Matt Tyrnauer gets billing as a director, though we suggest another title: iconoclast.
The documentarian delights in smashing pop culture images, be it that of nightclub frontman Steve Rubell in Studio 54, the chaste, hetero picture of Golden Age Hollywood in Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, or that of Donald Trump‘s mentor Roy Cohn with Where’s my Roy Cohn. For Calfornia-born Tyrnauer, a man who started his career writing for Vanity Fair and sitting at the footstool of queer writer Gore Vidal, tearing down fantasy to expose reality has become a life mission.
Now Tyrnauer returns with his most expansive and dangerous work to date: the documentary series The Reagans. The finale of the four-part series airs on Showtime December 6.
The Reagans chronicles the lives and careers of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Reagan, of course, began his career as a B-list Hollywood actor before becoming a commercial spokesperson, and eventually, a politician. Though conservatives hold Reagan up as the embodiment of Americana, Tyrnauer charges that Reagan’s policies of tax cuts, deregulation and “old-fashioned” values destroyed the American middle class. Further, he charges that Reagan’s indifference to people of color and the queer community precipitated the crack epidemic and police brutality against African-Americans, as well as the AIDS crisis which decimated the LGBTQ population.
Featuring interviews with Reagan’s son, Ron Jr., as well as former Secretary of State George Schultz, conservative writer George Will, journalist Jonathan Alter, and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci among many others, The Reagans dismantles the myth of Ronald Reagan as American hero, exposing him as a dimented infomercial host and con artist. It’s sure to be one of the most debated documentaries of the year.
We found time to chat with Tyrnauer about the Reagan myth, his motives in making the series, and how the recklessness of Reaganism brought about the era of Trump. The Reagans airs on Showtime, with the finale set for release December 6.
So you love controversial figures, sensational subjects in your films. It’s easy to draw a line from Steve Rubell to Scotty Bowers to Roy Cohn, and now to Reagan. That said, attacking the Reagans, and the American mythos, is a whole new level for you. What convinced you to take on the task?
All the films you mentioned have things in common, if not at first glance: power, glory and myth. They all end with the HIV/AIDS crisis in the third act.
Interesting. I hadn’t thought about that.
So I appreciate the question. Other people say this doesn’t fit with anything else I’ve done. I think the way you phrase it is much more cunning and clear-eyed.
Well, in many ways I’m tackling the counternarratives of the 20th century and American culture. It’s not an organized plan, it’s just come up that way. I’m also happiest tackling the subjects I want to tackle, and the Reagans have been on my list because it always struck me that the mainstream media got them all wrong. They were so good at creating their own myth and selling it that no one knew which way was up. Again, the Media Industrial Complex, for reasons I never understood, was enthralled with these two grifters.
The counter-narrative has always been screaming to be made. So when I had the chance, I took it. I also consider this to be the sequel to Where’s My Roy Cohn because there was a literal association between Roy Cohn and Reagan.
They were really cut from the same political cloth, even though their overt tactics and images they wanted to put over in the place were very different. They were part of the same very dark political narrative of the 20th century which I’m obsessively trying to tell.
Over the course of the series, you trace Reagan’s shifting loyalties, and the evolution from actor to corporate spokesman to politician. The question I had watching was, what is this man’s absolute? Was it money that drove him? Fame? A genuine shift in his political views? In your mind, what drove him?
I think Reagan was a careerist. His main motivation was looking after the career of Ronald Reagan. He was a shapeshifter, in that whatever would help him get ahead, he would morph into. Normally an average actor who makes it to a certain level in Hollywood, you expect him to be narccisitc, opportunistic, groveling shapeshifters. But this is a member of that species who, through a series of cunning maneuvers and accidents, ended up becoming the most powerful man in the world for eight years. That’s quite a story.
How he got there, in reality, was by sticking to his narcissistic game plan that required him to be the ultimate American hero. He constantly was tending to and tailoring that myth. When he married Nancy, his second wife, she becomes the perfect codependent in his narcissistic self-serving love story. Now, the myth that got packaged during and after the presidency was one about a man who was utterly selfless and only interested in protecting “truth, justice and the American way.” I purposely didn’t include his favorite narrative about himself, that he was a lifeguard on the Rock River in Illinois. His acolytes obsessively spin that story he told about himself as “the best job I ever had” into “America’s lifeguard.” Always said with that kind of Peggy Noonan-like earnest tone.
