October 25, 2003

The Reagans at issue

The final script for the upcoming CBS mini-series The Reagans has been obtained by the New York TImes (since when is a two-part TV movie a "mini-series"?), and there seems to be a firestorm a-brewing.

I've read a few articles that point out some of the more controversial scenes and dialogue and heard lots of discussion on TV and radio about them. As I am, in many regards, a Reagan fan, I think I'll go right on ahead and toss in my 2 cents.
Here are the key points of controversy as detailed by Matt Drudge and others:

Insinuations that Nancy pill-popped are scattered throughout the story.

This was first asserted by Ron and Nancy's daughter Patti Davis in her 1992 book The Way I See It. Patti, to my best recollection, was writing about the period when her father was Governor of California, and before she left for college in about 1971.
Ron and Nancy both denied the allegation but, and even though Patti and Nancy are on much better terms these days, to my knowledge Patti has never retracted it.
There are repeated allegations that Ronald Reagan was homophobic.

I seriously doubt that Reagan was "homophobic," he was a very hate the sin but love the sinner kinda guy. Having spent a long career in Hollywood, the Reagans, I've read, had many friends who were homosexuals. I suspect that the allegations stem from a leftist view that since Reagan was a Christian and a Conservative that he must be a hateful, intolerant, fundamentalist whacko.

If there's an agenda behind this it might be to discredit Conservatism by discreditting popular and effective Conservatives. It might, of course, merely be that the producers and writers believe that the allegation is true, but I've seen no evidence that it is.

Reagan was suffering from Alzheimer's disease as early as 1984. [Nancy rushes to a doctor to warn that her husband is forgetting things.]

This and similar claims have repeatedly been denied by many members of the Reagan Administrations, but here's my thought -- as an interested outsider -- on this:

After the first televised debate with Walter Mondale during his re-election campaign in 1984, in which he appeared illprepared, and occassionally disoriented, searching his mind for answers and coming up empty, talk of Reagan's deminishing faculties (though the issue was addressed very carefully) started to be taken somewhat seriously.

In the second debate Reagan performed much better. He had energy, was more aggressively and enthusiastically answering questions and, of course, famously made a joke about his age. The issue had been put to rest for many viewers, but here's the curious thing (for me anyway):

At the conclusion of the debate Mondale gave his closing remarks, and then Reagan gave his. His remarks were extemporaneous, not prepared; he wasn't reading them off of a teleprompter or anything. Seemingly going back into "searching and coming up empty" mode, Reagan couldn't come up with anything fresh to say, and he ended up essentially repeating the off-the-cuff speech he delivered at the close of the Republican Convention in 1976; the one about the time capsule.
This doesn't mean neccessarily that Alzheimers had begun to take root, but it certainly showed me that Reagan's mind in 1984 wasn't quite as quickly creative as it was in 1976, or even in 1980.
Or maybe he was just tired.

Nancy Reagan's characterization employs a generous helping of wild mood swings, dramatic lighting, and tart-mouth insults that are hysterically delivered by actress Judy Davis.

I heard some audio clips of some of the dialogue from the movie on the radio, and, yeah, it sure sounded like Judy Davis was playing Hillary Clinton rather than Nancy Reagan.
Nancy makes the case to Ron that "Ketchup is a vegetable! It is not a meat, right? So IT IS a vegetable."

As I recall, the controversy about someone suggesting that ketchup be classified as a vegetable with regard to school lunch programs, wasn't so much that ketchup isn't, in reality, just a spiced up tomato sauce, but centered rather on the fact that even a generous helping of the tasty condiment would never approach anything remotely like the serving-size of a vegetable.
So, I'm not sure I understand the point of this dialogue (that probably never occurred), unless it's just to insinuate that Nancy supported the idea of classifying ketchup as a vegetable in school lunches.
One scene shows Nancy and Ron both standing nude [wrapped in towels] when they first learn from NBC's John Chancellor they have won the election.

