Invoking old values, Ronald Reagan must make them work in the '80s
On an afternoon in early December, Los Angeles was in the 60s and Ronald Reagan looked like a dream. He was wearing a blue-and-green wool tartan jacket, a purple tie, white shirt, white handkerchief, black pants and black loafers with gold along the tops. Who else could dress that way? He settled back on a couch in a living room so splurged with color that even the black seemed exuberant. A florist must have decorated it. A florist must have decorated his voice. He was talking about job hunting as a kid in his home town of Dixon, Ill., telling an American success story he has told a hundred times before. He seemed genuinely happy to hear it again. No noise made its way up to the house on Pacific Palisades, except for the occasional yip of a dog, and, of course, the eternal sound of California—the whir of a well-tuned car. Outside, the Secret Service patrolled the bougainvillea on streets with liquid, Spanish names. Reagan's face was ruddy, in bloom, growing younger by the second.
At week's end he would be expected at the convocation of conservatives for the National Review's 25th anniversary dinner in the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Reagan would not show —a mix-up in his calendar. Riled, his hosts would sing his praises over dessert nonetheless. He was the answer to their prayers, after all; the essential reason for the elegant, confident glow of the evening. Editor William F. Buckley Jr. would shine quietly, modestly. Others, like Publisher William Rusher, would exhort the assembled "to stamp out any remaining embers of liberalism." A war whoop was in the air—black tie, to be sure—but still the unmistakable sound of a faction reprieved, at last in power, thanks to the boyish man at the other end of the country, whose time had definitely come.
As for the cause of the celebration, his rise seems astonishing. It began in October 1964 when, as co-chairman of California Citizens for Goldwater, he gave his "A Time for Choosing" television speech, a speech so tough that Goldwater himself was skittish about letting it air. Reagan ended the talk with "You and I have a rendezvous with destiny," and was at least half right. So mesmerizing was his performance, so quick in its effect, that California businessmen swamped him like groupies, formed a "Friends of Ronald Reagan" committee, begged him to run for Governor. He had to be pushed. Yet in 1966 the former star of Juke Girl snatched the governorship of California by a million votes from incumbent Edmund G. ("Pat") Brown, who must have thought he was the victim of an accident. (Reagan also starred in Accidents Will Happen.)
In fact, there has been a remarkably accidental air about Reagan's career; it has always borne the quality of something he could take or leave. The image of the non-politician running for office, antilogical as it is, has had its practical advantages, but it is also authentic. Because Reagan knows who he is, he knows what he wants. After a halfhearted run at Nixon for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968, he returned to California for a second term as Governor. But in 1976, after an all-out and failed attempt to capture his party's nomination, he genuinely did not wish to be Gerald Ford's Vice President. When Ford's