True story: shortly after he was elected President in November 1980, Ronald Reagan was given an orientation to prepare for his new position as Commander-in-Chief of the United States. When shown the special White House chamber where top politicians and military officials were to gather in the event of an international crisis, Reagan expressed surprise that it wasn’t the cavernous “War Room” featured in Stanley Kubrick’s classic – and fictional – film Dr. Strangelove. Clearly, the simple-minded ex-movie star’s grasp on reality was as tenuous at the beginning of his term as at its end.
Actually, not true story. Though the War Room anecdote has been widely repeated by Reagan’s detractors, there are no confirmed accounts that the incoming president ever believed the Dr. Strangelove set was an authentic depiction of a real space. In 1979 Reagan had toured the American NORAD headquarters in Wyoming (which has been compared to the War Room created by Kubrick’s production designer Ken Adam), so he already had a basic understanding of the American defence system’s logistical structure. However naive or confused his views on politics and nuclear war – and he did sometimes reimagine Hollywood scenarios as factual events – this was one time when Reagan did not mistake cinematic invention for something genuine.
But the point here is that refuting one particular unflattering, apocryphal story about a controversial figure is not the same as defending him. There is still much in Reagan’s record to denounce, none of which needs embellishing with myth. The New Republic‘s Hendrik Hertzberg summed up his legacy: “a soul-crushing national debt, an ignoble Supreme Court, stark economic stratification, mounting racial fear, the impoverishment of public institutions, and a make-my-day brand of social discourse that revels in ugly contempt for losers.” Whether or not Reagan thought Dr. Strangelove was a documentary (and to be fair, the movie is a triumph of technical realism), he had plenty of other failings which can be much more easily verified.
Yet the polarization and partisanship of today is so extreme that critical tales which seem to play into an established narrative can be instantly accepted by whoever wants to believe them. Add to that the immediacy of the Internet and the possibilities of digital alteration of sounds and images, and you can get away with saying just about anything about anyone. Thus, Barack Obama is a socialist; George W. Bush is stupid; Bill Clinton is sleazy; Hillary Clinton is calculating; Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a robotic control freak; Ronald Reagan was a gullible fool intellectually warped by a career in show business – any rumour, however unsubstantiated, which might support such characterizations will be retold by opponents over and over. Rarely will anyone who’s taken a side qualify their denunciation by noting, “Hang on – he’s bad, but not that bad,” or, “Wait a minute – do we know this for certain?” Quibbling over little details like accuracy or honesty might brand you an apologist for whoever’s being put down. Denial sounds defensive.
Sometimes, of course, the rumors are quickly debunked. In 2004, presidential candidate John Kerry was hit by charges of cowardice during his Vietnam service, which turned out to be fabrications made by a partisan group; the same year, a purported letter granting a young George W. Bush preferential treatment in the US National Guard was similarly exposed as a fake. Just as often, though, a slander will persist, merely because it fits a preconceived notion and solidifies an established ideology: e.g. conservatives backward, liberals elitist, Ronald Reagan unable to distinguish fantasy from fact. Those ideologies may indeed be valid, but it’s remarkable how much falsehood we can countenance to back up what we’re convinced is true.
Postscript: The point made here is newly relevant after White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s recent “Holocaust centers” gaffe. Spicer, already a justified target for his confrontational style (not a good quality in a PR guy), was widely criticized for comparing Adolf Hitler to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, when he noted, “You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.” Of course, millions of Jews and others were murdered with the chemical agent Zyklon-B by Hitler’s Nazis. However, what Spicer was trying but unable to say with any coherence is that Hitler never authorized the use of chemical weapons in combat, the way Assad ostensibly has in the ongoing Syrian civil war. Even when attacking Jewish enclaves like the Warsaw ghetto, the German military deployed conventional arms, rather than drop sarin, chlorine, or mustard gas from the air on a populated area, as Assad’s regime seems to have done. This is not to in any way diminish Nazi war crimes – it’s just to point out that, while Sean Spicer is certainly a jerk employed by a bigger jerk, his initial statement was clumsy and insensitive but not, in strict technical terms, inaccurate.