did not produce huge amounts of footage for the obvious reason that cheap video did not exist until the 1980s. That made previous administrations no less media obsessed. Art historian Ulrich Keller tells us, for example, that, “When President Lyndon B. Johnson woke up at 6:30AM in his White House living quarters, he pressed two buttons: that of his body guard and that of Yoichi Okamoto, his personal photographer. Okamoto was one of two persons permitted to enter the Oval Office without knocking, and within the first three months of Johnson’s term he took 11,000 pictures.” Nixon, of course, with his infamous tape recordings, was also an obsessive self-documenter and very aware of the politics of image. And he was wary of the power of mass media in large part because of his trouncing by the telegenic JFK in the 1960 presidential debates. For his part, Kennedy was the first president to hold live televised press conferences. This gave an impression of openness, though it is worth noting that no president has ever been thrilled with his own media coverage, so Kennedy may well have been following the old saw, keep your friends close and your enemies closer. In any case, the conferences conveyed a sense of openness, whether real or imagined. In 1963, JFK held a TV press conference an average of every 16 days. Trump has held one solo press conference in the six months he has been in office.
So, what made Reagan particularly special as a political spin master? Obviously, he conveyed warmth and friendliness in a way that Johnson and Nixon never could. And since he had been a movie and TV star, he had a knack for learning a script, understanding how to hit his mark, and intuiting how to sell a line and tug at heart strings. That intuition is the baseline of The Reagan Show. The question, then, is how to organize the story rather than surveying a whole career or the entire eight years of his presidency. As already noted, the filmmakers do not choose to do a grand overview. This choice leaves viewers with little background context – nothing about Reagan’s successful promotion for GE, his 1975–1979 daily radio commentary, or his PR work defending the blacklist as president of the Screen Actor’s Guild (see David Helpern’s excellent 1976 Hollywood on Trial). Further, we learn little about Iran-Contra, which was a huge televised event. This is a fair choice on the filmmakers’ part, given that Ollie North was the star of that particular media extravaganza, while Reagan attempted to keep a low-profile as the stench of possible impeachment hung heavily in the air. Unlike our current president, Reagan knew when to zip it, or at least when to take the advice of his lawyers.
The WHTV outtakes are meant to be damning but are often rather innocuous. Shooting a promo spot for New Hampshire governor John Sununu, Reagan claims to know him, but he has trouble pronouncing his last name. That seems like politics as usual, even though goofy music over this part of the film is meant to convey that we are to find the president silly or incompetent. On a similar note, after an inspirational 1986 New Year’s Day speech to the Soviet Union – a companion to a speech delivered to the US by Gorbachev – Reagan quips off-camera, “now how does that figure with all the crud they’ve been feeding you?” Are we expected to gasp at the notion that Reagan was dubious about the reality of any “information” published in, say, Prada, the official Soviet news organ? Regardless of their feelings about the US or Reagan, it is unlikely that citizens of the USSR who had survived World War II, Stalin, and the gulags (the most infamous of which was not closed until 1987) would have upheld the veracity of state-sponsored information. And they quite likely would have used a word much stronger than “crud” to describe the official information disseminated to them.
It’s easy for a liberal viewer to laugh at Reagan’s offhand WHTV moments, but that snark is not this film’s greatest strength. The negative lines from various network newscasters are somewhat more interesting. Sam Donaldson notes, for example, that Reagan acts like he is in a Norman Rockwell world, while Barbara Walters comments in an interview with White House Deputy Chief of Staff Mike Deaver, “so, it isn’t enough to be a good president. You have to look like a good president.” Conservatives are only cited in the film when they have something negative to say about Reagan, expressing opposition to his negotiations with Gorbachev, for example. You’d never guess that George Will or William F. Buckley were conservatives from the two brief clips featured here. Buckley says only that “the personality of Reagan is going to endure,” and Will refers to a round of Reagan photo ops as “a PR man’s dream.” Neither comment is inaccurate, but hardly representative of how these men generally thought about Reagan. Now, I do not mean to suggest that the film would be better if it were more “fair and balanced,” but it would be a bit more nuanced. How did conservative pundits feel about SDI? What about scientists and engineers? You’d never know from the film that SDI was technologically a complete failure.
