It's last time round for Ron's good ol' days: Rupert Cornwell finds the Great Communicator's bumbling good humour to be in sharp contrast with the mean-mouthed conservatism of a harsher time

FOR a moment it was just like old times, as of course it deliberately was intended to be. There, hand in hand behind the speaker's rostrum at a Republican convention, were Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

The balloons cascaded down and the faithful below poured out their adoration. Some things have changed of course, most notably that thick chestnut hair, artificial or otherwise, which has now reverted to a more appropriate grizzled black. Nancy, however, looked steelier, more doll-like than ever - whisper it not, another face-lift? His popularity, too, is not what it was: according to the Wall Street Journal, his negative rating today is higher than any major national figure, even George Bush.

But on Monday night none of that mattered. Mr Reagan, who knows as well as anyone that the era to which he gave his name has ended, was not there to be nominated. This time a prime-time convention speech was aimed not at the country, but to those within the hall. And how better to stiffen backbones than wheel out the Great Communicator himself?

Measured by the old man's standards, I found the the occasion a trifle disappointing. Only once before have I heard a Reagan speech. It was in 1985, on the 40th anniversary of the fall of Nazism, when he spoke in northern Germany where once the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp had stood. That day he brought tears to my eyes, and I was ready to be moved again. This week, a very different audience just wanted to cheer. Unfortunately, they did so at exactly the wrong places.

A Reagan speech may look artless. In fact its every pause is weighed, its every rhythm calculated, and its every throw-away line prepared in advance. Break the flow, and an old man is understandably flummoxed. It is natural that a party faithful, desperate for encouragement and searching for any star to steer by, should interrupt him with chants of 'Four More Years' and 'Thank you, Ron'. But when you're 81 years old and a prisoner of your script, you tend to lose the thread at such moments. So it was with Mr Reagan in Houston Astrodome.

Still, he did have some good jokes. For four years Lloyd Bentsen's devastating line at the expense of his then vice-presidential opponent Dan Quayle - 'Senator, I knew Jack Kennedy; and you're no Jack Kennedy' - has gone unanswered. On Monday night the patriarch of modern Republicanism hilariously reached back to the Founding Fathers for the riposte, his target this time Bill Clinton, the man at the top of the Democratic ticket.

'This fellow they've nominated, he claims he's the new Thomas Jefferson. Now let me tell you, I knew Thomas Jefferson, he was a friend of mine. And Governor, let me tell you: 'You're no Thomas Jefferson.' '

More important, you understood suddenly just how he managed to put together that triumphant coalition of his, ranging from the religious right to blue- collar factory workers, and which is now unravelling under Mr Bush. Even in his prime, Mr Reagan may never have looked entirely on the ball. But he was a nice guy, an optimist, who, even when his fortunes were lowest, exuded not an iota of malice.

'Whatever else history may say about me,' he said, 'I hope it will record I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears.' It could have been the epitaph of Reaganism - and how different from the mean-mouthed conservatism of these harsher times.

Half an hour earlier Pat Buchanan, Mr Reagan's old speech- writer, who had challenged Mr Bush in the primaries, had been at the rostrum. If Reagan will go down as illusory sunshine, Mr Buchanan is an all-too-real darkness. His flaying of Mr Clinton was politics as usual. Less so was his vision of God's own America on the brink of the Apocalypse.

No 'shining city on a hill' for him, just mobs torching the streets of Los Angeles. 'Block by block we must take back our cities, take back our culture and take back our country.' As an appeal to worst fears, Mr Buchanan's 25-minute exercise in nastiness took some beating.

Sadly, it is Mr Buchanan's vision, rather than Mr Reagan's, which better fits the Republican mood. For all they cheered the old boy, you felt the audience was a trifle bemused - was it once really like that? They are unlikely to hear him again. This was Mr Reagan's leave-taking of his country. The most telling moment came when he had finished. Stooped and weary, the great actor shuffled back from the rostrum for the last time. But then, just for a second he seem to want to return. Protectively, but resolutely, Nancy took him by the hand and pulled him towards the exit. Just like old times.

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
tech
News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran performs at his Amazon Front Row event on Tuesday 30 September
musicHe spotted PM at private gig
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Mystery man: Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in '‘Gone Girl'
films... by the director David Fincher
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
books(and not a Buzzfeed article in sight)
News
Kim Jong Un gives field guidance during his inspection of the Korean People's Army (KPA) Naval Unit 167
newsSouth Korean reports suggest rumours of a coup were unfounded
News
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Life and Style
stoptober... when the patch, gum and cold turkey had all failed
Travel
Bruce Chatwin's novel 'On the Black Hill' was set at The Vision Farm
travelOne of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
Arts and Entertainment
Gay and OK: a scene from 'Pride'
filmsUS film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
News
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

LSA Level 3 required in Caerphilly

£50 - £60 per day + plus Travel Scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job: O...

Welsh Year 6 Teacher required in Barry

£100 - £110 per day + Plus travel scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job:...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Welsh Teacher Year 2 required in Caerphilly

£100 - £105 per day + plus Travel Scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job:...

Day In a Page

Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?