Is "The Path to 9/11" just "The Reagans" revisited? Not exactly

Angry pundits on the right had little to say about significant factual errors.

Published September 8, 2006 4:45PM (EDT)

Variety says that ABC's "The Path to 9/11" is "looking a lot like 'The Reagans, Part II.'" What Variety does not say is that there is a material difference between "The Reagans," the miniseries CBS canceled amid complaints from the right in 2003, and ABC's "The Path to 9/11," which the left would like to see reworked or canceled now. Most important: There were no errors of fact in "The Reagans" that even approach the significance of the mistakes in "The Path to 9/11."

Much of the conservative jihad against "The Reagans" focused on a single line of dialogue about people afflicted with AIDS. In a New York Times article, the screenwriter of the series said there was no evidence that Reagan ever said, "They that live in sin shall die in sin." Within days of that admission, Michael Reagan was decrying the assault on his dad's reputation to Hannity & Colmes, and MSNBC's Joe Scarborough was trading denunciations of the show with guest Pat Buchanan. Matt Drudge et al. piled on, and, within weeks, CBS had first offered to edit the show, &ageave; la ABC with "The Path to 9/11," and then exiled it to the Showtime network.

Sifting through the transcripts three years later, however, what's remarkable is how little these angry pundits had to say about actual historical error. What was really bothering them was that the series wasn't sufficiently reverential. On the right side of the aisle, failing to give Reagan credit for his accomplishments apparently qualifies as a factual error. Scarborough complained that the series didn't laud the former president for cutting taxes and growing the economy. Bill O'Reilly was irked that invented conversations in a female-skewing TV show that was mostly about the love affair between Ron and Nancy -- it was based on a book called "The First Ladies" -- didn't convey gravitas. "The dialogue between the Reagans," fumed O'Reilly, "makes Beavis and Butthead look like Ph.D.s."

But what about that supposed factual error? No, Ronald Reagan may never have said, "They that live in sin shall die in sin." But according to biographer Edmund Morris, he did say something just as ugly, dumb and quasi-biblical, and perhaps more sweeping. In "Dutch," a sympathetic, massive and exhaustively researched biography of the former president, Morris quotes Reagan as saying, "Maybe the Lord brought down this plague [because] illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments." Morris says the quote came from his notes of one of his many interviews with Reagan, and that the president was not distinguishing between homosexuals and heterosexuals when he said it.

By Mark Schone

Mark Schone is Salon's executive news editor.

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