The legs may be stiffer; the wrinkles deeper. Uncharitable observers even claim the chestnut thatch of hair is graying at last. But Ronald Reagan is still the best act the Republicans can offer. On Thursday, however, in front of 2,400 of the party faithful gathered to celebrate his 83rd birthday, he had a different purpose. A reputation had to be restored, and a copyright protected.
After watching the State of the Union address, he confided with that inimitable husky purr of his, 'I was reminded of the old adage, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Only in this case, it isn't flattery, it's grand larceny - the intellectual theft of ideas you and I recognise as our own.'
And not only the ideas, Mr Reagan might have added - all that Clinton rhetoric about personal responsibility and the limits of government. A Democratic President had even taken his stagecraft straight out of the master's repertoire, from the theatrical flourish of a 'veto' pen, to the personal tribute to a New York policeman on the urban front lines, watching that night from the visitors' gallery.
Some cheek from a candidate Clinton who had largely won his 1992 election campaign by lambasting the greed and profligacy of the Reagan 1980s. 'They'll never forgive us our success and are trying to rewrite history,' he said to huge applause. 'I'm getting awfully tired of the whining voices in the White House these days.'
His return from California had evidently moved him as much as it did Margaret Thatcher and all the others who sat misty-eyed in the candlelight to hear him. 'As our plane headed down towards Washington, it was just like the good old days: the White House, the Rose Garden, the South Lawn . . . and David Gergen.' The reference was to his former speech-writer and propagandist, whom Mr Clinton enlisted last year. The Gipper was at his vintage, effortless best.
And from one monument to the past came an emotional tribute from another. 'You were a giant of our century,' Mrs T said. 'When others spoke of compromise, you preached conviction.' Modern-day American Republicans were even more nostalgic: as one lamented, 'We just don't have anyone of that charisma and charm.'
Indeed. The gala dinner, which culminated with Ron and Nancy cutting a giant chocolate cake in the shape of the Republican mascot elephant, may have raised up to dollars 5m ( pounds 3.3m) to swell the party's coffers for election campaigns. But they will need every cent of it. With his approval ratings at close on 60 per cent (better than Mr Reagan at a comparable point in 1982) President Clinton need lose no sleep at the events of Thursday night.
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