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Does New Ronald Reagan Miniseries Offer Fair Portrayal?

Aired October 24, 2003 - 16:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: CROSSFIRE. On the left, James Carville and Paul Begala; on the right, Robert Novak and Tucker Carlson.

In the CROSSFIRE: giving Ronald Reagan the Hollywood treatment.




ANNOUNCER: With Barbra Streisand's husband in the leading role, are TV viewers about to get the real Reagan or a liberal rewriting of history?


REAGAN: Go ahead, make my day.





ANNOUNCER: Live from the George Washington University, Paul Begala and Robert Novak.



CBS is serving up a new version of the Ronald Reagan story, just before Thanksgiving. That's appropriate. With all the Hollywood liberals involved, it could be a real turkey.


PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST: Well, this afternoon, we will debate the furor on the right about a movie none of the right wing has seen yet.

But first, our own daily drama, the CROSSFIRE "Political Alert." President George W. Bush got us into war by claiming that Iraq posed a grave and gathering threat to America, because, he said, of Iraq's weapons and its link to al Qaeda terrorists. But now even Republicans are admitting the Bush administration misled us into that war.

"The Washington Post" reports today that the Republican- controlled Senate Intelligence Committee has concluded that the Bush administration overstated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, especially in terms of weapons and links to terrorists. Duh.

But Republicans are now trying to shift the focus away from the White House and towards scapegoating the dedicated career professionals at the CIA. Harry Truman said it best. The buck stops here. But, apparently, in the Bush White House, the mantra is, the blame belongs over there. They ought to be ashamed of themselves.

NOVAK: You know, Paul, what you just said bears very little resemblance to the story that was on page one of today's "Washington Post."

It says no conclusion has been made. The lead was, they're preparing a report. And what they are repairing -- preparing involves only what the intelligence experts say. It's not what the officials said.

BEGALA: It's also not putting the responsibility where it belongs. This president...


BEGALA: ... was warned time and time again that those charges were false.


NOVAK: In Madrid today, the U.S. asked the rest of the world for help, $36 billion worth of help to reconstruct Iraq. The response was, sorry, but all we can help is $14 to $19 billion, $5 billion of it from Japan. How about those big mouths from Paris and Berlin, who want to run the show? Nothing from the French and Germans, except from a measly $226 million from the entire European community.

Now, I just hope that the Democrats, who are so anxious to give our European friends a bigger say in how to run Iraq, will take note of the tight-fisted French and Germans, who give us nothing.


BEGALA: Oh, so let me get this straight now. The president of the United States alienates our allies. His defense secretary belittles and derides them. And now we're surprised that they don't want to help us? We need a new president if we're going to have a new foreign policy.


NOVAK: Let me summarize. We have a situation where they will not fight with us. Then they say, well, we want to run the show. They say, OK, if you want to come this in, you got to put your money down. They say, we won't pay. You defend the French and the Germans, right?

BEGALA: They sent troops and aid for President Clinton in Kosovo. Why aren't they doing it now? It's not because of America. They don't hate America.


BEGALA: They hate George W. Bush.

NOVAK: You defend them. You defend the French and Germans, don't you?

BEGALA: Do you defend Bush, the indefensible?

Well, on a more serious note, August 13 of 1998 was one of the most painful days of my life. As an aide to President Clinton, I joined him in witnessing the return of the bodies of 10 brave Americans who were killed in terrorist bombings in Africa. Now, presidents as different as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have been moved to tears by the sight of flag-draped coffins returning to loved ones here in America.

But we no longer see those images, despite the fact that three more Americans were killed today in Iraq, which has tragically become nearly a daily occurrence. Why? Because the Bush administration has ended arrival ceremonies and banned news coverage of the return of our heroic dead. But censorship cannot cover up our soldiers' heroism or their sacrifice or this administration's cowardice.


