Who Owns the Legacy of Ronald Reagan in the 2016 Election?

Which of the current Presidential candidates can truly claim Ronald Reagan’s legacy? National Geographic Channel’s Killing Reagan shows that the question is not so simple.

National Geographic Channel’s world premiere television movie event “Killing Reagan” airs Sunday, October 16 at 8/7c.

Say what you will about Mike Pence, but the Republican vice presidential nominee is not known for his comedic talents. Still, the Indiana Governor generated more than a few chuckles when he spoke at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, earlier this month and acknowledged that there are a few stylistic differences between the man whose name hung over the door and current Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

It’s difficult to picture the genial 40th president trading insults with a sitting Senator the way the real estate tycoon has done on Twitter and elsewhere. But Pence argued these differences were superficial—questions of personality more than substance. In terms of policy—deregulation, tax cuts, more military spending, and appointing conservative judges to the Supreme Court—Reagan and Trump are in lock-step, according to Pence. And both men, he argued, were underestimated as lightweights leading up to their respective elections.

Whether or not you agree with his assessment, Pence's words demonstrate the long shadow cast over our current presidential election by the man who was sworn into his first term 36 years ago. And yet, as revealed in National Geographic Channel’s Killing Reagan (premiering Sunday, Oct. 16 at 8/7c), based on the bestselling book by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, Reagan could be quite different than how he is portrayed by either party vying for his former office. Perhaps the man was altogether more complex than the mythologized version of Reagan we know today, shaped by both the Republican and Democratic parties.

As to which of the two candidates truly owns the Reagan legacy? The film, which stars West Wing’s Tim Matheson and Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon as the President and First Lady Nancy Reagan, respectively, and focuses on the days surrounding the March 30th, 1981, attempt on Reagan’s life, shows that even that question is not so cut and dry.

For one thing, Killing Reagan shows that the 40th president could be combative when he needed to be. It also demonstrates that he possessed a willingness to diplomatically engage with foreign leaders even while clearly labeling them as the enemy. This seems more in keeping with the Democratic candidate’s world view than the Republican’s.

“It is fascinating to think about the ‘Evil Empire’ rhetoric in light of the current relationship between the US and Russia,” says Terri Bimes, Lecturer and Assistant Director of Research for the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. “Reagan, of course, was very critical in a manner that is similar to the way Hillary is now, while Donald Trump has very favorable things to say about Vladimir Putin and Russia.”

Adds Bimes, “Hillary is more of an interventionist than Trump, and Ronald Reagan was also an interventionist.”

As the film powerfully demonstrates, the way that Reagan responded to the attempt on his life revealed his true nature as profoundly as any of his famous speeches did. While lying on a hospital gurney after being shot by a mentally ill college dropout named John Hinckley, Jr., he simply said, “I forgot to duck.” In its self-deprecation and quick humor, the remark suggests a personality seemingly very different from either of the two current candidates.

Then there is the matter of Nancy Reagan. The woman the former president called “Mommy” fussed over her husband and his campaign like a mother hen. (She had the clout to have senior members fired if she felt it was for the good of her Ronnie). Could anyone, spouse or otherwise, convince either of the current candidates to hire a secret White House astrologer? On that, we’ll just have to wait and see.

National Geographic Channel's world premiere television movie event "Killing Reagan" airs Sunday, October 16 at 8/7c.