, December 7, 2003

    Reagan Reconsidered, Again
    The HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner's Angels in America is a harsh
    indictment of Reagan's handling of the AIDS epidemic. So why has the right
    wing remained silent?

    By Bruce Kluger

    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

    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 centuryand 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 pointspowerfully, ingeniouslywithout 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 mediatelevision and radio, especiallyand 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 uninformedor perhaps too stupidto 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 Americano 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 powerand an agendato 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.

    (Click here to read online version.)