March 25, 2007


Time Present, Time Past: Reinventing Ronald Reagan (Noemie Emery, 04/02/2007, Weekly Standard)

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.

It isn't particularly unusual for history to repeat itself, but it is odd to see so many of the same pundits and Democratic pols play the fools twice.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 25, 2007 1:40 PM

A variation on Marx, The first time as farce and the second as even more farce.

Posted by: erp at March 25, 2007 2:52 PM

It is a testament to the skill of the Great Communicator that he was able to overcome the Old Media's petty churlishness before there was a New Media.

Posted by: Gideon at March 25, 2007 8:37 PM

Rather it's testimony to how feeble the media is.

Posted by: oj at March 26, 2007 6:26 AM