The Untouchable

Reagan, CBS, and the politics of devotion.


Pat Buchanan, voicing a common conservative view, called the CBS docu-drama, “The Reagans,” an “Orwellian rewrite” of history, whereas the New York Times said the program’s coerced withdrawal was evidence of a “Soviet-style chill.” Whatever the case — and, in fairness to critics of “The Reagans,” the series was by most accounts damagingly inaccurate in more than a few particulars — the exceptional, and exceptionally successful, effort by conservatives to get the show yanked illustrates a striking fact of contemporary American politics: Ronald Reagan, for conservatives, is a bona fide saint, a mythic figure created by wishful thinking and protected by political correctness.

The film apparently portrays Reagan as callous towards AIDS victims (“They that live in sin shall die in sin”), has him call himself “the anti-Christ,” hints that he had Alzheimer’s during his second term, shows him manipulated by a scheming Nancy, and claims he supplied names to McCarthy’s Hollywood blacklist. None of which (apart from the first, of which more below) are demonstrably true, and at least one of which (the last) is demonstrably false.

So conservatives have a point; but nothing could have prepared us, or CBS, for the vehemence of the conservative response, or the fanciful airbrushing of Reagan’s legacy that underlay it. During a recent interview with Mike Paranzino, the founder of the boycottcbs.com website that led the campaign to scuttle the mini-series, Fox’s Bill O’ Reilly said, “You know, what’s interesting about this is that people are going to get really angry about this because they have an emotional tie to the Reagans,” a bond strengthened by Reagan’s advanced age — he’s 92 — and far-gone Alzheimer’s.

Forget the Ronald Reagan of Iran Contra, the failed drug war, mass unemployment, sink-or-swim social policy, and “voodoo economics.” According to John Averyt, a columnist for chronwatch.com , a conservative media watch website, Ronald Reagan remains a visionary who created the blueprints for a conservative revolution.

“His inauguration brought the Iran hostages home. Although the media decried his tax cuts, those tax cuts accelerated economic growth. The stock market exploded into the biggest bull market ever known. Millions of jobs and businesses thrived…A military build-up began. His forward-thinking men introduced the high tech weapons of today. One by one the problems fell to his firm ideals. Re-elected by a landslide in 1984, Reagan grew to be loved.”

Not quite, says David Corn of The Nation, though he allows that “The Reagans” is inaccurate in parts.

“I noted that since the movie, as far as I could tell, does not detail how Reagan had cozied up to the apartheid regime of South Africa, the murderous dictator of Chile, and the death-squad-enabling government of El Salvador, it indeed has a problem with accuracy.”

Such arguments are lost on the likes of Linda Chavez, a former Reagan White House staffer, who argues in a column posted on townhall.com that the CBS film is of a piece with a wider Hollywood distaste for American conservatism . Chavez writes that “the fantasy [of the mini-series] fits perfectly with Hollywood’s antipathy not only for Reagan but for conservatives in general, all of whom are presumed to be intolerant, callous and stupid.”

Republican National Committee president Ed Gillespie took exception to the program’s implication that Reagan’s slow response to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s — Reagan didn’t use the word AIDS publicly until the seventh year of his presidency, by which time thousands had died of it — was a function of his anti-gay views. In a letter to the President of CBS Television Gillespie wrote:

“It’s been reported that Elizabeth Egloff, a playwright who wrote the final version of the script, acknowledged there was no evidence that President Reagan ever said, ‘They that live in sin shall die in sin,” but defended its inclusion by saying, “we know he ducked the issue (AIDS) over and over again, and we know she was the one who got him to deal with it.'”

But according to Everett Koop, Reagan’s Surgeon General, the Gipper once told him that “because transmission of AIDS was understood primarily in the homosexual population and in those who abused intravenous drugs, the advisors to the President took the stand [that AIDS victims] are only getting what they justly deserve.” And according to Reagan’s official biographer, Reagan also said that “maybe the Lord brought down this plague” because “illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments.”

Andrew Sullivan, the conservative — and gay — commentator, who is himself HIV+, doesn’t mention any of this when blasting the attack on a “beloved president.”

“[T]his biopic seems to me to be almost one of a kind. It was so egregiously designed to attack a beloved president in his waning years, so riddled with obvious lies and distortions, so hateful in its intent, that I doubt any major network would have gotten away with it in any time. … If the miniseries had run, the backlash would have been so great, the exposure of the poisonous bias in parts of CBS so final, it might have helped destroy the already-flailing old media network.”

Galvanized by the threat to Reagan’s halo, the Republican Party is taking matters into its own hands. Prominently displayed on isupportreagan.org , a website paid for by the Republican National Committee, is an advertisement for a forthcoming video series produced by the GOP called “Real Reagan.” The advertisement claims that, “proceeds from the sale of the Real Reagan Video Series will be applied to a media campaign to ensure that the American people know the real story about former President Reagan.” No television stations have yet shown an interest in broadcasting this film.

– Matteen Mokalla