The documentary series “The Reagans” shows that President Ronald Reagan’s roots are corruption, racism, and corporatism. Trumpism is not an anomaly but walks in the footsteps of a right-wing construct aimed at achieving tax cuts for the rich and undoing the New Deal. Director Matt Tyrnauer joins theAnalysis.news with Paul Jay.
Transcript edited for clarity
Hi, I’m Paul Jay, and welcome to theAnalysis.news podcast. Please don’t forget at the top of the website, there’s a donate button and that’s the only way we keep going is when people go and donate their money.
There’s much in common between Trump and Reagan. In 2016 Frank Rich wrote a piece for the New York Magazine titled “What the Donald Shares with the Ronald.”
Rich wrote, “Reagan’s and Trump’s opposing styles belie their similarities of substance. Both have marketed the same brand of outrage to the same angry segments of the electorate; face the same jeering press; attracted some of the same battlefront allies – Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Phyllis Schlafly – offended the same elites – including two generations of Bushes– outmaneuvered similar political adversaries; and espoused the same conservative populism built broadly on the pillars of jingoistic nationalism, nostalgia, contempt for Washington, and racial resentment.”
While the name of Trump is never mentioned in the new Showtime documentary series, The Reagans, Trump is a presence that constantly comes to mind as you watch this revealing and riveting bio of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. The creation of the now revered President Ronald Reagan, whose roots are to be found in corruption, racism, and corporatism, shows that not only is Trump not an anomaly, but he walks in the footsteps of a right-wing construct that marries religion, hyper-nationalism, racism, and hatred of all things socialist to achieve tax cuts for the rich and an undoing of the New Deal and the social safety net. As a voice in the film says, Reagan was able to sell the party of big business as the party of hard-working white people.
The veneration of Reagan before and after his death, including by many leaders of the Democratic Party, helped till the soil for the rise of Trump. It’s a foundational myth of our era. The Reagans shows just how much Trumpism is a copy of Reaganism and is essential viewing for anyone trying to understand this perilous historical moment.
In the preface to his book, The 18th Brumaire, Marx wrote that the purpose of his essay was, “to demonstrate how the class struggle in France created circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part.
And of course, the famous quote about such heroes that they quote, “appear for the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.” The Reagans tells the story of a mediocre actor who plays the part of an affable American hero that grotesquely helps usher in an unbridled form of capitalism. It’s an era where the digital revolution asserts itself and the power of the American working class is eroded by globalization on high-tech steroids. President Reagan was the smiling face that made it all seem so acceptable, so patriotic, so American.
The myth of the Reagan presidency creates much of the framework for the politics of today. A new Reagan, a new Trump, is sure to rise again if we don’t change the political dynamic where the Democratic Party, when it forms the government, submits to the power of finance, and inequality grows and sets the table for the far-right once again. Now, joining us is the director and writer of the Reagans, Matt Tyrauer, who’s also the filmmaker of Valentino The Last Emperor, which was shortlisted for an Academy Award for Best Documentary feature and Where’s My Roy Cohn? Another must-see if you want to understand the political forces that gave us Trump. Thanks for joining us, Matt.
So talk in broad terms, first of all, about why you think unraveling the Reagan mythology is so important today.
I think the Reagan 80s really set us up, built the foundation for the era of Trump. Gore Vidal used to call this the United States of Amnesia and I think that is a perennial problem that hurts us in our polity and in our politics. We don’t really understand who we are, where we came from. And the media-industrial complex propagates these myths. There’s very little understanding of what’s behind the myths and there’s very little comprehension of really what’s being done to us in terms of political propaganda and political styles that influence the voting public.
So in short, we’re a mess, but I think we’re a mess in large part because of the work that Reagan did. Of course, building on the rise of the Republican right in the early 60s with Barry Goldwater. Reagan really comes from Goldwater and comes out of what was known as the paranoid style of American politics. And Trump is a new version of that and a far more extreme one. As we pointed out in the introduction: we’ve gone from tragedy to farce.
Yeah, it’s very unusual, actually, on mainstream U.S. television to have documentaries or reporting of any kind that starts to unpack Cold War mythology and Reagan’s very much at the heart of Cold War mythology. And so congrats not just for taking this on, but for doing it so well. And by the way, I knew Gore Vidal quite well. I got to know him quite well a couple of years before he died. He would have appreciated the series.
I should have dedicated this to Gore Vidal, who was a friend of mine. I edited a lot of his essays when I was a writer and editor at Vanity Fair, and he certainly was an influence on me. And I think the idea, incidentally, to do this probably came from Vidal because his essays on the Reagans were written in the 70s and 80s, the most prominent one, certainly my favorite, is called “Ronnie and Nancy: A Life in Pictures” where he really strips the bark off them and shows you the myth.
I think a lot of that unmasking of Reagan was dismissed by the mainstream media and forgotten. Of course, the public really doesn’t do a lot of deep reading. So Vidal himself and his work is largely unknown to that.
Well, as much as he was marginalized in the last few years of his life because he didn’t fail to critique the Democratic Party and that more and more excluded him from most of the media. It was also, as I said in the intro, much of the Democratic Party that when Reagan died were falling all over themselves, praising Reagan. I think partly because they didn’t want to take on the Cold War stuff.
