One of Ronald Reagan's unsung achievements is that he saved Vanity Fair. By March 1985, I had been editor in chief for a year, but the glossy monthly that had been launched in a blaze of hype a year before and then belly-flopped under its first two editors was still in the throes of a severe identity crisis. We needed something big and we needed it fast, since Conde Nast Chairman S.I. Newhouse had just made it plain that we had only six more months to fool around before he kissed this money-losing turkey goodbye.
Hoping for a deus ex machina, we got a president ex machina. VF's resourceful picture editor, James Danziger, traded on his friendship with Doug Wick, son of Reagan pal Charles Z. Wick, to score a cover shoot with Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
At 6 p.m. March 20, 1985, I showed up at the White House with Harry Benson, the excitable Scottish photographer with toilet-brush hair who talks so much and works so fast he has managed to get six presidents to give up human moments of syndication gold for his camera. "I'm better with Republicans," he told me yesterday from a golf course in Troon. "Democrats are always a wee bit tricky."
The press aide informed us that the president and Mrs. Reagan were due at a state banquet they were hosting for Argentine President Raul Alfonsin but would pause for a swift formal portrait in the Map Room. As soon as the aide had departed, Benson produced a boombox from under his coat and unscrolled a white background to create a portable studio.
At 6:45 p.m. we heard the familiar mellow burr of the approaching commander in chief accompanied by the light social laughter of Nancy Reagan. They entered the Map Room dressed in their elegant best for the black-tie function: Nancy in a slinky jet-beaded Galanos gown, her husband in a Fred Astaire-fit tux, with patent crenellated hair and cordial, crinkly blue eyes. Benson immediately hit the switch of the boombox and flooded the room with the old Sinatra classic "Nancy (With the Laughing Face)." Reagan paused for a moment looking first at us and then at his wife with one raised eyebrow, Clark Gable style.
"I love this song, honey," she said. "Let's dance." Her co-star replied with a line that might have been written for any number of vintage B movies: "We can't keep the president of Argentina waiting, Nancy."
"Oh, Ronnie," teased the first lady, grabbing him by his broad shoulders, "Let him wait!" She kicked back her leg (click-whirr click-whirr click-whirr went Harry Benson's camera), and, perhaps in a paradigm of their easeful marriage, the president quit resisting and took his wife in his arms. For the next 15 minutes they fox-trotted blithely around the Map Room to more Sinatra oldies on Benson's cassette, exchanging the gossip of the day as if no one else were there.
"A kiss!" shouted a now-ecstatic Benson, juggling three cameras. "Mr. President, give your wife a kiss!" Cheeky, perhaps, for other presidents, but for them it was easy. They moved closer. Their eyes closed. Their lips came together for the iconic moment I have seen flashed on TV screens over and over in the past few days.
The Reagans' moment of gaiety on the cover was a kiss of life for Vanity Fair. Coming when America was emerging from a long recession, the dancing presidential couple seemed to epitomize the buoyancy of American expectation. Reagan's theatricality always resonated that way. It was an instinctive collusion between imagery and national mood.
His death on the eve of the anniversary of D-Day has accomplished something similar. The strangest thing in this week of all-Reagan-all-the-time has been to hear New York liberals who were so devastating about him in office telling just as many sentimental stories about him as Republicans. After the first sharp intake of breath (good for Kerry or bad for Kerry? -- the prism through which all politically related phenomena are seen), a narcotized benevolence comes down like a curtain. America is currently so harshly divided that Reagan, a man whom people either loved or hated when he was in office, has come to represent bipartisan civility. The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg recounts in his upcoming book "Politics" how shortly after he left the Carter White House as speechwriter he had a dream that he was back there -- on Reagan's staff. "In my dream he thanked me for a speech draft in that mellow, chuckly voice of his," Hertzberg told me. "I woke up stunned, delighted and appalled."
In the last disputatious months of Reagan's presidency the first couple agreed to sit for Vanity Fair's Annie Leibovitz. Once again in the Map Room, there was the preceding sound of laughter from an aide and the punch line of a Reagan joke ("For a fat girl you don't sweat much!"). For Annie, Ron and Nancy obligingly donned his-and-hers red cashmere sweaters and sat together holding hands on a bench beneath the fall foliage in the Rose Garden. As Reagan's arm went round the first lady, the two of them seemed immune to the clamor of politics. At length they got up to go back inside. "Mr. President, wave!" Annie suddenly called as they ambled toward the residence.
"Whom are we waving at?" Mrs. Reagan asked. "Congress, Nancy," said the president, half turning to play an expertly hammy Hollywood farewell that wound up under the cover line, "Happy Trails!"
I suspect A-list stars such as Fonda, Tracy or Bogart who didn't get to be president would have been less effective than Reagan. They might have been tempted to be more interior, more complex, more averse to the visual cliche. Reagan was never afraid of the obvious. And he loved happy endings. In our Age of Anxiety, those are the endings we long for.
(c) 2004, Tina Brown