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History is all the drama needed for Reagan's story

November 09, 2003|DAVID SHAW

As much as any single factor in "The Reagans," conservative opposition was triggered -- and galvanized -- by a scene in the miniseries in which Nancy Reagan is shown urging her husband to do more for AIDS victims, and he replies, "They that live in sin shall die in sin."

Elizabeth Egloff, who wrote the script, subsequently acknowledged that there was no evidence Reagan ever uttered those words, and after the initial flurry of protests, they were excised. Meanwhile, Edmund Morris, Reagan's authorized biographer, told reporters that Reagan had said "maybe the Lord brought down this plague" because "illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments."

That's not the same thing. Far from it. But it's bad enough. The makers of "The Reagans" could have stuck to the truth and made their point just as strongly, indeed just as dramatically, because whatever Reagan did or didn't say about AIDS, he clearly didn't do enough to put the might of the federal government into the battle against AIDS.

Reagan didn't publicly utter the word "AIDS" until 1987, six years after the epidemic began. Even then, he didn't include in his State of the Union address that year a statement on AIDS that Dr. Gary Noble, AIDS coordinator for the Public Health Service, said he was asked to draft specifically for that speech.

By all accounts, Reagan is a decent and compassionate man. But his administration's AIDS policy -- or, rather, the longtime absence of any meaningful AIDS policy -- was neither decent nor compassionate. The attitudes that led to this inertia said a great deal about Reagan's presidency, about the power of his advisors and about his hands-off, CEO-above-it-all approach to governance. He was, after all, the Great Delegator as well as the Great Communicator

Dr. C. Everett Koop was the surgeon generally under President Reagan, but as Koop told a national symposium on AIDS policy three years ago, "I was cut off from AIDS discussions and statements" for the first five years of the epidemic.

"Domestic policy folks in the White House isolated Ronald Reagan from the whole subject of AIDS," Koop said. "And because transmission of AIDS was ... primarily in the homosexual population and in those who abused intravenous drugs, the advisors to the president took the stand [that] they are only getting what they justly deserve.

"And the domestic policy people, as well as the majority of the president's cabinet, did not see any need to ... have a governmental policy towards this disease. And these combined attitudes did nothing to dampen -- indeed, they ... very well may have aided and ... [abetted] the hatred of homosexuals in this country, the discrimination against innocent schoolchildren...."

Wow. I'd say that would make for pretty gripping television. Here you have the highest-ranking medical official in the land saying, in effect, that it was Reagan's top advisors who felt -- well, "They that live in sin shall die in sin." Why put those words in Reagan's mouth and distort history when you can have an actor play Koop and talk about his personal experience with Reagan's advisors?

Why, in fact, make up any of the other fictional or "dramatized" stuff that was in the script of "The Reagans"? Why the compulsion to gild -- or geld -- the Gipper? The man has given us a lifetime of good material -- far better material than he ever had in his own movie roles. Why not use it? Why not stick to it?

Truth is not only stranger than fiction. It's often better. That might be something that even liberals and conservatives could agree on.

David Shaw can be reached at

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