The film does show that SDI inspired fear rather than reassurance for many Americans. Indeed, The Reagan Show ably conveys the nuclear anxiety of those years. The 1950s had brought US school children instructional films advising them to “duck and cover” if a nuclear bomb were dropped. This was utter nonsense, but perhaps reassuring. By the time Reagan was elected, there were no illusions about the possibility of surviving a nuclear blast. Velez and Pettengill wisely include coverage of The Day After, a made-for-TV movie about an American nuclear holocaust; the movie was a significant event in 1983, and a significant blow for the Reagan administration’s public relations efforts. The Reagan Show ably revisits the terror of those years, when no amount of talk from the president could alleviate the feeling that we were in trouble. As for SDI, we see that it was understood by most Democrats as either a pipe dream or as an incitement to increase nuclear buildup and to move the “nuclear clock” toward Armageddon.
Reagan seems to have thought that Star Wars would actually work, on a technical level, and about this he was wrong. But he also saw it as a deterrent, and here he was correct. Suddenly, Gorbachev is ready to talk arms negotiations, claiming he is willing to stop producing weapons but also calling for the shutdown of the SDI program. Reagan would not agree to the latter, but a deal is finally struck. The standard conservative line is that SDI pushed the Soviets to max out their arms budget, a contributing factor to the final collapse of the USSR in late 1991. A secondary line, also conservative, is that it didn’t matter whether or not SDI worked. It mattered that the USSR thought it did. This is not the only way to explain the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it does not mean that Reagan was a military genius, but these two insights are not lacking in merit. Some viewers might read all this between the lines of The Reagan Show, but its not the kind of political analysis the filmmakers are really going for, focused as they are on the manipulation of image.
On this front, much of The Reagan Show centers on the frustrations of the US media, as the president invents a new strategy of avoidance, appearing often in public smiling and waiving, but always just a bit too far away from the camera to interact. Reporters holler questions, even desperately shouting “show yourself!,” and Reagan pretends or does not hear, and then he and the first lady (fancy dog on leash) scoot into a helicopter and leave. It happens over and over again. It’s a brilliant strategy – the smile-and-wave rather than the berate-and-finger-point characteristic of Nixon or the tweet-and-grunt characteristic of our current president. Somehow Reagan seems friendly even as he is dodging every journalistic bullet. This is an interesting story, and those distant smiles and waves offer some of the few visually interesting moments in an otherwise visually flat production, not withstanding clips from a few Reagan films that make him look like a big patriotic square, and a few silly clips of failed stage management – Reagan looks comfortable riding past TV cameras on a horse, while the first lady, also straddling a horse, appears to be sucking on lemons.
Ultimately, the film offers little to Reagan fans, but, at the same time, it will not fully satisfy the president’s critics. Notably, the National Review panned the film, and the Nation’s Stewart Klawans ranked it only a bit higher, describing the film as a “valiant exposé” but criticizing it for its lack of comprehensiveness and historical context. It’s true that much is missing from The Reagan Show – such as the president’s wars in Central America, as Klawans notes, not to mention his reprehensible media blackout where AIDS was concerned. As for Kyle Smith of National Review, he dislikes the film’s glibness (a legitimate criticism also made in Variety and elsewhere) and concludes his review by noting the ultimate success of SDI. Smith critiques the film for drudging up Iran-Contra, “which despite a monumental effort by the media to whip up another Watergate did not permanently damage Reagan and now stands mostly forgotten. In February, according to a Harris Poll, American’s declared Reagan the greatest president since World War II, as they did in similar polls taken in 2008, 2010, and 2012. The media lost. The Gipper won.” Here, of course, Smith is exactly right, though it is doubtful that Velez and Pettengill would disagree, for The Reagan Show really does ultimately convey the fact that the Gipper won. The film is worth watching, but if it ultimately irks both liberals and conservative viewers it is in big trouble in terms of finding an audience.
