One last hand for Ronnie

Republicans wept as Nancy Reagan told them that her now-frail husband would want them 'never to give up on America'. Godfrey Hodgson, who watched Reagan at close quarters during his presidency, explains why he still matters so much
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The Independent Online
It was a golden moment, recalling golden days, when the Republican convention in San Diego turned from its ill-tempered, angst-ridden and disunited present to celebrate the glorious memory of Ronald Reagan.

The Great Communicator is still alive but now cruelly incapacitated by Alzheimer's disease. So the assembled politicians, the men in their blue blazers and the ladies in their red, white and blue, had to do without his presence in the flesh. Instead they had to make do with a six-minute video, packed with glowing tributes from the likes of Billy Graham, Henry Kissinger and Jack Kemp, newly crowned as Senator Dole's vice-presidential running mate, who called Reagan "the last true lion of the 20th century". Then they heard an emotional tribute from Nancy Reagan, and it brought many of them as close to tears as she was.

"If he were able to be here tonight," she told them, "he would once again remind us of the power of each individual, urging us once again to fly as high as our wings will take us and to never give up on America. I can tell you with certainty that he still sees the shining city on the hill, a place full of hope and promise for us all". The rhetoric was high-flown, but the thinking behind it was down to earth enough. The Republicans were invoking the memory of unity under Reagan to ward off the spectre of disintegration under Dole.

Ronald Reagan was and presumably still is an extraordinarily nice man, at least in the slightly trivial sense that his charm is genuinely hard to resist. The liberal cartoonist Jules Pfeiffer has described how Reagan overcame his suspicion with "stealth charm". "He flew under our radar", he said. I can only say that before I met him I expected to dislike him intensely, and found myself personally seduced even while I remained intellectually unpersuaded.

He also had a natural politician's gift for the word that will leave the desired impression subliminally. I asked him in an interview whether he lost sleep over the nuclear responsibilities of his office. "Nancy and I sleep pretty good", he replied, apparently without guile, "after I've said my prayers".

The Reagan marriage has been extraordinarily happy and close - so close, indeed, that it sometimes seemed to exclude everyone else, even to some degree their four children. Maureen, who has had a career in Republican politics, is the daughter of the actress Jane Wyman. Reagan and Wyman adopted Michael. And Patti, who is a political radical, and Ron, a dancer, are Nancy's children. None of them was particularly close to Ronald and Nancy Reagan when they were in the White House.

For both the Reagans, it is reasonable to guess that the marriage was an emotional refuge after uncertain, troubled childhoods and the emotional ups-and-downs of a Hollywood love-life. Indeed, you could go further and see Ronald and Nancy Reagan as embodying in their own lives that reaction against 1960s emancipation and hedonism which is one of the sources of modern American conservatism and its stress on family values.

Nancy Reagan liked to tell the story of how they met. She was the daughter of a struggling actress, Edith Luckett: her baptismal name was Anne Frances Robbins. Her mother married the very successful and very conservative Chicago surgeon, Loyal Davis. She grew up with famous actors like Spencer Tracy and Walter Huston, and as a struggling young actress in New York she dated Clark Gable when he was in town.

Reagan reached Hollywood by a thornier path. His father was a happy-go- lucky drunk, his mother both religious and ambitious. He made a modest reputation for himself as a sports announcer in the Middle West, then went out to Hollywood and got a screen test and a contract with Warner Brothers. He played in a long series of not very memorable movies, and then landed a job as the head of the actors' union, the Screen Actors Guild.

They met because Nancy was horrified to learn that there was another actress called Nancy Davis, and one moreover, horror of horrors, suspected of sympathy with the Communists. She contacted her union, and its president, quite a lady's man since the break-up of his marriage to Jane Wyman, asked her out to dinner to talk over her professional problem. Somehow the conversation became more personal, and they ended up in a night-club. It is plain that neither of them ever, as the phrase goes, looked at anyone else in their life.

Actressy and self-absorbed, Nancy Reagan had strong likes and dislikes as First Lady. Don Regan, then White House Chief of Staff, was one of the dislikes. And she operated as a high level political and public relations agent. Once, on a day when Washington was astonished that the President had not fired a cabinet officer who had become an embarrassment, I happened to walk into a Georgetown restaurant, dimly aware of a long black Mercury limousine (the White House's marque) parked outside and of men in black suits with badges in their lapels lining the bar.

