November 5, 2003

November 5, 2003 | Commentary on Political Thought

No Way to Treat the Gipper

How heartless can you get? How low can you sink? If you are a Hollywood liberal you may sink low enough to attack a 92-year-old man in the late stages of Alzheimer's disease and even make fun of the devoted wife who is nursing him through his final years. This is surely one of the greatest tragic ordeals that life can inflict on two human beings.

The two-part mini-series "The Reagans," which was planned to be have shown on Nov. 16 and 18 on CBS, demonstrates that even 20 years after Ronald Reagan left office, some people still can't stand the former president. Liberals continue to dismiss Mr. Reagan as an "amiable fool" -- at best - and still cannot fathom why Americans elected Mr. Reagan in landslide victories. These are the same people who usually claim tolerance and compassion for their side, you know, the Barbara Streisand crowd, but who often fail to display either when it comes to people they oppose politically.

Miss Streisand, of course, considers herself somewhat of a political force. The mini-series is being produced by two of her frequent collaborators. Indeed, it is her husband who plays President Reagan. By some accounts, she has been on the set every day of the filming.

The tone of the production, according to accounts by those who have seen promotional clips, ranges from the farcical and to the insulting. Mr. Reagan as a bigot against people with AIDS, rough character who swears at his people. His wife is portrayed as a caricature of a shrew, screaming and dictatorial.

Particularly controversial is a scene that suggests that Mr. Reagan displayed symptoms of Alzheimer's as early as 1985, nine years before the actual diagnosis of his disease. That this would have had consequences for the Reagan Presidency is obvious - were it true, which it is not. Mrs. Reagan has called it pure fabrication.

Due to massive negative publicity, CBS is considering canceling the series, which would be the decent thing to do. (The network may sell it to Showtime, which is not a whole lot better.)

Last Friday, the Republican National Committee launched a protest with CBS president, Leslie Moonves, over the series' historical inaccuracies. In a letter, RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie correctly wrote, "Those graduating from college this year were only about five years old when President Reagan left office, and this broadcast will have significant impact on their understanding." That's exactly the point. In this electronic media age, fiction and history only too easily becomes confused.

Why does this smear come now, so many years after Mr. Reagan left office? One reason may well be that the reputation of the 40th president has been steadily on the rise, as one book after another has illuminated Mr. Reagan's intelligence as a politician and his personal character. One important contribution was "Reagan in His Own Words," published on his 90th birthday, which in Mr. Reagan's own writings shows him to be an elegant writer and astute thinker.

In the same vein, "How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life," by former Reagan speechwriter and Hoover Institution fellow Peter Robinson makes for a great antidote to "The Reagans." It focuses admiringly on the public role of the president as a man of principle and as observed first hand by a young and inexperienced member of his staff. Mr. Robin's most important contribution was Mr. Reagan's speech given in Berlin in 1987 when he threw down his famous challenge to the leader of the Soviet Union: "Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." Just like Mr. Reagan's other most memorable speeches, it was one that the State Department and the National Security Council hated and fought all the way. The president liked it and overruled them all.

Equally importantly, the book describes the personal lesson that Mr. Robinson learned from watching Ronald and Nancy Reagan together, a lesson in total personal dedication. One scene that stands out describes Mr. Reagan catching a glimpse of the first lady in a window in the White House as he is giving a speech in the Rose Garden. "He beamed. She waved. He waved - then had everyone in the Rose Garden turn around and wave, too." Then the President picked up his pace, appearing more involved and energetic. A smile and a wave from his wife. They were all Reagan needed."

One imagines that this is still true, more importantly today than ever.

Helle Daleis Deputy Director of The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First Appeared in Washington Times