Politics & Policy

Inventing Reagan

Nielsen family values.

“There you go again.” That was the affable but cutting counter Ronald Reagan made famous during the presidential debates, after his opponent would make some twisted charge. Reagan would then simply and frankly explain how they were wrong. His gentlemanly insistence on not being manipulated drove Democrats nuts. Well, here they go again, again. In mid-November, in the middle of “sweeps,” when the networks usually trot out their very best programming in a bid to score high ratings to justify high advertising rates, CBS is planning to dump an unbelievably biased version of Ronald Reagan’s presidency into America’s living rooms. Called The Reagans, the spelling of the title is probably the only accurate part of the production. Judging from the accounts that have been creeping into the press and the promotional bits played by Matt Drudge as a fill-in host on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, the miniseries is a vicious smear of Reagan and his wife Nancy.

The Reagans casts James Brolin as Reagan. He is the husband of Barbra Streisand who, reportedly, spent weeks on the set giving him and the filmmakers her helpful advice. Brolin presents Reagan as a dim-witted actor of modest ability manipulated by a self-centered, domineering wife who is contemptuous of underlings. One suspects that Brolin had little difficulty getting “into” this role, but it is a portrait of Reagan that is unrecognizable outside of an old, lame Saturday Night Live skit. It is a caricature. Indeed, Brolin’s heavily rouged, orange-haired Reagan is a caricature of the standard liberal caricature of Reagan. He is a doddering fool, stumbling around using his acting talents to pass for a statesman. His power-mad wife and a cabal of evil advisors make his decisions for him. His public affability and patriotism are just a façade over sanctimonious religious bigotry. When the film’s Nancy Reagan advises him that the federal government should take steps to deal with AIDS, the film quotes him as saying, “They that live in sin shall die in sin.” There is no source for such a quote, and the scriptwriter admits she invented the line, but this doesn’t matter to the filmmakers. It serves their purpose, sliming Reagan.

It has become part of liberal folklore to blame Reagan for the AIDS epidemic because he didn’t immediately launch a massive research and education campaign when it first erupted. The fact is that for years, the danger of AIDS wasn’t accurately understood by most. Few guessed how terrible a scourge it would become. Even the gay community didn’t recognize the danger. Today, many have forgotten how confused everyone was by the appearance of a horrible illness that seemed like some monstrous plague risen from the Dark Ages.

With 20/20 hindsight, pundits have condemned Reagan for being slow to react, forgetting their own ignorance. They also forget that the federal research and educational programs that are now fighting AIDS were launched by the Reagan administration. Was enough money devoted to AIDS? Probably not. Enough money is seldom allocated to any disease, from cancer to tuberculosis. We’ll only know how much is enough after a cure is produced. In the meantime, the sums and the choices made will be debated, and if such a discussion was the substance of The Reagans, it might prove useful in helping us learn how to deal with future health threats. But that’s not what’s presented. Instead, we’re given a false history to justify hatred for Reagan. It also justifies complacency in those who failed to make the case for urgent action or did nothing at all to fight AIDS during the 1980s. They can excuse themselves by blaming Reagan.

Nancy Reagan gets an even more over-the-top character assassination in The Reagans. Australian actress Judy Davis is cast as Nancy, and she plays her as a combination of Joan Crawford, Leona Helmsley, and Cruella De Vil, with a little Marie Antoinette tossed in. She is arch, cold, and disdainful, with an aristocratic manner of speaking that is nothing like the real Nancy Reagan, who is of middle-class background. Like Brolin’s Ronald, Davis’s Nancy is a caricature of the caricature Reagan haters use to define her.

