THE RECENT CONTROVERSY over the CBS miniseries about Ronald Reagan brings to the fore the issue of the Gipper's legacy. The reason he deserves to be on Mount Rushmore, it is argued, is that he won the Cold War by out-poker playing the commies.
But there's mounting evidence that we in fact lost the Cold War. This past week was rich with signs that life in these United States is starting to mimic life in the former Soviet Union.
First, there's the miniseries brouhaha itself. Rather than air the show about Reagan and First Lady Nancy, the network bowed to right-wing pressure and bounced it to the premium cable network Showtime, presumably because cable watchers are less easily offended by the critical portrayal of Alzheimer's patients. Instead of airing the program and taking the heat of bad reviews, it was repurposed purely because it didn't hew to a particular political line. I have little doubt that the miniseries was lousy and involved gross caricatures of historical figures, but isn't that a miniseries' stock in trade? The cancellation of the network broadcastour version of state-sanctioned TVwas political, pure and simple.
At the same time, a minorway too minorcontroversy erupted in the nation's capital when the White House Office of Administration announced last week that it would no longer answer budget queries from congressional Democrats. They didn't single out the Democrats but simply changed the rules to say that only requests in writing from committee chairmen would be honored. And since we've got one-party rule in Congress these days, this means the Dems are out of an important data loop. Lest you think this is business as usual, The Washington Post last week quoted Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute as saying, "I have not heard of anything like that happening before. This is obviously an excuse to avoid providing information about some of the things the Democrats are asking for." The White House spin is that they're simply adding some "structure" to the processmuch in the way, I suppose, East Germany added "structure" by building the Berlin Wall.
The move is profoundly creepy because it hides from our duly elected representatives useful and, yes, sometimes potentially embarrassing facts. But public information is the fuel of democracy, the only kind of fuel this White House would like to keep underground. It also exemplifies the dangers in the current trend to institutionalize one-party rule. Is that on the agenda? Please see the recent GOP-sponsored coups in California and Texas. Red states indeed.
TIP-TOEING TOTALITARIANISM is everywhere, beyond the Patriot Act and Guantánamo Bay. Donald Rumsfeld, whose title really ought to be defensive secretary, has taken to nakedly denying that he ever said things that are clearly on the record. Like one of Joe Stalin's airbrush artists, he's taken the spray gun to the past. In a story in Hearst newspapers last weekend headlined "Rumsfeld retreats, disclaims earlier rhetoric," the ballsy Rummy simply denies he said that the citizens of Iraq would welcome the U.S. invasioneven though he did so on PBS to Jim Lehrer, citing Afghanistan, where "the people were in the streets playing music, cheering, flying kites. . . . " He has also hedged on his earlier repeated assertions that the U.S. knew that Iraq had "stockpiles" of weapons of mass destruction and that we knew just where they were. If you can't erase the tape, you can bully reporters with your denials.
Or you can just let the media bully itself. Last week, Reuters reported that editors at the Los Angeles Times have told their reporters to stop referring to Iraqi insurgents as "resistance fighters." Times Assistant Managing Editor Melissa McCoy said that she and Managing Editor Dean Baquet "felt the phrase evoked a certain feeling, that there was a certain romanticism or heroism to the resistance." The decision wasn't the result of complaints the Times has used the term "resistance fighters" dozens of times in the past six months without a stir. But implying any association with, say, the French Resistance during World War II felt wrong to the editors.
EDITORS MAKE decisions like this every daypicking and choosing words, facts, and images for an editorial purpose, sometimes even the pursuit of the truth. But the Times decision is wrong: The nature of the war in Iraq is complicated, but the United States did invade, and there is an active, violent resistance to our occupation. The proscription of this term, even before a story is written, suggests that Times reporters must follow an ideological line, and that's a very disturbing signal from one of our major newspapers.
On Sunday, Nov. 9, an obscure, retired moderate Southern Democrat named Al Gore spoke in Washington, D.C., and hit the Bush administration hard on civil liberties. "They have taken us much further down the road toward an intrusive Big Brother-style of government than anyone ever thought would be possible in the United States," he said. It's happening all around us, in ways large and small.
Maybe we ought to send the Fremont Lenin statue to Statuary Hall at the Capitol in D.C., where it looks like it would be right at home.