IVINS: Remembering Reagan

AUSTIN, Texas -- What a great country. We've just had a fierce public debate over a docudrama no one has seen, culminating in a form of censorship. Not having seen the bio-pic about the Reagans was no bar to the punditry, which held forth ferociously.

Indeed, many of our fellow citizens, who also hadn't seen the docudrama, were egged on by the Republican National Committee and right-wing talk shows to write CBS, demanding the unseen film not be aired. It has now been banished to cable, presumably to the cultural deprivation of the citizenry.

Fortunately, this exercise in fatuity served to take our minds off grim news about mutual fund trading and even grimmer news from Iraq. Good thing we've all got our eyes on the prize here. Unable as I am to speak to the merits of this particular bio-pic, not a genre widely admired to begin with, I would like to point out that lese majeste (French for the old crime of dissing the king) is not yet against the law -- and anyone who wants to argue against bad taste on television is welcome to try.

It is an odd feature of our national life that Ronald Reagan, of all people, is now considered by some to be above criticism. I assume the historians will take care of most of these questions, though I did once draw the odd journalistic assignment of reviewing the book by Nancy Reagan's astrologer, Joan Quigley. It did not persuade me that life in the Reagan White House was the avatar of normalcy. (Some fairly weird stuff in there. Just the kind of dish they love to put in bio-pics.)

And obviously historians will argue for years over when and how seriously Reagan's Alzheimer's set in. Those who remember the tape of his deposition in the Iran-Contra case, immediately after he left office, will recall the horrifying total impact of all those, "I'm sorry, I can't remembers," as we slowly realized he actually couldn't.

Right-wing commentators have ignited yet another pointless debate, this one on the burning topic of whether the administration actually told us we were going to war because Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction posed an "imminent threat." The right-wing choir is suddenly singing, "He never said imminent,' he never said imminent," (they are so very good at all singing off the same page). Here, fallible human memory (this was less than a year ago) reasserts itself, and you find yourself saying: "They damn well did say Saddam was an imminent threat. I was there. I heard it, again and again."

The excellent blogger and journalist Josh Marshall, in a column for The Hill, points out that it may be true no member of the administration ever used the words threat and imminent in conjunction. True, when asked if Iraq were an imminent threat, various spokesmen really did say, "Yes," with varying degrees of emphasis. They said the threat was "mortal," that it was "urgent," that there was "clear evidence of peril." They said that we could not wait -- BUT, they did not say "imminent threat." That sure as hell reassures me that we we're not dealing with delusional leaders. Now why exactly did they tell us we were going to war?

Having devoted much of this column to the very piffle I am deploring -- in addition to watching the right for sophistry, misinformation and lying, one must keep a sharp eye for misdirection -- may I bring us back to some stuff that actually matters? On Iraq, we are now in a weird new political configuration where the professional patriots who so nastily accused those who opposed this venture of being "unpatriotic" and insisted we must "support the troops" at any price are now sort of dismissing dead soldiers. Dead soldiers are not a big story -- a big story is all the progress we're making in Iraq.

Dead soldiers worry me. Here's something that may be even worse: It's not that one or two convoys or patrols are attacked every day, it's that after each successful attack, Iraqis gather around the site and cheer. If that doesn't worry you, you aren't old enough to remember Vietnam. (I have no hesitation about using the Vietnam analogy. Of course, Iraq is not Vietnam, and a million facts on the ground are different. But there it is.)

So far, President Bush is sustaining this effort in large part on the desire of Democrats to be "responsible." But it is time to ask another question: What if we really have gotten ourselves into a no-win situation? To whom do we owe responsibility then?

Sorry that's not as easy or as peppy a debate as the new Reagan bio-pic or who did or did not use the word "imminent." But it looks as though it's time to raise the question.

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