A suggestion of perversion is thrown into The Reagans, by having Ronald refer to Nancy as “Mommy” during romantic moments. If we all had to answer for the pet names we use and are given, there’d be a lot of red-faced “Snooky Ookums” and “Hunny Wunny Sugar Bums” looking for corners to hide. Can you imagine what Brolin uses for Streisand? During the early years of the last century, the time when Reagan was growing up, it was the common custom for a husband to refer to his wife, if they had children, as “Mother” or, more familiarly, as “Mommy.” It was a tribute to the role of mother that grew out of ordinary domestic conversation. Dad would, when talking to Mom in front of the kids, refer to her respectfully as “Mother” and not by her first name because that wasn’t how the children knew her. Mom would do the same in reverse, using “Father.” After years of this, it was natural for spouses to refer to each other in this way, even when the children had long left the family nest. Catch an old Andy Hardy film on the late, late show and you’ll see Judge Hardy calling his wife “Mother.” It was considered a classy thing to do and even romantic, in that it recalled the children the couple had raised together. Using this custom to suggest a creepy relationship is a cheap, heartless shot.

Nancy Reagan gets more rough treatment when The Reagans brings up the expenses of redecorating the White House. She is portrayed as extravagant and desirous of luxury. It’s the same attack that was made when she accepted an expensive set of china for the White House. Political enemies clucked and wagged their fingers at her “spending” so much on dishes when poor Americans were presumably eating their meals off of flat rocks. If only she weren’t so wasteful, they told the rubes, you could get a piece of that money and eat on bone china. The fact was that the new china was replacing damaged dishware and wasn’t being bought with public funds; it was being bought with donations from people who liked the Reagans and liked the White House and wanted to be associated with both. It was actually a great bargain for the government. All they had to do was unpack it when it was delivered.

Another bit of stale controversy from the Reagan years is dredged up to slam Nancy in The Reagans. When an official suggested that ketchup should be treated like a vegetable when planning school lunches, an explosion of indignation followed. How cruel to force children to skip a hearty bowl of boiled, government broccoli! In The Reagans, virtually out of thin air, the old issue is revived, with a sneering Nancy Reagan snapping, “Ketchup is a vegetable! It is not a meat, right? So IT IS a vegetable.” It’s meant to be a “Let them eat cake” moment. Never mind that there’s no record of Nancy publicly saying such a thing. Done with lots of high camp and ominous background music, the miniseries viewers are supposed to accept it as true. As it is with the false “wages of sin” statement attributed to her husband, what’s important to the makers of The Reagans isn’t the truth. They want to create a nasty image of Nancy in the public mind, then make it the “truth” through repetition. Unfortunately, as history has shown, the tactic works.

Public officials can easily be slandered when they happen to be hated by the makers of popular culture. Years ago, the wife of a mob boss pursued by J. Edgar Hoover decided to make up a rumor to get some payback for the FBI boss’s “persecution” of her honest, gangster husband. She told a reporter that the Mob had photos of Hoover in a dress. She didn’t have copies of the photos. Nobody else had copies. No one ever backed her claim in any way. But the media hated Hoover and the story delighted them. It was repeated and embellished endlessly, till the image of Hoover in a cocktail dress is now more firmly established in American folklore than young George Washington and the cherry tree. Hoover was a controversial figure with detractors on both the Right and the Left who criticized him for his investigations, but it is by his actions, not the smears spewed up by his enemies, that he should be judged.

The substitution of propaganda for fact is dangerous. It’s not by accident that tyrants create “history” to justify their schemes. Hitler couldn’t have taken control of Germany without the many anti-Semitic myths that had been allowed to fester and go unchallenged. Stalin and Mao couldn’t have kept a heel on the neck of their countries without self-glorifying myths that demonized anyone who stood in their way. In this case, simple justice demands that the lies about Ronald and Nancy Reagan must not go unchallenged but, in a larger sense, truth itself must be defended. Attempts to distort our history must be resisted. Historical truth is simply too valuable to be made a plaything for biased filmmakers rewriting it to fit their politics.


So, what can we do?

A boycott of the sponsors of The Reagans is a start. Don’t buy anything advertised during this broadcast. Write or e-mail the sponsors and CBS to tell them of your choice. This may help prevent such biased productions in the future. You can also write newspapers and magazines to protest the miniseries and to encourage others to boycott sponsors. A boycott of sponsors, however, doesn’t reach CBS directly. They are airing The Reagans during Sweeps, hoping controversy about it will spike their ratings. High ratings during Sweeps allows them to charge higher rates for advertising. They are willing to take heat from sponsors if their ad rates can be inflated. It can produce millions for them in the future. The only way to defeat this despicable exploitation is to try to reduce the CBS’s ratings.

