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Old orders pass: Prime Minister Ohira in Japan; the Shah in Egypt; and Tito, who one thought would live forever. In the background, like presiding ghosts, the hostages in Iran serve as emblems of national impotence; Walter Cronkite's counting of the days growing weary and meaningless among Milquetoast threats and a tragic rescue fiasco. As if to sustain the world's heartache, the year heads toward Christmas with the killing of a Beatle.
In 1953 Robert Lowell said the "Republic summons Ike" because "the mausoleum [was] in her heart." In 1980 the Republic summoned Ronald Reagan. Why?
History rarely moves openly toward its main players. Usually a central figure is perceived as evolving only in retrospect, and that could well happen four years from now, when the country may acknowledge that Ronald Reagan was the only man who could possibly have pulled the U.S. out of its doldrums. For now, in prospect, that certainly cannot be said. Reagan is an experiment, a chance. For all the happy feelings his good nature generates, the cool fact of American life is that most of the country is still from Missouri, and much is yet to be proved.
In this light it may be useful to remember first that Reagan's ten-point popular victory was not assured until the final days of the campaign. As deeply soured on the Carter Administration as most of the electorate was, it also withheld its approval of the competition until the last minute. Quietly, privately and perhaps a little grimly, most Americans had probably decided that Carter had had it as early as 18 months before November. Their main reason was the economy, but there was Carter himself, a man who also started out riding the country's high hopes (a TIME Man of the Year in 1976), and who was perhaps most bitterly resented for shrinking those hopes down to the size of a presidency characterized by small people, small talk and small matters. He made Americans feel two things they are not used to feeling, and will not abide. He made them feel puny and he made them feel insecure.
That Reagan beat such a man is a feat of circumstances as much as of personal strength. Right-wingers like to crow that the country veered sharply to the right when it turned to Reagan, but the probable truth of the matter is that most of the country had simply stepped firmly to the right of center. As conservatives sensed, the country had been an incubative conservative since the late '60s. Only Nixon's muck-up could have delayed their eventual birth and triumph. Sick and tired of the vast, clogged federal machine; sick and tired of being broke; fed up with useless programs, crime, waste, guilt; not to mention shame in the eyes of the world—derision from our enemies, dismay from our allies—fed up with all that, and to put a fine point on it, fed up with Jimmy Carter, what else would the nation do but hang a right?
The fascinating thing is how determined a swing it was. Reagan's pollster Richard Wirthlin found that