Jewish World Review Nov. 10, 2003 / 15 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764
Script doctors wanted
The TV Miniseries About Ronald Reagan attributes two devastating lines to the former president, according to leaked reports. They are: "I am the Antichrist" and "They that live in sin shall die in sin," which is presented as Reagan's smug dismissal of homosexuals who die of AIDS. Is there any clear evidence that Reagan ever spoke these lines or anything like them? In a word, no.
The Antichrist remark in the script reflects Reagan's interest in Armageddon, the biblical account of the world's final battle. The issue came up many times during Reagan's career, including a presidential debate in 1984, when Marvin Kalb of NBC asked him whether he thought a nuclear armageddon was near. Reagan said soothingly that no one knows if the biblical prophecies will be fulfilled in a thousand years or the day after tomorrow. However, there were signs that Reagan believed the end might be close. In a 1980 interview on Jim Bakker's PTL network, Reagan said, "We may be the generation that sees Armageddon."
But where did the miniseries staff get the idea that Reagan thought he was the Antichrist? Elizabeth Egloff, who wrote the final version of the script, told me it came from Page 247 of Lou Cannon's well-respected 1991 book, President Reagan: the Role of a Lifetime. Cannon, a former Washington Post reporter, wrote this: "As Reagan understood the story, Russia would be defeated by an acclaimed leader of the West who would be revealed as the Antichrist." This hints at the possibility that Reagan may have thought of himself as the Antichrist, but where did the hint come from and who was the hinter? Cannon's sentence is oddly phrased, not footnoted, and does not cite anybody as saying Reagan ever said or thought he was the Antichrist. Cannon said to me that although he does not recall where he got that sentence, "Nobody ever told me or anybody else, as far as I know, that Reagan thought he was the Antichrist." So we are left with no one, apparently, standing behind the "I am the Antichrist" comment inserted into Reagan's mouth in a miniseries that was to be seen and believed by millions.
Slurs. Reagan's alleged antihomosexual remark is based on a line in Edmund Morris's book Dutch. Morris wrote that his "research cards" (whatever that means) have Reagan saying "maybe the Lord brought down this plague" because "illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments." The "research cards" appear to be the only source for this. Dutch is as shaky as any docudrama, with made-up dialogue and the author himself bizarrely inserted in the book as a fictional character who knew the young Reagan. Note that homosexuals are not mentioned in the quote, and Morris adds that "to be fair," Reagan made no distinction between homosexual and heterosexual sex in the "illicit" comment. Reagan has no track record of insulting or penalizing gays. He and Nancy had many gay friends in Hollywood. Whatever his beliefs about "illicit" sex, it is indefensible to have Reagan saying, in effect, that gays deserve to die. The two producers of the miniseries, both openly gay, should have been more careful about this, but apparently they couldn't resist projecting onto Reagan what some mean-spirited people really do believe.
The slur against Reagan surely reflects AIDS as an issue in the culture war as well as the charge that Reagan didn't deal with AIDS aggressively because it was mostly killing gay men. There's no evidence for that charge. It would be fairer to say that Reagan, like many conservatives, thought that halting the AIDS epidemic depended less on vast government programs than on stopping the irresponsible personal behavior that created and spread the epidemic. People ought to be able to criticize Reagan about this without calling him a murderer of gays, as Larry Kramer and his group, ACT-UP, repeatedly did during the 1980s.
The problem is that the Hollywood left is probably as incapable of doing a fair treatment of Reagan as Richard Mellon Scaife would be of doing one about the Clintons. Alessandra Stanley, the TV critic of the New York Times, put it mildly when she wrote that the producers of the Reagan miniseries "appear to have sacrificed showmanship to self-righteousness, adopting a preachy, liberal agenda."
Even when dealing with fumbles by the Reagan administration, the script manages to be over the top. The Reagan team shamefully tried to scant the poor by classifying ketchup as a vegetable in school lunch programs. This is handled as unsubtly as possible by having Judy Davis, portraying Nancy Reagan, shrieking at the Reagan character: "Ketchup is a vegetable! It is not a meat, right? So it is a vegetable!" Davis said she hoped the script would encourage Americans to examine their leaders more closely. Maybe the lesson is more obvious: Now we must examine our politically loaded TV dramas more closely.
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