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Craig Shirley: New Reagan Documentary Superb, Heroic Work

Sunday, 22 Mar 2009 04:39 PM

By Craig Shirley

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Last fall, during the heated debate over George Bush’s plan to bail out failing but politically connected banks, several commentators went on cable shows and stated categorically that Ronald Reagan would have supported the effort.

Of course, this was reckless in the extreme. No one will ever know whether the Gipper would have favored such a harebrained scheme as using taxpayer money to reward the malfeasance of investment bankers. Given that Reagan once told the International Monetary Fund to go pound salt down a rat hole when they squandered $4 billion in taxpayers’ dollars; that he fired illegally striking air traffic controllers without batting an eye; and that he walked away from Reykjavik and Mikhail Gorbachev, one rightly suspects the motives of those who now claim to fully understand the 40th president.

Suffice it to say, the body of evidence indicates Reagan likely would have opposed the bank bailout. But no one will ever know.

This is what makes Newt and Callista Gingrich’s new documentary, “Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous with Destiny,” such an important contribution to the growing body of Reagan scholarship. This essential work, nearly 100 minutes in length, will help prevent the Gipper from being falsely jammed into every square peg in order to justify rounded-off policy.

Along with influential conservative leader Dave Bossie, serving as Executive Producer, and writer-director Kevin Knoblock, who has participated in many fine documentaries, the Gingriches have come up with what is arguably the best documentary about Ronald Reagan ever put together. Dozens, of course, have been produced, some deeply flawed, many deeply inaccurate. This new documentary is evocative, informative, and even the most hardboiled operative will find themselves weeping at times

The best — up until this triumphal film — was the somewhat surprising contribution made by PBS in 1998. Even then, though, the PBS documentary could not entirely rise above the institutional bias of its sponsor, at one point gratuitously stating that Reagan could not always tell the difference between “fantasy and reality.” In addition, though Patti, son Ron and daughter Maureen were included in the PBS documentary, son Mike was not included; the Gingrichs and Bossie corrected that deficiency.

“Rendezvous with Destiny” is clever in that many of the subjects interviewed begin sentences by saying “Reagan thought…” Indeed he did, defying the intelligentsia who even now, deride his wisdom and intellect.

However, this new Reagan biopic is no “Triumph of the Will.” It deals frankly and upfront with the arc of the 40th president’s career and, yes, mistakes, from his inability to control federal spending to the Iran Contra scandal. It does not gloss over his contempt of Soviet Communism and contains some of his toughest and hottest rhetoric aimed at the Kremlin.

The problem, especially in recent years, is that the care of history has been taken over by the left, as if following the edict of George Orwell in 1984: “He who controls the present, controls the past, he who controls the past, controls the future.” Though good works have been fashioned by James MacGregor Burns, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Arthur Schlesinger and others, these historians are undeniably liberal and so tend to lavish excessive praise on the Kennedys and Lincolns and FDRs of the world while Reagan is dismissed by some as merely “an actor.”

Yet figured quantitatively — call it guns and butter or war and peace — Reagan measures up as not only a great president, but possibly even greater than the liberals beloved FDR. Roosevelt was confronted with a Great Depression, but failed to alleviate the economic plight of the nation. Stifling unemployment bedeviled America right up until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. FDR was also faced with the hegemonic designs of the Empire of Japan and Nazi Germany yet succeeded in rallying the world to defeat these enemies of freedom.

However, Reagan was also confronted with an economic catastrophe — the Carter Recession — nearly as devastating as that of the Great Depression. While Roosevelt had to deal with 20 percent unemployment and Reagan with 10 percent unemployment, Reagan also had to deal with inflation running over 15 percent and interest rates over 20 percent.

FDR’s Great Depression was slow, plodding; the Carter economy Reagan inherited was damn near dead.

And while the Axis powers were dangerous, nothing was as perilous to the future of mankind as the prospect of nuclear holocaust. Yet as Gingrich’s documentary shows, Reagan deftly and historically won the Cold War by putting the heel of his cowboy boot on the neck of Soviet communism and crushing the life out of it, freeing millions. Reagan still does not get the credit he deserves but consider this: from the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917 until Reagan took office in 1981, the Soviets gained territory against every American president save one: Ronald Reagan.

