You don't tug on Superman's cape, and you don't mess around with the legacy of Ronald Reagan. That was the message delivered — quite forcefully, it would appear — to the CBS television network, which obligingly canceled a four-hour miniseries called "The Reagans" after conservative enforcers took issue with its portrayal of the former president.
Like almost everyone else on the planet, we haven't seen the series. Based on the available information about its content, the wonder is that CBS ever intended to run "The Reagans" at all, not that a band of zealots bullied the network into dumping it.
Star James Brolin looked like a Reagan impersonator in a comedy sketch with his artificial hair and goofy half-smile, but some of the words put in his mouth were less than benign — or truthful. The most notorious example (later dropped from the script) was a vicious comment about AIDS as God's punishment for homosexuals. There's no evidence Reagan ever said anything of the kind, and the remark seems out of character; whatever else may be said about him, the former president was not a mean-spirited man. Other excerpts from the script portray Reagan as some kind of religious fanatic, which he was not.
Still, it's a shame that CBS canceled the series (and handed it off to the Showtime cable network) with partisans nipping at its heels. Better to reject "The Reagans" at the outset — or run it and let viewers form their own judgments. By caving in to pressure, CBS handed a victory to the propagandists who are working full-time to cast recent history — and the national map — in a light as favorable as possible to Reagan and the conservative cause.
The CBS controversy is one fairly unusual incident in a much larger campaign, which lately has included the publication of Reagan's letters; the reflections of a wide-eyed speechwriter who titled his book "How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life"; and the endless attempts to spin the end of the Cold War as not simply a hard-won victory for the United States but a personal triumph for Reagan.
It also includes what might be called the United States of Reagan project — a concerted effort to rename everything in sight after one former president. After persuading Congress to rename Washington National Airport in Reagan's honor, the guardians of his legacy set out to have "at least one significant landmark or institution named after Reagan in all 50 states and 3,067 counties as well as in former communist countries. ..." Some want to see Reagan's face instead of Alexander Hamilton's on the $10 bill.
The Reagan loyalists won a recent victory in New Hampshire, which decreed that the mountain formerly known as Mount Clay (for Henry Clay) is now Mount Reagan, even though the federal government won't recognize such a change until five years after the person's death. The campaign obviously will be more difficult in some pockets of the country than in others — we don't expect to see a Reagan Mesa in Boulder any time soon — but it's a crusade with a lot of momentum behind it.
The campaign is to some extent an expression of real gratitude to a man who led conservatives from the fringe of American politics to the center. It's also a political crusade with strong overtones of ideology: Naming monuments after Reagan now is one way to seal the image of Reagan as a monumental president.
That conclusion is, to put it as mildly as possible, premature. There's no firm consensus yet on the record of John F. Kennedy — whose legacy has been rethought and rewritten several times since his death — let alone on more recent presidents such as Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton.
The guardians of Ronald Reagan's legacy are engaged in a propaganda campaign. They shouldn't be allowed to succeed, whether they're trying to rename a mountain or derail a television series.
Copyright 2003, The Daily Camera and the E.W. Scripps Company