NOVAK: I'm old enough to remember -- I'm old enough to remember World War II. We lost 408,000 brave Americans, combat, in World War II.

If we had had those bodies coming back to this country with the news reels and the press covering them, it would have killed morale. Those ceremonies are touching, but they're morale killers; 10 bodies is one thing. When you're in a war, as we're in a war...


NOVAK: ... that is a morale killer.


BEGALA: We just disagree, with all due respect

(CROSSTALK) NOVAK: The U.S. Senate seems to have trouble agreeing on anything or getting anything done, with one big exception. For the fifth straight year, they gave themselves a pay increase! The senators decided they just couldn't get along on $154,700 a year and bumped it up to $158,000.

After the Republicans took control of Senate in the 1994 elections, they froze their own salaries for four years. But those days are long gone. Senator Russ Feingold this week tried to freeze this year's pay. He got only 34 senators to support him. That's an honor roll. As for the 60 senators voting to raise their pay, I'll let you describe them.

BEGALA: We agree. As rarely happens, we agree on this. The Republicans control the Senate. They could kill this pay raise if they wanted to. If you don't like this pay raise, America, you can go vote the Republicans out of office, because they're the ones who put this pay raise through.


NOVAK: No, that is a lie.

BEGALA: No, they control the Senate. They can kill it if they wanted to.

NOVAK: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. That is not true.

BEGALA: Don't accuse me of lying.


NOVAK: That's a lie. You said the Republicans put that through.

BEGALA: They allowed it through today.

NOVAK: Just a minute. That was an automatic pay increase every year that was put in by the Democratic-controlled Congress. The Republicans suspended it for four years. And now they returned it. It's bipartisan chicanery.



BEGALA: If they wanted to stop it today, it would be stopped today. The Republicans control that body.

NOVAK: Hollywood is giving us its version of Ronald Reagan. Needless to say, their Reagan isn't the Reagan you or I remember. Guess who is playing the Gipper? It's Barbra Streisand's husband. When that happens, you know it's time to start asking questions.

That's what we'll do right after this.


BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

Conservatives across the country are already up in arms about a two-part miniseries about their hero, former President Ronald Reagan. It will be on the CBS network next month. Well, for one thing, President Reagan in the film is played by a very talented and handsome actor by the names of James Brolin. What's wrong with that? They want Pee-Wee Herman instead?

No, their problem is that Mr. Brolin has committed the sin of being married to Barbra Streisand. Well, according to "The New York Times," the script includes flattering, as well as unflattering details about the Gipper. And it paints Nancy Reagan both as a powerful first lady exercising remarkable degree of control and a loving and protective wife. Pretty shocking, huh?

In the CROSSFIRE to debate the real Reagans are Republican strategist Frank Donatelli, who served as President Reagan's political director in the Reagan White House, along with Ann Lewis of the Democratic National Committee Women's Vote Center. She's a former colleague of mine in the Clinton White House.

Thank you both.



NOVAK: Ann Lewis, Hollywood did a movie about Franklin D. Roosevelt, "Sunrise at Campobello," made him a hero, glossed over the fact that he was a philanderer. They did a miniseries on -- docudrama -- on Truman, made him one of the great presidents of all time. Didn't say there were any flaws. And there were flaws.

They come to Ronald Reagan and they don't mention about the economy under Reagan, the fact that he was the master of the Cold War, defeating the Soviet Union. And what they do is, they make up quotes he never said. And the scriptwriter admits they made up the quotes about AIDS and that be being a curse against those people. That's not fair, is it?

ANN LEWIS, DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE: Look, history has already reported on Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. They were great presidents. It wouldn't much matter what Hollywood said. The American people know that.

But there was a noticeable silence last month, Bob. Showtime, also on television, did a special about George W. Bush that had him about 8 feet tall, striding across the country on 9/11, made up quotes that appear nowhere in news accounts. Absolute silence from you. So where is the regard for historic accuracy? You only complain if you think you've got a problem. They're not saying everything about Ronald Reagan you want?

