There is one point on which CBS and President Reagan's staunchest defenders can now agree: Love the idea of "The Reagans" or hate it, cheer its network cancellation or condemn it as censorship, the timing of the two-part historical drama turned out to be a colossal mistake.
With the former president in his ninth year of Alzheimer's disease, moral outrage added a potent ingredient to what otherwise might have been a standard liberal-conservative debate. During two weeks of running controversy, conservative pundits rarely missed an opportunity to portray Reagan not merely as a great president wrongfully attacked but as a dying man "unable to defend himself" against critical portions of the script.
CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves had read and approved that script and had spoken admiringly of the project-in-the-making. But according to sources familiar with his decision, he ultimately abandoned "The Reagans" chiefly because he was worried that he and his network would long be pilloried for insensitivity to the still-popular 92-year-old ex-president toward the end of his life.
"The timing," as one CBS exec put it in a mastery of understatement, "was really bad."
The project -- made for almost $10 million, promoted as one of the network's most anticipated projects of the year and booked during November sweeps -- was shuffled off CBS' schedule and onto cable last week after protests that included an estimated 80,000 letters and e-mails, most stirred up by the convergence of conservative talk shows, cable news programs and the Internet. A boycott was launched. Intimidated advertisers began to bail.
Never before had a network pulled a major, completed production off the air amid such pressure. This is an account of what happened.
For months, Moonves had been saying that the movie, while showing some "warts," would also be a "love story" and a "balanced" account of Reagan's presidency.
"It's a wide-scoping miniseries," he told a group of television critics and reporters July 20. "It deals with Nancy and Ronald Reagan's relationship, their courting, through the governor's mansion, how he became president .... You know, I would say that there are warts that are showing.... But I think it's very fair. It's documented very carefully."
Yet "The Reagans" was always intended to be a controversial show -- something to gin up audience interest and drive ratings during sweeps, the period in which TV stations set their advertising rates.
The casting of James Brolin as Reagan and Judy Davis as Nancy Reagan was one way to stir the pot.
"We haven't asked Barbra Streisand what she thinks about James Brolin playing Ronald Reagan," Moonves jokingly told reporters in July, "but we'll have to live with that." Whose idea was Brolin? The producers of the movie, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, Moonves said.
Although CBS executives insisted last week that "this was not the movie that we thought we were getting," Zadan and Meron have never soft-peddled their movie, nor have they hidden their liberal leanings.
The pair, who last year won an Oscar for their movie "Chicago," have long been involved with projects sympathetic to gays and the issue of AIDS. In 1995 they teamed with Streisand to produce "Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story," based on the real-life story of a lesbian's fight to restore her honor after she was involuntarily discharged from the military.
When the pair initially sold their Reagan project to another network, ABC, five years ago, they said the movie would be largely about Nancy Reagan's role in the White House. They described it to the trade publication Variety as "an unauthorized and unvarnished look at the Reagan presidency." The screenplay would be based on material from the book "First Ladies" by Carl Anthony.
"Everybody wonders when we will have the first female American president, but what will become evident here is that we've already had her," Meron told Variety in April 1998.
ABC eventually pulled out of the project. ABC executives determined the movie would appeal more to an older audience, like that of CBS. The project, produced by Sony Pictures Television, moved to CBS last spring.
From that moment, a source close to the production said, "The Reagans," like other fact-based dramas such as "Hitler" and "Jesus," was given extra scrutiny because of the historical nature and sensitivity of the project.
Several network divisions, including legal, promotions, and standards and practices, examined several drafts of the script from the filmmakers, checking it for accuracy.
When the final script was completed, it was sent to Moonves and CBS Entertainment President Nancy Tellem, who both gave the project the green light to start shooting in Canada around early summer.
As shooting continued, dailies, or raw footage, were sent daily to the network, where they were seen by Tellem and other key executives from CBS' casting, legal and other departments, according to one source. The excitement over the project grew, particularly over Brolin's performance -- he appeared to master the timbre of Reagan's voice -- and the miniseries' glossy look.
Soon Moonves and other CBS executives were making calls of congratulations to the producers and cast, sources said. Top CBS executives approved an eight-minute trailer sent to TV critics Oct. 10, offering interviews with the stars and producers. It billed "The Reagans" as a "fact-based drama."
The trailer showed typical TV movie fare: real events coated with melodramatic, overwrought dialogue. In one scene, Nancy Reagan urges the president to fire Secretary of State Alexander Haig, saying: "Get rid of Al, Ronnie, or you'll never end the Cold War!" In another, the pajama-wearing Reagans are in bed, and after the president jokingly refers to the first couple as a "couple of ham actors living in the White House," they begin tickling each other.
Then, on Oct. 20, Moonves saw the rough cut of the movie. Although he had read the script, he emerged from the screening room steamed at the on-screen portrayals, saying, "This wasn't the movie we ordered," according to a network source. He was particularly peeved that the movie played up a public relations debacle during Reagan's trip to West Germany in 1985, when the president visited a cemetery that contained the remains of Nazi soldiers.
