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Listening to the President's address to the post-attack nation

THE PRESIDENT'S VOICE IS MISSING

This special Atomic Secret is being presented in honor of the 25th anniversary of the premiere broadcast of the 1983 end-of-the-world TV-movie, THE DAY AFTER. The hugely controversial telefilm was viewed by approximately 100 million viewers on Sunday, November 20, 1983.[1] It aired from 8:00PM to 10:15PM Eastern Time and was followed by a ponderous roundtable hosted by Ted Koppel (we'll honor that another time).

There were many complaints lobbed by the right (and a few by the left) at Nicholas Meyer's movie both before and after its initial broadcast. The most interesting, and perhaps least remembered criticism stemmed from the fact that in the original airing of THE DAY AFTER the unidentified U.S. President (who makes a rather uninspired post-war radio address; see below) sounded suspiciously Reaganesque. At the time, even the hint of such a negative association was a sore point with conservatives. This was so because Ronald Reagan and his first term administration had developed a politically problematic reputation for promoting the notion of a survivable, or in some cases, winnable nuclear war.[2]

THE DAY AFTER: Composite promotional still

An understandably touchy Deroy Murdock,[3] the then-chairman of Georgetown University's Young Americans for Freedom, derided the film to the Washington Post, characterizing the radio voice as "Reagan-like."[4]

And because THE DAY AFTER presumably took place in the present day, the conclusion could reasonably be drawn by the audience that the vocal similarity was intentional. Screenwriter Edward Hume's second draft script dated May 7, 1982 actually specifies that the voice should be more Bush than Reagan: "He sounds like a solemn, 'heartfelt' George Bush..."[5]

CONELRAD contacted director Nicholas Meyer regarding the voiceover criticism and he could recall no such issue. He replied via e-mail to Bill Geerhart on November 12, 2008 with the following comment: "I do not recall any discussion or controversy surrounding the voice of the president in the movie. There were numerous battles over the cut of the film and eventual disclaimers before it, but I cannot recollect a presidential voice over issue." Given the other internal network debates to which Mr. Meyer refers and the tsunami of contentious press coverage that THE DAY AFTER received in 1983, it is not surprising that he does not recall this footnote to pop culture history.[6]

THE DAY AFTER script

Whatever the merits of the criticism, the complaints over the voiceover must have stung someone in a position of authority at ABC because all subsequent airings and home video releases of the film have substituted the Bush / Reagan-like voice with that of a more generic commander in chief.[7] Thanks to CONELRAD contributor Clarke Ingram and his industrial strength VCR we can now present for the first time both the originally broadcast radio address sequence from 1983 and the later generic one. You be the judge on who sounds more presidential (we're voting for the '83 model).


A RADIOACTIVE CITY UPON A HILL: TRANSCRIPT OF THE FICTIONAL PRESIDENT'S POST-WAR ADDRESS IN THE DAY AFTER:
My fellow Americans... While the extent of damage to our country is still uncertain, and shall probably remain so for sometime. Preliminary reports indicate that principal weapons impact points included military and industrial targets in most sectors of the United States. There is at the present time a ceasefire with the Soviet Union, which sustained damage equally catastrophic. Many of you listening to me today have suffered personal injury, sudden separation from loved ones, and the tragic loss of your families. I share your grief for I too have suffered personal loss. During this hour of sorrow, I wish to assure you that America has survived this terrible tribulation. There has been no surrender, no retreat from the principles of liberty and democracy for which the free world looks to us for leadership. We remain undaunted before all but Almighty God... the government functioning under certain extraordinary emergency options. We are prepared to make every effort to coordinate relief and recovery programs at the state and local level. During the next two weeks, my staff and Cabinet will attempt to relocate to the National Emergency Re-Construction Headquarters. At the present time, and until radiation pattern reports are made available over the Emergency Broadcast band or through your local authorities, I urge you to remain in areas offering maximum shelter protection from radioactive fallout and to obey all local curfews. We are counting on you—on your strength, your patience, your will and your courage to help rebuild this great nation of ours. God bless you all.


POSTSCRIPT: HOW THE DAY AFTER MAY HAVE SAVED THE WORLD

When President Reagan began negotiating nuclear arms limitation treaties with Soviet Premier Gorbachev in his second term, it couldn't have been guessed that THE DAY AFTER may have had an impact on his motives. But when Reagan's memoir was published in 1990, a small quotation from his presidential diary from October 10, 1983 suggested that it did play a role in his later actions:

"Columbus Day. In the morning at Camp D. I ran the tape of the movie ABC is running Nov. 20. It's called THE DAY AFTER in which Lawrence, Kansas is wiped out in a nuclear war with Russia. It is powerfully done, all $7 million worth. It's very effective and left me greatly depressed..."