Let's have a single standard here.


NOVAK: I thought I asked you about Reagan and you were talking about George W. Bush. And I just wondered if that was fair not to tell about his great accomplishments, to emphasize a nonexistent conversation about AIDS. They admit they made it up.

LEWIS: And what I said is the, if you will, theory or the practice of having television shows about recent presidents has already gone on. You don't mind when it is flattering references. You're still complaining about who the actor is. You want ideological litmus tests for actors?


LEWIS: I got news for you, Bob. You know what James Brolin does on the show? He reads the lines that other people write. That's what actors do. We don't have to give them a test.

BEGALA: Frank, let me bring you in on this. First, thank you for joining us. It was awfully nice of you.

DONATELLI: Thanks for inviting me.

BEGALA: And I think -- this will be odd coming from a Clinton guy -- I think there's a lot to admire about Ronald Reagan, all his charisma and optimism. He's very much the embodiment of a lot of what's best about America.

But one of the great parts about my job is that I occasionally get to introduce Bob Novak to a stranger called the facts. He mentioned twice an alleged falsehood about President Reagan's comments on AIDS. Let me show both what the movie quotes your former boss, our president, as saying and what historians have recorded him saying.

Here's what the movie quotes him saying about AIDS: "They that live in sin shall die in sin." Now, here's what President Reagan actually said, according to his official biographer: "Maybe the Lord brought down this plague because illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments."

Now, it seems to me, both quotes say the exact same thing, the horrific notion that somehow AIDS is God's punishment. That's not unfair, is it?

DONATELLI: Well, as the sportscaster Warner Wolf might say, let's go to the videotape. This is a letter that Ronald Reagan wrote to Elizabeth Glaser, who died of AIDS and founded the AIDS Pediatric Institute in the very early stages of the disease. And it's only a couple sentences, so I'm going to read it.

It says: "Nancy and I want you to know you are very much in our thoughts and prayers. We know there are no words that can lessen your sorrow. How we wish there were. But please know that you have our deepest sympathy. We can only trust in God's infinite wisdom and mercy, knowing he has received your daughter in that other world where there's no pain or sorrow. We are moving in every way we can, as fast as we can to find the answers to this terrible scourge that brought such sorrow to you and to many others. You will continue to be in our prayers."

Now, does that sound like someone



BEGALA: Let me read to you again what President Reagan said in May of 1987.


BEGALA: Excuse me for talking while you're interrupting.

Edmund Morris, President Reagan's official biographer, who had the cooperation of the Reagan family...

NOVAK: He was a fiction writer. He was a fiction writer.

BEGALA: Who had the cooperation of the Reagan family says that Reagan said that the lord brought down this plague because of illicit sex against the Ten Commandments. I think it's wonderful that he wrote such a moving letter, but he also said a terribly ignorant thing.

DONATELLI: You're quoting Edmund Morris and I'm quoting Ronald Reagan.

BEGALA: I'm quoting Ronald Reagan.

DONATELLI: Who do you want to believe?


DONATELLI: No, that's Edmund Morris quoting Ronald Reagan.

NOVAK: Now, as a matter of fact, Edmund Morris, the family was terribly distraught with that book. It was full of made-up stuff by Edmund Morris.

But, Ann Lewis, I want to read you an open letter to CBS by Representative Eric Cantor, a very bright young Republican congressman from Virginia, not a wild man.

He said: "One cannot help but note the liberal politics of those directly involved with the creation of this miniseries, including producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan and actors James Brolin and Judy Davis. I am also concerned that past political associations and ideology of CBS executives and actors have seeped into the production, creating a work that portrays Reagan inaccurately."

And your friend, Mr. Roland, said in January 1999, asked about Bill Clinton: "The most fun president we've ever had."

LEWIS: Which part of that were you complaining about?

