The politics of contempt

Posted: Dec 04, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- To watch the entire commercial-free, three-hour version of the "The Reagans" on the Showtime cable television network this week was an ordeal. The cartoon character presented as Ronald Reagan does not resemble the real president. But this assault on a beloved conservative icon does relate to the 2004 presidential campaign now underway.

The events here actually are fictionalized less than is the case with many other made-for-TV movies. The problem is the portrayal of Reagan by actor James Brolin, a liberal Democratic activist as is his wife, Barbra Streisand. Even when he is depicted giving a serious speech in the exact words actually delivered, the character comes over as goofy and confused. To build an entire movie on this distortion reflects the contempt for Reagan by liberal Hollywood, an attitude now transferred to George W. Bush.

In the debut week of "The Reagans," show business celebrities Wednesday conducted an anti-Bush rally in Los Angeles. This state of mind in the entertainment industry, a major source of funds and energy for Democrats, feeds into the party's overall mood of emotional contempt for President Bush that mirrors the movie's attitude toward President Reagan. In each case, ad hominem attacks against political opponents supplant debate on the issues.

Only this emotional mindset can explain how "The Reagans" was initially approved by CBS for prime time presentation. It was shunted off to Showtime, a pay-for-play sister network of CBS with a vastly smaller audience, only because of an e-mail campaign by thousands of conservatives who had not seen the movie but heard it trashed the former president.

Favorable newspaper reviews this week were written by critics who measured only the film's production values and were insensitive to the personal assault on a political leader revered in this country. Brolin's caricature of Reagan, which hideously distorts the man I covered for 22 years, "eerily captured" the former president in the opinion of the Detroit Free Press's Mike Duffy.

Boston Globe reviewer Matthew Gilbert suggested all such docudramas treat their subjects harshly in the interest of dramatic intensity, but that is simply not the case. Harry Truman is treated favorably in "Truman," a 1995 HBO film (that, incidentally, is much more interesting than "The Reagans"). John F. Kennedy is heroic in "Thirteen Days," a 2000 film about the Cuban missile crisis. Unlike Truman and Kennedy, however, Reagan is detested in Hollywood.

"The Reagans" does not approach Oliver Stone's "JFK" and "Nixon" as pure fiction spinning outrageous conspiracy theories. But neither is it close to historical accuracy. Nancy Reagan is mistakenly shown pushing her husband into Republican politics and a race for governor. Reagan biographer Lou Cannon was stunned by all the factual mistakes.

The movie tries to give the impression Reagan did not even know his own national security adviser, Robert C. (Bud) McFarlane, in 1986 -- a harbinger of the Alzheimer's disease that afflicted the president after he left office. Even without this calumny, Reagan is shown drifting from one mishap to another as an addled president advised by rogues.

Longtime Reagan aide Mike Deaver, who fares slightly better than other Reagan associates in this movie, has no doubt about the production's intentions. "They have to destroy the legacy of Ronald Reagan," he told me. Deaver was not consulted in producing this film. Nor was anybody else who worked for or knew Reagan. The principal source was an obscure book called "First Ladies" written by an obscure writer named Carl Sferrazza Anthony, who became the movie's co-producer.

A better source would have been "Reagan: A Life in Letters," a remarkable book published this year containing 834 pages of mostly hand-written letters by Ronald Wilson Reagan. It reveals a literate and intelligent man who bears no resemblance to the fool portrayed in "The Reagans."

The book recently fell into the hands of one of the leading operatives in Democrat Howard Dean's campaign for president. "I had always had a low opinion of Reagan's intelligence," he told me, "until this book changed my mind." He would be advised to wonder whether his contempt for George W. Bush is as ill-considered as it formerly was against Reagan.