History is all the drama needed for Reagan's story

In the matter of CBS and "The Reagans," it's difficult to decide which is more appalling -- the network's decision to cancel next week's scheduled showing of the miniseries or the predictable but altogether avoidable controversy that preceded, prompted and followed the cancellation.

From the moment the New York Times published a story on the script of "The Reagans" last month, conservatives began howling that it was a typical (and typically reprehensible) example of liberal media bias.

Mike Paranzino, who started BoycottCBS.com, acknowledged he hadn't actually seen "The Reagans," but he told Bill O'Reilly on Fox, "The people behind it have a 20-year track record of left-wing agitation and hostility to Ronald Reagan.... This is a hatchet job from day one." L. Brent Bozell III, president of the Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group , blasted the movie as "a partisan attack against one of America's most beloved presidents."

To conservatives, Reagan is more than just a former president. He's the man who single-handedly defeated communism, toppled the Berlin Wall and led America out of a half-century of New Deal/New Frontier/Great Society socialist wilderness. Anything short of hagiography would not suit -- especially not at a time when The Greatest President Since the Founding Fathers was foundering on the shoals of Alzheimer's. And to have him portrayed by James Brolin, husband of Barbra Streisand -- the conservatives' favorite bete noire, the Clinton-loving antichrist -- was proof positive that liberal Hollywood was out to smear the Gipper and his adoring "Nancy Pooh Pants."

Then, as soon as CBS announced Tuesday that it was canceling the network showing of the miniseries and dumping it on its cable affiliate, Showtime, liberals began to howl that this just proved that it was conservatives, not liberals, who dominate and dictate the media agenda.

Although polls have consistently shown that most working journalists are liberal, it is an article of faith among liberals that the people who actually run most media companies in this country -- like those who run most nonmedia companies in this country -- are conservatives. That, they say, is why the media have been so reluctant to criticize President Bush and why -- in presidential election after presidential election -- more newspapers endorse Republican candidates than Democratic candidates.

Media criticism of CBS was instant and savage.

"Cowards at CBS Play Us for Fools" read the headline over Brian Lambert's column in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

"The Propagandists Win Again" was the headline atop Ellis Henican's column in Newsday.

"Craven Broadcasting System" was the headline over Rebecca Traister's jeremiad on Salon.com.

Yes, yes and yes.

But.

All of this could have been avoided if CBS hadn't opted for the hybrid "docudrama" or "dramatized biography" or "historical drama" format in the first place. In Hollywood parlance, it's known as "biopic"; I prefer the term "bastard." And I mean that literally.

Docudramas are the illegitimate product of "parents" that are not and should not be married: documentary and drama, history and fiction.

I felt the same way about Oliver Stone's movies on President Nixon and President Kennedy, and other critics have complained about various other TV docudramas over the years, including last spring's CBS miniseries on Adolf Hitler.

What baffles me is that the makers of these "biopics" pick some of the most interesting people in history -- and then decide they're not interesting enough to sustain audience interest without "enhancement."

Reagan has lived a full and exciting life. Regardless of what one thinks of his ideology or his presidency, there is no denying that he turned a B-movie career into an A political career. He was a two-term governor and a two-term president. He survived scandals and an assassination attempt. He restored a sense of "morning in America" optimism to a country mired in malaise. He may not have caused the collapse of communism, but he certainly contributed to it.

Moreover, he had a wife whose devotion was so passionate -- and so public and so integral to the politics of his presidency -- that their love story alone would make a great movie.

Best of all, because Reagan lives in our modern electronic age, virtually everything he and Nancy have done has been thoroughly documented, in newspaper and magazine stories, in books and on television. Surely there was enough original source material -- rich, compelling source material -- to create an honest, warts-and-all biography, not a fictionalized biography. I mean, we're not talking about some prehistoric or pre-Gutenberg or even pre-Paley figure here. This is Ronald Reagan, not Julius Caesar.

By way of illustration, let me take just one small but -- as it turned out -- crucial element in the screenplay.

As much as any single factor in "The Reagans," conservative opposition was triggered -- and galvanized -- by a scene in the miniseries in which Nancy Reagan is shown urging her husband to do more for AIDS victims, and he replies, "They that live in sin shall die in sin."

Elizabeth Egloff, who wrote the script, subsequently acknowledged that there was no evidence Reagan ever uttered those words, and after the initial flurry of protests, they were excised. Meanwhile, Edmund Morris, Reagan's authorized biographer, told reporters that Reagan had said "maybe the Lord brought down this plague" because "illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments."

That's not the same thing. Far from it. But it's bad enough. The makers of "The Reagans" could have stuck to the truth and made their point just as strongly, indeed just as dramatically, because whatever Reagan did or didn't say about AIDS, he clearly didn't do enough to put the might of the federal government into the battle against AIDS.

Reagan didn't publicly utter the word "AIDS" until 1987, six years after the epidemic began. Even then, he didn't include in his State of the Union address that year a statement on AIDS that Dr. Gary Noble, AIDS coordinator for the Public Health Service, said he was asked to draft specifically for that speech.

By all accounts, Reagan is a decent and compassionate man. But his administration's AIDS policy -- or, rather, the longtime absence of any meaningful AIDS policy -- was neither decent nor compassionate. The attitudes that led to this inertia said a great deal about Reagan's presidency, about the power of his advisors and about his hands-off, CEO-above-it-all approach to governance. He was, after all, the Great Delegator as well as the Great Communicator

Dr. C. Everett Koop was the surgeon generally under President Reagan, but as Koop told a national symposium on AIDS policy three years ago, "I was cut off from AIDS discussions and statements" for the first five years of the epidemic.

"Domestic policy folks in the White House isolated Ronald Reagan from the whole subject of AIDS," Koop said. "And because transmission of AIDS was ... primarily in the homosexual population and in those who abused intravenous drugs, the advisors to the president took the stand [that] they are only getting what they justly deserve.

"And the domestic policy people, as well as the majority of the president's cabinet, did not see any need to ... have a governmental policy towards this disease. And these combined attitudes did nothing to dampen -- indeed, they ... very well may have aided and ... [abetted] the hatred of homosexuals in this country, the discrimination against innocent schoolchildren...."

Wow. I'd say that would make for pretty gripping television. Here you have the highest-ranking medical official in the land saying, in effect, that it was Reagan's top advisors who felt -- well, "They that live in sin shall die in sin." Why put those words in Reagan's mouth and distort history when you can have an actor play Koop and talk about his personal experience with Reagan's advisors?

Why, in fact, make up any of the other fictional or "dramatized" stuff that was in the script of "The Reagans"? Why the compulsion to gild -- or geld -- the Gipper? The man has given us a lifetime of good material -- far better material than he ever had in his own movie roles. Why not use it? Why not stick to it?

Truth is not only stranger than fiction. It's often better. That might be something that even liberals and conservatives could agree on.

David Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@latimes.com.

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