Joe Conason's Journal

Reagan's real record on domestic issues was bad enough. So why script a cheap shot involving gays and AIDS?

Published November 5, 2003 9:12PM (EST)

"The Reagans," history, and right-wing p.c.
Choosing between history's fictionalizers and the hypocritical critics in the battle over "The Reagans" isn't easy -- particularly because the fictionalizers turned out to be rather cowardly as well. Like everyone else, I've enjoyed a televised docudrama from time to time -- awful though they tend to be -- but always with the nagging sense that such films do permanent damage. That the topic in this instance is a right-wing president, whose legacy is constantly being enlarged and whitewashed by his conservative mythologists, only suggests how important an honest account could be. I haven't read the script of "The Reagans," but it certainly doesn't sound as if accuracy was the primary objective of the writers.

There would be nothing wrong with CBS producing a critical biopic about the former president, although since he is old and ill the network might have waited to produce the film posthumously. And there is no shortage of truthful, unflattering, script-worthy material about him in the historical record, from his remarks about polluting trees to his ugly crack about Martin Luther King Jr. to his disgraceful performance in the Iran-contra scandal. The clipping files about Reagan's alliance with extremists on the religious right would surely have supplied much embarrassing material.

His real record on issues domestic and foreign was bad enough. So why invent a cheap shot involving gays and AIDS?

Today my friend Mark Crispin Miller sent around this Time magazine essay by Reagan's younger daughter Patti Davis about the film's distorted image of her father as a heartless homophobe.

In an accompanying note, Mark writes: "I'm as grossed out as the next guy (and the next guy is on his knees and heaving) over CBS's craven move to drop the Reagan biopic because of rightist pressure. Matt Drudge and his pals are all puffed up about it, which is in itself sufficient cause for nausea. However, we should also take [the Davis essay] into consideration. It nuances the picture, as the president would never say." That expresses my own sentiments precisely.

Of course, the conservative commissars who want to censor any negative images of Reagan from network TV are plenty galling in their appeals to "truth." Hannity, O'Reilly, Buchanan and all the rest adhere strictly to their own brand of political correctness; their concern for historical accuracy is nil.

Nobody on the right protested when Showtime aired that awful, tarted-up, Soviet-style TV movie about our heroic president last September. None of them cared that Lionel Chetwynd, the genius behind "D.C. 9/11," also happened to be a Bush backer and contributor handpicked by Karl Rove to produce this crucial propaganda piece. None of them minded that the journalists chosen to vet the accuracy of that piece of junk all worked for Fox. Back then, all the wingers liked Viacom -- parent of CBS and Showtime -- just fine.

Now those bold Viacom executives, whose intense need for regulatory favors from the White House and Congress surely never, ever influences a programming decision, should insist that the serious inaccuracies be removed from "The Reagans." The audience on Showtime will no doubt be bigger than anyone might have expected if the movie had been originally produced for cable -- thanks to all the loud bleating from the p.c. right.
[1 p.m. PST, Nov. 5, 2003]

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