Ronald Reagan stars in National Portrait Gallery exhibit

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In the movies and in politics, Ronald Reagan was usually the star of the show. He's the star once again in a new exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. It’s called “One Life: Ronald Reagan” and uses portraits and artifacts to give a sense of the man who became the 40th president.

Sidney Hart says Ronald Reagan made a difference, "whether you liked him or not."

Hart is senior historian at the National Portrait Gallery. We're in the One Life exhibit and we're surrounded by movie posters, a piece of the Berlin Wall and a page of doodles on White House stationery. Hart says Reagan was a man "derided by many. Clark Clifford, the Democrat, called him 'an amiable dunce.' But this was a man who had six successful careers, beginning with sports announcer on radio all the way to the presidency."

The exhibit to honor the Reagan Centennial opens with a black-and-white snapshot of what looks like a picture-perfect American family, the Reagans of Dixon, Illinois: father Jack, mother Nellie and two sons, Neil and Ronald. Hart says Ronald Reagan's father "was a binge alcoholic, had a tough time keeping a job. His mother Nellie really held the family together, and gave Reagan his love for drama."

And speaking of drama, the exhibit includes the poster for “King’s Row” where Reagan utters the line that became the title of his autobiography, "where’s the rest of me?" Hart says the film tells the tale of "this seemingly pleasant town, but underneath there’s all kinds of frictions and dark secrets."

A metaphor for Washington? Hart doesn’t think so. But he says Reagan’s experience negotiating with Hollywood studio moguls as president of the Screen Actors Guild was the perfect preparation for arms control talks with the Soviet Union. "When he was president," Hart says, "somebody once asked him if Gorbachev was a tough negotiator. And he said not nearly as tough as Jack Warner."

Hart’s favorite image of Reagan is a cheerful 1986 Time Magazine cover, shot by Diana Walker. "I used it in a very mischievous way to deal with how Reagan broke up the strike of the air traffic controllers and fired all of the air traffic controllers to indicate yeah, he might have looked amiable, but he could be exceedingly tough."

There’s an oil painting of Reagan in blue jeans and a western shirt and a bronze sculpture by Patrick Oliphant – a nod to the Reagan who loved nothing more than riding his horse around his California ranch. "The ranch, as he quipped, might not have been heaven," Hart recounts, "but it was in the same zip code."

The Reagan Library loaned the gallery a harmonica that was found in one of the former president’s desk drawers after his death. Hart says Reagan taught himself to play while he recuperated from the 1981 assassination attempt. "When asked about it, he said he only played one tune. That was 'Red River Valley,' and he only did that when he took his hearing aid out."

The exhibit “One Life: Ronald Reagan” is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery through the end of May.

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