08/09/2013 03:34 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2013

In Attacking NBC's 'Hillary' Reince Priebus Lacks Ronald Reagan's Confidence (and Wisdom)

Before GOP chairman Reince Priebus started criticizing NBC for announcing its Hillary miniseries project, maybe he should have asked himself, "What would Ronald Reagan Do?"

Had he done so, he might have avoided a great deal of noise and embarrassment. Reagan was faced with a very similar situation as he faced reelection, and the course he took was the exact opposite of Reince Priebus's censorious strategy.

Reagan's election in 1980, and his hardline reaction to Soviet moves in Afghanistan, Poland and Central America saw a return of cold war tensions. As a result, a widespread fear of nuclear war, not seen since the bomb shelter days of the early 1960s, had returned.

Against that backdrop, ABC aired a made-for-television movie called The Day After on November 20, 1983. Starring Jason Robards, it depicted the results of a nuclear strike on Kansas City. It was starkly realistic and terrifying. And it was a hit, attracting an audience of more than a 100 million viewers. It remains among the most-watched television productions of all time.

Many on the right, including economist-turned-TV critic-turned actor Ben Stein and activist Phyllis Schlafly, criticized "Day" as a call for capitulation to the Soviet Union. On the right, the film was widely viewed as an implicit criticism of Reagan's approach to foreign policy, and a rather thinly veiled suggestion that his policies could end in Armageddon.

But President Reagan did not try to censure the film. In fact, he watched it several days later, and was said to have been moved by its power.

So what was the electoral fallout of The Day After? You'd think a film that popular about a subject so incendiary would move the political needle.

Less than a year after The Day After aired, Ronald Reagan was elected in a landslide, carrying 49 states.

It's curious that a man so often criticized for his inability to distinguish film fantasy from reality was unaffected by a polemical TV movie clearly aimed in his direction. Perhaps it was because he was confident in his convictions. And confident that the American people could tell the difference between real life and mere television. A confidence in the judgment of mere citizens that Reince Priebus, and his supporters in the media, appear to lack.