The Big Chill

The Reagans takes a right hook

Illustration Bob AulIn the 1990s, Howard Kaloogian, an assemblyman from north San Diego County, regularly scored 100 percent ratings from groups such as the Gun Owners of California and Southern California Taxpayers Alliance while landing in the sub-zeroes on the scorecards of environmental and family-planning groups. Still, to most progressives, Kaloogian appeared to be just another flat-earth Republican harmlessly seething about property taxes and the satanic laws that required property owners to pay them.

No more. Fresh from his high-profile involvement in the gubernatorial recall, Kaloogian recently swung into action again by organizing DefendReagan.org, a website that flooded CBS with e-mails demanding the termination of CBS's blasphemous miniseries The Reagans. Last week, another round in the culture wars went to the Boer Right when the network raised the white flag and canceled its four-hour biopic just 10 days before its debut, claiming it now plans to air it next year on Showtime. The network may have only bought a little breathing room for itself—Kaloogian and his friends are darkly muttering that exiling The Reagans to the Siberia of pay TV is not enough.

The movement to ban The Reagans began to reach critical mass on Oct. 21, when the New York Times, which had obtained a copy of the script, interviewed its chief writer, Elizabeth Egloff, a playwright whose work has been variously described as magical, dreamy and surreal. In LA, one memorable Odyssey Theater Ensemble production of her play, The Swan, featured a sexy man-swan who crashes into the home of a lonely nurse. When asked about a scene in which Reagan says of gays and AIDS, "They that live in sin shall die in sin," she admitted the quote was her own. With that acknowledgement the Right's battle to expunge CBS' blood libel was really on.

"If only I were more media-savvy," Egloff sighs over the phone from her home in Nyack, New York. "If I were asked about that quote again, I would say, 'Certainly it's fictional, but this is a movie.' I was absolutely truthful about Reagan, though—that's the way he felt. My research showed he was clearly a tremendously nice guy and a good person. But the nicest people in the '80s thought people with AIDS were not to be touched."

Egloff says the project began in 1998, and she was only hired to polish the script, authored by two other screenwriters, this past May. She concedes that her version was "probably darker" than the one she inherited and that "it quickly became something much different" when she came aboard.

She denies any anti-Reagan animus from the production company.

"We all came out of this feeling very affectionate about the Reagans," Egloff says. "They were a very ordinary yet very complicated and brilliant couple. There's always one person in any relationship riding the other, pushing them forward, and Nancy did that with her husband."

Egloff also recalls a frantic production schedule that had been scheduled to begin shooting July 7 but didn't until the start of August: "It was so chaotic that it ended up being done by the seat of the pants."

The history of movies is filled with stories of the rich and powerful vandalizing or suppressing films, from the gutting of Eric von Stroheim's Greed to the shelving of Sergei Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, Part IIand John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate. While The Reagans may not rank in that class of art, its initial bowdlerizing and ultimate removal from prime time is another example of what happens when dominant mythologies are challenged in 21st-century America—an all-powerful, all-paranoid country that truly has nothing to fear but fear itself.

There was a time, not long ago, when conventional wisdom said that if you didn't like a book's viewpoint, you didn't have to read it. Judging by our long history of boycotts and populist censorship, perhaps we only half-believed that notion. Today, no one even pretends to think that way.

"I still stand behind what I wrote," Egloff says. "We're a very partisan society on every issue today. It's sad that we've momentarily lost the ability to listen to each other."

Still, nothing prepared anyone connected to The Reagansfor the response it received.

"Nobody really knew," Egloff says. "Until now, the most flack I'd gotten was for my play The Devils—all the Dostoyevsky scholars came out and argued about it. I thought probably there would be a reaction, but not this hysteria. The Reagans hit an emotional nerve, and I think it had to do less with historical accuracy than the reality of our times."

As for the efforts of the energetic Mr. Kaloogian and the rampaging Right to have the miniseries pulled, Egloff marvels that "they have quite a machine. If only the Democrats had a machine like that—but part of their beauty is that they don't."

I ask whether there's a meta-epic to be mined from her experience of writing The Reagans. "I loved working on it," Egloff says. "I learned so much about the presidency and the cabinet—I would do it again in a heartbeat. I think there is a story or movie in this, but I don't know if I could write it."

 
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