The Reagan Show – an absorbing portrait of a master communicator in the White House

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The Reagan Show is a CNN Films movie released in the UK earlier this month. After showing in a few cinemas it is now available on iTunes, Sky, Amazon, GooglePlay and YouTube.

The film uses the mountain of archive “behind-the-scenes” and in-front-of-the-scenes footage recorded during the Ronald Reagan Presidency. There are some great clips and there is a particularly compelling portrait of his work with Mikhail Gorbachev to eventually sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. We’re reminded that Gorbachev too was a showman, and that the two struck up quite a close working friendship.

When he arrived at the White House, Reagan had not only been an actor in 53 B Movies, but he had been a sports broadcaster, a union leader and a spokesman for General Electric. Significantly, he had also been Governor of California for eight years. So he had quite a CV.

Of course, Reagan had his faults and his politics aren’t my politics. He was certainly trigger happy – and that was shown in the film. He invaded Grenada without so much as a by-your-leave from its Head of State, our Queen. Not for nothing did Private Eye and others refer to him as “Ronald Raygun”. And there were always rumours that he was disengaged from the actual work of the president (that is, not the PR bit) – culminating in Spitting Image’s “The President’s Brain is missing“.

The film shows Reagan wriggling under questions about the Iran Arms-for-hostages “Contra” affair. And then we see him come up with this beaut from March 1987:

A few months ago, I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.

It is a bizarre, disingenuous attempt to use his normal bonhomie to wriggle out of saying: “I lied”.

The film shows some interesting aspects of Reagan’s “game” of “staging”. While recording a film for New Hampshire voters, we see him making several incorrect attempts to pronounce the name of his “friend” John Sununu. That is very funny. Then we are shown the standard Reagan technique to avoid reporter’s questions: Arrange to be photographed smiling and waving, at a distance from reporters, on the way to a helicopter, which has its engines making a lot of noise. That way, no matter how loud the reporters shout their questions (and, boy, do they shout) he can’t hear them and can fall back on the old trick of holdings his ears and mouthing “I can’t hear”.

He also seems to engineer outdoor situations where he doesn’t wear his overcoat. And a lot of attention seems to be paid to “marks”, backdrops, retakes and timing. When he leaves office, he doesn’t just walk out of the Oval Office. He does each bit several times, pausing to ensure the photographers have got their shots, then waiting for his cue for the next bit, etc.

So, it is all a bit false and “staged”. That said, he was a very good speaker. The following clip shows his speech when he returned from signing the INF in Russia. It really is quite moving:

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • Ruth Bright 23rd Oct '17 - 3:13pm

    Very much agree with Paul that this is an unmissable film – especially for those too young to remember the era.

  • Geoffrey Payne 23rd Oct '17 - 7:31pm

    It should not be forgotten that his regime supported death squads in El Salvador that killed many thousands of people, as well as other terrible dictators in Latin America, Marcos in the Philippines, Zia in Pakistan and many others.
    He also mobilised the religious right for the first time despite himself also believing in Astrology.
    He was an actor and other people wrote his lines. He was a good actor and a terrible president. I know he was popular in his day and won elections with huge majorities, but polls show he is not anything like popular today, apart from the Conservative ideologues.

  • David Becket 23rd Oct '17 - 8:25pm

    True Geoffrey, but look what we’ve got now!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Geoffrey Payne.
    He was a wooden actor and terrible president. I don’t know what it is but I virtually never find politicians lauded for their presentation convincing. They always seem to be obviously acting the part and sort of give off an iffy vibe I find alienating .

  • Lorenzo Cherin 23rd Oct '17 - 9:02pm

    I , like Paul, and colleagues, could not have voted for Reagan, but those who correctly mention his lousy judgement , especially but by no means wholly the subjects or policies mentioned, must realise a number of things about this man.

    His foreign policies were based on a fear and loathing of communism , as he had been a genuine hater of nazism. Anti totalitarianism when so far one way in one era leads to bed fellows with the extreme opposite too often. Think Stalin as our ally !

    Reagan was by the Gorbachev era , a pragmatist and realist. Those surrounding him thought he was delusional and becoming soft in the head and heart as they were now hawks compared to him. He instinctively liked Gorbachev, it shows the one thing everyone said about Reagan, even staunch opponents. He was personally a real gentleman and a really nice man. Nearly all the off the cuff photos of him , he is smiling or laughing. His judgement on the Soviet leader was terrific and history has shown it.

    He was’t thick. As Paul correctly shows , he had served as the screen actors guild president for years, and was a quite , successful, and , for that time or now, moderate governor of California.He did suffer with later onset Alzheimers disease, which was evident in a slowness in his later years in office.

    Caron , wrote very sensibly and constructively , in the period of the recent presidential contest,on here, posting a recording of him in the presidential debates with Bush senior, going for the nomination of their party , the Republican primaries, 1980.Both men, yes, moderate Bush and indeed Reagan, as Caron pointed out in an interaction on here with me, were as liberals compared to today from the Republicans and especially, but by no means Trump.

    He was indeed a very good actor , if not great. Anyone who has not seen Kings Row, his only really brilliant league of film, can see a performance so charming and natural and powerful too, but he brought that even to light fluff on occasion, the naturalness at least.

    I was no fan of his politics , but as a youth in that era, he gave me great material for classroom mimickry that his continued into professional adult career. I haven,t the links to hand presently, but am online immitating him !

  • Lorenzo.
    I was thinking more of voodoo economics and social division. I place him as the architect of much of the very damaging modern economic dominance of the right. He was also a terrible governor in the 1960s.
    I’ve seen him in a few things. King’s Row is more or less a blip. Bedtime for Bonzo was more typical of his career as a very forgettable very wooden leading man and is far more in keeping with his hammy inflections during his political life. He was pretty good in the Killers.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 24th Oct '17 - 2:04am


    I do agree on the economics and policies. But not the acting. Kings Row was more than you say, but am glad you see the performance was in a classy , very high category.He was in the kind of film, like “bedtime for bonzo, ” playing opposite a chimp, where I admire the committment and humour , as one who has trod the boards, it is not to be sniffed at , being a performer with such high quality co stars !

    He was a bit too slick a speaker when serious , and sickly too . But his stories and gags were delivered better than many professional comedians, see them on you tube under funny moments of Reagan.

    Politically do not forget he was a Democrat in the centre left who supported FDR , and was a Democrat , after too, over all, for twenty years before he gradually shifted, to the right, and that , in the cold war , and he shifted again towards the centre more in the latter years, signing a letter with Ford and Carter , for a limited but significant gun control, after he was president.

    I would not say he was a terrible governor, he was certainly not my kind of politician ideologically, but , that party of his then has become so right wing he seems so decent compared to some , in his bon homie and charm if little else.

  • Steve Trevethan 24th Oct '17 - 9:15am

    Acting is an art of deception.
    Most US Presidents have been actors or deception/con artists.
    Mr Obama was the best “master of deceit”.
    This article gives a useful review of recent US Presidents and their performances, front and back of stage.
    [Financial Health and Stealth Warning: Master and Mistresses of Deceit also operate outside the USA too.]

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