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Reagan's Touchy Fans

November 05, 2003

"Where's the rest of me?" Ronald Reagan famously asks in the movie "Kings Row" (1942) when he wakes up legless after surgery. It's a question that GOP officials such as Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, have been asking as well about a planned CBS docudrama that they say doesn't recognize Reagan's greatness as president.

What Gillespie and other critics of the TV production fail to see is that their protest campaign makes more of the drama than it's worth, and less of Reagan.

Complaints, apparently based on a leaked script, that the former president is portrayed as an airhead, insensitive to AIDS victims and dominated by his wife prompted CBS to ax the four-hour mini-series. It's now supposed to run -- sometime -- on the Showtime cable channel, which is owned by CBS' parent company, Viacom. CBS officials say the show "does not present a balanced portrayal" of the Reagans. Maybe so, but is all the fuss really warranted?

Conservatives' anger about the Reagan series parallels the indignation of those who recently attacked Showtime's airing of a docudrama about Sept. 11. Their complaint was that the show amounted to a campaign movie for George W. Bush by depicting him as a fearless hero and by accusing the Clinton White House of being soft on terrorism. A steely Bush, for instance, tells British Prime Minister Tony Blair that he wants to "bring enough damage so they [terrorists] understand there is a new team here, a fundamental change in our policy."

But no matter how flattering this depiction was, there is no evidence that it helped Bush. His poll ratings are at a low point.

Similarly, the historical verdict on Reagan's presidency will not be determined by a docudrama. And the fact of Reagan's descent into Alzheimer's disease does not put his presidency out of bounds for comment. He was a dominant figure of late 20th century American politics, so what are Reagan's admirers so afraid of? If his record is as important as most historians already maintain, it will hardly be undermined by a two-part TV movie.

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