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CNN’s Reagan Mystique

Last night, it was morning in America. Again.
January 31, 2008

When the Democrats debated in Philadelphia, Brian Williams and Tim Russert didn’t spend the whole night talking about Ben Franklin, or gesturing at powdered wigs. But when you’ve got a Republican debate near Reagan’s tomb, well, that’s another matter.

Last night’s show was held in Simi Valley, California, home of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Or rather, it was held in a gussied up aircraft hanger, now home to the Boeing 707 that Reagan called Air Force One. Anderson Cooper described the airy building as a “remarkable pavilion,” and told viewers that a bowl of the president’s favorite jelly beans sat waiting inside the fuselage.

The night opened with Cooper standing alongside a 86-year old Nancy Reagan. Her bright red lipstick and dress made for an awkward prom date pose. He gamely tried to get her to give more than a few words of welcoming remarks. But soon, he launched into his opening question, where referenced an iconic Reagan debate line in an attempt to get the candidates to pooh-pooh Bush’s more-shaky-than-ever economic record (“…are Americans better off than they were eight years ago?”)

That was before asking if they’d agreed with Reagan’s nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court. Anderson illustrated this hypothetical by reading the man’s journal entry on the announcement. (The original diary, presumably rebound in gilded burgundy leather, sat on the left of Cooper’s glass desk—“I’m a little too nervous to actually even touch it,” he admitted.)

From time to time, the camera cut away to the widow Reagan. Alas, there were no questions on stem cell research, where she has taken a stance opposite that of most members of her party. (Romney often cites his veto of a related bill as the first act of his anti-abortion life, but no matter.)

Finally, Anderson closed by asking if Reagan were alive, would he endorse their candidacy. (W.W.R.D.?)

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Across the night, the candidates rose to the occasion, by my count, citing Reagan 42 times in an hour and a half. McCain trotted out his “foot soldier” in the “Reagan revolution” line three times. Romney found an artful way to say Reagan would have opposed McCain’s immigration bill. You see, Reagan had tried a similar tack, failed, and by now would have learned from his mistake.

As the debate broke up, CNN promoed “The Ronald Reagan I Knew,” that night’s special Larry King episode on the Reagan legacy.

Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.