Many top figures in Reagan’s world sat down for interviews, including James Baker, who was Reagan’s chief of staff, George Shultz, the secretary of state, and Colin Powell, the national security adviser. The Reagans’ son, Ron Jr., is a prominent voice throughout the series, chatty and candid. But their daughter, Patti Davis, is notably absent. (Tyrnauer said she was working on another project.)
Stahl, in her interview, describes the allure this first family had over the media as she recalls the first time he stepped into the White House briefing room to talk to the press. “We all kind of melted,” she says. “We were puddles on the floor.”
Most jarring, for anyone looking for parallels between the Trump and Reagan years, is the appearance by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The coronavirus crisis is not his first experience with either a pandemic or a president who failed to deal with one: Reagan largely ignored the deadly AIDS epidemic during its early years, and the documentary presents this as one of his most consequential failures as president.
“I was very frustrated with seeing an emerging catastrophe, and he wanted nothing to do with it,” Fauci says.
As a rule, Americans’ views of presidents soften with time — Trump may prove to be the exception — and that certainly happened with Reagan. But this documentary invites a reappraisal. It is a harsh portrait of Reagan as a politician and as a president, and it seems likely to reignite old arguments. Tyrnauer argues that Reagan has been protected by historians, Republicans and journalists because of his political success and likability.
“You can listen to podcast after podcast today of respectable historians talking about all of the dog whistle sins of the past,” Tyrnauer said. “George Wallace comes up, and Richard Nixon comes up with the Southern Strategy. And Willie Horton comes up and George H.W. Bush comes up. Reagan is shockingly absent from all those narratives and discussions.”
“He was an extraordinarily intuitive politician and ultimately among the most successful of his generation,” Tyrnauer said. “But how is he not held accountable?”