But also it’s they live in such fear of the people who were kind of taken in by Reagan instead of confronting it. They used the mythology themselves in many ways. But let’s get into the story as told in your film, because to some extent, it starts from there, which is Reagan himself was an FDR Democrat. His parents had jobs in one of the make-work employment programs of FDR’s New Deal.
How does Reagan go from this FDR trade unionist? He becomes head of the Screen Actors Guild to a Goldwater Republican. How does that arc take place?
I spent a lot of time on that in the series because I think it’s really under-examined and under-explained and in large part, I think misunderstood, largely because Reagan was such a good myth-builder and self-mythologizer and such a good writer of political slogans that became in many ways, the guide rails for the American politics that we’ve known since the 80s that the origins of his migration from left to right are obscured. There are myths around it.
The one that he propagated that really was taken up by the media and I think became a rather unsubstantial explanation is the slogan that he put out, which is “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party left me.” And that kind of became the explanation. It’s never really unpacked, as it were, in the press. It was just a great slogan that stood for something that was in a way unnamable in the time. And I think the reason it was unnamable is that it really was a dog whistle.
I believe that his clever use of that phrase meant that if you were excited about the civil rights movement, the Democratic Party under Lyndon Johnson, who defeated Barry Goldwater, Reagan’s mentor in many ways in a landslide election in 1964, that Democratic Party left you because that Democratic Party became the party of civil rights. And the Democratic Party that Reagan had joined was not fully the party of civil rights. Of course, it had a very influential southern wing that was anything but the party of civil rights.
In fact, it was the party of segregation. And this was FDR’s Democratic coalition that had to include the Democratic South in order to get legislation passed all through the New Deal period. And Reagan was a part of that party. That’s part of the explanation. The other part of the explanation is that Reagan was someone who was very influenceable. I think that when he was a young man, he was obviously influenced by his upbringing in the years leading to the Great Depression. He was a young man during the Great Depression and his parents had been Democrats and were part of the New Deal in that his father worked for one of the relief organizations. So he really had the Democratic Party bred into him as a younger man. When he became President of the Screen Actors Guild there was a big Red Scare going on in Hollywood, and Reagan, I think, as head of the Screen Actors Guild, had to, he felt, take a very strong anti-communist position in order to get along in Hollywood.
And he really was an informant for the FBI and went along with all of the HUAC Hollywood Ten conspiracy and blacklisting maneuvers that were at large in the country. So I think that he got nudged to the right in that period. His own brother was a right-winger before he was and was also an FBI informant. And it was very convenient for Ronald Reagan to be an FBI informant in that period. You didn’t name names in public. He named them privately to J. Edgar Hoover and his henchmen, which turned out to be a rather slick career move.
So I think you can see him migrating in this period, which would have been the 40s and 50s. And then there’s another moment in the late 40s when he meets Nancy Davis, then who becomes Nancy Reagan, whose stepfather was a very extreme reactionary Republican physician in Chicago named Loyal Davis, who had rather antediluvian points of view on matters of race and was an antisemite, very well known as being those things. May or may not have been kind of in the John Birch wing of the Republican Party, but was certainly close to that.
Reagan kind of absorbed a bit of that political point of view starting in the 40s and by the time that Reagan’s marriage to Nancy Reagan happens and he becomes an employee of General Electric as his movie and TV career is waning, he gets another sort of shot of corporatist, right-wing or Republican thinking, and soaks that up as well. So you can see and this is outlined in the series, that Reagan was very malleable and I think was very influenceable, and was also very willing to trim his sails to get along in the worlds he felt he needed to get along in, and would allow him to rise. So this is a complicated series of events that lead to this migration from left to right.
And what I get from watching the show is also a very what’s the word naked careerist, ambitious guy. You tell the story in the series of this deal he makes when he’s head of the Screen Actors Guild. I think it’s Lew Wasserman’s company which is an agency that represents actors but also produces shows, which is a conflict of interest. That kind of corruption certainly not unusual in the politics of the right. But tell that story, and his whole time representing General Electric is very interesting.
Yes. Well, again, this is a very significant chapter of Reagan’s life and career that gets overlooked. It was examined in a book called Dark Victory that is mostly forgotten but was a very interesting exposé of the way that Hollywood worked at the time of the Cold War and the Red Scare. And Reagan, as Screen Actors Guild President, was deeply involved in what became a landmark antitrust suit that really redefined Hollywood in the mid-century. Agents at that time weren’t allowed to be producers and studios weren’t similarly allowed to distribute their own films and weren’t allowed to exhibit their own films.
There had been a lot of antitrust regulation in the film industry. As agents became richer and more powerful and MCA – Music Corporation of America –became the dominant agency in Hollywood. A man named Lew Wasserman, who’s generally considered to be one of the most powerful people ever in the history of Hollywood, wanted to change the equation and tweak the regulation so agents could basically become producers, and own movie studios in their own right, and indeed, MCA bought Universal Studios and for years it was known as MCA Universal.
Lew Wasserman was the chairman of this company and ruled over Hollywood for four decades. Lew Wasserman was Ronald Reagan’s agent. When Reagan became Screen Actors Guild President, it became very clear that Reagan was willing to do Wasserman’s bidding. He did one huge favor for his agent and he granted a blanket waiver. This is the technical term that’s always used, which allowed the Screen Actors Guild to basically endorse this agency, Reagan’s own MCA, and their ability to produce content at the same time.
