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PBS's Meacham: Why 'Lionize' Reagan Who 'Treated the Poor Poorly'?

On Friday's Need to Know program on PBS, co-host Jon Meacham - formerly of Newsweek - seemed to agree with HBO filmmaker Eugene Jarecki's characterization of former President Ronald Reagan as someone who "treated the poor poorly," "broke laws," and "committed nearly impeachable offenses" as he asked the producer of the film Reagan why people should be "lionizing" the former President. The PBS host posed the question:

Let's go to your criticisms of the President in the film. Basically we have a President who treated the poor poorly, did not tend to the sick, broke laws, committed nearly impeachable offenses by your own reporting. Why should we be lionizing him in the broad public domain? You certainly don't.


Earlier in the interview with Jarecki, whose Reagan film will air again Wednesday night, February 9 on HBO, Meacham had also wondered if it could be argued that Reagan was a "kind of Manchurian candidate from the military industrial complex." Meacham:

You've made the Trials of Henry Kissinger. You have made Why We Fight about the military industrial complex and there's a moment in the Reagan film that evoked those films for me to some extent where you have Reagan coming out of working for GE mostly in the '50s and meeting up with his kitchen cabinet, the big businessmen in California. Is it possible to argue that Ronald Reagan was a kind of Manchurian candidate from the military industrial complex?


After the PBS host asked Jarecki if Reagan "would be comfortable in today's Republican Party," Jarecki charged that modern-day Republicans "lie" about what Reagan stood for and try to use him for marketing purposes because their own political ideas are not popular:

There's a huge gulf between how Reagan felt about issues, what he actually did in office, and the lies that are told to us, the myths that are spun today. ... Because a lot of these actors don't really have policies and programs that would appeal to the public. They don't sell well and so you need good packaging. Ronald Reagan is a proven brand. Just as he was once used by General Electric, so, too, today he is being used by so many people who want to sell a particular product and want to use Reagan's brand.


Below is a transcript of relevant portions of the Friday, February 4, Need to Know program on PBS:

JON MEACHAM: You've made the Trials of Henry Kissinger. You have made Why We Fight about the military industrial complex and there's a moment in the Reagan film that evoked those films for me to some extent where you have Reagan coming out of working for GE mostly in the '50s and meeting up with his kitchen cabinet, the big businessmen in California. Is it possible to argue that Ronald Reagan was a kind of Manchurian candidate from the military industrial complex?

EUGENE JARECKI, DIRECTOR OF FILM REAGAN: I think Reagan is many things. And the thing you can never say about Reagan is, well, this is what he was. Because, as soon as you say that, it's like Wack a Mole. He's over here and he turns out to be something totally different. So people who want to say that Reagan is a puppet of anyone absolutely would miss the boat on how incredibly smart, driven and really how much he was the engineer of his extraordinary life.

...

MEACHAM: Let's go to your criticisms of the President in the film. Basically we have a President who treated the poor poorly, did not tend to the sick, broke laws, committed nearly impeachable offenses by your own reporting. Why should we be lionizing him in the broad public domain? You certainly don't.

JARECKI: I don't think we should lionize public figures at all. That's contrary to our values as American citizens in a republic that is of the people by the people for the people. It isn't of kings, of presidents, and by death box. The whole idea of our country is that we are the makers of our lives, we are the makers of our policies, we choose these people to do the work for us and with us. And so I think there's a grave danger in, with the way we idolize Kennedy and the way we idolize any of our leaders - Reagan and anyone else - or the way we over-vilify them. They are not the ones who make our destiny and they're not the ones who will unmake it, and we do a grave disservice to democracy and ourselves by offloading that responsibility on these individuals.

MEACHAM: In the politics of the moment, you've got a Republican Party that endlessly invokes his name. Do you think he would be comfortable in today's Republican Party?

JARECKI: I spoke to many people who knew Ronald Reagan very intimately. Peter Robinson, his speechwriter, James Baker, George Schultz, Ron Reagan, his son, Michael Reagan, his son, you got the sense that the Reagan that they knew intimately is an enormously different person from the fictional Ronald Reagan that is invoked by political actors across America. There's a huge gulf between how Reagan felt about issues, what he actually did in office, and the lies that are told to us, the myths that are spun today. And why is that? Because a lot of these actors don't really have policies and programs that would appeal to the public. They don't sell well and so you need good packaging. Ronald Reagan is a proven brand. Just as he was once used by General Electric, so, too, today he is being used by so many people who want to sell a particular product and want to use Reagan's brand. It does him a disservice, and, of course, it misleads us as Americans as how he would have thought about issues and therefore, if we love him, how we might want to think about issues.

- Brad Wilmouth is a news analyst at the Media Research Center.