Daily Archives: November 6, 2003

Cheap Shots

Choosing between history’s fictionalizers and the hypocritical critics in the battle over “The Reagans” isn’t easy — particularly because the fictionalizers turned out to be rather cowardly as well.

So begins Joe Conason in his column in “Salon”, about the CBS mini-series that everyone’s yapping about but no one save its makers and CBS prexy Leslie Moonves has actually seen.

Being the author of “Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How it Distorts the Truth”, Conason would appear to be an ideal person to discuss the “controversy.” But in the last analysis he’s just as cowardly as L. Brent Bozell.

Like everyone else, I’ve enjoyed a televised docudrama from time to time — awful though they tend to be — but always with the nagging sense that such films do permanent damage. That the topic in this instance is a right-wing president, whose legacy is constantly being enlarged and whitewashed by his conservative mythologists, only suggests how important an honest account could be. I haven’t read the script of “The Reagans,” but it certainly doesn’t sound as if accuracy was the primary objective of the writers.

“Salon,” needless to say, is a publication that knows quite a lot about whitewash — it’s post-Clinton retreat from Liberalism to a vague mushy “we like to print all sides” stance of the true-blue doormat having lost it many readers. As for accuracy, one would be advised to consult the publication’s archives for editor Joan Walsh’s articles on the murder of Diane Whipple. “Selective” would be the most charitable way to describe the accuracy of the reporting involved.

There would be nothing wrong with CBS producing a critical biopic about the former president, although since he is old and ill the network might have waited to produce the film posthumously.


He was old and ill before he began his first term in office. Or hadn’t you noticed? Only a few had, at first, because the “mainstream” press did such a good job of covering for the old coot. But as the second term wound down into the sickening miasma of what came to be known as “the Iran-Contra affair,” the emperor’s “new clothes” were less discsussed than the painfully manifest loss of his marbles.

And there is no shortage of truthful, unflattering, script-worthy material about him in the historical record, from his remarks about polluting trees to his ugly crack about Martin Luther King Jr. to his disgraceful performance in the Iran-contra scandal.

Actually that was less disgraceful than Conason imagines. For when Reagan on the stand loudly declared that he had no memory of an “arms-for-hostages deal” he was quite obviously telling the truth. He had no memory of it. Or much else.

The clipping files about Reagan’s alliance with extremists on the religious right would surely have supplied much embarrassing material.
His real record on issues domestic and foreign was bad enough. So why invent a cheap shot involving gays and AIDS?

Wait a minute — hold the phone. What “cheap shot”? Ronald Reagan’s record on the greatest health disaster of modern times should stand at the beating heart of anyone’s objections to him, from any “side” of our increasingly cramped political “spectrum.” Thank goodness Eric Alterman displays a better memory — and a stronger backbone in his new Center For American progress column.

Amazing but true, the far-right media machine has successfully held CBS entertainment to a higher standard of truth regarding the docudrama, “The Reagans” than that news media manages to hold the Bush administration regarding the war in Iraq. The ability of these would-be censors to “work the refs” on the issue of the CBS movie, “The Reagans” is truly impressive. Setting a new standard for accuracy in TV docudramas – something that never troubled them, for instance, when a network had to invent a voice of morality in the Reagan White for an Ollie North biopic based on Guts And Glory: The Rise And Fall Of Oliver North by Ben Bradlee Jr.’s, because none existed in real life – the right not only got CBS to walk away from its $9 million investment, it got them to excise a statement emanating from Reagan’s mouth that was largely accurate.

In the miniseries, scriptwriters had President Reagan saying to Nancy, as she tries to get him to demonstrate a bit of compassion towards people dying of AIDS, “They that live in sin shall die in sin.” Yet according to the authorized biography, “Dutch” by Edmund Morris, what Reagan really said was “maybe the Lord brought down this plague” because “illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments.”

In any case, it is hardly insignificant that President Reagan did not manage to utter the word “AIDS” in public during his entire two terms in office. In doing so, he offered us all a lesson to all about how silence can sometimes speak more loudly than words. (By 1987, more than 21,000 suffered from the disease and nearly than 12,000 had already died.)

Have an eggroll, Mr. Alterman!

The ongoing disaster known as AIDS did many things. It turned a former “Young Americans For Freedom” member into an important (if controversial) front-line reporter on the crisis. It transformed a novelist and screenwriter, whose credits include everything from Women in Love to the musical version of Lost Horizon into one of the greatest social and political activist of the 20th century.

And it killed Richard, and Michael, and Craig , and Luther; her husband his son, and his lover — the list goes on and on.

AIDS goes on and on.

And so does the Reagan Myth Machine –as Conason semi-unwittingly proves.