That is a lie, a fabrication he began creating during the time he was the lifeguard on the Rock River in the 1920s. So that was the narrative you can find in all sorts of books, articles, documentaries about Reagan, or the Reagan Library. I wanted to tell the truth.
This mythologizing, this cultivation of a cult of personality, of course, he didn’t invent. I’m thinking of Rick Perlstien’s book Nixonland, which essentially argues Nixon and the people around him did the same thing from his childhood—created a cult of personality. Nixon, regardless of his ethics or politics, was an intelligent man. Is that true of Reagan: was he that cunning to cultivate his own myth so fully? Or were the interests that benefited from his political favors more responsible for it?
Well, Reagan was editing his life story and assiduously rewriting it all through his life, from an unusually young age. Then, after a brief but good radio career, virtually stumbled into a Warner Bros. contract. He became a product of the Hollywood myth machine. One critic fussed [about the series] that I could have used less old movies and more about the HIV/AIDS crisis.
I don’t think she watched until the end.
Right, the last episode and a half are all about that.
Yes. I didn’t want to begin in Hollywood because it was the beginning of his life. I began there because you can’t understand this person without understanding the studio complex of the mid-20th century. He was an innate mythmaker, but then he became one of the ultimate product of the publicity machine of Warner Bros. in the 30s and 40s. All Hollywood was doing at that time was rewriting the American dream, painting it white, and putting a picket fence on it. If you want to know what Reagan’s America is, it’s that: it comes from the myth of the most powerful medium, maybe ever. Movies were the lingua franca of the culture, and Reagan was a product of that.
Gary Wills, who I think wrote the best book about Reagan, Reagan’s America, said that the reason Reagan’s understanding of the American psyche was that he came at it from within. He really was, though his Hollywood education, and Nancy’s as well, able to manipulate American myths to put himself at the center, then sell the story.
Well and to that point, ironically, watching him, I thought a lot about Sarah Palin, in the sense that it’s very well-documented that she was given talking points to parrot—she had no real knowledge or command of issues. Reagan did the same thing—I think Stu Spencer, his campaign manager, even says as much. I think that begs the question of who masterminded his campaign? Was he really calling the shots, or did he just allow himself to be a pawn?
Regarding Reagan’s intelligence, I don’t think he was a stupid person. The fact that people caricatured him as a dumb idiot helped him—being underestimated throughout his career was very helpful. He was smart enough to know that. If you want to compare Presidential intelligence, he would not be in the upper percentile. But, he had extraordinary emotional intelligence, great instincts, and pretty good timing. He had outstanding performance and salesman skills. And if that reminds you of anyone…
This is where it gets chilling. Even though the persona Reagan cultivated was very different from Trump’s their main skill sets were the same. They were both performers and salesmen. That’s why every minute of this series, even though it roughly takes place from 1911 to 1989, is about Donald Trump and the American we currently live in. I would argue Reagan built the foundation for what we have had to call Trump’s America. The Reagans were very dangerous. They embodied a kind of politics, cult of personality and ideology that Americans are very susceptible to. They understood branding, and when the Republican party saw how successful they were, they tried to extend that brand. Trump was not blind to that.
The parallels between Reagan and Trump—the association with the 80s, the people they literally associated with—are chilling. We’re lucky that Trump wasn’t as effective as Reagan in seducing voters and getting his message across.
I think he was though.
The Republican party always bragged that Ronald Reagan was the greatest vote-getter since Roosevelt. Donald Trump got more votes than Reagan. Mercifully, Joe Biden got more than that. But both Trump and Reagan sell snake oil. They just play different versions of the same character. Playing President is exactly what they do, and it’s not cynical to say so. It’s true, and a symptom of an age driven by media. But this is the real question for the health of the republic: can it survive the Media Industrial Complex and the Fantasy Industrial Complex?
You spent the last two episodes focusing on two issues that surrounded Reagan: racism and AIDS. There is the complete abandonment of the urban population amid the crack epidemic and urban decay. There’s also the jaw-dropping clip you discovered of him referring to African diplomats as “monkeys.” You also have a photo of him with one of those blackface statues that used to sit on front lawns…lamp jockeys they’re called.
Right. You’re the only one that’s noticed that.
Lord save us. Reagan’s son, Ron Jr., discusses the President’s willful ignorance on AIDS and racism. Now, to borrow a phrase, what did the president know and when did he know it? How cognizant of AIDS was he in his first term, and did he willfully ignore the growing pandemic?
