Reagan revolution will not be televised

I remember the glee with which Bill Clinton’s personal life was discussed during the long ramp to his impeachment in the House of Representatives. Many of the unscrupulous details were “true,” in the sense that it was sworn testimony, and much of it was dramatized to staggering effect for television ratings. Reams of paper and hours of television were staged for discussion of the meaning of “truth.” Much earlier in political time, I recall melodramatic television mini-series and novels about the Kennedy’s: claims of dirty deeds, sexual liaisons and corpses – the stuff of “real-life” drama.

All these stories were sewn into the public consciousness, resulting in that consecrated American tapestry: media coverage, political misdeeds and entertainment.

The politically discontent, armed with pen and camera, have a remarkable place in our pop political culture. Their tools are the spectacle of paparazzi and they impart shadows of truth. As much as I groan when I disagree, I regard it as extraordinarily valuable.

I find it valuable because I have learned to trust no version of events as absolute. Indeed, this can tatter a personal sense of stability in a world of continually contested meanings, but this is the very foundation of an emancipated society. In other words, we agree to vehemently disagree.

The continual retelling of political lives and political myths remains a touchstone of American thought, unencumbered by fear. Does this mean I can wildly retell history without a regard for any fact? Yes, I can. I can reshape the world with my ideology, but I must also face the wrath of many, many others. I will be required to the fullest extent to document, to prove, to debate and to possibly reconsider. I cannot accept, however, being silenced. This is why, no matter what your political point of view, you should be extremely alarmed at what a well-heeled political faction was able to extinguish this week.

A television mini-series about Ronald and Nancy Reagan was set to debut on CBS this month. The controversy surrounding this made-for-television movie was first reported in the New York Times and later taken on as a political campaign by Matthew Drudge, of the Drudge Report. There was a tremendous amount of concern among Republicans and other conservatives about the content of the show. They claimed it veered so wildly from the “truth” that it was a complete fabrication. CBS executives, in the sunrise of the controversy, stated they approved of all scripts and content. Later, they declared that a review of the show was under way to remove any glaring inaccuracies (a supposed Reaganism, “those who live in sin shall die in sin,” about AIDS patients, is the most quoted).

The Reaganites claim CBS had engineered a liberal historical hit. They demanded CBS reveal the source material for the dialogue of this dramatization of Ronald and Nancy. They claimed an enormous swelling of American angst and anger over the project (which is very hard to fathom from Americans so enamored with television and good political drama). The Reaganites emoted, “Who would ever attack a man so sick that he is not able to defend himself?” They claimed it was unethical of CBS to dramatize his life because he could not defend himself. This is regrettable; a terrible illness should draw compassion but not a silencing of critics, and it certainly should not be used as a shelter from political storms for the healthy and lucid.

At high noon, when the project was still set to be aired, I thought they had revealed their most dangerous weapon: They blamed Barbara Streisand. Drudge “reported” that she was the wicked wizard of this dangerous liberal Oz. On her own accounts, and verified by CBS, she stopped by once to talk to her husband, James Brolin, who plays Ronald Reagan. It was enough to turn the tide, hinting at a liberal cabal behind the scenes of the Reagan movie.

During the entirety of this manufactured public outcry, a ring of Republican insiders threatened CBS with action: They threatened boycotts, public flogging and a really pissed-off Nancy Reagan. I admit that throughout the political melodrama, I cheered the process. I was fascinated by the way in which the Republicans pounced, though none of them had seen the film. I was cheerfully queasy, on this Reagan rollercoaster (just like the ’80s!).

Yes, there are times to get mad, get angry and join the debate. That is precisely why we call this teetering republic “free,” but there must be some respect for the audiences’ choice to agree or disagree. I was energized by the Republican’s response. I expected it, but I naively believed it would be a passing political production like the hi-jinx of all dramatized presidential storytelling.

I recognize, as most Americans do, that television burnishes “fact” with a lot of dramatic effect. I believe the majority of the American public is tremendously capable of looking beyond the dramatics and recognizing the roots of bias. Much more significant, however, is the necessity for artists and journalists and storytellers to tell and re-tell their political stories in any way that they see fit. In my opinion, this was never solely about whether Ronald Reagan was a homophobe, or whether Nancy Reagan was a vicious mystic prone to pills and astrological charts. It is more about the fact that not all Americans revere ‘beloved’ Ronald Reagan as much as his wife, Matthew Drudge and Merv Griffin.

On Wednesday, on a national conservative talk show called “Scarborough Country,” Drudge and the host were engaged in an orgiastic interplay, lauding their ability to shut down a CBS project. They both remarked that it was a more important news story than the Bill-Monica affair. Conservative media personalities keep crowing that the series didn’t deserve to be shown because no one can apparently prove anything about anyone, ever. Rather ironic, isn’t it?

Ronald Reagan’s daughter, Patti Davis (whose first autobiography cast a very unflattering light on her parents), went so far as to re-tell a childhood “memory” in a recent newspaper editorial. She recounted watching Rock Hudson kiss a woman on television and knew “something just wasn’t right.” Ronald, she tells us, gently chided her and said it was because Rock really liked to kiss boys. This is the Ronald Reagan of her memory: a fair and balanced father. This is the same man who, because of whatever ignorant reasons, blocked funding for AIDS research and remained throughout his life unconvinced of its necessity. So, according to Nancy and Patti and all the others, because they knew him as a generous and fair man, so goes the nation, regardless of his public politics.

I am glad Patti Davis made peace with her relationship with her father, which was by her own account distressing and dysfunctional. This does not mean that the totality of America has to. No matter how Ronald and Nancy’s private life flourished, each citizen who lived under his very public ideals and their very public impact must be able to tell the story of their president as well. That is the price of political power. Nancy Reagan surely knows this by now.

On Tuesday, CBS cowered and announced that “The Reagans” was being sold to Showtime to air at an unspecified date and time. The final threat against CBS: the peril of a political incapacitation against the Viacom merger (CBS’s parent company) now being debated in Washington. CBS now claims that the film was just too far from the “truth” and, accordingly, the “truth” is now owned by Nancy Reagan.