Reagan Reborn: Nostalgic Republicans make a myth out of the Gipper

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The Independent Online
Almost a decade after he slew the `evil empire' and rode off into the Californian sunset, Ronald Reagan is making a comeback. His politics may have been superseded or discredited, his faculties may be fading, but the man Americans called `the Gipper' is fast becoming a legend in his lifetime. Mary Dejevsky explains why.

It is practically like old times. The doyen of right-wing Washington think-tanks is celebrating. The speaker is Margaret Thatcher, on "courage". The award-winner is her golf-buggy partner in world affairs and vanquisher of communism, Ronald Reagan.

But last night's festive dinner was to celebrate the Heritage Foundation's 25th anniversary. Baroness Thatcher is out of power, and Ronald Reagan sent his apologies: he is living out his days in California in a gathering haze of Alzheimer's confusion. The award was accepted on his behalf by his one-time Defense Secretary, Caspar Weinberger.

If the real Ronald Reagan is otherwise engaged, though, the Reagan myth is building with a vengeance. Bolstered by popular affection for "the great communicator", it is being assiduously cultivated by a political right in search of a hero.

Consider the last two Republican presidential candidates - and it is understandable why Republicans are harking back to Reagan. George Bush, Reagan's faithful vice-president, could make it through only one term before his faltering presentation lost him the job. Robert Dole, last year's failed presidential candidate, just never got into his stride. Decent men both, they had neither the presence nor the ideas to garner the votes.

With his gift for communication and his sure popular touch, it was the Democrat, Bill Clinton, who inherited Reagan's populist mantle. Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House of Representatives, who tried to snatch it back with a bombastic speaking style and unashamedly right-wing policies, never quite lived up to expectations. He helped the Republicans win both Houses of Congress three years ago with his Project for America and legislated with gusto, only to be comprehensively outmanoeuvred by Clinton and left to languish in uncertainty.

The Republicans are now contemplating next year's mid-term elections with some trepidation. They expect to keep control of Congress. But with the economy booming (for the time being), and Mr Clinton still hugely popular, their position may not be as secure as it seems. The preliminary scrapping between would-be presidential candidates for 2000 is already gathering pace - a son of George Bush, the wife of Bob Dole, the mayor of New York and the millionaire Steve Forbes among them - but the right still lacks a discernible identity, and charisma.

By happy chance - for them - their search for a guiding idea coincides with a wave of national nostalgia for Ronald Reagan, his politics and his person. The nostalgia is less for the specifics of Reaganism - the "evil empire" is gone, "Reagonomics" has been banished by Clinton's "balanced budget" - than for the generalities and above all the certainty: belief in God, America and self-improvement. The longing for Reaganite certainties in an uncertain world is reinforced by a growing public respect, both for Reagan and for his wife, Nancy.

Their decision to make his illness public, her discreet public appearances in his place - most recently at the gathering of past presidents that inaugurated George Bush's presidential library in Texas - and her transparent honesty are fast erasing the impression of showy flightiness and extravagance for which she was criticised as First Lady. She is being quietly applauded by a new generation of Americans that is more forthright about illness than before and less denying of death.

A recent book, the latest in a crop of Reagan biographies, sets the new tone. Written by Dinesh d'Souza, who was briefly a researcher in the Reagan White House, it is entitled Ronald Reagan: how an ordinary man became an extraordinary leader. Gone are the verdicts of "sleepwalking through history" and "guilty, but asleep" that accompanied the return of the Democrats to power. The mood is laudatory. The victory over communism may be history, but Reagan's priorities and his story tap a rich vein of anti-government, anti-Washington, back-to-the-grassroots sentiment that is now resurgent.

Not that the Reagan revival has not been without its spats. In Washington, the Ronald Reagan federal building that will house hundreds of government employees has come in late and millions of dollars over budget. It is the butt of bitter jokes as the very thing he would have hated. The most recent miscalculation was a proposal from the self-styled Reagan Legacy Project that Washington's recently refurbished National Airport should be renamed in his honour.

Some saw this as Republicans' revenge for the fact that they must pronounce the name Kennedy whenever they fly to New York. But that was about as polite as the comments got. The New York Democrat and historian, Daniel Moynihan, objected that Washington airport was "already named after a president - the first one". Some predicted a strike by air traffic controllers in sympathy with those sacked by Reagan in his early conflict with organised labour.

But it was the salt-of-the-earth Reaganites who were most dismissive. If public edifices were to be named after individuals who made America feel good, "where does one find the Robin Williams National Cathedral or the Barry Manilow turnpike?" wrote one correspondent to the Washington Post. Their view - to judge by the many who felt strongly enough to write to the newspapers or ring up the talkshows - is that Reagan needs no such monument. To name an airport after him would be not only unnecessary, but demeaning.

In the minds of millions of Americans, his myth is already made. His eventual passing will only enhance it.