Reagan had a belief system that was basically a product of Warner Bros. circa 1939. If he faced an issue that didn’t fit into his belief system, he just wished it away. He ignored it. So, if you apply that rule, everything he did makes perfect sense. People of color were not first-class citizens in movies of the 1930s and 40s. Gay people did not exist, except as silly queens that were not labeled as such. Reagan’s America is that America. It’s a coherent world that was created, but there’s little relationship to reality. That explains Reagan: he was living in a manufactured dream world that he and the Hollywood studios had collaborated in creating. He was a product of it. He believed in his own myth. He believed in the myth he was selling.
When his career tanked, he started to sell the product to General Electric or Chesterfield Cigarettes or many other products. He was part of the Media Industrial Complex. He just went on playing a role. If you don’t understand personae or roles, you can’t understand Reagan.
One thing that I think is underexamined in most tellings of the Reagan story is that they were really hitting the skids in the 50s and 60s. They weren’t poor, but compared to most of their peers, they weren’t doing well. So Reagan’s turn to politics was, in some respects, a desperate measure. He had nowhere else to go. The Reagans recreated themselves into creatures of the right-wing who were willing supplicants to corporate America. That started with General Electric—he and Nancy were costars in this industrial film playing the perfect, all-American middle-class couple. Then they just jumped off the screen like in The Purple Rose of Cairo. But they were bankrolled by corporate masters, and eventually, they shilled that all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The real tragedy is how successful they were at rolling back social contracts that had prevailed in the country that had created the middle class: the New Deal and the Great Society. Reagan was the vessel of a right-wing corporate block of interests. And he did their bidding well. That’s why he is so loved: he was an effective vessel for the 1%.
The Purple Rose of Cairo reference is an awesome one, and it’s apt. For those of us really too young to remember the Reagan presidency, looking at this archive footage, it’s so apparent that they are playing to the camera. Little things they do with each other—it’s transparently constructed. But, to people at the time, they were just cute together.
Now, again to the subject of AIDS, Reagan didn’t even address the subject until his last year in office. At that point, his Press Secretary Larry Speakes had made fun of AIDS patients in press conferences. Tens of thousands of people were dead or dying. Do you think Reagan had real empathy for the people who were sick, or was he just that susceptible to the peer pressure of Elizabeth Taylor?
I think they succumbed to peer pressure, which is very flattering of Elizabeth Taylor, but a pathetic story about the Reagans. I mean, are you kidding me? It took seven years of malign neglect and a body count of tens of thousands to say the word “AIDS?” And you’re the President of the United States?
As their own son said, they had gay friends, among them Roy Cohn.
Who died of AIDS of course.
Yes, and they helped him [get treatment], don’t forget. That makes it even worse. Helping some people on the sly, but not doing anything to address the epidemic and exhibiting control over the National Institute of Health and Dr. Fauci and Surgeon General Coop—who was trying to get Reagan to pay attention… Who really knows if it was an aversion to the topic, or a political calculation that his Christian base would rebel against? In context, it’s almost Hitlerian. At the time, it could pass under the radar. Nothing illustrates that more than a reporter in the White House Briefing Room trying to get an answer about Reagan’s policy toward AIDS, and being made fun of with homophobic slurs.
Reagan himself was a homophobe. You see that in archive footage when he visits Yale in 1967. Privately, he was a homophobe and liked to do little fey comedy routines with his friends, which would not have been unusual for someone born in 1911 and worked in showbiz.
But that’s not what you assail Reagan for. The thing that put Reagan in the innermost circle of Dante’s Hell was that he was actually in a position to make a difference for science, health, human rights and the American public he was charged to protect. He completely fell down on the job, and never atoned. And when he did say something, when Elizabeth Taylor pressured him to speak at an AMFAR event in 1987, he gave a very defective speech, blamed victims, politicized the topic, and played lip service to the pandemic he ignored for two terms.
Let me ask you a bit about that: you interview some very prominent, powerful people here. When you pressed them on some of Reagan’s choices, his response to AIDS, did any of them bristle? Did they make excuses?
The Reagan loyalist that I interviewed were unwilling to concede that he had any flaws in his character or governance. Only his son was able to speak in a clear-eyed, conciliatory, human way about a major flaw. To be honest, I didn’t ask someone like George Schultz about HIV/AIDS. Questioning a 100-year-old man about HIV/AIDS—I don’t even think it was on his radar as Secretary of State. It should have been.