And this was an enormously beneficial grant to MCA. And of course, you pointed out there was a conflict of interest because Reagan obviously had the mantle of the Screen Actors Guild as the union leader, but he also was a client of the agency that benefited most from this. And there was actually an antitrust hearing later in the early 60s that was instigated by the Kennedy administration. Reagan was called up as a witness and was very bitter about it, and he actually was cleared of wrongdoing.
We do point that out in the series, but a lot of his un-admirers in Hollywood have long blamed him for really leading the Screen Actors Guild into what ended up being a deal that wasn’t really beneficial for the members of the guild but ended up being more beneficial for management. The reason this is significant, I think, is that it shows that Reagan was very influenceable and was a careerist as you pointed out. He was very successful, an unusually successful person.
He came from humble beginnings and really did find his own success. But he had a lot of help along the way and had a real propensity and knack for getting along and going along.
And he had a lot of people that helped him greatly and he understood how to return these favors. So you can’t fault him for looking out for number one and being unusually effective and successful in that. There’s something there, but he also did it at the expense of others. And this is frequently overlooked in the accounts of Reagan’s career.
All right, you know what, if you don’t mind, by the time we fuck around and try to find the file, we could do it again. So let me end this one and start a new one.
You know when Julian Assange was arrested. As he walked out of the Ecuadorian embassy, he was holding a book, which was a book which was my interviews with Gore. The History of the National Security State. Yeah. It was. It was funny. Before I was doing theAnalysis, I did something called the Real News Network, and when I was getting it started, I phoned Gore and said, would you join our international advisory committee? I got his number from somebody and he grumped and growled and said, OK, I’ll give you 15 minutes.
So I got there. This is like I don’t know 2005 or 2006. In about 15, 20 minutes in, he brings out the Scotch. And for five hours and two bottles of Scotch tells me the story of him and Howard. I’d never met the guy before and. It was. Yeah, trying to. Oh, sorry, I didn’t know much about the relationship. When the whole thing ended the evening. I said, what am I going to get to talk to you about what I came here for? I’m leaving for Ravello in a week. You can talk to me there.
So I did. Anyway, it turned into an interesting back and forth. So I’m working on a documentary series now with Daniel Ellsberg and based on his book Doomsday Machine, and he was talking about the extent to which the Cold War was a subsidy for the American aerospace industry. Essentially a kind of corruption, in terms of the threat of communism, the existential threat, and all the rest is created for something kind of quite banal, moneymaking.
And it seems to me that to some extent that there’s a lot of that going on. And it’s also true for Reagan. In this contract, he gets with General Electric he gets a really fat salary, I guess a sort of payoff for the deal he gave them when he’s was head of the Screen Actors Guild.
So there’s a lot of complexity to this story, but you’re on to it. So the antitrust suit that was waged in the 60s by the Kennedy Justice Department in which Reagan was hauled into. Purported that Reagan was given the job as host of General Electric Theater, which included a sort of sub-job of him going around and being a propagandist for General Electric a kind of corporate cheerleader. This was suspected to be a kind of payoff for the so-called blanket waiver that he gave to MCA in the Screen Actors Guild presidency, and the reason is that MCA and Universal Studios controlled the production of General Electric Theater so you could see how those things went together.
Reagan needed a big job. His film career was coming to an end. He did this big favor for MCA Universal and he’s supposedly rewarded with this General Electric job. And then in addition to the exorbitant salary and the hundreds of thousands or the almost two hundred thousand dollars a year, which in the late 50s and early 60s was a huge amount of money. They also built him a house in Pacific Palisades, which was branded the GE home of the future, and he lived a kind of total GE existence.
He and Nancy did extended TV commercials and industrial documentaries for General Electric. He became a kind of living advertisement for GE. Of course, GE is inextricably wed to the military-industrial complex at the time. So you can see how Reagan becomes not only ideologically indoctrinated into the national security state, which is rising in the 50s and 60s, but he becomes a paid spokesperson for it. I mean, it’s all too perfect, he becomes the performing face of General Electric and the national security state.
Gore Vidal used to call this phenomenon the owners. The owners was his blanket term for the corporate owners of the national security-industrial complex. And Reagan was one of the big faces of it. He made his living off of it. When he went into politics after that, he began to exploit that as well. And as a politician, as you point out in your question just now, he becomes a propagator of basically the self-perpetuating military-industrial complex.
It was known as “Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace”. This conundrum where we had to keep arming and preparing for war in order to keep the peace. And Reagan also is the poster boy for that ideology.
And as part of that job for General Electric in your series, you show how he goes on a speaking tour of GE plants talking to workers. And I guess this is to a large extent where he develops that character, playing the guy that can talk to workers and sell them the GE message. And you talk about the kitchen cabinet, these millionaires. I guess in those days it would be the equivalent of billionaires are always on a talent hunt, looking for potential political rising stars. And they identify Reagan as that. Tell us about the Kitchen Cabinet and that process of selecting Reagan.
