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.

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