Recently deceased historian John Patrick Diggins, yet another liberal, nonetheless wrote in his last book, “Ronald Reagan: Fate Freedom and the Making of History,” that Reagan was one of our four greatest presidents, alongside Washington, Lincoln and FDR. However, among liberal historians, Diggins is for the most part a lonely voice.

As skilled a political leader as Gingrich is, he was and is foremost a historian having written or produced many fine works, and his dedication to his craft shows in this documentary. The research is exhaustive. Indeed, I thought, as a Reagan historian I had seen every photo and every inch of film ever recorded of Reagan. Yet their research, much of which can be attributed to filmmaker Kevin Knoblock, uncovered new material even unfamiliar to me.

The quality of the production itself and the script are both superb as is the underlying music and some dazzling footage of the ranch. The documentary is fast-paced, up-tempo, heroic.

Featured in the film are Bill Bennett, Bill Kristol, Fred Barnes, Peggy Noonan and others who knew Reagan well, like Ed Meese, Jack Kemp and Lou Cannon. Sadly, Lyn Nofziger and Mike Deaver, two of Reagan’s closest loyal aides, are no longer with us, but plenty of others are still blessedly around. Indeed, if I had any criticism, it is that latecomers to Reagan were featured rather than those who know him so well, like Marty Anderson, Dick Allen and Bill Clark. And Peter Hannaford and Ken Khachigian for that matter, who were always Reagan’s favorite speechwriters, contrary to current folklore.

This documentary at times relies too heavily on neo-conservatives like Ken Adelman and Richard Pearle. Fortunately, Lou Cannon — the closest thing to Reagan’s official biographer — and Mike Reagan, as well as historian Douglas Brinkley, who edited the Reagan diaries, and who understands the mind of Ronald Reagan as well as most, are also featured. Indeed, Brinkley uses the phrase, “pragmatic conservative” in the documentary. Both Brinkley and Jim Baker, also featured, understood the Gipper’s ability to negotiate, to compromise. This is fitting since Brinkley is a fellow in history at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy.

“Ronald Reagan, Rendezvous with Destiny” strikes a good balance between the domestic problems Reagan faced and the foreign policy landscape. Yet the producers clearly appreciate, as did Reagan, that in the face of nuclear annihilation, all other matters were academic.

Gingrich knows the problems facing all historians. Should they create something historically accurate, but laden with dry academic facts, or a work that other historians might dismiss as “popular history.” The great Barbara Tuchman faced this dilemma, yet the world is better off and history is better off for her works of “popular history” including “The Guns of August,” for which she won the first of two Pulitzer Prizes. History can and should be entertaining.

Unfortunately, a militant left, bent on scoring political points rather than acknowledging true scholarship, has seized prestigious prizes like the Pulitzer. In reality, this just signifies that the left merely controls the means of the distribution of prestige and not recognition of true achievement. After all, how else can one explain Gorbachev receiving the Nobel Peace Prize---but not Ronald Reagan? This deliberate snub of Reagan borders on the criminal.

Still, as Reagan would say, it is about the work, it is about the effort, and it is about how we see ourselves and not how others see us. As former National Review editor John O’Sullivan so well noted in the documentary, Reagan “revived the fact of America and not just the idea of America.”

In the end, this marvelous documentary favors Ronald Reagan because the facts favored Ronald Reagan. Reagan would have liked this film. Many years ago, a group of us made a far, far poorer documentary about the Gipper, yet in his kind manner he still called us to tell us how much he liked it.

The old theatrical trouper always knew a good story has an introduction, conflict and resolution. Reagan’s rendezvous with America contained all these essential elements and when he was finished, he did exactly what he wanted to do. He rode off into the sunset, leaving all of us to wonder, “Who was that man?”

“Ronald Reagan, Rendezvous with Destiny” inspires us with a little of that insight.

[Editor's Note: Get the new documentary, “Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous with Destiny” - Go Here Now]

Craig Shirley is the author of the critically acclaimed bestseller, “Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign that Started it All,” about the 1976 insurgency. He has just completed “Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign that Changed America," about the 1980 campaign. He is also the president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs and is a member of the Board of Governors of the Reagan Ranch, a part of the Young America’s Foundation.

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