Kitchen Cabinet were a group of industrialists in California who were part of the rising right-wing of the Republican Party. We now think, of course, of the Republican Party as being mostly the extreme right, but then there was a moderate wing of the party. There was a kind of eastern establishment wing that was personified by Rockefeller and Rockefeller Republicans became the label that moderate Republicans were identified by. But these industrialists were from a whole range of professions.
There was a used car salesman, Holmes Tuttle. There was an oilman, Henry Salvatori. There was another oilman, Cy Rubel, a drugstore magnate, Justin Dart. These weren’t the Fortune 500 Rockefeller Republicans. They were more of the wildcat industrialists. California then was the Golden West. It wasn’t the home of the establishment. But these wealthy men were very enamored with Barry Goldwater as another western Republican who was on the extreme right-wing of the party.
They were looking for a more acceptable face of Republicanism and a better salesman for Republicanism of the right and the kind of very pro-corporate anti-regulation variety. Goldwater being such a political flop in the landslide victory of 1964 for Lyndon Johnson. These Republican right-wing industrialists in California who later became known as the Kitchen Cabinet went on a talent search. They found Reagan rather easily because in the last few months of the 1964 campaign, Reagan went out as a surrogate for Barry Goldwater and he gave what became known as The Speech capital T capital S in a paid half-hour television advertisement for Goldwater, which aired on NBC.
It was called “A Time for Choosing”. And he outlines in this very jingoistic, reactionary speech a vision for a Republican Party that is anti-civil rights, anti-regulation, anti-tax, all the things that the mature politician Reagan stood for and actually made it over the goalpost in 1980, but was really on the fringe, far-fringe of the American political establishment in the early to mid-1960s.
Do we know who wrote that speech?
Well, supposedly Reagan wrote it himself.
It’s hard to believe.
Yeah, I’m not exactly sure who can be properly credited. I think that if you go into the Reagan Library, you can see that he certainly had a hand in heavily editing a lot of his political texts and he referred to himself. He has this line where he’s quoted as saying it actually is quite believable. So, you know, I was never much of a screenwriter when I was in Hollywood, but I was a really good editor of my scripts.
And I think that’s probably something that he really believed about himself. Of course, any director or producer would be utterly horrified to see the actor going around saying that they’re a really good editor of screenplays. But I think that Reagan really believed he was a good editor and he could probably edit his paid work.
I could believe he edited it, but it’s quite a good speech. I mean, it’s a very cohesive, coherent vision of this right-wing conservatism, which is consistent with the ambitions of these big industrialists. And given anyway, I guess it doesn’t matter. He gave the speech.
Well, I think it is very interesting to try to figure out who the puppet masters of Ronald Reagan were. And there were many of them. And I’ll just rattle off a couple who are not actually household names, Jack L. Warner, whose company is a household name, Warner Brothers, discovered, Reagan, and made him into a movie star, and a lesser-known one, Luella Parsons, who was one of the two most powerful gossip columnists, the other being Hedda Hopper at the time, and they really told the story of Hollywood for Middle America.
And Reagan was the pet of Luella Parsons. She was from Dixon, Illinois, which is Reagan’s hometown as well. There are a whole series of these people. Later on, in politics, it was Stu Spencer, the political consultant who really created Reagan the politician. He’s alive and well and is all over the series talking rather candidly about Reagan. But one thing I wanted to show is that Reagan was the very cooperative and malleable performer puppet for a lot of very powerful people.
And he really saw to it that their ends were met. He became the vessel for them. And that really, I think, is his greatest success. And when they put him up, which they did actually three times to be president of the United States, starting in 1968 and again in 1976 and finally successfully in 1980, when everyone thought he was far too old to be elected president, to be at the superannuated age of 69, 70 when he was inaugurated, they finally were successful.
But this was a long effort that began in 1965 to have Reagan as the vessel of the rising right in this country, ascend to the presidency.
There’s an interesting quote in the film. I’m sorry, I don’t remember who it is that says this, but it goes “I think he in Reagan appropriated other American folk tales, making it difficult at times to distinguish between the teller and the tale, between this one American and America. So that explains Reagan’s intimacy with the American psyche. He comes at it from within.” I thought that was really interesting. Talk a bit about what that means.
Yes, I put that in the series because I thought it was one of the most brilliant analogies ever of Reagan. And I think that’s the essential truth of Ronald Reagan. And also he believed in these myths. And they were that, they were myths. He believed in an America that never existed. And most Americans believe in an America that never existed. And they did before Ronald Reagan. But I think they did even more after Ronald Reagan because he built on all of that.
The author of that quotation and the person who speaks it on screen is Garry Wills, who wrote, I think the best book ever written on Reagan, which is called Reagan’s America: Innocence at Home. Wills probably started writing this the year that Reagan took office. It was published I think near the end of the first term. I don’t think anyone ever got Reagan as well as that. Reagan is a child of the Mississippi River of Mark Twain, and he grew up along the Mississippi in rural Illinois.
He grew up in a series of small river towns. The one he really chose as his hometown was Dixon. And he later worked in Davenport, Iowa, which is another river town where he became a famous radio announcer on WHO radio in Davenport. And that, it’s thought, was his model for the so-called shining city on a hill, this John Winthrop quotation that he appropriates and makes one of his trademarks.