But, Bob, I am glad you brought up that letter, because I wanted to bring it up. Let me tell you, I'm shocked that a Republican, who used to stand for conservatism, small government, staying out of the way of free enterprise, tries to bully a television network, writes a letter that says, you have a license and I want to be assured, says this congressman, I want to be assured of this script.

What is this, pre-censorship now?


DONATELLI: I would hope so.

LEWIS: The Republican Congress having just voted themselves a pay raise? I realize they're very busy voting themselves a pay raise, but the next thing they're going to do is give pre-clearance to television scripts? Is that your idea of conservatism and small government?

DONATELLI: Let me put your mind at ease. Ann, let me put your mind at ease. Eric Cantor does not favor censorship in any way, shape or form. Politicians routinely do this to try to get the media to take another look at a situation.

LEWIS: In other words, he didn't really mean it? He was just trying to get a little attention?

DONATELLI: He meant that you should check your facts, because their facts are obviously wrong, as they were in the AIDS example. There's no mention of the economic recovery?


DONATELLI: Paul, could you imagine doing a -- could you imagine doing a show on Franklin Roosevelt and not mentioning the New Deal? Isn't that the functional equivalent of Ronald Reagan?


NOVAK: It's amazing. It's amazing. That's right.

BEGALA: Look, I haven't seen the movie yet. But I can assure you, if Hollywood had really wanted to do a hit piece on President Reagan, they'd no further for sources than his own children. Let me tell you what his son Michael, renowned and successful radio talk show host, has said.

This is quoting Michael Reagan here: "I was real proud when Dad came to my high school commencement. He was the guest of honor and chief speaker. And I was in the group that posed with him in our caps and gowns. After the picture, he introduced himself to all of us and came and up to me and said, 'Hi, my name's Ronald Reagan. What's yours?' He was looking right into my face. I took off my cap and said, 'Dad, it's me, your son Mike.'"

Apparently, that's not even in the movie. So aren't you kind of being unfair to complain to CBS when his own children have written worse things about him?

DONATELLI: Look, no one is saying that the subject of an historical biography is perfect. There isn't question about that. Everybody has got warts.

I think all I'm saying is, there has to be accuracy and there has to be completeness. And, at least in this case, when you don't talk about one of the greatest economic recoveries in the history of our country, and when you make up an AIDS quote, those are two pretty damning indictments, even if the rest of the movie is accurate.

LEWIS: In the interest of, then, completeness, would you consider that the kind of quote that should be included?


NOVAK: That's from the Edmund Morris book.


NOVAK: That's from the Edmund Morris book.


BEGALA: ... also in Lou Cannon's book "The Role of a Lifetime," which is a terrific book about Ronald Reagan.

NOVAK: It's from the Edmund Morris book.


NOVAK: Now, let me ask you a question. I'm just curious, have you read "Reagan: A Life in Letters"?

LEWIS: No, I have not.

NOVAK: Ann, I would really recommend you read it, because it's the handwritten letters. And this is a man of great depth, great substance. And I'll bet you these left-wing CBS writers never read that book. Do you want to take my bet?

LEWIS: No, because I have no idea what they've read.

But you know what? That isn't the point. I'm not trying to censor a script. I'm not trying to tell people who put shows on the air what they have to read or what they have to write. I thought that was a more conservative position. I'm disappointed it's not.

NOVAK: We're going to take a break. We're going to take a break.

When your guests return in "Rapid Fire": Will a movie about President Bill Clinton be anything but X-rated?



NOVAK: And Wolf Blitzer will have the latest on wildfires that are threatening hundreds of homes in Southern California.



NOVAK: It's time for "Rapid Fire," where the questions come so fast, our guests don't have time to let Hollywood script consultants rewrite their answers.


NOVAK: The Reagans should be so lucky.

In the CROSSFIRE are former Clinton counselor Ann Lewis and former Reagan political director Frank Donatelli.