As I rounded the corner into the restaurant proper, there was Mrs Reagan, closeted with a well-known conservative columnist. Sure enough, a column calling on the President to show his mettle and fire the offending cabinet officer appeared the next morning, and not long afterwards the President did as his wife was determined he must do.

Reagan, I always thought, was like an inverted sandwich. Most sandwiches have bread on top, bread underneath, and a more or less copious helping of beef or whatever else in the middle.

With Reagan, there was beef on top. Few politicians had such clear goals, and fewer still have succeeded in shifting the centre of gravity of world politics in their direction as he did. He wanted to "get government off the backs of the people", and he succeeded at least in creating a new climate in America where people no longer trusted government. He wanted to say "nyet" to the Soviet Union, and while you can argue about how much he had to do with it, by the time he was deploying his charm on the students at Moscow University, the evil empire was no more.

At the lower level of the political sandwich, too, he was pure beef. He knew exactly how to walk into a room and how to walk out of it. He could put over a speech, usually written by someone else, as if every word came from his deepest consciousness. He had this lethal charm, because he knew who he was and had not the slightest desire to be somebody else.

In the middle of the sandwich, though, it was all soggy bread. He was notoriously ignorant, apt to confuse Brazil with Bolivia. What was more unusual is that he was cheerfully, unashamedly ignorant. He once in my hearing muddled up Reaganomics and the Reagan Doctrine, both, needless to say, intellectual constructs provided for him by others. He was capable of saying, without shame or wounded vanity, that the great thing about being President of the United States is that you have lots of clever people working for you who understand those things!

On much of his political record, the jury is still out. Indeed, with the passing of time his achievement seems to more and more people a little less impressive on close scrutiny than it seemed at the time, helped as it was by perhaps the most uncritical press coverage since John F. Kennedy.

He came in determined to cut the budget, and left the United States the biggest debtor country in the world, simply because he insisted on cutting taxes without cutting either military or domestic expenditure on the scale that would have been needed to balance the budget.

Experts disagree about how much Reagan's arms build-up (which in any case began under Carter) was responsible for the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Certainly the rest of Reagan's foreign policy was erratic and ineffectual. He almost tore his own Administration apart by allowing Oliver North and his Right-wing international to drag him into the Iran- Contra affair.

Public discussion of politics is still dominated to an almost stifling degree by the conservatives and neo-conservatives who helped Reagan to power and who in turn were helped to influence by Reagan. Yet the climate is beginning to change. Two of America's most respected political commentators, the former conservative Gary Wills and the political scientist Theodore Lowi, have both recently pointed out that if Americans are now suspicious of government (which conservatives insist on calling "the State", as if it ran concentration camps) and of politicians, it must be in part because Reagan and his henchmen spent so much time denouncing it. "Reagan's heirs," wrote Wills in a recent article, "have an enemy in view, and it is their own government." Indeed, Wills goes on to blame Reagan's rhetoric for the excesses of right-wing radio talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and even for the militias of Michigan and Montana.

Without going so far you can agree that the Reagan Administration left behind it a legacy of growing inequality and deepening cynicism about politics. Reagan's positive achievement, and it was an ambiguous one, was psychological. After the mounting traumas of the 1960s and 1970s, after the Kennedy assassination, the city riots, the Vietnam defeat, after years of stagnant incomes, rising crime and declining competitiveness, Americans were in a mood to forgive almost anything to a man who would give them back their self-esteem. Ronald Reagan, who, as his wife put it to the convention on Monday, still has "a never-failing belief in the strength and goodness of America", was their man.

Unlike Margaret Thatcher, who systematically practised the politics of divide-and-rule, Ronald Reagan was the great uniter. He was able to bring the Republican Party together, its libertarians and its authoritarians, its pro-lifers and its pro-choicers, its Bob Doles and its Pat Buchanans. That was why the Republicans loved him, and that is why they are afraid they will not look upon his like again. And that, too, is why the ovation they gave Nancy Reagan was tinged with nostalgia, not just for a lost leader, but for a land of lost content.

Godfrey Hodgson's 'The World Turned Right Side Up' will be published by Houghton Mifflin in New York next month.