There’s a quote in the series that impressed me. I can’t remember exactly who says it, but here it is. “I think he, meaning Reagan, has appropriated other American folktales, making it difficult at times to distinguish between the teller and the tale between this one American and America. And so that explains Reagan’s intimacy with the American psyche. He comes at it from within.” Talk about the significance of that.
I’m glad you single that out because I think that that’s really one of the keys, if not the keys to understanding Reagan. Is that he understood the American psyche and subsumes it at a certain point when he becomes so famous, so powerful, and then finally so influential and the most powerful person in the world as President of the United States. Gary Wills said that in the film and he wrote what I think is the greatest book ever written on Reagan called “Reagan’s America: Innocence at Home” which is, of course, a play on Mark Twain’s innocence abroad.
Reagan was a self-mythologizer from an early age, which is something peculiar about him because he really was born into a normal, rather unremarkable Midwestern family in rural Illinois. But he starts to self mythologize and edit his own life story in real-time from a very early age. And this comes with all of these tropes about the Midwestern boy and the great athlete, the football player, all of these tropes of all-Americanism. But when you look at them closely, you realize that he’s always tended carefully to this image.
The most famous one is being a lifeguard on the Rock River in rural Illinois, which he used to say “best job I ever had”. And he famously saved 70 some lives. I think most people think this is true about him. But the way that that story was told and retold and perfected over the years from a very early age was an indicator of Reagan’s deftness with framing himself as a kind of all-American boy and in this case, literally hero and life-saving hero.
Next from a very early age, he wanted to be a football player. He never really made it at the small college called Eureka College as a football star. But soon enough, when he was in his 20s as a male ingenue, he got cast as Newt Rockne in the film “Newt Rockne, All American” and portrayed a great football star and then subsumes sort of personifies this myth and then uses it all through his career. So he plays the Gipper, which was his character in the film, “Newt Rockne, All American”, George Gipp.
And then he refers to himself as a politician and later as President as the Gipper.
And the great catchphrase from that film is “Let’s win one for the Gipper” which worked very well for Reagan as a politician. So you can see how he’s personifying these American myths and really selling them then as a should be pointed out, an expert in really all media. He was a radio performer and a rather successful one in the Midwest from an early age at WHL Radio as a sportscaster. and then he goes to Hollywood and gets discovered more or less after a screen test by Jack L. Warner, becomes a movie star immediately with a seven-year contract.
And then he becomes after that, a TV star as host of GE Theater. So you have someone who was really a master of every form of media in his time. And he also is a salesperson literally for General Electric, where he’s become a corporate shill by the 1950s. So if you take these two skills salesperson and media star and at the time sort of failing TV star in the 1960s, which was the state of his career, those two things combine and make him a very effective politician in the age of television which was dawning in politics at that time.
Of course, TV star and salesperson should remind you of another politician. These are really Trump’s two major skills, which in an era of renewed media, the Internet and social media, Trump has mastered. And he took those skills and parlayed them into the White House as well.
One of my kids is screwing around on a piano, just give me a second, but this is really interesting territory. I don’t think we’re going to get through this all today if you’re into it in a few days we can pick it up again in a few days again, because I think this is going into all kinds of interesting places.
I mean, you’re the perfect interviewer for this because you got the whole back story and have the all, got angle to it. I’d love to get into the sort of more of the military-industrial complex stuff.
We will but next, I want to get into how. Well, let me wait. I’ll ask it rather than tell you what I’m going to ask. Just give me a second. In the section that we may not have is that when we talk about him getting recruited by the kitchen cabinet.
I’m not sure I can do the kitchen cabinet again for you if you want. All right, well, let’s do this other thing first. I would say that my kitchen cabinet answer was so long that I really didn’t answer fully your military-industrial complex point, which I thought was brilliant. No one’s really covered that with me. We should talk about Star Wars. I mean, what was that other than a way to be a peacemaker, but keep the military-industrial complex going.
If you weren’t going to have nuclear weapons, then you could keep building this fantasy rocket, or at least you could tell Rockwell International and General Electric that they would get those contracts so they wouldn’t freak out at you for trying to stop war.
And for this and for this delusional scheme. He scuttles what could have been the massive reduction in nuclear weapons.
They never got blame for that. That’s the thing. Oh too bad. It was a nice try.
He kind of never gets blamed for anything. What they called it. Is he the one that called it the Teflon president?
Yeah. Anyway, this quote about the American psyche and coming at it from within, you know, when most actors, they play a part and then they go home and they know they’re playing a part. Now, I guess when people do long-term TV series in theory, they’re pros, they play a part, they go home, but maybe there’s a little sometimes there’s a fuzzy edge. But I did a documentary called Hit Man Hart about Bret Hart from the World Wrestling, what was then the World Wrestling Federation.
And I don’t know if you know the story, but he winds up having this big fight with Vince McMahon because Vince wants him to lose and he refuses to lose. And it was getting blurry for him about his own personal identity. While he played a hero in the ring, he started feeling like it was heroic to play the hero and he had to be the hero to play the hero. And some people say that he started to lose track there about what was the character and what was him, and I start to get that feeling that Reagan starts to believe. He is some kind of a hero, otherwise why is he president? Why does he become governor? There must be something heroic about him.
