Reagan Reconsidered, Again

This month, Americans will get a second chance to scrutinize the legacy of Ronald Reagan when HBO begins airing its two-part adaptation of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Angels in America."

The first opportunity to reconsider Reagan, of course, was scuttled in November, when CBS pulled the plug on the notorious, and now almost legendary, TV-movie, "The Reagans." At the time, conservatives decried the film as an exercise in character assassination, insisting that at best, it employed excessive artistic license in condemning the 40th President's deplorable response to the AIDS crisis, and, at worst, was a fabricated hack job.

No such fuss has emerged, however, about "Angels in America." Directed by Mike Nichols, and starring Al Pacino and Meryl Streep, "Angels" brilliantly hypothesizes about the motivations of the era's leading conservative players (notably Reagan and closeted, gay Republican advisor Roy Cohn), as they and others permitted the nation to become gripped by the worst medical epidemic of the century -- and all because the virus was associated with homosexual behavior.

Yet Kushner will not find himself at the center of a media storm like the one that swirled about the Reagan movie, primarily because "Angels" is a work of historical fiction. Using real players and real events, it nonetheless relies on artful logic and pointed dialogue to draw conclusions for which there are ultimately no real records.

As much as I am grateful to see the artist and his art get their due this time around, I can't help but flash back to the debacle surrounding "The Reagans" (which has since aired on Showtime, duly edited for political revision). Why did CBS allow itself to be muscled into submission last month, while "Angels" gets a free pass?

By all rights, Reaganites should be more enraged by "Angels in America," which not only suggests that the Gipper turned a blind eye to the AIDS crisis, but also secretly delivered stashes of the then unavailable anti-AIDS drug AZT to Cohn, who was dying of the disease.

But by cloaking himself in the mantle of playwright -- not journalist -- Kushner succeeded in making his points -- powerfully, ingeniously -- without having to subject himself to hair-splitting by Republican loyalists. The difference isn't really about accuracy versus fabrication, but biography versus fiction.

However at a deeper level, the canning of "The Reagans" reveals the politicization of our national airwaves, and who's better at it. As with everything else in recent years, the political right is wiping the floor with liberals when it comes to dictating what makes it into the media -- television and radio, especially -- and what does not. One need only look at the current slate of cacophonous panel shows and raucous roundtables to see the supremacy of conservatives in electronic media. Slugging it out on behalf of Republicans is a formidable army of right-wing commentators, led by TV ratings champs (and dyspeptic bullies) Bill O'Reilly and Joe Scarborough, and radio kings Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

In stark comparison, there are no broadcast standard bearers for the left. Phil Donahue was unceremoniously dumped by MSNBC last winter after an internal NBC memo suggested Donahue's anti-war stance presented a "difficult public face" for the network.

Despite what you hear about a "liberal media" (another example of right-wing nomenclature), it's common knowledge that conservative forces have been gaining strength on that front for the last few years, especially since the events of 9-11. What's new, however, is the practice of preemptive strikes.

The book world experienced two such examples just this year, when Limbaugh and others mocked Hillary Clinton's memoir before the ink was even dry on the manuscript; and Fox News chairman Roger Ailes actually tried to halt the publication of Al Franken's "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them" a week before its release.

But the Reagan film represents the right's most successful preemptive action to date. Conservative forces (including Christian politico-evangelist Gary Bauer and moral crusader-turned-professional-dice-roller William Bennett) managed to deliver the K.O. punch without having seen so much as a frame of the film.

Somewhere along the way the nation's more virulent media watchdogs have decided that ordinary citizens are too uninformed -- or perhaps too stupid -- to make up their own minds about what holds water and what doesn't. And all too often, this presumptive wind sweeps in from the right. The left, meanwhile, tends to let enemy propaganda shoot itself in the foot.

For example, even before Showtime aired its jingo-maniacal Sept. 11th drama, "DC 9/11: Time of Crisis" last fall, it was common knowledge that the script had been written by a former Reagan aide, and vetted by everyone in the White House but the chef. But rather than try to yank it off the air, liberal forces adopted the strategy of letting the film hoist itself by its own hagiographical petards.

Bottom line: the movie was roundly howled at by critics and public alike, who recognized it for what it was: an exercise in wishful thinking by proponents of an administration still embroiled in a controversial war.

Same thing with last month's star-spangled turkey on NBC, "Saving Private Lynch." Not only did viewers and reviewers immediately roll their eyes at the film's historical revisionism, but the cherry on that soggy parfait was Jessica Lynch herself, who publicly rejected the heroics depicted by her on-screen personae. Talk about going right to the source.

America prides itself on our freedom to express dissent in a variety of ways, and I'd feel less privileged as a citizen if we didn't engage in the kind of debate the precedes such undertakings as "The Reagans" and "Angels in America" -- no matter how noisy and fractious that discourse can be.

But in exercising this freedom, we must always be careful not to allow those endowed with power -- and an agenda -- to settle our arguments for us. After all, despite our national weakness for silly reality shows and dumb sitcoms, when it comes to cultural endeavors that truly have something to say, we, the people, are more than capable of delivering our own thumbs-ups and thumbs-downs.

Bruce Kluger is on the board of contributors of USA Today. He also writes for National Public Radio, Time.com and Parenting magazine.

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