The movie failed to depict one of Reagan's most memorable moments, when he stood under cold, gray skies at the foot of the Berlin Wall in 1987 and demanded of the Soviet Union's leader: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
Still, for the moment, those involved thought the movie could be salvaged. But that night, the assault began.
For months, some conservative activists had been warning that any network bio of Reagan would be unfavorably biased. Earlier in the month, someone had leaked the script. Now, within 24 hours, "The Reagans" would absorb three direct hits.
At 8:30 p.m. Oct. 20, Matt Drudge's Web site made the first claims that the script was unduly harsh toward the former first couple. The next morning the New York Times amplified that criticism with a story and an example that would haunt CBS: Reagan, long criticized for failing to act with urgency on the AIDS crisis, says in the movie: "They who live in sin shall die in sin," a phrase Reagan never actually said. That afternoon, conservative radio talk-show hosts and cable television hosts began to echo the same criticism.
By Oct. 23, conservative cable TV pundit Pat Buchanan was suggesting a boycott of CBS' sponsors. Three days later, a conservative political consultant, Michael Paranzino, set up a boycott-CBS Web site that soon crashed under the weight of tens of thousands of supporters.
Supporters of "The Reagans" felt the criticism ignored the movie's inclusion of Reagan's accomplishments. "There have been several biographies that have specified Reagan's view on AIDS," one sympathetic source said. "The [screen]writer may have taken liberty, but it was too harsh. And it could have been taken out."
Liberal groups complained that the protests were disingenuous -- that Reagan, as one of America's most polarizing politicians, would inevitably warrant criticism. But that argument found itself up against the contention that CBS had bullied a dying man.
By Oct. 24, Drudge, whose site is a driving force for many conservative writers and broadcasters, was posting more sections of the script on his site, charging that Judy Davis was portraying Nancy Reagan in a role that "appears to be inspired by the Joan Crawford camp biopic 'Mommie Dearest': wild mood swings, dramatic lighting, and tart-mouth insults are hysterically delivered by Davis."
Drudge was also the first conservative to drag Streisand into the fray, noting that Streisand had written an essay in 1992 criticizing Reagan's lack of urgency in recognizing the AIDS epidemic.
Lawyers representing Nancy Reagan and her daughter, Patti Davis, called and wrote Moonves requesting that the "die-in-sin" line be taken out of the film. "He had never said anything like that, and his family said he didn't feel that way," said attorney Bert Fields, who called Moonves on Oct. 23. "I made a friendly humanitarian appeal, not a legal appeal," Fields said. "I just said it would be unfair at this late stage of his life when he can't defend himself."
Fields said Moonves told him: "It's coming out."
The multipronged assault, and its aggressive tone, staggered CBS. "And it was crazy," one insider said, "since no one had seen the movie."
On Oct. 29, Bill O'Reilly hosted boycott leader Paranzino on his Fox News television show. Paranzino claimed the producers "have a 20-year track record of left-wing agitation and hostility to Ronald Reagan. Look, this is a hatchet job from day one," Paranzino said.
CBS 'is cowardly'
Entertainer Merv Griffin, a longtime Reagan family friend, appeared emotionally shaken as he made talk-show appearances in which he emphasized the fragility of Nancy and Ronald Reagan. "Her days are filled with caretaker duties for a man who is in the last stages of Alzheimer's," he told MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, a Republican congressman-turned-talk-show host, on Nov. 2, "lying on his bed, doesn't know anybody, doesn't know Nancy." CBS, Griffin said, "is cowardly. It is absolutely cowardly. Why would they do it, when they know that both the president and Nancy can't answer back?"
Nancy Reagan released her only statement Oct. 29 to Fox News: "The timing is absolutely staggering to me."
By the end of October, after two rounds of editing at CBS and about 18 cuts to the movie, Moonves gave up. He made a deal to move the movie to a sister Viacom network, the pay movie channel Showtime, which has about one-fifth of CBS' potential audience of 108 million homes.
Showtime agreed to pay $7 million for the movie, leaving CBS with an approximately $2.5-million loss. The network announced Thursday it would plug the four-hour hole in its schedule -- two hours Nov. 16 and two more Nov. 18 -- with reruns of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "CSI: Miami" and "Without a Trace."
Some liberals cringed. "This is censorship, pure and simple," Streisand said in a statement. Added Ralph G. Neas, president of the People for the American Way Foundation: "The echo chamber of right-wing pundits and Republican Party officials, having previously equated questioning White House actions on war and civil liberties to be the equivalent of treason, have now apparently declared that former President Ronald Reagan is off-limits to media treatment that is anything short of fawning."
In victory, anti-CBS forces were positively giddy. It was "a tremendous night," Drudge said as a guest on Scarborough's show. "It's the beginning of a second media century, Joe, where it's much more of a people-driven media.... Heretofore, there's never been this kind of pressure applied to one of the big titans, one of the big three."