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

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."

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."

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.