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HBO Filmmaker Slams Reagan: His Policies Hurt Those He Sought to Help

Those who admired Ronald Reagan may want to steer clear of the HBO documentary (will re-run Wednesday, February 9 at 8 PM EST and PST) on the former president if that film's director's comments, on Monday's Hardball, are an indication of how slanted the project will be, as he denied many of Reagan's historic accomplishments. From reinvigorating the economy to defeating the Soviet Union, Eugene Jarecki, who also wrote the film, was egged on by MSNBC host Chris Matthews to disallow the 40th president much of his legacy as he charged Reagan's economic policies "hurt the very people he sought...to most help" and claimed the idea he ended the Cold War was "a myth."

Matthews, wasted no time in getting Jarecki to slam Reagan's policies, as seen in the following exchange:

MATTHEWS: What do you make of him, in terms of the bad side of him? I want to talk about the part you didn't put in, perhaps, in the documentary. He didn't really care about the environment. He seemed to have a hard time figuring out the role that social policy, Social Security, Medicare, how they helped real people. Yet if you he confronted a case of a real person in trouble he would sort of write a check to that person. How do you put that together?

EUGENE JARECKI, FILMMAKER: Well as many people in the film told us, especially his family members, talked about a man who, yes, on a personal level could really have his heart go out to people. If you had a problem, he'd give you the shirt off his back but then he would turn around and engage in policy making that was deeply hurtful to people. As if, when he saw a group of people, he had trouble seeing them as a group of individuals he might care about. And so the heartbreaking part about him, and it is in the film, a little bit, in part of the whole bigger picture that we show about him is that Ronald Reagan, in many ways, presented himself as a friend to Main Street America. He'd come from the heartland. He'd come from a small town. And yet, at the end of the day that Reader's Digest America, that's the very America his policies did the most to hurt. I think he didn't mean to do that. I agree with definitely the portrait of Ronald Reagan where this is a man of deep care and deep intentions and deep love of his country. But I think there were mistakes made. There were policy ideas he had, Reaganomics and others that just hurt the very people he sought, I think, to most help.

Later on in the interview Jarecki also shared that "Everybody wants to play the sort of 'Ronald Reagan ended the Cold War' game...it's one of the many myths we hear about him" and on Iran-Contra told Matthews: "I think there were many voices around...who thought what he was doing in the Iran-Contra affair was both impeachable and also felonious" and added "when told it would break the law, Ronald Reagan forged right on ahead. So I don't know that even the best advisers would have been able to stop him."

(MP3 audio)

The following exchanges were aired on the February 7 edition of Hardball:

[5:48pm EDT]

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday would have been yesterday. And tonight on HBO a new documentary takes a look at President Reagan's life - the good, the bad and let's face it, the unknowable. Here's a clip.

(Clip from documentary)

MATTHEWS: Eugene Jarecki's documentary Reagan debuts tonight on HBO. Thank you, Gene. It's always interesting into these character studies. And I'm your classic viewer because I grew up watching Ronald Reagan on GE theater, every Sunday night at 9. It was number three. It was in the top ten almost all the time. I really liked the guy. Then I disagreed with his politics and then I liked him again as an historic figure. I'm one of your mixed up guys. What do you make of him, in terms of the bad side of him? I want to talk about the part you didn't put in, perhaps, in the documentary. He didn't really care about the environment. He seemed to have a hard time figuring out the role that social policy, Social Security, Medicare, how they helped real people. Yet if you he confronted a case of a real person in trouble he would sort of write a check to that person. How do you put that together?

EUGENE JARECKI, FILMMAKER: Well as many people in the film told us, especially his family members, talked about a man who, yes, on a personal level could really have his heart go out to people. If you had a problem, he'd give you the shirt off his back but then he would turn around and engage in policy making that was deeply hurtful to people. As if, when he saw a group of people, he had trouble seeing them as a group of individuals he might care about. And so the heartbreaking part about him, and it is in the film, a little bit, in part of the whole bigger picture that we show about him is that Ronald Reagan, in many ways, presented himself as a friend to Main Street America. He'd come from the heartland. He'd come from a small town. And yet, at the end of the day that Reader's Digest America, that's the very America his policies did the most to hurt. I think he didn't mean to do that. I agree with definitely the portrait of Ronald Reagan where this is a man of deep care and deep intentions and deep love of his country. But I think there were mistakes made. There were policy ideas he had-

MATTHEWS: Yeah.

