The Magazine

Time Present, Time Past

Reinventing Ronald Reagan.

Apr 2, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 28 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Even before the crash, the magazine was ringing with warnings that the whole Reagan era had been a mistake. "Ronald Reagan did not build a structure; he cast a spell," wrote Garry Wills in the March 9, 1987, issue. "There was no Reagan revolution, just a Reagan bedazzlement. The magic is going off almost as mysteriously as the spell was woven in the first place. There is no edifice of policies solid enough to tumble down piece by piece, its props being knocked out singly or in groups. The whole thing is not falling down; it was never weighty enough for that" in the first place. It was "simply evanescing," as befitted a fantasy. "Aides defended the Reagan fairy tales; editors treated his errors with restraint; the public punished those who were too critical of his whoppers. It was a vast communal exercise in make-believe."

"Is he more out of touch than ever?" asked George J. Church on January 26, 1987. "'Brain Dead,' the title of an article in the New Republic, referred to the lack of new ideas within the Reagan administration . . . but carried a not-very-subtle implication about the president as well. A story in the Washington Post reported that chief of staff Donald Regan had formed the administration's position on federal pay raises with only 'minimal' involvement from the President, and one in the New York Times described how congressional leaders had come away from meetings with Reagan wondering 'if he had understood the issues they had raised.'"

"Who's in Charge?" asked Lance Morrow in Time's November 9, 1987, issue. "Reagan's tepid and grudging reactions--reluctant and uncomprehending--confirmed a suspicion in many minds that Reagan, a lame duck with 15 months to go in his second term, was presiding over an administration bereft of ideas and energy. . . . The President seemed bizarrely disengaged." He seemed in fact just like Willy Loman, in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, who rode a smile and shoeshine into utter oblivion. "Reagan seems to invite the thought that he has found a new model, the Salesman, in the last act, standing on a stage about to go dark."

Judging from all this, the right had little to go wrong from in the first place, the Reagan Legacy seems hardly worth claiming, and the charges brought by Time against current conservatives eerily echo those brought by Time against Reagan himself. "The Iraq war has challenged the conservative movement's custodianship of America's place in the world, as well as its claim to competence," writes Tumulty. "After 9/11, Bush found his own evil empire . . . but he hasn't produced Reagan's results." But according to Time, Reagan hadn't produced Reagan's results, either. In 1987, talks had broken down with the Soviet Union, whose regime seemed likely to endure for decades; Reagan was consumed with wrongheaded adventures in Central America, where the Sandinistas seemed likely to rule Nicaragua for years, and the civil war in El Salvador was still going on.

"Then there are the scandals and the corruption," Tumulty now tells us. "The dismay that voters expressed in last fall's midterm election was aimed not so much at conservatism as at the GOP's failure to honor it with a respect for law and order." A falloff from Reagan? Not quite. "His administration, from its very beginning, has been riddled from top to bottom with allegations of impropriety and corruption," wrote Time's Richard Stengel the week of May 25, 1987. "More than 100 Reagan administration officials have faced allegations of questionable activities . . . many of the allegations were relatively minor, but the accumulation of cases produces a portrait of impropriety on a grand scale. . . . That number is without precedent. . . . The Reagan administration . . . appears to have suffered a breakdown of the immune system, opening the way to all kinds of ethical and moral infections. . . . While the Reagan administration's missteps may not have been as flagrant as the Teapot Dome scandal or as pernicious as Watergate, they seem more general, more pervasive, and somehow more ingrained."