Mon, 09 Feb 2009 03:03:58 +0000 – Where have you gone, Ronald Reagan? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
And now, thanks to a remarkable new documentary film, "Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous with Destiny,"all Americans can take inspiration from the life and works of our 40th President.
The world premiere was held at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on Friday night--the Gipper's 98th birthday.
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Narrated by Newt and Callista Gingrich, "Rendezvous" takes us through Reagan's life, from his birth in 1911 to his death in 2004, with special emphasis, of course, on the years of his presidency, 1981 to 1989. Along the way, we are reminded of the long journey he took, from small-town boyhood in the Midwest to Hollywood moviedom, from labor-union activism to political activism. In the film, there's a great shot of a 30-something Reagan sitting on stage while President Harry Truman is speaking.
The film focuses on two big missions of the Reagan presidency: reviving the US economy and defeating communism.
So we go back to the '70s, to Jimmy Carter, stagflation, and "malaise." What was needed was something new: the supply-side revolution, as explained on camera by Jack Kemp, who made marginal tax-rate cuts his life's work, and other later converts to the cause, such as Reagan's White House chief of staff-turned Treasury Secretary, James Baker.
And so the introductory remarks of Newt Gingrich before the film took on added significance; as the Georgia Republican told the Kennedy Center audience, "We have been here before." That is, at a time when America, in 2009, is beleaguered by the bad effects of careless fiscal and monetary policy, we should remember that Reagan faced similar challenges 30 years ago--and that he, and all Americans, triumphed over them.
Or as David Bossie, co-producer of the film, quipped in his opening remarks, "Ronald Reagan was the original 'yes we can' president."
The film's treatment of foreign policy--turning back the "evil empire"--is, if anything, longer and stronger. Bolstered by interviews with Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, and Natan Sharansky, "Rendezvous" shows how Reagan, veteran negotiator that he was, built up his anti-Soviet hand with a combination of rhetoric, military spending increases, and economic growth. Of course, Reagan had allies, most notably Thatcher and the late Pope John Paul II; as John O'Sullivan and George Weigel explain on camera, the trio of Reagan, Thatcher, and the pope changed history in a way that almost nobody (but the three of them) foresaw.
Yet just as crucially, when the Soviet Union finally produced a leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who could see that communism was failing, Reagan was willing to deal--and so the result was an arms control agreement in 1987 that calmed the situation prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. That epochal event, the film reminds us, occurred just a few months after Reagan left office.
As Newt Gingrich observed, the totality of his personality and of his presidency gave Reagan "a moral force that was unique."
And that brings up one omission in the film: Good as it is, "Rendezvous" doesn't deal with other aspects of the Reagan presidency, such as the role of social conservatives, including the pro-life movement, and of supporters of the Second Amendment, school prayer, and traditional family values.
But of course, this is only a movie. And it is a first--the first-ever feature-length documentary about Reagan.
At a time when Hollywood is grinding out four-hour love songs to the communist Che Guevara, it is laudable that others outside of the Hollywood "leftstream"--Bossie, the Gingriches, and writer-director Kevin Knoblock--have done something different: They have begun a vital process of historical reassessment. It is now for others to fill out the portrait of Ronald Reagan and his times--or perhaps for the "Rendezvous" team to make a sequel to their pioneering effort.
One useful subject for a future film would be the role that Gingrich and the Congressional Republicans played during the Reagan era--how they worked together, sometimes bumpily, but ultimately constructively, to create the Reagan Revolution.
Newt Gingrich modestly makes no mention of his own role in the political and policy battle of the 80s, but he was there, and he made himself into a great force at a young age by the strength of his intellect and personality.
Elected to Congress in 1978, Gingrich was a backbencher in the minority party all through the Reagan years, and yet he was hugely influential in reshaping the House Republicans and, eventually, the entire Republican Party. Gingrich and his young-turk allies in the House--Dick Armey, Vin Weber, Bob Walker--used the then-radical idea of appearing on C-SPAN at night to beam out support for what Gingrich dubbed the "conservative opportunity society" and opposition to the "liberal welfare state" of Tip O'Neill and the Democrats.
It might seem like long ago and far away, back to the days when cable TV was the cutting-edge technology, but Gingrich's insurgent efforts made a big difference, undercutting the stale liberalism that dominated Congress. There's a whole 'nother documentary right there.
Because, as Gingrich said on Friday night, the great debate in the 1970s was "the party of the American people vs. the party of government." To today's Republicans, emerging from the haze of the last few years, that dichotomy, the people vs. the government, is a crucial tool for understanding both policy and politics. Reagan understood that people-against-the-state dichotomy then, and Gingrich understands it now.
As Newt said on February 6, 2009, "We have been here before." Such wisdom is the Gipper's greatest gift to us: the realization that just as we have overcome big challenges in the past, so we can do it again in the future.