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Historian: Reagan Depicted Unfairly in 'Butler' Movie

By Bill Hoffmann and John Bachman   |   Friday, 16 Aug 2013 10:55 PM

A top Ronald Reagan historian says the nation's 40th president is not portrayed accurately in "Lee Daniels' The Butler," the new Hollywood film based on a real-life White House servant who worked under eight commanders-in-chief.

"Is it how the butler remembers it? It's certainly not an accurate representation of history," said Craig Shirley, author of "Reagan's Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All."

The film stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, an African American who served 34 years as a White House butler, from 1952 to 1986. Oprah Winfrey plays Gaines' wife, Gloria.

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Shirley, the CEO of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, a leading Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm, took issue with the movie's unflattering portrayal of Reagan, particularly on racial issues, including apartheid in South Africa.

"The Reagan presidency had to be viewed in the shadow of the Cold War," he told Newsmax TV.

"When Reagan came to the presidency in 1981, South Africa would have a white minority government — obviously wrong from the standpoint of individual rights and individual freedom, but the government was also the only country on the African continent that was strongly anti-communist.

"So the question was, [do you] cut off relations, as many were urging [him] to do, and maybe push South Africa out of the anti-communist coalition, or do you try a third way?”

He said Reagan opted for the latter — called constructive engagement — which maintained the coalition against communism.

"The Zulu tribe … who represented millions of South Africans, blacks — they supported Reagan's policies. They were strongly anti-communist, but also wanted black majority rule," he said.

"The policy was successful, it did make a transition. As we know, Nelson Mandela became president. It was successful because it did so with a minimal loss of life as in the case of other African countries that went from white minority rule to black majority rule."

Shirley said Reagan, played in the new film by British actor Alan Rickman, still hasn't been portrayed accurately in any Hollywood movie.

"He has yet [to be] captured by any element of Hollywood correctly in terms of the nuance of his thinking, the depth of his thinking, the sophistication of his thinking, and his approach to governance and the presidency," he said.

"Spielberg did a good job, obviously, with Lincoln. Other presidents have been successfully captured in the movies: George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, [Dwight] Eisenhower and John Kennedy…"

"The problem is that too much of Hollywood is dominated by people who view the world through a liberal prism and therefore, they're not looking at Reagan in the proper context of American history."

Shirley said it remains to be seen just how Jane Fonda's portrayal of Nancy Reagan will be perceived by the public. The choice of Fonda, an unabashed liberal who once embraced the Viet Cong, was highly controversial.

"She was definitely cast to push buttons, there was no doubt about it. They chose her specifically to get people talking about it — happily, or, in the case of a lot of conservatives, unhappily," Shirley said.

"Ronald Reagan had his own opinion of Jane Fonda. He wrote a letter to Bill Buckley in 1981 and he said Jane Fonda was a traitor to her country for her behavior in North Vietnam in the early 1970s during the height of the Vietnam War.

"She had her strong opinions about Reagan herself, and the day he was elected in 1980, she was quoted in a news article saying he was a lousy actor and he'll be a lousy president. So there was obviously no love lost."

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