The Corner

NBC Exec Behind Hillary Series Put ‘Historically Questionable’ anti-Reagan Film On Air in 2003

Yesterday, CNN announced it was joining the parade of film projects on Hillary Clinton in the run-up to her likely campaign for president in 2016. It will produce a feature-length documentary, directed by liberal filmmaker Charles Ferguson, for release in theaters and then later show it on the network. 

It joins two other projects on Hillary that have been announced recently: a theatrical film called Rodham about Hillary’s days as a young lawyer on the Nixon House impeachment committee and a four-hour mini-series on Hillary starring Diane Lane that will appear on NBC. Politico reported that the sudden pile-on to produce Hillary projects even prompted a source close to Clinton to accuse CNN of focusing on Hillary to simply turn a fast buck. “I don’t know if I’m appalled or impressed,” the source told Politico. “Either way, they have some explaining to do on how they’re going to manage the conflict between news standards and the profit imperative. I’m not sure they know.”

Many people aren’t sure if the makers of the Hillary projects know the many minefields they will have to cross. 

What caught my eye when NBC announced its mini-series last Saturday was that it would only be covering Hillary’s life from the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998 onwards. So Lane, who is eye-stoppingly beautiful at 48 years old, will only be portraying Hillary from the age of 50 to her current age of 66 and later. It didn’t make any sense till I realized that airbrushing the first half-century of the former First Lady’s life away meant the pro-Hillary filmmakers wouldn’t have to deal with the messy collection of scandals she was involved in during her husband’s first term, from Whitewater to Travelgate to FBI Filegate to controversies over what a federal judge called a “cover-up” of her health-care task force’s records.

Bob Greenblatt, the head of NBC Entertainment, is promising his mini-series will be “even-handed” in covering Hillary, telling reporters: “I don’t think she will endorse it.” 

But he certainly doesn’t want to talk more about how he will ensure that. He didn’t respond to my request for an interview, just as he declined to talk with me back in 2003 when he was director of entertainment at Showtime, the pay cable network. 

Back then, the controversy I wanted to talk with him about was his decision to have Showtime air The Reagans, a TV movie on Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s life originally bought by CBS. The New York Times obtained a copy of the script and pointed out several scenes the Times called “historically questionable.” Ronald Reagan was depicted more or less acknowledging he was an informer for the Hollywood blacklist during the McCarthy era. Another showed Nancy Reagan begging her husband to help AIDS patients only to be told, “They that live in sin shall die in sin.” Lou Cannon, Reagan’s most prolific biographer and no right-winger, scoffed at the film saying the blacklisting charge was “really wrong” and that “Reagan was not intolerant.” 

The backlash prompted Barbra Streisand — whose husband, James Brolin, played Reagan in the film — to claim the ensuing controversy had been whipped up by the Drudge Report and Republicans who couldn’t stomach the exposure of “the more unpleasant truths about his character and presidency.”  

But CBS couldn’t defend the film against charges it was pure, nasty fiction. CBS president Les Moonves maintained the rough cut he saw wasn’t the version the network had promised viewers. “We thought it had a very specific point of view that we thought was contrary to what we planned to air.” He told Daily Variety that his decision not to use it “was a moral decision, not an economic or a political one.” He dumped the film in the lap of CBS-owned Showtime, where Greenblatt agreed to air it.

Greenblatt held firm against requests he edit the “historically questionable” parts of the film, whose plot line can be summarized as “President Fuddy Duddy Dominated by Mommie Dearest.” His one concession was to take out the mean-spirited AIDS line attributed to Reagan. “That is the one political give that we agreed to,” Greenblatt told the Boston Globe. He also arranged for a panel discussion to follow the film that featured both Lou Cannon and AIDS activist Hilary Rosen.

The Reagans garnered mediocre ratings, failing to break the top 40 cable shows the week it aired. But at least at 180 minutes it covered all of Reagan’s life from young actor to his dotage. At the same 180 minutes, NBC’s mini-series on Hillary will cover just 15 years of her tumultuous life.

I have no doubt that NBC’s Hillary epic will do far better than The Reagans. Let’s just hope that Greenblatt sticks to his commitment that the film will be “even-handed.” The last time he green-lighted a film on a controversial political subject he fell well short of that mark. 

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