I do think he believed that about himself, Ronald Reagan Jr., who gave a very long interview for this film, makes that exact point, which is that his father clearly always wanted to be a hero and had a kind of inner desire that started to manifest itself from an early age. And that’s where this whole lifeguard story and mythology comes from, that Reagan himself tended to and pushed this myth of himself as the great, heroic lifesaver on the Rock River.
Now, I do want to point out that he did save lives as a lifeguard. But the way that this story got built up and was repeated over the years was not really, I would say, the quiet hero. It was a story that was known because Reagan pushed the story. Playing a hero then becomes an opportunity he has that most everyone never has because he lands a seven-year contract at Warner Brothers and because he had leading man good looks, and he was cast as a leading man.
Some of these roles verged on the heroic. Of course, one of the tragedies of Reagan’s movie career is that he never really got the lead roles that he wanted. He was frequently cast as the best friend. He played a guy who was always likable enough, but he never really got the Errol Flynn parts that he wanted to play.
He winds up being best friends of a monkey.
Yes, well, I mean, things took a wrong turn late in the career. And you’re referring to Bedtime for Bonds, which is a film actually, it’s not his worst film, oddly, but it’s the film that caricatured his fading movie career. And he got cast in this light comedic role where he does play opposite a chimpanzee, Bonzo, who is the title character, and he never really lived it down. I think he used to say I didn’t have anywhere else to go in Hollywood after I had that part.
We do learn from Stu Spencer, who was his lead political consultant, who was interviewed in the film but Reagan, kind of Norma Desmond-like. Used to watch his own films at Camp David and invited Stu Spencer one night to watch Bedtime for Bonzo during the presidency, and Spencer said, I don’t want to watch that movie when the lead actor is a gorilla. It’s a crappy movie. And Nancy then had to kind of do clean up and say no-no, Ronnie loves Bedtime for Bonzo.
You’re in the doghouse. You can’t critique Bedtime for Bonzo, which is a pretty telling and I think frightening story about Ronald Reagan if you read between the lines there. But back to your essential point, which is playing the hero. And, you know, a lot of people who have narcissistic tendencies, I think most people that run for the presidency and certainly most people who attain the presidency probably do have a level of narcissistic personality disorder. And I think Reagan probably had that.
But very few of them were actors in Hollywood who aspired to play heroes and saw themselves in those roles and may or may not have had some problem understanding where the portrayal and the day job of actor and the real hero persona began. And I think that Reagan was a case like that. And I think part of the psychological profile of Reagan is that he never really got to play those Jimmy Stewart or John Wayne parts on the big screen. But later in life, he actually superseded all of those immortal actors by becoming the most famous and powerful man in the world.
So in many ways, he had the last laugh. One thing that is a forgotten chapter of Reagan’s political persona is that when they were trying to sell him as a novice politician in the mid-60s when he was running for governor of California, Stu Spencer labels him the citizen politician. And that was really trying to pick up on the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington outsider trope that Frank Capra in the movie Mr. Smith goes to Washington, and another movie in which Gary Cooper plays the lead in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town were really injected into the American psyche. Of course, Reagan did not get cast in those roles, but he knew how to play them, quote unquote, in real life. And I think he’s thinking of those more accomplished performers. And I think he’s very effective in pulling off those roles on the TV news or in political campaign ads. And you can see we find news clips where he’s trying to really play that Jimmy Stewart aw-shucks persona, and then the campaign announcer comes in and labels him literally the citizen politician. He was so effective at playing that they didn’t have to literally use that slogan later on. But he, as the outsider politician and the political outsider, was very effective when he was running for president.
There’s a moment in wrestling to go back to that story where Trump begins a storyline in Vince McMahon’s wrestling federation and Trump goes into the ring and he has a challenge match with Vince McMahon. And there’s a moments there where a crowd of 85,000 people cheers Trump. Roaring approval as he beats the shit out of Vince McMahon. The feeling that is I got the slightest feeling of it when the film came out one of the first screenings was at a convention center with 3,000 people.
And when the documentary was over, three thousand people stood up and Bret was on the stage next to me. And I could feel this wave of energy coming from the crowd. It was really directed at Brett, but I was standing next to him. So I felt that sort of adoration of tens of thousands of people. And of course, Reagan wins the presidency in a landslide. He speaks to crowds of thousands of people. This idea of being within the American psyche. He’s now climbed the mountaintop. What he’s done is truly heroic. And he truly believes that. It’s not just a cynical part anymore. It’s merged. And these guys believe their own storylines.
Yes, he transcends. He becomes a sort of apotheosis of Ronald Reagan and has the last laugh. I might add, going back briefly to your point about performers, and knowing when the camera turns off, and you become the person and not the performer, and you aren’t the personification of the myth, you’re just the performer. And the myth is for the big screen. I mean, if you look at John Wayne’s career, I think there is an exception where someone who is an actor really was acknowledged to be more or less playing themselves.
And that persona carried on and off the screen to some extent. Of course, John Wayne, although he was a political reactionary, much like Reagan, and they were mostly almost 100% percent aligned in their politics. And both were very representative of that type of right-wing reactionary politician for the period and certainly where Hollywood was concerned. Reagan, of course, never had anything near the career in films that John Wayne did, but as a reactionary who could take that type of politics and actually do something with it, Reagan is utterly transcendent, whereas Wayne is now a relic of his period in Hollywood. So this is a very interesting territory to look at, I think is very essential to understanding where America really lost the plot in terms of the media-industrial complex or what the writer Kurt Andersen calls the fantasy-industrial complex. We as Americans, I think, have a hard time telling where reality and fiction begin and end. Neal Gabler also wrote a very smart book called Life: The Movie.
