The Reagans

Posted: Dec 02, 2003 12:00 AM

The controversial TV program "The Reagans" finally aired on Showtime this past weekend. CBS had been scheduled to broadcast it, but declined to go forward with the docudrama after a chorus of mostly conservatives protested the production's alleged liberal, anti-Reagan bias. Having viewed it on Showtime, I am more convinced than ever that these friends of Reagan should have kept their mouths shut and allowed the program the wider audience it would have had with CBS.

I know, I know. President Reagan consistently polls near the top of surveys that ask Americans to name our greatest president. I also know the made-for-TV movie presented a twisted and negatively biased take on Reagan's eight years in office. But unlike those who howled at CBS for originally picking up this show, I believe these are the exact reasons it should have aired.

Forget politics and historical accuracy. "The Reagans" was so amateurish and unrealistic that it would have been perfect as a comedy skit on "Saturday Night Live," instead of as the docudrama it so pitifully impersonated. Those who vocally fought the airing of the program did the nation a great disservice in depriving millions of the opportunity to finally see Hollywood make a total and unapologetic ass of itself. They also may have ignored a more serious threat to the Reagan legacy, as I'll explain.

Actor James Brolin tried gamely to bring the Reagan character to life, and the inept performance of this husband of Barbara Streisand and sidekick to the long-ago TV doctor Marcus Welby was entertaining enough in itself to deserve a broader viewership for the show. And given how out of touch with the rest of America that Hollywood is, it is doubly entertaining to imagine Streisand adoringly toasting her husband at some industry party in celebration of his "triumphant" new work, while at the same time CBS switchboards are set ablaze by callers wanting to know the name of the local high school that produced this wretched melodrama.

But CBS chose to exercise its rights as a company to not broadcast "The Reagans," again prompting some to confuse government censorship with the business judgment of a corporation as it reacts to the concerns of its viewers. The two are not the same.

The early and vocal critics of CBS, who responded in force when early leaks of the show's contents indicated a hatchet job on Reagan, should now turn their attention to what is potentially a more subtle, sophisticated and long-lasting disinformation and misinformation campaign to belittle the Reagan presidency. I'm talking about those who teach history to our young people, and the textbooks they rely on for their view of the past.

Sure, schools and their teaching materials vary. And, yes, teachers should be given significant freedom in the classroom. I'm not advocating the burning of books or a mass uprising against classroom teachers. But it might be interesting for some of those who were so up in arms over "The Reagans" TV show to commence a thorough examination of the history books and other references used to describe the Reagan era.

Remember, young people believe history books -- not television docudramas -- contain an objective and straightforward account of bygone days. But a review of these materials might betray the same tendency as the entertainment industry to depict the Reagan administration as responsible for a period of unbridled greed and class warfare. That's certainly the (mistaken) perception of many, particularly those who weren't around or weren't paying attention during his years in office.

And one can't help but wonder if Reagan's leadership in the economic recovery, expansion of jobs and strong brinkmanship that led to the end of the Cold War might be overshadowed in contemporary historical discourse by talk of the Iran-Contra affair. To this day, I am convinced that most Americans in a tizzy about Iran-Contra don't even know what happened.

Surely the Reagan tax cuts will be mentioned in any version of history, but how will they be represented? As statements of "fact" about the alleged pitfalls of so-called "trickle down" economics, so often used to discredit Reagan? Would those same texts note that liberal icon John F. Kennedy subscribed to the same school of economic thought?

Don't get me wrong; I was just as outraged as anyone at last week's TV debacle. It portrayed Nancy Reagan as a wicked witch so omnipresent in her control of the White House as to make Hillary Clinton look like a shrinking violet. This was nothing shy of cruel, given her current struggles in caring for her ailing husband.

But TV -- really bad TV -- has become standard fare. Had "The Reagans" aired on CBS, few young people would have even bothered to watch it. But these same young folks have no control over their school reading assignments. Given our cultural climate, one wonders if the time spent protesting "The Reagans" might have been more wisely used to review the potentially bad show that can't be turned off by a TV switch -- the local classroom.