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Sunday, November 09, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Leonard Pitts Jr. / Syndicated columnist
The Gipper's disciples can't orchestrate history


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Now, this is "Must-See TV."

I mean, I had no intention of watching CBS' Ronald Reagan miniseries. But given the furor raised by the Republican Party and assorted conservative pundits over what they perceive as a hatchet job on the former president, I don't see how I can afford to miss it.

This week, CBS gave in to the pressure and announced that it had pulled "The Reagans" from its November schedule. The movie has instead been shipped off to the Showtime cable network, which is expected to run it sometime next year.

The Republican faithful are counting that as only a partial victory. They're pleased the show won't be run on a major broadcast network. They'd prefer it not be run at all.

Mind you, they haven't actually seen the movie. Their antipathy is based on a number of other factors, including the fact that Reagan is portrayed by James Brolin, husband of the uber-liberal herself, Barbra Streisand. Then there are the script excerpts published by The New York Times, particularly one that portrays Reagan as lacking in compassion for gay people dying of a then-new disease called AIDS.

Yet, as everyone knows, the Reagan administration stood silent on the sidelines in the early years of that plague. Reagan may never have said the words the script reportedly puts into his mouth — "They that live in sin shall die in sin" — but the sentiment was certainly there. That's an unalterable element of his legacy.

Which is ultimately what this argument is about, the battle for Reagan's legacy. Granted, some liberal observers have framed it as an issue of principle, accusing the network of cowardice, but that argument is specious. If CBS were to pull a flattering portrayal of George Wallace in the face of black complaints, those same critics would applaud it for doing the right thing.

The point being that one person's corporate cowardice is another's corporate integrity.

So it's not upon some air castle of principle that my beef with the Gipper's minions rests, but rather, upon a specific complaint. I'm sick of their transparent attempts to hijack history.

Ronald Reagan, they would want you to know, won the Cold War and returned to the nation a buoyant optimism it had lost after years of Nixon lies and Carter malaise. Which is true enough. But he also slept through the AIDS crisis, saddled us with crippling budget deficits and presided over the Iran-contra affair.

How will those things balance each other in the final accounting? What will history's verdict be on Reagan's presidency? That's rather the point, isn't it? The question is still being answered, a process of which this movie is a part.

Except that the Reaganites refuse to wait. For disciples of a man who believed so deeply in the free market, they seem remarkably unwilling to let the marketplace of ideas do its job.

It's not just that they defend Reagan from criticism, but that they seek to pre-empt it altogether. The Republican National Committee even had the audacity to write CBS requesting that a panel of Reagan friends be allowed to edit the movie. Not to mention the campaign to put Reagan on Mount Rushmore, slap his face on the $10 bill and make every county in the country name a building in his honor.

I can think of no other president whose followers have so desperately sought to strong-arm history. Their refusal to let it do its work is unseemly at best. At worst, it projects the opposite of confidence and does to Reagan what his harshest critics never could. It makes him small.

Reagan's partisans should make their best case and let the chips fall. Instead, they behave like Soviet functionaries seeking to orchestrate a favorable consensus.

And like the Soviets, they fail to grasp the obvious truth. An orchestrated consensus is no consensus at all.

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.'s e-mail address is: lpitts@herald.com

Copyright 2003, The Miami Herald

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