This account comes from Ronald Reagan himself. I'm not exactly certain, but I believe he told the story as part of the Morning In America short film that was played at the 1984 Republican Convention.
It'll be interesting to see how the scene is played. Will it be treated in folksy and amusing way, as Reagan told it? Or, will it be used to symbolically infer that he was unready for the job at the moment that he "won" it. (Maybe they'll have Nancy quip; "oh look, the new emperor has no clothes..heehee..")
A FILM CREW is swarming all over the living room, setting up lights, cameras, etc. Reagan sits in the middle, putting on his own make-up. Nancy arguing with Patti, (age 5), who won't come down.
NANCY: Come on, Patti. They're all set to go.
PATTI: No. I won't. I want to stay up here and play.
Nancy grits her teeth, and takes Patti by the wrist.
NANCY: No arguing. We're going down, right now.
PATTI: No! No! No! No! NO! NO!
Nancy reaches out, and slaps Patti. Patti reels, holding her cheek. Nancy freezes.

This, too, is based on Patti Davis' book, The Way I See It, in which she claims that she suffered physical abuse at the hand of Nancy from about the time she was 8 to the time she left for college.
Ronald and Nancy have both denied Patti's allegations, and Patti once responded that "denial is a primary characteristic of our family." To my knowledge, Patti has never retracted the allegation, and, as it's Patti's word against Nancy's, I'll just reserve judgement on it (though I strongly suspect that it may just be a difference of opinion between them about what constitutes discipline and what constitutes abuse).

What's interesting, though, is that, in the film, Patti is struck by Nancy at the age of 5. Patti never claimed that she was struck at such a young age, and Patti being 5 years old would put the scene in about 1958. I have no idea what the context of the scene is, but the only reason I can think of for making Patti only 5 would be to highten the horror quotient of the scene at the cost of historical accuracy. Hollywood...

NANCY'S STEP-FATHER: Nancy, I don't know what you see in Hollywood. As far as I can tell, it's nothing but Communists and drug addicts.
NANCY: It didn't used to be this bad -- did it, Mother?
NANCY'S MOTHER, EDITH: Hell, no. When I was here, it was just wall-to-wall Jews and queers.

Wow. I have no idea what this is based on, but Nancy has always spoken glowingly her step-father. My guess is that this may be to impune Nancy via her parents. If this is made up out of nothing than this is slander in the first degree. Mo' info is needed...
During a scene in the film which his wife pleads with him to help people battling AIDS, Reagan says resolutely, "They that live in sin shall die in sin" and refuses to discuss the issue further.

This strikes me as complete rot; it doesn't sound like anything that would ever come out of Reagan's mouth. Pat Robertson, maybe...

Edmund Morris wrote in Dutch, Reagan's authorized -- though fictionalized -- biography, that Reagan once wondered of AIDS, "Maybe the Lord brought down this plague," because "illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments."

This question is bound to cross the mind of anyone who considers the idea that maybe things like deseases and natural disasters happen because G-d planned them, and Reagan certainly doesn't sound like he came to any conclusion on the matter. (Also, he said "illicit sex," not exclusively homosexual sex.)

It comes down to how you think about what G-d is, and how/if G-d operates in the material world. For instance, if you cheat on your wife then you're going to meet up with some trouble. You incur the wrath of a woman scorned, perhaps destroy your family, and be riddled with guilt even if the secret is never revealed. That cause and effect in our relationships is as natural as the cause and effect of mechanics.
If G-d created the laws of physics then you can argue that G-d created the laws of relationships. But, even if we think of G-d working in our lives in that way, it strikes me that the idea that the two can be connected -- personal sins (adultery, sodomy) produce external consequences (floods, plagues) -- is backed up by scripture.

As an athiest arm-chair theologian this stuff can give me a headache after awhile. Anyway, I don't believe for a second that Reagan would ever have said something so cold and bombastic as "they that live in sin shall die in sin.".

Reagan is showed repeatedly taking the Lord's name in vain, saying "g-ddamn this..." and "g-ddamn that..."

Even though the complaint about this comes from Reagan's son, Michael, I'll take issue with it. Reagan did say "dammit" a lot according to Reagan biographer Lou Cannon in his 1983(?) book Reagan. It was one of the things that struck me most about him (as evidenced by the fact that still remember that 20 years after reading about it).