The President goes on to write of the importance of deterrence in ensuring that nuclear war never happens, but it is clear from his own words that the film had a profound impact on his psyche.[8] Edmond Morris, who had access to most of President Reagan's diaries states in his authorized biography DUTCH that this was the "first and only admission" that he was able to find where the indefatigably optimistic leader stated he was depressed.[9]

It is well documented by his biographers and other historians that Reagan was deeply influenced by the visual mediums of film and television. Some believe he may have even borrowed the concept for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI aka "Star Wars") from one of his own films, MURDER IN THE AIR (1940).[10] So is it that far-fetched that THE DAY AFTER contributed to his decision to pursue arms reduction?

In the twenty-five years since the original broadcast of The Day After, its once weighty import has diminished somewhat. It can now be seen in regular rotation on the Sci-Fi Channel.


THE DAY AFTER director Nicholas Meyer provided his reaction to the above article via e-mail on November 20, 2008. His comments are used here with his permission: "This is extraordinary. I had no idea until just now that the president had been revoiced. Thanks so much for sending me this."


FOOTNOTES:

1. Viewership statistics for THE DAY AFTER were derived from the article "Fallout from a TV Attack," Time magazine, December 5, 1983. [ BACK ]

2.The following three supporting reference points were taken from Robert Scheer's 1982 book, With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush and Nuclear War (Random House, New York):

In 1982 the Reagan administration presented a program to Congress requesting 4.2 billion dollars for civil defense over seven years. The sponsors of the program claimed that it would save 80 percent of the U.S. population in the event of a full scale nuclear war with the USSR.

Thomas K. Jones, President Reagan's Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Strategic and Theater Nuclear Forces told author Robert Scheer that recovery from an all-out nuclear war was possible in a 1981 interview. The official revealed his "D.I.Y" (Do It Yourself) civil defense strategy thusly: "Dig a hole, cover it with a couple of doors and then throw three feet of dirt on top... It's the dirt that does it... if there are enough shovels to go around, everybody's going to make it."

In 1980, presidential candidate George H.W. Bush answered Robert Scheer's question about how a super-power can win in a nuclear exchange: "You have survivability of command and control, survivability of industrial potential, protection of a percentage of your citizens, you have a capability that inflicts more damage on the opposition than it can inflict on you. That's the way you have a winner..." Bush later denied he was endorsing the concept of "winnable" nuclear war.

[ BACK ]

3. Deroy Murdock is now a conservative columnist for Scripps Howard News Service and a contributing editor for National Review Online. Murdock has been included at least three times on Keith Olbermann's popular segment "Worst Persons in the World" as seen on MSNBC's Countdown program. One such nomination for this dishonor stemmed from Murdock's November 2, 2007 Human Events column entitled "Three Cheers for Waterboarding."[ BACK ]

4. WASHINGTON POST; November 21, 1983 (B16) [ BACK ]

5. Setting aside the issue of whether the voice of the president was intended to sound like Ronald Reagan or George HW Bush, director Nicholas Meyer readily admitted in a 2006 BBC-2 radio documentary on the Cold War that one of his goals with THE DAY AFTER was to deny Ronald Reagan a second term in office. Reference: "Coming in from the Cold," BBC-2 broadcast September 19 and 26, 2006. [ BACK ]

6. In preparing this article CONELRAD reviewed over 100 press clippings related to the pre-production, broadcast and aftermath of THE DAY AFTER. Based on these clippings, it would appear that THE DAY AFTER is the most comprehensively press-documented non-series production in the history of American television. Media coverage of THE DAY AFTER's unofficial right wing rejoinder, AMERIKA (ABC, 1987) was far greater, but this production was a miniseries, not a stand-alone film. [ BACK ]

7. To date, the only international release of THE DAY AFTER found to contain the original "Reaganesque" voiceover is a South Korean version issued by "Sky Cinema." However, based on the quality of the video, it appears that this is likely a bootleg. Thanks, again, goes to CONELRAD contributor Clarke Ingram for this information. [ BACK ]

8. Ronald Reagan, An American Life, Simon and Schuster; 1990; pg. 585 [ BACK ]

9. Edmund Morris, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, Random House; 1999; pg. 498 [ BACK ]

10. There are many books that support the influence of the visual mediums on President Reagan. Here are two examples: Michael Rogin, Ronald Reagan, the Movie and Other Episodes in Political Demonology, University of California Press; 1987; pp.1-3; and Gary Wills, Reagan's America: Innocents at Home, Doubleday; 1987; page 77. [ BACK ]


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