Today my friend Mark Crispin Miller sent around this “Time” magazine essay by Reagan’s younger daughter Patti Davis about the film’s distorted image of her father as a heartless homophobe. In an accompanying note, Mark writes: “I’m as grossed out as the next guy (and the next guy is on his knees and heaving) over CBS’s craven move to drop the Reagan biopic because of rightist pressure. Matt Drudge and his pals are all puffed up about it, which is in itself sufficient cause for nausea. However, we should also take [the Davis essay] into consideration. It nuances the picture, as the president would never say.” That expresses my own sentiments precisely.

Really Mr. Miller? Really Mr. Conason? Let’s take a close look at that “essay” shall we?:

Finally, CBS is doing the right thing about “The Reagans.” Under pressure the network has decided not to air the two-part biopic, steering it instead to the cable outlet Showtime (like CBS, owned by Viacom). But just because a far smaller audience will now see the film (Showtime draws maybe a million viewers on a top night) doesn’t make this story any more accurate. According to the screenplay for “The Reagans,” my father is a homophobic Bible-thumper who loudly insisted that his son wasn’t gay when Ron took up ballet, and who in a particularly scathing scene told my mother that AIDS patients deserved their fate. “They who live in sin shall die in sin,” the writers and producers had him say.
CBS execs say the line about AIDS victims has now been deleted. I asked Bert Fields, one of America’s best known entertainment attorneys, who is not my lawyer but is a friend, to call CBS head Les Moonves and point out how painful the line was.

You might want to check out some of the uh ” handiwork” of Bert Fields, whose client list also includes Michael Jackson.

My mother, through her attorney Ira Revitch, also wrote to Mr. Moonves asking for its removal. Not only did my father never say such a thing, he never would have. If you have any doubts, read the recently published book of his letters. They reveal a man whose compassion for other people is deep and earnest, and whose spiritual life is based on faith in a loving God, not a vengeful one.

(See Edmund Morris via Eric Alterman above.)

I was about eight or nine years old when I learned that some people are gay — although the word ‘gay’ wasn’t used in those years. I don’t remember what defining word was used, if any; what I do remember is the clear, smooth, non-judgmental way in which I was told. The scene took place in the den of my family’s Pacific Palisades home. My father and I were watching an old Rock Hudson and Doris Day movie. At the moment when Hudson and Doris Day kissed, I said to my father, “That looks weird.” Curious, he asked me to identify exactly what was weird about a man and woman kissing, since I’d certainly seen such a thing before. All I knew was that something about this particular man and woman was, to me, strange. My father gently explained that Mr. Hudson didn’t really have a lot of experience kissing women; in fact, he would much prefer to be kissing a man. This was said in the same tone that would be used if he had been telling me about people with different colored eyes, and I accepted without question that this whole kissing thing wasn’t reserved just for men and women.

That would mean that Ronnie and Patti were either watching Pillow Talk
on television one year after it was released — an unlikely story — or that Reagan had a print of the film specially delivered to his home — and even more unlikely story.

As I have noted at length in my book Open Secret the “truth about Rock Hudson” was known from the very beginning of his career, not only by everyone in show business but everyone outside it with an ounce of intelligence. That poor, innocent little Patti was so unnerved it all didn’t stand in the way of her multi-faceted career as an actress,

Playboy Centerfold,

“Eagles”; groupie ,

and most important of all author whose memoir “The Way I See It

and memoir-disguised-as-a-novel “Homefront”

cast such a cold eye on her family’s life that one suspects her real complaint with the mini-series is that it’s poaching on territory she regards as hers alone. That’s why it’s so grotesquely amusing to see her confect this “Ronnie-Dishes-Rock” story so pretentiously —

You should know this story because it’s something the producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron won’t tell you. They have exhibited astounding carelessness and cruelty in their depiction of my father and my entire family. They never consulted any family member, nor did they speak to anyone who has known us throughout the years. In the New York Times on October 21st, one of the writers admitted that the line about AIDS victims was completely fabricated. In that same article, Jim Rutenberg reported that the producers claimed no major event was depicted without two confirming sources.

Therefore the line wasn’t completely fabricated, dear.

When you are part of a public family, a different standard applies. Every part of your life is regarded as accessible.

The Clintons feel your pain, Patti!

I accept things that other people see as strange, like magazines and news organizations compiling obituary pieces for my father in 1994 after he wrote his now-famous letter to the country saying he had Alzheimer’s.

Nothing strange about it. I’m surprised they’ve been able to keep him on life-supports as long as they have.

Requests for an interview or article, to be held back until the time of his passing, didn’t sting me or even seem inappropriate. Death is a delicate matter, but it will come, and my father is part of history. It’s a far different thing to learn that people who have never met you wrote a script meant to eviscerate your family and it has now been filmed and scheduled for broadcast.

