This past weekend marked the passing of the seemingly ageless Mike Wallace, long-time TV newsman and journalist. CBS has put together 9 highlights from his long career on 60 Minutes. They are all worth watching, in order to see television reporting at its best (and more than likely as it will never be again), but I was particularly struck by this series of interviews with Ronald Reagan.
Being born in 1981, my early years coincided with his presidency. I remember seeing him on TV, but of course had very little notion of what kind of figure he was, nor did I fully grasp the shift that occurred as his tenure echoed through the first George Bush and then gave way to Bill Clinton. Watching this series of interviews is fascinating, as I think it puts a little bit more humanity back into a figure with an almost cult-like reverence among conservatives of the last 20 years.
Let me add here that I am not what I would consider a terribly political person, though I do like to stay informed about what is happening in the world. I think politicians of all stripes are largely liars and crooks who have let what probably began as good intentions become twisted into a sinister game that ultimately harms the people they pretend to represent. Beyond that, I consider myself quite liberal, which means I’m used to being angry when I read the news (though I’m sure those of conservative persuasion feel the same way). What interests me more is the historical context of major political figures. Whether you are interested in politics or not, these people have an effect on your life, and I don’t feel that’s something that can be ignored.
The effects of Reagan’s presidency continue to be apparent in the present day, 23 years after he left office. He’s regularly cited as a Republican hero by just about everyone on the right (though analysis of his actual policies occasionally reveals he was not the pure conservative Übermensch his acolytes wish he was). What I am only now coming to terms with is the portion of his life that led up to his presidency. He ran for office for the first time in 1968, six years after switching his allegiance from Democrat to Republican. He ran again unsuccessfully in 1976 and then successfully in 1980. This series of interviews gives a nice snapshot of those earlier years, as well as his years as president. What I found striking is the conviction he shows in his beliefs. It’s easy to see why people voted for him. He gets a lot of flack from his detractors for being merely an actor and not much of a president. That’s probably true to some degree, but whenever he talks about policy, whether it’s about his time as governor of California or what he intends to do as President, he doesn’t waiver very much. This is in stark contrast to the clown car that is the current batch of Republican candidates for President, who lie with the skill of children, and like children who have been caught lying, either lie again to try to cover it up or merely throw tantrums.
Speaking of tantrums, Reagan also differs from his present day counterparts in that he doesn’t give off any sense of a seething rage just below the surface. Occasionally Wallace confronts Reagan with information about his political record or some ideological stance opposed to his core beliefs, and each time he seems to take it to heart before responding thoughtfully. It’s almost disappointing that he doesn’t try to lock horns and accuse Wallace of playing “gotcha politics.”
Ultimately, he feels like an anachronism, even in his own time. I mean that in both the best and worst senses. Black and white can describe both his films and his political beliefs. He seems stubbornly opposed to the social changes brought about in the 1960s and 1970s, but there seems to be no malice behind it, as if he’s just some old relative who doesn’t quite understand how the world managed to shift around him. That folksy charm doesn’t feel like the put-on it does coming Sarah Palin. Perhaps I’m being duped by his acting ability, and he really is no different than today’s politicians, but it certainly feels different to me. Whether or not you believe what he believes, and for the most part I don’t, I am convinced that he believes it, and that is a quality that I don’t see in any politician today.