Former Attorney General Edwin Meese III says the portrayal of former President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy as racially insensitive in the new movie "Lee Daniels' The Butler" is not accurate.
Meese has joined with other supporters of Reagan who have been angered with the film's claim that Reagan was indifferent to South Africa's apartheid and the producer's decision to have liberal Jane Fonda offer an unflattering portrayal of Nancy Reagan.
"Ronald Reagan did not have a racially discriminatory bone in his body from his very youngest days," Meese told Newsmax. "He was opposed to any type of discrimination or mistreatment of anyone on the basis of race, or quite frankly any other innate characteristic."
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Meese said the true Ronald Reagan "treated everyone extremely well, including people who were in a position of assisting him in one way or other."
"His whole administration was particularly loved by the people who worked in the White House and who served several administrations," said Meese, who was a gubernatorial aide to Reagan in Sacramento before coming to the White House following the 1980 presidential election. "He was always very polite, very accommodating and very much interested in them personally."
Meese, who currently serves as the Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow Emeritus at the Heritage Foundation, said he has not seen the film, but from what he has heard about the movie, the portrayal seems unfair.
"I think it is important for any president to be accurately portrayed, whether it is in books, in films, or on TV. Any disparagement or unfair treatment by a film like this is unfortunate," Meese said.
Director Lee Daniels' new film is heating up the summer box office — opening this weekend at No. 1 and earning $25 million for the Weinstein Co. — but a growing number of Reagan supporters say they are hot over the film's dishonest portrayal of the conservative president's record on race.
Grove City College Professor Paul Kengor, a Reagan biographer, sparked a backlash last week against the film's "ideologically driven fiction," dubbing it "Hollywood malpractice," even as others were mentioning the story of a White House butler who served eight presidents as a possible Oscar contender.
"The screenwriter and makers of this film better have some hard evidence for this. I hope they have at least some quotes somewhere from the butler saying he felt like a prop," Kengor told the Hollywood Reporter. "If they don't, then they should be ashamed of themselves."
Since then, other Reagan book authors, associates and conservatives have stepped up to defend Reagan, calling the portrayal a cheap shot against a president they said consistently spoke out for equality.
Craig Shirley, a conservative public relations executive who wrote two Reagan books and is at work on several others, took issue with the film Monday, saying it lacked context and was inaccurate, particularly in its discussion of the apartheid debate.
Shirley said to Fox News that Reagan's views on South Africa must be judged in the context of the Cold War.
"The sanctions would have hurt the least affluent among the South Africans at the time, who were the blacks there," Shirley said. "The Zulu tribe, representing 6 million blacks, was vehemently opposed to the sanctions. … When Mandela came to power, one of the first things he asked for were the sanctions to be lifted. So it's a very complex issue and they present it [in the film] in a very simplistic fashion."
"Certainly as president, in terms of dealing with apartheid, he was absolutely opposed to apartheid," Meese told Newsmax. "He had some concern about the sanctions that were in place because of what it would do generally in terms of our position on the Cold War. But also he was concerned about the impact economic sanctions would have on the people of South Africa, including those people who happen to be people of color."
"Lee Daniels' The Butler" is based on the life of Eugene Allen, who worked at the White House from 1952 to 1986, serving eight presidents before his retirement.
The screenplay was written by Danny Strong, who wrote HBO's 2008 TV film "Recount," as well as HBO's "Game Change," about the 2012 presidential campaign. That movie was drubbed by many on the right as a hit piece against former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Knowing the history of the film's creators, "you have to go to motive," Shirley said.
"The screenwriter for this movie did write 'Game Change,' which was grossly unfair to Sarah Palin. He also wrote 'Recount,' which again a lot of people thought was a retelling of the history of the recount that made the George Bush forces look very devious and the Gore forces look good," said Shirley. "You do have to go to motive with Hollywood and movies."
Film critic Christian Toto, an assistant editor at Breitbart News, said Strong is "a dedicated liberal fellow, and he puts his politics into his work. Certainly this is not a surprise."
The film's cast would also not endear it to the right, Toto added. "Lee Daniels stocked his film with some very aggressively left figures, from Jane Fonda to John Cusack, which is like poking a hornet's nest."
The movie also stars Forest Whitaker in the title role of the butler and Oprah Winfrey in the memorable role of his boozy wife.
Prior to the Reagan flap, the movie earned the disdain of veterans with the casting of Fonda as Nancy Reagan.
Fonda replied that she was playing the first lady as a human being and said she knew Nancy Reagan was "not unhappy" with her casting, even as some military veterans recalled her criticism of the nation during the Vietnam War, which earned her the nickname "Hanoi Jane." Some have planned protests against her and the film.
Toto said there is a need to set the factual record straight because "movies shape popular culture and popular culture shapes opinion."
"The real-life butler had a picture of Reagan in his living room, but the film portrays him as being disillusioned with Reagan and quitting that job because of the disillusionment," which is totally at odds with the truth, Toto said.
That butler, Eugene Allen, also was the first to be invited to attend a White House state dinner with his wife, as a guest of Reagan, showing a relationship that seems at odds with the one the film depicts.
Toto says it's a lot more than a fictional historical study, which is why friends of Reagan are rising up.
"It's not sort of a policy debate, but it's capturing him in a way that makes him appear if not racist, very insensitive to the suffering of people, and that is a thing people have been hammering those on the right about now for years," he said.
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"It's a cudgel the left uses against the right. When you critique someone as racist, it's very powerful and it is effective, but it's soul killing. I think that's a theme that really rankles people on the right and deservedly so."
The movie is unlikely to besmirch Reagan's reputation; Meese noted that Reagan is one of America's most beloved figures.
"Ronald Reagan is actually beloved by most people, whether conservative or not. In poll after poll he has shown he is one of the most popular people in history across the political spectrum," Meese said.
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