At the very least, The Reagan Show offers a portrait of a man who, while not politically brilliant, nonetheless upheld a certain dignity in his final cuts, if not in his outtakes. In these undignified presidential days, The Reagan Show is thus of undeniable interest. That said, viewers interested in found footage and presidential history could do much better by turning to a trio of Nixon pictures: Emile de Antonio’s Millhouse (1971), Penny Lane’s Our Nixon (2013), and Peter N. Kunhardt’s Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words (2014). De Antonio’s is the great classic, using mostly news footage, which the director claims to have received from an unnamed journalist who stuffed the film reels in the trunk of De Antonio’s car, in a quick meeting in a parking lot in the dead of night. Most of the material is now easily found elsewhere, but this was pretty gripping stuff in pre-YouTube days. Kunhardt’s lesser-known film combines mostly flat and dull imagery with compelling excerpts from Nixon’s tapes. The most inflammatory moments are when Nixon is crude, as when he makes a joke about Jews being “castrat…oh, I mean circumcised.” The most interesting moments are when he makes a public statement (we will end the war in Vietnam, peace with honor, yadda-yadda) and then flatly reveals those statements to be deliberate lies (on the phone with Kissinger he categorically states that South Vietnam will crumble as soon as we pull out). My personal favorite is Our Nixon, which uses audio from the tapes over often hauntingly beautiful super-8 home movies taken by H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin. Ultimately, the Nixon found footage films are collectively much better than this new Reagan film, and unlike The Reagan Show, with its likely inability to satisfy those either strongly pro- or anti-Reagan, few viewers could come away from the Nixon films without the clear conviction that Nixon was a total louse.
We probably don’t need found footage documentaries to confirm that the same is true of our current president, for the entire administration is unspooling before our eyes as one long, salacious, treasonous, grotesque reality TV show. One wonders what there is to reveal that we have not yet seen. Yes, surely there remains hidden muck, to be uncovered by Robert Mueller or by Trump himself in his own tweets, unencumbered as they are by superego and driven fiendishly by id and ego. If The Reagan Show portrays a presidential administration capable of media manipulation both subtle and unsubtle, the Trump show currently unrolling in real time shows us an administration staffed by the worst poker players imaginable, offering pitiful bluffs and lies. What do you do with cheaters who show you the cards up their sleeve practically before the game even begins?
In harsh contrast to Reagan, the reassuring spin-doctor, Trump is a truly terrible liar, saying things that can be easily fact checked. He did not lose hundreds of friends in 9-11. He did not oppose the war in Iraq from the beginning. He did not get more popular votes than Hillary Clinton. What has happened is more terrifying than what we might expect to have followed in the wake of Reagan, a steady improvement in presidential spin and media manipulation. Instead, we have a situation in which the president shamelessly and overtly lies, and his supporters actually don’t mind. In fact, they like him for it. At the end of 1984, Winston Smith comes around after he is tortured without mercy by the state. But Big Brother is unnecessary in Trump’s world, where millions readily – even gleefully – believe of their own free will that facts really are stupid things.
Alter, Alexandra. “Uneasy about the Future, Readers Turn to Dystopian Classics.” New York Times, January 27, 2017.
De Freytas-Tamura, Kimiko. “George Orwell’s 1984 is Suddenly a Best Seller.” New York Times, January 25, 2017.
Keller, Ulrich. “Early Photojournalism” in David Crowley and Paul Heyer, eds. Communication in History: Technology, Culture, Society. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2002.
Klawans, Stuart. “Manufactured Images.” The Nation, July 1, 2017.
Smith, Kyle. “Reagan Derangement Syndrome is Alive and Well.” National Review, June 28, 2017.
Heather Hendershot is a professor of film and media at MIT. She is the author of Saturday Morning Censors: Children’s Television before the V-Chip, Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture, What’s Fair on the Air? Cold War Right-Wing Broadcasting and the Public Interest, and Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line. She is currently researching a book on outsider political candidates.