"The Reagans," the controversial made-for-TV movie finally made its way into American homes this week -- but not nearly as many homes as originally planned after CBS moved it to its smaller, premium cable channel Showtime. I watched the entire three-hour melodrama in order to participate in a special Showtime panel discussion, aired after the movie, along with five other people who were invited to comment.
The other guests included Reagan biographer and former Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon; veteran newsman Marvin Kalb; longtime Reagan advisor Martin Anderson, who is also the editor of three published collections of Ronald Reagan's letters, speeches and radio commentaries; as well as two Reagan critics, AIDS activist Hillary Rosen and the film's co-producer Carl Anthony. Anyone who tuned into the discussion, however, might have thought the panelists had seen two entirely different movies, so little could we agree on what we'd seen.
Cannon, Kalb, Anderson and I agreed that the movie was not only factually flawed but bore the unmistakable mark of deep animus toward President Reagan. I thought the president came off as more or less a dolt, a man easily manipulated by others, indifferent to the suffering not only of AIDS victims but his own children.
It's almost impossible to believe that the director, producers and writers of "The Reagans" didn't intend to portray Ronald Reagan in this way. Indeed, the movie's two most prominent themes were that Reagan was somehow responsible for the AIDS crisis that killed thousands of mostly gay men during his presidency, and that he was so out-to-lunch during his time in the White House that he was nearly impeached over the Iran-Contra scandal.
The movie opens and closes on the Iran-Contra theme. The opening shot is of a stricken Reagan -- looking as if he is already in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's, a cruel and vindictive touch -- as Nancy and presidential aide Mike Deaver inform him he faces impeachment for selling arms for hostages. "The evidence is overwhelming," Deaver tells a tearful Nancy.
I could hardly believe my eyes and ears. Ronald Reagan never faced any threat of impeachment. Indeed, when I searched a database of articles from major newspapers from November 1986, when the Iran-Contra arms deal story first broke, to January 1989, when President Reagan left office, there were only a handful of mentions of impeachment related to Iran-Contra, and most of these were from columnist Mary McGrory, a famously left-wing partisan.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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