Wednesday, 16 February 2011

American Idol

February 6th 2011 was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan, US President from 1981 to 1989. While this was unsurprisingly marked in the US, it passed with only a few mentions in the UK, one of which was the BBC4 broadcast of American Idol - Ronald Reagan. Part of the excellent Storyville series, the biographical documentary covered Reagan's life from inauspicious beginnings in Illinois, through his acting career to his pivotal time with General Electric, then onto his more well-known role as "Nemesis to Communism".

Having grown up during his presidency, I've always been interested in him, particularly given the buffing his image has received from the New Right in the two decades since he left the Oval Office. So much of the documentary didn't come as news to me: his cooperation with HUAC; his catastrophic voodoo economics; his covert support of both Iranian theocracy and murderous right-wing paramilitaries in Central America.

What I did learn was that my antipathy towards Reagan, while based in part on his record, is fuelled more by my contempt for the myth-makers who now elevate him to the status of some sort of free market saint. They aren't interested at all in what he actually did while in office, or even what sort of man he was, but just in amplifying those aspects of his rhetoric that suits their self-serving agenda. More, they appear entirely uninterested in actual facts on issues of politics and economics.

A few parts of the documentary particularly stood out. First, was the frequent appearance of Reagan's son, Ron Reagan, whose description of his father perfectly balanced love and a degree of awe with a recognition that Reagan's record as President contains uncomfortable elements, even for his family. The contrast with Reagan's adopted son, Michael Reagan, who sadly exemplifies the worst excesses of the myth-making right, could not have been greater.

Another revealing interviewee was a former soldier, who had served during the period Reagan was in office, and who appeared throughout the documentary solidly supporting the myth. But in his final appearance, he powerfully turned on the myth, and recognised that Reagan's anti-regulation, anti-government, pro-business agenda had ushered in an era grounded in the worst sort of live-today materialism that has nothing to do with the freedom or values in Reagan's own rhetoric. Presumably thinking of Gulf Wars I and II, he also snapped at Reagan's bombastic 1980 election campaign, grounded in the lie that, contrary to the remonstrations of the then-sinking Carter presidency, there was no limit to oil in the world.

Anyway, great stuff. And all the better for not being a hatchet job.

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