I think that Reagan’s really the apotheosis of that, where he taps into this troubling propensity among the American public where they can’t really tell the difference between life, the movie, and life itself. And life the movie actually is more real for them than real life sometimes, which I think is really how we ended up with Donald Trump. But until Reagan broke that barrier of the literal performer becoming President of the United States, I don’t think we could have really gone there with Trump.
So I think that Reagan was the antecedent clearly, and he built the foundation, certainly in terms of right-wing, reactionary, and really also authoritarian politics, because Reagan’s brand of right-wing politics tends toward authoritarianism. He never really so explicitly and brazenly smashed what we’ve come to call the guardrails over the past four years. But he did break through a lot of norms, which is something we can certainly talk about.
I’m going to redo the Ellsberg thing because I got a feeling it’s in the section, got screwed up.
So I’m doing a documentary series with Daniel Ellsberg now based on his book Doomsday Machine. And he talks about the Cold War being essentially a subsidy for the American aerospace industry, that after World War Two these aerospace companies have become so big in military production that just going back to domestic aircraft production, they essentially would have gone bankrupt. So the Cold War narrative, the existential threat of the Soviet Union, which Ellsberg by that time knew was not true, and also leadership knew there was no existential threat from the Soviet Union.
The whole missile gap was B.S. and so on. But it becomes about money, it’s really becomes about a large amount of money-making in the veneer covered by patriotic language and anticommunism and so on.
And it seems to me this thing with Reagan is he learns how to get on to a good thing. While he believes in this heroic character, he starts to play and he becomes a hero because people say he is. So he must be one. But it’s also very tied to his role with General Electric. And General Electric is making nuclear weapons by this point. Talk about this in the context of the military-industrial complex.
Yeah, well, Reagan really becomes the poster boy for the military-industrial complex, and there’s such a literalness to all these aspects of Reagan’s career. I mean, he’s a movie star who plays a politician and then becomes a politician. I mean, this happens repeatedly in his career. He becomes a corporate shill for General Electric as his movie career is dying and then become a TV star because General Electric moves into the entertainment business and certainly sponsor television series.
OK, hang on. Hang on, hang on. Now that we’re on Zoom, I got to worry about it. So you just broke up just there so could just before corporate shill, OK.
So at a certain point, Reagan becomes a corporate shill for General Electric and the face of the military-industrial complex, in many ways he’s hosting a TV series called General Electric Theater, and he’s going around as sort of a morale booster and spokesperson for GE, both internally and externally. He goes to all the GE plants and gives pep talks. And also, incidentally, in another grand irony of Reagan’s career, he really is there to try to make sure that he’s giving an anti-union message to the GE workforce.
What’s ironic about this is that Reagan was a union president who then, when it was convenient for his career, became an anti-union spokesman in this, of course, as part of this migration to the right, where he had become a right-wing anti-unionist, where he was a liberal union president in the previous period of his career. But the key is that Truman. I’m sorry. So starting over. With Truman. Actually, I know what to do.
A lot of this could be understood, actually, by looking at Eisenhower and the Eisenhower presidency, because it was Eisenhower who was the king of the moderate Republicans who, in his farewell message as president, tells us to beware of the military-industrial complex. And this is coming from a five-star general and he is giving us that warning. And this really is the key, I think, to understanding the rise of the right-wing in this country, because Eisenhower really validated the New Deal. He didn’t reject the New Deal in his presidency and the right-wing, which was then personified by the rise of Barry Goldwater, could not stand that. So what it actually. Can you use the Eisenhower part? And I’ll just get a water.
So there really is a fissure, a split, in the Republican Party, and its right-wing starts to become much more influential. And the right-wing of the Republican Party, which is an anti-Eisenhower faction personified by Barry Goldwater, is obsessed with shoring up the military-industrial complex because it’s good for business. And as you point out, most people, most intellectuals and most theorists who were willing to level with the American people understood that there was no missile gap and that the Soviet Union really was on an unsustainable path and that there was no need to build all these weapons, that we were going to be perfectly fine if we didn’t have what Gore Vidal later called Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace.
Reagan and the corporate-wing, which was becoming increasingly right-wing and reactionary, of the Republican Party, became inexorably wedded to shoring up the corporate interests of the aerospace and arms industries. And they really became the bought and paid for spokespeople for that. And that became very wrapped up in Cold War rhetoric because, in order to justify the purchasing of all of these weapons, conventional and nuclear, you needed to have a threat to scare the American people into ratifying all of the programs.
And Goldwater believed in that. Reagan believed in that. And it’s very interesting to look at the political backers of Reagan and where he came from. He came from California, which was very dependent in its economy on the aerospace industry. And members of his own Kitchen Cabinet were very tied into the aerospace industry as well.
Tell the story of the kitchen cabinet and how they recruit Reagan.
Of course to understand Reagan you have to look at the Republican Party that he came out of and was being promoted by. The right-wing of the Republican Party, which Reagan rode to great success in the 1970s and 80s, was really personified by Barry Goldwater, who was thought to be by most Americans, quite frankly, an extremist kook.