Television ratings are produced by Nielsen Media Research. They recruit American families to voluntarily supply them with data about their viewing choices. It is these families who determine which television programs succeed. They are the only effective boycotters. So, for CBS to feel any displeasure with their broadcast of The Reagans the Nielsen families must boycott CBS. So let me address any Nielsen family members reading this:

I appeal to all Nielsen families to boycott not only The Reagans but to boycott all CBS programming during Sweeps Week. This is a time for you, whether you are Republicans, Democrats, or Independents, to tell CBS that it’s not right to lie to the American people about their country’s history. Tell CBS that the truth is important to you by boycotting their lies.

It’s not as if there aren’t other choices. You can tune in Court TV and see liars being prosecuted. You can watch ESPN, where there are rules about how the games are played. There’s the History Channel, where the historical record is respected or the Discovery Channel, where you might catch some nice nature show. Maybe something with chimpanzees–Reagan liked Bonzo. MTV might be running Punk’d, the show where a Hollywood actor lies to other celebrities and tricks them into making fools of themselves. And there’s E! They might be showing one of their celebrity biographies. Maybe even one on Barbra Streisand. Perhaps they’ll quote Walter Matthau, one of her film costars, who said, “I had no disagreement with Barbra Streisand. I was merely exasperated at her tendency to be a complete megalomaniac.” Or film critic Rex Reed, who said, “To know her is not necessarily to love her.”


As for Ronald and Nancy Reagan, their story is a lot better than The Reagans. He was a small-town, Illinois kid from a modest home. He became a college football star and lifeguard who saved dozens of lives before going into sports radio, where he was an announcer for the Chicago Cubs. He got a break and was cast to play a radio announcer in a film and became a star in Hollywood during its Golden Age. His career had ups and downs. He married an actress who divorced him when her career rose above his. During World War II, at 30, he enlisted in the Army, where poor eyesight relegated him to the unglamorous task of making training films. He returned to entertainment films after the war and became a labor leader. He was caught up in the anti-Communist controversies of the 1950s and did the best he could as he saw it. When his film career faded, Reagan didn’t blame retribution for his politics, he just moved on. Television was then considered a step down for a film actor, but he embraced it and was successful. In 1952, Reagan married a second actress, Nancy, who, at age seven, had been a guest at a White House Easter Egg Roll hosted by Grace Coolidge.

Nancy became a true partner for her husband. They shared the problems of child-rearing during a time when children were virtually required to rebel, and they shared political views when Reagan began publicly speaking on current events. His ideas were well received and he became governor of California, and then, after one unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination, he was elected president of the United States. His personal hardships and setbacks had never destroyed his optimism, and he infused this spirit into an America suffering from what Jimmy Carter so memorably called “malaise.” When Reagan was nearly killed by a disturbed assassin, his humor and courage impressed all but his fanatical enemies. His economic policies produced the longest period of prosperity in modern American history. His foreign policy reversed years of uncertainty with a policy of strength. With the help of Pope John Paul II, Reagan confronted Communism in Poland, triggering the fall of the Iron Curtain. His military policies so badly strained the Soviet Union that it collapsed and the Cold War, the longest and most dangerous of all wars, was won by the West. After he left office, Reagan fell victim to Alzheimer’s disease. His wife stood by him as his mind clouded and his world shrank. When his daughter Maureen died, she kept the news from him to spare him extra pain. Nancy bravely endured the horror of watching her husband forget all that they had shared. Fair-minded people share her sadness for they know that Reagan loved his country and strived to do his best for it. While he made mistakes and didn’t solve all the world’s problems, he certainly did more than any other politician of his time to improve humanity’s lot.

It’s quite a story. Maybe someone should make a movie about it.


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