Alternet.org, 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
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 century—and 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 points—powerfully, ingeniously—without 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 media—television and radio, especially—and 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
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
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 uninformed—or perhaps too stupid—to 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 America—no 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 power—and an agenda—to 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.)