As for "g-ddamn," I have a video cassette of bloopers from old black-and-white movies and TV shows, and Reagan is featured several times, including a scene where he had to pull up and belt his trousers and kept fumbling it, and, yeah, at least when he was on the movie set in the '40s, Reagan said "g-ddamn" an awful lot.

While the script portrays Mrs. Reagan as a loyal and protective wife, it also shows her as a control addict, who set the president's schedule based on her astrologer's advice and who had significant influence over White House personnel and policy decisions.

As far as I know this is all true, but only to a certain degree. The only member of the Administration that made a claim that Nancy was too influencial was Donald Regan. But the rap on Regan was he was a control freak himself who, as Chief of Staff, kept himself between the President and his advisors and Cabinet members. Nancy's role in Regan's ouster is well-known, and it was done to the delight of the rest of the Administration, so the film's portrayal of Nancy as a control addict is probably grossly overstated.

My understanding is that the astrologer was used by Nancy solely for advice on the scheduling of Reagan's travel. It grew out of her fears following the assassination attempt in 1981. No one has ever suggested that it caused any problems with the President's business, and it gave Nancy some comfort for some reason. All-in-all, who cares? If Shirley MacLaine can channel aliens then Nancy Reagan can consult an astrologer.

In one early scene Reagan's talent agent, Lew Wasserman, tells him that his anti-communist activism is hurting his career. "People know you're an informer for the blacklist," Wasserman says. Reagan replies, "I've never called anybody a commie who wasn't a commie."

Sounds like this line was lifted from an early draft of Citizen Cohn.
Again, Reagan didn't talk that way, and I think that what this line seeks to do is paint him as un-civil and probably paranoid.

Reagan, in the '50s, was suspected by many of supplying names for the Hollywood "blacklist," but has always steadfastly denied it. FBI records do show, however, that he cooperated with agents investigating the Soviet-backed communist influence in Hollywood, but there's so firm indication that his assistance was of any real significance.

Another likely controversial moment in the television movie comes in a scene that implies strongly that Reagan's inspiration for the Star Wars [sic] space-based system was a 1940 movie in which he starred, "Murder in the Air." Some experts have said that the film may have influenced Reagan's decision to sign off on the program. Others have dismissed such claims as overemphasized by liberals.

That a visionary proposal such as SDI was first planted in Reagan's mind by a work of science fiction makes perfect sense. Making any kind of "issue" out of it is silly, and probably only stems from the old and rediculous agenda of presenting Reagan as someone who lived in some bizarre Hollywood unreality.
Ironic, in't it? ;)
The final shooting script heavily implies that Mrs. Reagan, in agitating for the resignation of Alexander M. Haig Jr., Reagan's first secretary of state, went so far as to write his resignation letter. But no account holds that Mrs. Reagan wrote such a letter. After a consultation in response to a reporter's question, the filmmakers decided last week to remove that scene from the film, saying they would have deleted it in any case.

'nuff said.

Even though most of the basic plot-lines seem to be (in varying degrees of reliability) fact-based in the strictest sense, the biggest problem I have with this (especially when I heard the audio clips) is the over-the-top tone and the insinuations. It seems to be designed to impune the character and motivations of the subjects very personally. But why?
I think that the attitude of the producers, director and actors can be made clearest by this quote from Nancy portrayer Judy Davis:

"With the climate that has been in America since Sept. 11, it appears, from the outside anyway, to not be quite as open a society as it used to be. By open, I mean as free in terms of a critical atmosphere, and that sort of ugly specter of patriotism."

Aah, yes, that dreaded ugly specter of patriotism. Y'know, that can-do freedom-loving spirit that delivered us from the malaise-ridden Carter years. Maybe if we can destroy Ronald Reagan's reputation then we can finally surrender our sovereignty to the tyrants that infest the U.N. and the E.U and the Middle East and China and North Korea.

If history is rewritten then our lessons from that history will have to alter with it, and the makers of The Reagans know that. Make no mistake, folks, this movie isn't about the past, it's about the future.

Posted by Tuning Spork at October 25, 2003 08:12 PM

thanks for posting this, it'll be interesting to see it when it airs

Posted by: Ted at October 26, 2003 12:39 AM
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