The man had natural talents, qualities typical of him. The intonation of the voice, the direction of the gaze, the weighing of the pauses. Ronald Reagan had been an actor, before that a sports radio commentator and a television host for General Electric, the US multinational energy company. He always knew how to capture the public’s imagination, even when the public were the people of the United States of America. Who loved and often bemoaned him.
THE REAGAN SHOW by Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez, shot exclusively with footage produced by the White House administration, is a reality show with an intriguing and entertaining behind the scenes. Videos and footages immortalize a persuasive, empathetic and warm-hearted president. Reagan shown amidst the people, wearing a builder’s helmet, using a chainsaw, sitting in a classroom. Reagan hugging Mickey Mouse or welcoming Michel Jackson. Reagan dribbling the reporters’ questions amongst the crowd.
«I cannot hear you guys», he smiles at the journalists who are pressing him on the Wall Street crisis or the Iran-Contras scandal. The roar of the helicopter blades on the White House lawn always providing him with a good excuse.
THE REAGAN SHOW does not add any extra pieces to the historical puzzle of those years, which deeply changed America and the whole world. THE REAGAN SHOW is a documentary on the character of Reagan, on the ‘Good Guy’ and his ability, ante litteram, to “stage the message”.
When David Brinkley of ABC News, who did the farewell interview with Reagan on leaving the White House, on 21 December 1988, asked him if his past as an actor had been useful during the eight years of his presidency, Reagan delivered one of his memorable jokes: « There have been times in these years that I have wondered how I could have done this job if I had never been an actor.” Many years before, in 1966, when he had been asked what kind of governor he would make for California, he replied, «I do not know, I’ve never been a governor.»
A former Democrat, defeated in the Republican primaries by Nixon (1968) and Ford (1976), in 1980, Reagan won over George H. Bush and then in the presidential elections, by a large majority, defeated the incumbent President Jimmy Carter.
Ronald Reagan, the cowboy president, the oldest president to enter the White House (69 years), just as in his films where he acted as the good-natured American hero. Reagan, the father of the “conservative revolution”, who changed the face of America, rejected the hippies and praised the yuppies, preferring star wars to the flowers of peace.
Ronald Reagan not only represented a cultural revolution. Ronald Reagan carried out a political revolution. With the arms race, challenging the Soviets, the space shield, the Gipper (as he had been dubbed for his star role as the footballer George Gipp) restored the pride of the Americans after the Vietnam debacle. Reagan, the optimist, the ‘great communicator’, the man who with his faith in individualism shook the country with his smiles, jokes and the great rhetoric about American values and patriotism.
«To be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace.»
His greatest talent, in the opinion of Michael Deaver, Deputy Head of White House Staff, was to lead, to inspire.
«Together we will make America great again».
From cinema to television. In the 1980s, broadcast journalism undoubtedly dominated the scene, a medium unsurpassable in influencing public opinion and gathering support. Reagan’s use of TV marketing was unprecedented. The White House Television, the video channel of the White House, came into being with him. The President’s life, as well as his wife’s and his horses’, entered the homes of millions of Americans.
«The White House has become a theater with him.» (David Gergen, White House Communications Chief)
A stage that Reagan set with an inborn ability, using all the great opportunities that the historical moment was offering him. First of all, the arrival at the Kremlin of Mikhail Gorbachev, the right man at the right time. The one who was to renew the faded image of a president that had brought military spending to its highest levels, fully convinced of the Strategic Defense Initiative, the system for intercepting and destroying ballistic missiles in space, dramatically announced to show America’s military superiority, to bring down the feet of clay of the Soviet colossus.
In November 1985, in Geneva, in a perfect Hollywood style setting, the first meeting between an American and a Soviet leader was held after 60 years.
Over 3,000 accredited journalists from all over the world covered the event. Gorbachev was the new star and Reagan recited the liturgy of American Messianism – «We have the power to give the world a new beginning.»
In Reykjavik, the year after, Gorbachev versus Reagan. Unexpectedly, the CPSU Secretary challenged the man who wanted to force out the Soviets, with the proposal of eliminating all nuclear weapons by the year 2000. For the Kremlin, it was the only possible move to stop the space shield which the Russians could not compete with. The summit ended without any formal agreement, for most Americans it was a failure. On television, Reagan declared that an agreement on disarmament had never been so close to being reached.
A calembour, according to many commentators, a verbal acrobatics. Not the first, and not the only one.
The contradictions, the inconsistencies, the modifications and going around in circles that the President performed before the American public were many. For example, when he appealed to his loss of memory to justify for having lied regarding the Iran-Contras Affair, an illicit arms trafficking linking the Islamic Republic of Iran to the Contras, the anti-Communist movement in Nicaragua. The US Congress refused the necessary funds to fight Communism in “our backyard”, so the Reagan administration raised the money by secretly selling arms to an enemy country, the Iran of Khomeini, in exchange for the release of American hostages who had fallen into the hands of the Lebanese Hezbollah. Weapons that would be used by Iran to arm the Party of God and other Shiite militias of the Middle East.
On television, Reagan says: «A few weeks ago, I told the Americans that I had not traded arms for the release of hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me it’s true, but the facts and evidence say things have gone differently.»
A milestone in the post-truth ideology as political scientists define it. A scandal that threatened to irreparably compromise the image of the president. But it was not to be so. A few months later, on the main Cold War stage, in Berlin, Reagan attacked Gorbachev on the grounds of human rights.
«There is only one unequivocal thing that the Soviets can do. If you really want peace and prosperity, Mr Gorbachev, tear down the wall ».
It was his comeback. In December 1987, Gorbachev arrived in Washington to sign the INF Treaty (Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces) on the elimination of short and medium range missiles in Europe. An epoch-making turning point in the negotiations between the two superpowers on arms control.
The following year, Reagan repaid the visit flying to Moscow to continue the nuclear disarmament talks. With him, Nancy and hundreds of advisers, journalists and photographers. A real tour with lots of merchandising (10,000 t-shirts on the summit were made in America and shipped to Russia), with the President’s arms open in a welcomet and the slogan of ‘trust but verify’, Reagan’s favorite, recited in Russian at every meeting, as Gorbachev himself pointed out. Soviet and American television filmed every move of the two leaders.
« […] We have sold American PR techniques to the Soviets.» (David Gergen)
The Moscow meeting paved the way for the biggest arms control negotiation ever concluded, the START Treaty (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), signed on 31 July 1991, beginning the progressive reduction in nuclear weapons.
«What was more difficult in front of the public, to be the president or an actor?» (David Brinkley)
«As a president you have to write the script.»
Reagan had an extraordinary speaking ability, he was able to see and communicate his vision of the future. And his vision was not just rhetoric, his discourses contained values and truths that matched the common feeling of most American people.
«I was not a great communicator, but I communicated great things. They came out of the heart of a great nation, from our experience, our wisdom and the principles that have guided us for two centuries.»
On December 21, 1988, the cowboy president opened the door of the Oval Office, crossed the porch alone leading to the garden, stepping forward and greeting people as he went. Just like an actor who has rehearsed the scene many times.