Sounding remarkably like American liberals and journalists at the time – not to be redundant – last week’s episode of FX’s The Americans set in the early 1980s (a new episode runs tonight), included a scene in which a KGB operative, working in the United States, sputtered in disgust at President Ronald Reagan on her TV: “Look at him. He’ll do anything. He doesn’t care. Kids, nuns, journalists -- he doesn’t care.”
That came from “Elizabeth Jennings,” played by Keri Russell, as she watched Reagan speak on TV, a speech I figured out was delivered at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) dinner held at the Mayflower hotel on Friday, February 26, 1982.
The FX show, centered around husband and wife KGB undercover agents who live with their kids as ordinary Americans in suburban Washington, DC, showed this portion of Reagan’s speech, ending in audience applause:
The Soviet Union outspends us on defense by 50 percent, an amount equal to 15 percent of their gross national product. During the campaign, I was asked any number of times, if I were faced with a choice of balancing the budget or restoring our national defenses, what would I do? Every time, I said, “Restore our defenses,” and every time, I was applauded.
# Text of Reagan’s 1982 speech, as posted by the college near his ranch, the University of California at Santa Barbara; as posted by the University of Texas.
# Video on YouTube of the entire Reagan address, as posted by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation.
Not so accurate about the scene set in the “Jennings” bedroom, in which the audio of Reagan carried on in the background beyond the above portion: What over-the-air television station in DC in 1982 would have aired 90 uninterrupted seconds of Reagan (or carried such a speech live from a hotel ballroom)?
Just before “Elizabeth” denounces Reagan in an obvious allusion to charges Reagan caused the deaths of nuns, kids and crusading journalists in Central America – a standard domestic left-wing talking point at the time -- she and her husband, “Philip,” ironically, discuss murdering a Navy officer who is no longer useful since he has provided them with the necessary information on how to infiltrate a Contra training camp. They then fret about how submarine propeller information they stole turned out to be fake, so when installed on a Soviet sub it sank, killing all aboard. In that operation, the two of them murdered a warehouse employee who stumbled upon them.
And just a few scenes earlier in the April 16 episode, “Elizabeth” wanted to murder a truck driver whose truck they planned to use to get inside the Contra training camp in Virginia.
I point out their murderous activity, to make clear that this show does not glamorize them or their cause.
My posts on The Americans (links below) are geared toward those interested in the portrayal of Ronald Reagan, a conservative hero, and for those interested in how some big 1980s events are painted. Moral equivalence between Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev by the news media was a major concern of conservatives in the 1980s, and I think some have assumed The Americans is guilty of that. I do not.
To me, while it does humanize operatives for what Reagan correctly described as “an evil empire,” the program has been careful to convey how their cause is hardly to be admired. The FBI agents are clearly the good guys, even if the lead character agent is morally compromised through his sexual liaison with the Soviet operative. But he’s not shown as an evil manipulator to the extent Soviet agent “Philip Jennings” is in his under-handed treatment of the FBI clerk he married.
And the episode with Philip and Elizabeth kidnaping a refusnik, treating him brutally and sending him back to the Soviet Union, really showed the immorality of their cause. I don’t think you could watch that and see them as heroic figures. Plus, their lectures to their daughter about not lying or being deceitful are quite obviously very hypocritical.
My previous posts on The Americans, in order from the first episode, in late January of 2013, and moving to newer episodes:
> Three Scenes in FX’s ‘The Americans’ Which Should Hearten Conservatives
> FX’s ‘The Americans’ Imagines Moment When Soviets Learned of Reagan’s Plan to Deploy SDI
> ‘Conservative’ Journalist on Reagan: ‘I Hope the Bastard Bleeds to Death on the Operating Table’
> Successful KGB Operation to Discredit an Anti-Soviet Polish Priest Portrayed on FX’s ‘The Americans’
> FX’s The Americans Returns Tonight; Last Season: Reagan ‘Chicken Hawks,’ SDI a ‘Fantasy’ of Deluded Reagan
> Related: Bozell & Graham column: “‘Close Observers of History’ Hate Ollie North”