"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.
While Rep. Lee Hamilton, the Democrat who chaired the Iran-Contra hearings in the House, made passing reference in a television interview to the possibility of impeachment if it turned out President Reagan knew funds were being diverted to fund the Contras, but it was an offhand remark from which he quickly pulled back. In fact, Hamilton told veteran reporter David Broder that he would not join those Democrats who say, ''a president should not conduct a covert action without approval of Congress. I think a president has to have authority to conduct secret operations, so long as Congress is notified.''
Reagan was never in danger of being impeached, and Iran-Contra did not define his presidency. An ABC/Washington Post poll taken in July 1987, during the height of the controversy and following the televised hearings into the matter, showed that only 40 percent of Americans believed Reagan had made "major mistakes" in the affair, and nearly two-thirds believed that the president should use his pardon authority to prevent prosecution of Ollie North, the White House aide who was at the center of the scandal.
As for President Reagan's putative indifference to the AIDS crisis, it's hard to know exactly what the film's creators believe the president could have done to stop the spread of AIDS. Could he have allocated more money to research? Sure, but we've spent billions in research in the intervening years, with no cure yet in sight. What's more, President Reagan's insistence on faster approval for AIDS drugs from the Food and Drug Administration helped usher in a new era of treatment that has kept many HIV sufferers alive and relatively healthy for years.
Could the president have argued from his bully pulpit for "safe sex"? Yes, but nearly 20 years of constant hammering away on this theme still goes ignored by many gay men. The Center for Disease Control reported this week that new HIV infections among gay men were up 17 percent between 1999 and 2002. Perhaps the makers of "The Reagans" will figure out a way to blame this on President Bush in some future made-for-TV fantasy.