BEGALA: Frank, many years ago, Ronald Reagan's chief of staff, Donald Regan, documented that an astrologer had enormous control over the president's schedule. You don't have a problem with that truth being reflected in the movie, do you?

DONATELLI: If it's part of an entirely accurate script, absolutely not.

NOVAK: Ann Lewis, I await eagerly the docudrama on Bill Clinton. Do you think we can avoid an X-rating on it?

LEWIS: I think that Paul and I remember seeing television talk about Bill Clinton every night. And you know what? We didn't ask our friends in Congress to write letters trying to censor it. We let it out there.


BEGALA: Frank, in November of 1983, President Reagan told the Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, that he was part of an Army crew that filmed the liberation of a Nazi death camp. That was completely false. Should a whopper like that be in this movie?

DONATELLI: In -- when you're talking about a miniseries that encompasses two hours or four hours, there are going to be things in there that you're going to have and there's going to be other things you shouldn't. The things that should be in there are the major accomplishments of the Reagan administration, in my judgment.

NOVAK: Ann, to many of us, Ronald Reagan was a heroic figure. To most Americans, he was a heroic figure. Shouldn't a heroic actor characterize him, instead of Barbra Streisand's husband? LEWIS: As we've discussed, again, what actors do is read the lines. James Brolin is a very gifted actor. He brings a lot of talent to the screen.


LEWIS: But if you want to start giving ideological litmus tests, you can try.

BEGALA: Frank, we're almost out of -- we are out of time.


BEGALA: Quickly, if James Brolin, the most great-looking actor in Hollywood wanted to play you, would you complain?

DONATELLI: Well, he'd be better than Sean Penn.



BEGALA: Frank Donatelli, former Reagan aide and a good sport, thank you for debating us. Ann Lewis, my friend and former colleague from the Clinton White House, thank you both very much.

Well, movies have always been a big part of the Reagans' lives. And so our question for today is this: What's the only movie that Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, appeared in together? Was it "Bedtime For Bonzo," "Hellcats of the Navy," or, my favorite, "Knute Rockne, All American"?

We'll have the answer for you right after the break.

And in "Fireback," one of our viewers has suggested a title for the miniseries about President George W. Bush.

Stay tuned to learn what it is.



NOVAK: Welcome back. We asked the audience, what's the only movie that Ron and Nancy Reagan made together? Smart audience; 54 percent knew the right answer, "Hellcats of Navy."


BEGALA: I never saw it, Bob. Was it a good movie?


BEGALA: All right, our e-mail bag begins with Dennis Kaiser of Loveland, Ohio, who writes: "I hear they are now working on a miniseries of George W. Bush's adult life. They are calling it, 'The Downgrader.' Seems he hasn't improved anything he has been involved with."



NOVAK: Bush bashing, people are getting tired of it.

OK, Ray Coleman of Tampa: "We need to let CBS and Barbra Streisand know how we feel about their messing with the greatest president in modern history and, arguably, while on his death bed. Highly insulting and cruel. Let's hit them in the wallets."

NOVAK: Way to go, Ray.


BEGALA: I love -- I love activism in pursuit of ignorance. The whole debate, we never had anything proven that was false in that entire film. But let's wait until it comes out.

Mike Tomsha of Valley, Nebraska, writes: "I read the comments by right-winger General Boykin" -- our subject of our show the other day -- "about God putting George Bush in the White House. I know one thing for ruse. It wasn't the voters in Florida who put George Bush into office."


NOVAK: The Supreme Court said that it was.

Myra Stewart of Adairville, Kentucky: "There are many companies in the United States outsourcing their labor to save money. Since lawmakers have very recently given themselves another hefty raise, would it not be a reasonable idea to oursource their jobs, possibly from China, Mexico, etcetera, to save the taxpayers money?"

That's the best idea I have heard yet.


BEGALA: From the left, I'm Paul Begala. That's it for CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak.

Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.


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