“The Reagans”: The Spirit of Censorship Lives

Relatively few Americans will see the CBS Television mini-series, “The Reagans,” when it’s released in the months ahead. A barrage of protests from Republicans and conservative groups evidently convinced CBS executives that the controversial series was more appropriate for a small, paying Showtime audience than a network broadcast.

Reagan supporters also warned leading advertisers about the series and dropped hints about a possible conservative boycott of CBS programming. Their success in frightening executives at CBS revealed that intimidation still works in the entertainment industry. Political partisans managed to block a dramatic presentation of history that they did not like.

These actions serve the cause of censorship, but critics of the television series do not acknowledge that their actions represent an assault on freedom of speech that is little different than an attempt to suppress publication of a novel. Instead, they claim to be advocates of “accurate” and “balanced” history.

Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, complained that the CBS script contains language that Ronald Reagan never actually used, and that the film’s interpretation is excessively critical of the former president. The Republican chairman asked CBS to allow Reagan’s associates to examine the film for historical accuracy. Otherwise, said Gillespie, the network should place a disclaimer on the screen every ten minutes advising viewers that the drama contained fictional material.

If filmmakers were to follow Gillespie’s recommendations, just about every historical drama would be off-limits for Hollywood and network television. “Docudrama” is, by its very nature, interpretive. Dramatic representations of the past always contain inventions, because the creators of these films must imagine conversations and actions that have not been recorded by historians. The films are unbalanced because artists can never represent an entire life in their stories. They must select examples, and those choices reflect judgments.

Since the time of Shakespeare’s historical plays, virtually all docudramas have offered hard-hitting, opinionated viewpoints. Most film and television dramas that have excited public interest in history have delivered partisan portrayals of events and people. They were all “controversial” in some way. “Roots,” the influential television series that aroused the American public’s interest in the history of slavery, portrayed most blacks as noble and depicted most whites as exploitative.

“The Reagans” contains information that can please both enthusiasts and detractors. A reporter who saw the script indicated that it shows the president’s political skills and commitment to his beliefs and gives him credit for ending the Cold War. On the other hand, it highlights his forgetfulness and loose control over his staff, and it portrays his wife, Nancy, as a control-obsessed First Lady who sought advice on policy matters from astrologers.

Partisans may contest the placement of this information in a dramatic film, but they need as well to acknowledge that reports about these matters appeared frequently in newspaper accounts. Conservatives are particularly angry about a line in the script that suggests Ronald Reagan was not motivated to act aggressively when the AIDS crisis appeared. The president says in the drama, “They that live in sin shall die in sin.”

After much protest, CBS agreed to remove the offending statement, but the comment is not completely out of character. Edmund Morris, Reagan’s authorized biographer, reports the President once said, “Maybe the Lord brought down this plague” because “illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments.”

Do critics of the CBS mini-series feel that the only truthful portrait of Reagan is a saintly and heroic one? Must all dramas about Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, overlook his ownership of slaves? Should filmmakers crafting films about FDR or JFK avoid reference to their dalliances with women? In fact, should historical novels, also, present only inspiring depictions of national figures? The emphasis on positive portrayals suggested by Gillespie and his colleagues can leave us with a sterile and limited understanding of history.

Those unhappy with the program also insist that docudramas should present stories about the deceased, not living figures such as Ronald and Nancy Reagan. If that requirement applies, we may need to wait thirty or more years to see a drama about Bill Clinton, Tony Blair or other notable figures from public life.

The complaints leveled by Gillespie and others do not constitute a noble effort to ensure fair treatment of a historical subject. They represent a form of intimidation. These protesters do not agree with the point of view offered by CBS Television’s docudrama, and they wish to prevent broadcast of the mini-series. We do not have formal censorship these days, but the actions of Gillespie and others come close to giving us the suppression of ideas that our laws and traditions aim to prevent.

Robert Brent Toplin, professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, has published books on popular culture and politics, and is a writer for the History News Service.

November, 2003