Washington — Sir Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill, is in Washington, lecturing and writing. Tapped after the death of Churchill’s son, Randolph, to write the authorized biography of this colossal figure, Gilbert produced eight volumes (not counting three volumes of documents), and he has written other books on Churchill, Napoleon, the Holocaust and other matters. He is among the most illustrious scholars of the day; and the British historian, Paul Johnson, calls him the most “industrious” and exact of historians.
A few days back, over dinner, the question came up of Churchill’s actual life as opposed to the legends that people, often revisionist writers, tack onto his life. In the train of a great figure such as Churchill, there will always follow fabulists and ignoramuses creating legends about him, believing absurdities about him, building up a debris of myths around the monument’s feet. Even after Gilbert has devoted decades to chronicling with the utmost precision the life of Churchill, the biographer’s work with Churchill is not finished. Over dinner someone observed that Gilbert will naturally have to continue for the rest of his life to assess the accuracy of new interpretations of Churchill, paying always close attention to the evidence.
Ah, yes, the evidence of a historic life or, for that matter, a historic event — that is to say the relevant documents, the established facts, interviews, diaries, other historical writing — these are the materials with which history establishes an accurate image of historic figures large and small.
I thought about “the evidence” this week when I read that CBS is about to broadcast a two-part “mini-series,” “The Reagans.” It depicts happenings and conversations in Ronald Reagan’s life that never took place. The producers of “The Reagans” do not deny that. They present one of the great presidents of the Twentieth Century as a dope and not always a very nice dope. One of the complaints already raised against “The Reagans” is that it is the creation of liberal Hollywood. Oh, the Hollywood artistes involved in creating this mini-series deny that their politics matter. Whether or not they do, despite historians’ rising esteem for the fortieth president and despite the evidence that Reagan reversed America’s economic decline to trigger its longest period of economic recovery simultaneous with winning the Cold War, Hollywood’s recollection of Reagan as a dunce endures. He still awaits his Sir Martin Gilbert.
Reagan’s momentous eight-year presidency covering a near-death assassination attempt, his enormous arms build-up, his diplomatic demarche with Moscow, his reformation of economic policy, his reelection, two off-year elections, and attending to guerrilla wars and terrorism worldwide, all pale in the mind of the Hollywood dramatist in comparison with these gigantic matters: Reagan was inattentive to his staff, had a bossy wife, and was supposedly hard-hearted and neglectful of the inchoate AIDS epidemic. These are major themes in “The Reagans.”
Interestingly President Franklin Roosevelt suffered the same slurs and still does, though pro-Roosevelt historians have put a sunny face on the first two. The famed disorganization of the New Deal staff was a stroke of genius by Roosevelt. His impetuous wife was a liberal exemplar. As for Roosevelt’s neglect of certain contemporary problems — dealing with Hitler’s Final Solution is the one most frequently mentioned nowadays — even the pro-Roosevelt historians are critical, sounding like those now criticizing Reagan’s neglect of AIDS. I would defend both Roosevelt and Reagan with the same response. They had their hands full with war and the economy.
To dramatize Reagan’s alleged neglect of AIDS “The Reagans” depict the president making a moralistic statement about AIDS victims that he never made. Even the scriptwriter admits the statement was a fiction. An even more contemptible slur included in this mini-series about a man who at the age when most are in retirement ran the largest corporation on earth is the stress the Hollywoodians put on Reagan’s supposed forgetfulness. This is high drama for a Hollywood scriptwriter; for, you see, Reagan now ekes out his daily life through the fog of Alzheimer’s disease. Actually, whenever I was around Reagan his forgetfulness was no greater than that of most busy adults. A bestselling book of his lifetime correspondence, Reagan: A Life in Letters, shows a sharp mind at work right up to retirement.
Yet the 92-year-old former president does have Alzheimer’s disease. His wife, family, and friends live with great sadness, and for Mrs. Reagan grave burdens. So what can we say in the end of CBS’s broadcast just now of this anti-historical life of a great man? We can say (a) the child-like mind of the Hollywood artistes ignored “the evidence,” and (b) CBS and the producers of “The Reagans” have publicly committed an act of remarkable cruelty. It is on a par with claiming Roosevelt’s paralysis somehow impaired his performance in office. Don’t wince. In point of fact there were primitives who made this claim about Roosevelt, and it is not surprising that the creators of “The Reagans” should come off as so many Roosevelt haters. They are philistines and ignoramuses, and haters of the first rank.