JARECKI: -Reaganomics and others that just hurt the very people he sought, I think, to most help.

MATTHEWS: You know I think he did some really important things historically. And I think one was dealing with the Soviet Union. An early signal, I think, very important was the breaking of the PATCO strike. It sent a signal. They had backed him in the election in '80. He broke those guys when they wildcatted and that sent a signal. I got this word through sources. I mean I think it was Dwayne Andrews told Tip O'Neill, and I heard it from him, that over there in the Soviet Union they said "Wow! This guy's for real this isn't Jimmy Carter we're dealing with. This is a strong president we're dealing with." That's one story. How did he get the idea that Gorbachev was somebody different? He wasn't one of these old Molotov communists that were automatons. That he could actually deal with them as a human being and, and deal with the end of the Cold War with this guy?

JARECKI: Well I think there's no question everybody wants to play the sort of "Ronald Reagan ended the Cold War" game. And we've been listening to that myth. It's one of the many myths we hear about him. And what you then learn, as I did, when I got into the footage was I learned about how deeply taken Ronald Reagan was by Mikhail Gorbachev personally and I think by the almost movie-esque idea that the leader of one country could make friends with the leader of another country, across this extraordinary gap. And I think it's the friendship between them i.e. negotiating with our adversaries that's one of Ronald Reagan's real, great strong suits that one would want to praise about him.

MATTHEWS: Yeah and I'll just say I don't think someone like George Herbert Walker Bush would have gotten a clue.

JARECKI: Sure.

MATTHEWS: I think a lot of people around him, like Ed Meese, didn't understand it's not all ideology. There are people out there you can deal with. Here's one of my friends, Nancy Reagan, I think she's, I want to talk to you. Because I think she got rid of Don Regan, one of the worst pests that Reagan ever had.

JARECKI: She did.

MATTHEWS: He almost ruined his presidency. Tip O'Neill called up his friend, Lee Iacocca. He said, "Get a hold of Sinatra, get a hold of Nancy and get rid of that guy, that bum. He's hurting the President." It worked, didn't it? They got rid of him.

JARECKI: Yes, yes. One of the things we go over in the film is the extent to which Nancy Reagan was such a vital element in her husband's success. And there's no question that Stuart Spencer, a long time friend and adviser of the President, talked about the way in which the way Nancy watched the President's back. And, in many ways, what he characterized, and James Baker did this as well, is that Ronald Reagan himself, was a lot more guileless-

MATTHEWS: Yeah.

JARECKI: -in many ways than the people around him. And Nancy did a very necessary job in discovering whether people were working for her husband's agenda or their own-

MATTHEWS: Yeah like Don Regan!

JARECKI: And isn't that the story of today? You know we have so many people with their privately held agendas, using Ronald Reagan in ways that I don't think are fair to who he was and cared about.

MATTHEWS: Well let's take, well said. Let's take a look at Nancy Reagan, Eugene.

(Clip from documentary)

MATTHEWS: Yes or no? Would there have been an Iran-Contra catastrophe if Jim Baker had stayed as chief of staff for the whole eight years?

JARECKI: I think there were many voices around Ronald Reagan who thought what he was doing in the Iran-Contra affair was both impeachable and also felonious-

MATTHEWS: Okay.

JARECKI: -and Ronald Reagan was advised about that. And one of the things we discover in the film are the documents that have now come to light that showed that when told it would break the law, Ronald Reagan forged right on ahead. So I don't know that even the best advisers would have been able to stop him.

MATTHEWS: Okay, well thank you. Okay, Eugene Jarecki, thanks for joining. Reagan the documentary airs tonight on HBO.

-Geoffrey Dickens is the Senior News Analyst at the Media Research Center. You can follow him on Twitter here