Craig and Neal should have asked Patti to write a script instead. Of course it would have been too strong for the networks, but. . .

Reading the script actually made me feel better in some ways. It is, quite simply, idiotic. Everyone is a caricature, manufactured and inauthentic. My father is depicted as some demented evangelist, going on about Armageddon every chance he gets. My mother is cast as a female Attila the Hun, and I and my siblings are unrecognizable to me. There are absurdities, like depictions of Mike Deaver and political aides camping out at our house during my father’s early political career — in every scene, there they are, hanging around the house day and night. I suppose this is meant to explain why, when my sister Maureen visits, my mother tells her to sleep on the floor. Funny, but I have no recollection of any of this.

Do you remember your father’s visit to the Nazi cemetery at Bitberg where he layed a wreath? Mike Deaver staged that — copying it’s mise en scene directly from Triumph of the Will – right down to the nazi anthem played in the background. Those “camp outs” weren’t casual affairs, you know, Mike had important work to do for Dad.

Nor do I remember conducting an impromptu yoga class at my wedding reception. (I promise you, no one at my wedding was chanting Om or Shanti.)

Memory is the first thing to go, dear. Ask your Dad.

Whoops — too late!

But the idiocy of the script can’t dilute the cruelty behind it. To deliberately and calculatingly depict public people as shallow, intolerant, cold and inept, with no truths or facts to back up the portrayals, is nothing short of malevolent.

Clutch the pearls! Democrats are so cruel, aren’t they? Why you’d swear they had been treated like shit in the mass media for over a decade with a cottage industry of attack-books about them, and radio talk shows blaring away about how horrible they are night and day!

Many of the people depicted in the script are dead — Lew Wasserman, my sister Maureen, my grandparents, Don Regan. They can say nothing about their portrayals. And my father, obviously, cannot correct the lies told about him.

Nor can he bring back the thousands of Central American peasants he sent to their graves.

Consider the scene in a girls’ boarding school I supposedly was attending when my father was elected governor of California (I was never at an all-girls’ boarding school.) They have a classmate saying to me, “Hitler’s just been elected governor.” No one writes a line like that with any other agenda except to wound. Later in the script, Don Regan refers to my mother as “Madame Fuhrer.” I’m quite sure he never did, but the feelings of those behind this project is made clear. Anger and vitriol always leak through if you’re a writer with those demons inside you.

Cut to Craig and Neal vomiting pea soup a la Linda Blair. What a vivid imagination you have, Patti Dearest.

I know a bit about that. In my early career as a writer, I was an angry one. In 1992 when I wrote an autobiography, we were still a family in turmoil and while I did write about healing and letting go of the past, I still had a firm grip on those grudges. Throughout the years, there have occasionally been offers to purchase the rights to my autobiography and I have always declined. Foolishly, I believed I had control over my own material. Apparently I don’t.

Finally she gets down to brass tacks.

There is a scene in “The Reagans” in which my character steals tranquilizers from my mother’s medicine cabinet. I wrote about having done that and trading those pills for amphetamines — an addiction that ravaged me from the age of fifteen well into my twenties. Many women in the Sixties were prescribed tranquilizers, and my mother never noticed hers missing, so she couldn’t have been using them too often. You won’t get this context in the CBS movie; they just wanted you to know there were drugs on the premises.

Calling Rush Limbaugh!

What is it about Republicans and their proscription addictions, anyway?

Why can’t they get strung out on heroin like normal people?

My father would probably say, “This too shall pass.” And it will. We will continue to come to his bedside, knowing that death waits in the doorway and will one day reach for him.

The way it reached for Bette Davis in Dark Victory! You remember that one, don’t you Patti? Your father played a gay man in it.

We will continue to cherish the fact that we walked away from our old battlegrounds and discovered how much better peace feels. We will look at each other through the clear glass of the present, not the mud-spatter of the past. What a pity the producers missed out on that part of the story.

And what a pity Max Steiner’s dead and can’t put an orchestra behind that last paragraph.

Meanwhile Conason tries to regain lost footing.

Of course, the conservative commissars who want to censor any negative images of Reagan from network TV are plenty galling in their appeals to “truth.” Hannity, O’Reilly, Buchanan and all the rest adhere strictly to their own brand of political correctness; their concern for historical accuracy is nil.
Nobody on the right protested when Showtime aired that awful, tarted-up, Soviet-style TV movie about our heroic president last September. None of them cared that Lionel Chetwynd, the genius behind “D.C. 9/11,” also happened to be a Bush backer and contributor handpicked by Karl Rove to produce this crucial propaganda piece. None of them minded that the journalists chosen to vet the accuracy of that piece of junk all worked for Fox. Back then, all the wingers liked Viacom — parent of CBS and Showtime — just fine.
Now those bold Viacom executives, whose intense need for regulatory favors from the White House and Congress surely never, ever influences a programming decision, should insist that the serious inaccuracies be removed from “The Reagans.” The audience on Showtime will no doubt be bigger than anyone might have expected if the movie had been originally produced for cable — thanks to all the loud bleating from the p.c. right

But the “Showtime” audience won’t enjoy it as much as they do Queer As Folk, will they now Joe?

