The Magazine

Time Present, Time Past

Reinventing Ronald Reagan.

Apr 2, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 28 • By NOEMIE EMERY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Other complaints also bear out the old saying plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose--at least when it comes to the media's analysis of conservatives' alleged problems. The religious right is moving away in 2007 from the Republican party, but it was doing the same thing two decades ago. "Last week, with the Reagan presidency in deepened shadows," ran a Time report the week of November 16, 1987, "the house that Jerry [Falwell] built was entering a twilight of its own." (Twenty years later, twilight is still falling, but it has not yet become night.) In 2007, the conservative activist Richard Viguerie is complaining about Bush in Iraq; in 1987, Viguerie was complaining about Reagan in Central America. Then, as now, a powerless president was seen as on his way to the dumpster of history. In the November 23, 1987, issue, Time said that Reagan risked being added "to the list of 20th-century presidential failures," adding that his main problem was that few people liked his ideas. "By every measure, the nation, while embracing Reagan himself, has never fully embraced his brand of conservatism. It has liked him best when he adapted his views to the political mainstream." So how did Reagan come to embody for Time in 2007 the high-water mark of the conservative movement, when it was never liked much by the American people? Tumulty never explains.

A dim bulb, leading an unpopular movement, and presiding, ineptly, over a culture of avarice: To be fair to Time, it was hardly alone in this assessment of Reagan, which at the time was conventional wisdom, expressed in a number of markets and venues, by the establishment press. In the book The Reagan Legacy, a collection of essays published in 1988, David Ignatius of the Washington Post called Reagan's foreign policy an out-and-out failure, and said he was leaving a legacy of terrible problems for administrations to come. "Compared to the Reagan record of nonachievement, former President Jimmy Carter looked like a master diplomat," intoned the author. "Because he concentrated so much on image rather than substance, Reagan leaves behind an array of unresolved substantive problems. His successor will inherit a collection of outdated strategic premises, alliances that don't quite adhere, [and] roles and expectations for America that no longer hold." In the book Landslide, published the same year, Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times and Jane Mayer, now of the New Yorker, reiterated the Time view of Reagan as reality-challenged, fact-averse, and inert in the face of catastrophe: "Far from bequeathing a dominant Republican party to his successor, Reagan no longer commanded even the conservative coalition that had brought him into power. Right wing activists who had rejoiced at his elections now dismissed him as impotent and soft."

Tumulty says the Republicans today are facing defeat in 2008, with a demoralized base and an electorate eager to change horses in Washington. According to McManus and Mayer, they faced the very same prospect in 1988: "When GOP voters were asked if they would vote for Reagan, only 40 percent said yes." And through Reagan's two terms, the New York Times's James Reston, arguably the era's most prominent establishment windbag, denounced the president unrelievedly as a showman and hypocrite who conned the American people into blithely supporting his inept and callous regime. It was on November 4, 1984, after Reagan had won his historic 49-state landslide, that Reston really unloaded, not only on how much he detested the president, but how much this feeling was shared by his peers:

Among the losers in this Presidential election campaign you will have to include the nosy scribblers of the press. Not since the days of H.L. Mencken have so many reporters written so much or so well about the shortcomings of the President and influenced so few voters. . . . Some editorial writers and columnists and most Washington reporters were on to his evasive tactics, easy cheerfulness, and unsteady grasp of the facts. They did not hesitate to point out his deficits, personal and fiscal, condemn his windy theorizing, and mock his zigzag contortions, but Mr. Reagan had the photographers and television cameramen for allies and proved that one picture on the nightly news can be worth a million votes. . . . It is said that the people get the government they deserve, which is undoubtedly true, and also that what they see is what they get, which is not true. For the world of television is the world of illusion, and what they see and hear--all those promises of peace and prosperity--are precisely what they are not likely to get in the next four years.

Peace and prosperity, of course, were exactly what they would get from Reagan.

Which it took Time and the Times 20 years more to admit.

And how did an era of greed, led by an out-of-touch airhead, change two decades later into a golden age, led by a prince among men? The reasons are these: First, the only times conservatives are praised in the press is when they can be used to run down other conservatives; and second, it is a general rule of the press and of the establishment that the best conservatives are those dead or retired; and the more dead or retired, the better they are. As Jonah Goldberg noted this winter when Gerald Ford died, lauded by a media that had little good to say of him while he was president, each Republican president is a fool, a bigot, and a dangerous warmonger while he is in office, responsible for sexism, racism, ageism, and general misery. Once dead, however, he acquires a Strange New Respect. In time, the jibes thrown at him are airbrushed away, and he is seen as a statesman, a true conservative, with all the best values, all the more so when compared with whatever Republican is now in office, who is seen in comparison as someone who really is dangerous, a warmonger, bigot, and fool. In their turn, Barry Goldwater, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush the Elder have become harmless and loveable figures, cherished for their good humor, their prudence, and tolerance--and for their distance from today's modern conservatives, who have run their cause into the ground.

This pattern will not alter: In a few years, when President Rudy or Commander in Chief Thompson begins knocking heads, watch out for the press to express its Strange New Respect for Bush 43, whose government was nothing if not diverse as regards race and gender, and who at least made a pretense of being compassionate. In 2027, if Time is still around, will it run a cover, showing him shedding a tear?

Wherever Reagan is today, he is doubtless not crying. We like to think he is watching the horse race, with other ex-presidents. And laughing his head off at Time.

Noemie Emery, a WEEKLY STANDARD contributing editor, is author most recently of Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families.