I mean, the extreme right-wing was really a fringe faction of this country. And we see a bit of that echoed today in the extreme right in the country that Trump has taken the leadership of. Clearly, we can tell by the popular vote totals that at least most of the country is not comfortable with that. And in the nineteen sixties, again, most of the country was not comfortable with Barry Goldwater, who went around, as did Ronald Reagan, talking about winnable nuclear wars and embraced fringe kook factions like the John Birch Society, which is really the forbearer of QAnon and the conspiracy theory right-wing.
The antecedent of that was very much alive in the 1960s and Goldwater was their candidate. Reagan did a commercial for Barry Goldwater in 1964 late in the campaign, and it was called “A Time for Choosing”. And it was a very red meat reactionary speech talking about the communist threat, saying that Medicare, which was a new program then. Actually, I don’t think it had passed, but it was being proposed as a part of the Johnson “Great Society”.
And Reagan was calling Medicare a totalitarian program. Not even calling a communist. He was taking it to its farthest extreme. So he’s taking this very far-out positions. NBC aired this infomercial basically where Reagan gives the speech to a sort of fake mock political convention. And the ratings were quite high and the dollars rolled in. It was a fundraising commercial and there was an appeal. Of course, at that time, you had to call a number, I think even send in a check to an address.
And the checks really rolled in. And it was enormously successful. When Goldwater went down to a landslide defeat against Lyndon Johnson, the right-wing backers of Goldwater, mostly out of the West and mostly in California, saw that Reagan was a very effective spokesman for a set of ideas that they wanted to sell. And these were reactionary, anti-tax, anti-regulation, anti-communist, anti-civil rights ideas, concepts that they were all for. And they very quickly latched on to Reagan, this washed-up actor, who they saw was an effective communicator for those sets of ideas that they wanted to put forth.
And they put him off to running for governor of California in 1966. And he won and he won against the New Deal politician named Pat Brown, who’s the father of Jerry Brown. And it was a big shock to the political system. And it really set us on the course that was fully realized in the 1980s when Reagan finally ascended to the presidency.
And there’s a quote from someone in the series where they say Reagan had his eyes on the presidency from even before he was governor.
Yes, well, Reagan wanted to be president from even before he ran for governor, which I think is some evidence that he might actually have had some sociopathic tendencies. The idea that this frankly, he was not only a washed-up movie star by that time, he was a washed-up TV star to. His performing careers had a shelf lives, and they both faded.
But he had a sixth sense and he had an enormous amount of confidence. And he knew how to work a room, frankly, and he knew how to appeal to his constituents and his constituents at that phase of his career, were a group of very wealthy men who were going to be his meal ticket. No two ways about it. Just as Lou Wasserman, his agent in the previous frame of his career, was the key to his success and his financial well-being.
These right-wing industrialists in California were the key to what was going to be the next phase of his career. So his own son says when they’re kind of recruiting him to be governor, he went around playing a sort of aw-shucks game and saying, oh, I don’t know if I want to run. It really is up to the people to decide. So I’ll go around and give a few speeches. And if the people want me to run for governor, well, I would never let the people down.
It’s a very clever conceit really, that Reagan understood. And I think it must be from a movie. It must be from either Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or State of the Union, which was a Spencer Tracy movie. All these movies that much more successful leading men carried, Reagan had seen and almost absorbed. And he was playing these parts, but he was playing them on television, on the TV news every night at this point. And to he could sense that he was selling it.
It was working. And I think this is very analogous to Trump. I think that Trump as TV news and cable news gave him more and more airtime. You could see that the soap he was selling was actually selling very well and that encouraged him. And then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Reagan is absolutely the 1.0 of this model for success in politics.
In fact, I go back to wrestling again. The real competition in wrestling is called pop. Can you get the audience to pop? And as you’re going up the hierarchy, the ring, you know, climbing up. Trying to become a famous wrestler, you have to prove to Vince McMahon and the writers that you can get pop. Once you get pop, you’re selected and you’re groomed and you’re nurtured.
So Trump started to get pop and he actually wins the nomination, but he’s out of money and he’s flailing. That recording about grabbing a woman’s crotch comes out. But now that he’s shown the ability to get pop, he gets patrons. Robert Mercer, the hedge fund guy, jumps on, Sheldon Adelson jumps on. Mercer brings in Bannon and Kellyanne Conway and that whole team from Breitbart. You can see the same thing happened to Reagan. He showed he could get pop with the working class, and he proves himself to the moneybags. So we’re going to continue this discussion about Regan’s sorry, I just hit my own microphone.
Reagan never would have done that.
So anyway, the point here is Matt and I are kind of enjoy blabbing with each other. And we’re going to continue this. We’re going to make this the kind of series for a while anyway. Your doc is four parts. Maybe this is four parts. Who knows? So we’re going to end it here with Reagan. And the kitchen cabinet has now selected him. He’s made this speech for Goldwater and he’s really about to take off like a rocket within the right-wing politics.
So we’re going to pick it up soon. Well, we’ll start again. So thanks for now for joining us, Matt. Thank you. See you next time. Thank you for joining us on theAnalysis.news podcast.