Eric nails it all far more easily:

The far-right food chain that chewed up and spit out “The Reagans” was composed of Michael Reagan, Matt Drudge, Sean Hannity, Bill O’ Reilly, Joe Scarborough, and Brent Bozell’s Media Research Center – who started contacting CBS advertisers – and finally Republican National Committee Chair, Ed Gillespie. Knowing no boundaries of taste or fair play it was willing to use the rumor of an actor’s stepson suffering from HIV as part of its campaign – “It doesn’t help that Streisand’s own son is suffering from HIV,” Drudge opined to Sean Hannity – as well as the typical exploitation fare of Fox News and its many imitators. Hannity asked Ed Smart, the father of kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart, whether the family’s close involvement in a made-for-TV movie about the kidnapping was due to the treatment of the Reagans: “Maybe you thought what happened in the case of the Reagans, that that would happen to you?” All of this, recall, was based on a seven-minute highlight reel that the network sent around for promotional purposes.
The idea that these parties were genuinely interested in preserving the accuracy of the historical portrayal of the Reagans is almost too laughable to be taken seriously

Moving towards the finish, he dryly notes —

The successful effort to intimidate CBS is about politics; nothing more, nothing less. Matt Bivens reports on The Nation Web site about the efforts of Republican activist, Grover Norquist and the Reagan Legacy Project, which is well along toward its stated goal of having at least one public building or street or structure named after Reagan in each of America’s 3,067 counties. That’s on top of the push to have Reagan’s face put on the ten dollar bill (instead of Alexander Hamilton), and the drives to put a Reagan monument on the Washington Mall (an honor so far reserved only for Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt) and to carve Reagan’s head onto Mount Rushmore. And of course there’s already a Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington and the twin-nuclear-reactor powered USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, which was christened this summer … oh, there’s also the commemorative Reagan stamp issued by, of all places, the island of Grenada (which also has the Ronald Reagan Scholarship Fund to send students to the United States for study) … and the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll.

But there are other sorts of monuments to Reagan era that the family won’t like his name attached to. Jim Provenzano’s brilliant new novel “Monkey Suits” captures perfectly the Reagan Age as it examines the lives of gay cater-waiters working the Metropolitan Museum’s swank parties — while getting politicized by ACT-UP.

And then there’ s the epic perspective offered by Tony Kushner’s “Gay Fantasia on National Themes” Angels in America, which is coming this month to HBO.

One section from that very great play deserves to be quoted at length.

Roy: Your problem, Henry, is that you are hung up on words, on labels, that you believe they mean what they see to mean. AIDS. Homosexual.Gay.Lesbian.You think these are names that tell you who someone sleeps with but they don’t tell you that.

Henry: No?

Roy: No. Like all labels they tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology, or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout. Not who I fuck or who fucks me, but who will pick up the phone when I call, who owes me favors. This is what a label refers to. Now to someone who does not understand this,homosexualis what I am because I have sex with men. But really this is wrong.Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals who men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill though City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout. Does this sound like me, Henry?

Henry: No.

Roy: No. I have clout. A lot. I can pick up this phone, punch fifteen numbers,and you know who will be on the other end in under five minutes, Henry?

Henry: The President.

Roy: Even better, Henry. His Wife.

Henry: I’m impressed.

Roy: I don’t want you to be impressed.I want you to understand. This is not sophistry.And this is not hypocroisy. This is reality. I have sex with men. But unlike nearly every other man of whom this is true,I bring the guy I’m screwing to the White House and President Reagan smiles at us and shakes his hand. Because what I am is defined entirely by who I am. Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man, henry, who fucks around with guys.

Henry: OK, Roy.

Roy: And what is my diagnosis, Henry?

Henry: you have AIDS, Roy.

Roy: No, Henry, no. AIDS is what homosexuals have. I have liver cancer.

Yes, that’s what the man said alright. Right up until hours before his death when he appeared on 60 Minutes and declared to a semi-credulous Mike Wallace that he wasn’t gay and didn’t have AIDS.

But that was then.

Nowadays your post-modern Roy Cohn would say he’s “healthy, undetectable.”

Don’t think there’s a movie in this one, however — on network or cable.