The Magazine

Time Present, Time Past

Reinventing Ronald Reagan.

Apr 2, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 28 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Ronald Reagan is weeping. There, on the cover of the March 26 Time magazine, under the headline "How the Right Went Wrong," we see the old lion, a tear rolling out of his eye and snaking down sadly over the contours of his aging, but still good-looking, once-was-a-movie-star face. And what is he mourning? The state of his party, lapsed from the peaks to which he had lifted it, and sunk in the depths of despair. "These are gloomy and uncertain days for conservatives," writes Karen Tumulty, grimly. "Set adrift as it is, the right understandably feels anxious as it contemplates who will carry Reagan's mantle into November 2008. . . . The principles that propelled the movement have either run their course, or run aground, or been abandoned by Reagan's legatees." Reagan by contrast looms as a beacon of purpose and clarity, a statesman of genuine vision and character, dwarfing the pygmies who have frittered away his inheritance. A tone of nostalgia runs through the story: They don't make them like him anymore, more's the pity, and certainly not in the Gipper's old party. Ah, for the old days, when there were giants among us. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? And where are you, Ron?

So Time says now, in 2007, 18 years after Reagan left office, and three years after he died, aged 93, and recognized widely as one of his country's great leaders.

But what did it say when Reagan was president, and at the same stage in his tenure--a tough time for two-termers since Theodore Roosevelt--that George W. Bush is in his? Nothing good. A look at Time's archive for 1987 shows a drumbeat of attack, if not of derision, for the man and his plans and ideas. True, the magazine did have a column by the late Hugh Sidey, a centrist's centrist if ever there was one and a man with an institutional fondness for presidents. He cut the old man a break every few issues. But on the whole, in a long series of fairly long stories, some of them featured on the cover, the magazine made room for a series of writers--Garry Wills, Lance Morrow, and George J. Church among them--to whipsaw the Gipper back, forth, and sideways as a poseur, a fraud, an out-of-touch airhead, a lame duck, a loser, a man dwelling in dreamland, a man whirled about by the currents around him, and, of course, wholly washed up. It had been a bad year for Reagan and Republicans, bracketed by the Iran-contra scandal and the stock market crash. Reagan's foreign policy ventures in Latin America and vis-à-vis the Soviet Union seemed stalled. His nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court had failed, and in November 1986 he had lost the Senate. As far as Time was concerned, the whole jig was up.

"What crashed was more than just the market," wrote Walter Isaacson in the November 2, 1987, issue. "It was the Reagan Illusion: the idea that there could be a defense build-up and tax cuts without a price, that the country could live beyond its means indefinitely. The initial Reagan years, with their aura of tinseled optimism, had restored the nation's tattered pride and the lost sense that leadership was possible in the presidency. But he stayed a term too long. As he shouted befuddled Hooverisms over the roar of his helicopter last week or doddered precariously through his press conference, Reagan appeared embarrassingly irrelevant to a reality that he could scarcely comprehend. Stripped of his ability to create economic illusions, stripped of his chance to play host to Mikhail Gorbachev, he elicited the unnerving suspicion that he was an emperor with no clothes."

Another piece in that same issue piled on: "The stock-market plunge only magnified his new aura of ineffectiveness." The announcement that a Washington summit had been called off by Mikhail Gorbachev (it would be back on within weeks) "was a devastating political blow for Reagan, all but ending his last, best hope for recovering from a string of setbacks that have left him, with 15 months remaining in his term, not just a lame duck, but a crippled one. One after another, his major goals for this fall have gone aglimmering: the appointment of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, the hope to win renewed funding for the contras in Nicaragua, and his aim of pushing through a budget plan that would protect defense spending without raising existing taxes or imposing new ones."