During the Watergate years of 1973-74, Ronald Reagan looked like a loser because of his unstinting support of Richard Nixon, from whom most (though not all) Republicans eventually fled as though he carried the plague. In a recent talk at Penn's Walter H. Annenberg school (endowed by Nixon and Reagan's mutual friend, who also brimmed with Reaganesque cheer), Rick Perlstein, at work on an 800-page book about Reagan and the 1970s, says 40's critics were missing the potency of optimism:
Pundits presumed the country wanted politicians who shared self-pity about the terrible meal history was serving them -- the politics of malaise, you may say. Of course it turned out they preferred Ronald Reagan...in [his] unshakable conviction that it was the most wonderful thing he'd ever eaten, and that the worse things got, the more forcefully and resourcefully he would figure out a way to reveal an underlying redemption underneath....
Thus in his first term, when Nixon was just an old regular president, he was available for Reagan's criticism. In his second, when he became the public symbol of all that was chaotic in a world that was falling apart, then Reagan became Reagan. [Nixon] could not but be inexorably defended. There was a logic to everything Reagan said about Watergate -- that Nixon was one of the good guys, a protector, that good guys are always innocent; and that even if it should happen that they somehow weren't, Watergate did not involve genuine crimes; and even if it did, it revealed nothing essential about the American character, which was a transcendent character simply by virtue of being American.
It was just this sort of performance of blitheness in the face of what others called crisis that was fundamental to who Ronald Reagan was... It was fundamental to why he made so many others feel good, which was fundamental to what he would become and how he changed the United States.