The true believers in Reaganism are unshakable. That’s one reason I made the series: their narrative has prevailed, and the media has fallen for it hook, line and sinker. There’s never been a high-profile counternarrative about someone who might have been personally affable and a favorite of TV correspondents and their paymasters, but didn’t serve the American people well even as he portrayed himself as the ultimate American. That hypocrisy is wicked and needs to be unmasked.
And it’s not just denial when it comes to HIV/AIDS. It’s a denial of any flaw in Reagan or Reaganism. Reagan was a very lucky politician. The cycle of the economy was very good for him in election years.
The other health-related subject we need to brooch is the issue of his mental deterioration. Even his biggest cheerleaders—Defense Secretary Gates comes to mind—say that by the start of his second term, he had really “slipped.” Ron Jr. acknowledges this. You also feature footage of Nancy prompting him in interviews, feeding him lines. In your research, how bad was his decline? Was Nancy really the one calling the shots?
I go by what Ron Jr. said. He goes farther on the record here, I think, than he ever has before. It’s his father, he knew him better than almost anyone, he was there. Ron quotes Reagan’s neurologist who says he certainly had Alzheimer’s in his second term. I don’t think there’s any arguing with that. I think it’s a terrible scandal that wasn’t properly acknowledged and there were people around him who knew. That’s a huge matter for historians to consider.
What I found most interesting was Nancy Reagan’s role in hiding that, and taking charge behind the scenes, both tending to his image, and dictating policy. It’s amazing to me that the keepers of Reagan’s myth have been able to maintain the image of Nancy as the dutiful wife when she was really calling the shots. She was certainly a political director, a personnel director. Leslie Stahl refers to her as a consigliere, using a properly mafioso term.
Also, as the years of the administration went on, Nancy was doing more to oversee policy and doing it with the help…of a psychic. This was revealed by former Chief of Staff Don Regan, in his memoir For the Record. But the magnitude of that as a scandal was underplayed as gossip and has been somewhat forgotten. To me, the ruling tip of the Reagans is hypocrisy.
Nancy Reagan was an inordinately powerful First Lady and a political force, but she was determined to hide that. And she was successful in both acting as a Presidential advisor, and in hiding it. And American media let her get away with it, and the American public seemed to like it. Only 4 years later, Hillary Clinton came along and tried to overtly assert herself as a powerful First Lady, and America and the media had a freak-out.
That is true.
So a lot of what I’m trying to do is put that out there, and make people ask the question: what is it about a powerful First Lady, and an empowered First Lady, that cases the American public and the tribunes of American media to have a nervous breakdown? What is it about a nefarious hypocrite like Nancy Reagan, at the controls behind her Wizard of Oz curtain, that is just fine? Why is that ok, and the other not?
Well, let’s talk about that. Having really examined that duality with this project, where does that strange contradiction come from?
I think it all goes back to Hollywood, and the way the movie moguls perpetuated a myth of the American family, the roles, and the archetypes of domestic happiness. The Reagans were cast in those parts. They believed in them. And the people who financed their lives believed in them too. So they stuck to the script. Obviously, powerful women freak a lot of people out. But whatever you think of her, Nancy Reagan sensed that and played her hand a certain way and was successful. So how f*cked up is this country?
Well and that’s a scary thought: that the American character is fundamentally hypocritical.
And it’s also probably true to some degree. We found a nation based on the idea that all people are created equal, but only people who owned property could vote.
Yeah. It’s not all that mysterious.
What has the response been so far?
Jason Johnson points out that the Reagans’ main constituency was the media, and I think that’s true. He has a great phrase: “The Reagans turned the Media Industrial Complex on its head.” Again, to cite The Purple Rose of Cairo, he was the ultimate televised president. And TV used that to make money. Trump’s the same story.
So obviously taking on the myth of Reagan is a big deal, both because his Presidency was fairly recent and because he’s held up as this embodiment of nostalgic Americana. What kind of response have you had from critics or politicians? Have you had backlash?
You know, I think the reaction has been great overall. I haven’t really paid too much attention to the right-wing Twittersphere. I’m sure it’s going crazy. Good. I think it’s always useful to do an in-depth counternarrative. That was the point. And it has been well-received as that which makes me pleased.
Alright then, in sum: the writer Claire Luce used to say even history will afford even the greatest of men a single sentence. “Lincoln freed the slaves” for example. In your mind, what is Reagan’s sentence?
He proved that Life: The Movie is tragically more real for many than life itself.
The finale of The Reagans airs on Showtime December 6.