Yankee Doodle Magic

  • Share
  • Read Later
Ronald Reagan has found the American sweet spot. The white ball sails into the sparkling air in a high parabola and vanishes over the fence, again. The 75-year-old man is hitting home runs. Winning a lopsided vote on a tax-reform plan that others had airily dismissed. Turning Congress around on the contras. Preparing to stand with a revitalized Miss Liberty on the Fourth of July. He grins his boyish grin and bobs his head in the way he has and trots around the bases.

Reagan inhabits his moment in America with a triumphant (some might say careless or even callous) ease that is astonishing and even mysterious. It is an afternoon in early summer. The sky is a splendid blue, with great cotton clouds floating across it and the grass a vivid field of green. There are noises of celebration in the crowd. Tonight there will be fireworks.

Ronald Reagan has a genius for American occasions. He is a Prospero of American memories, a magician who carries a bright, ideal America like a holograph in his mind and projects its image in the air. This week the sky will be splashed with celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. The President will hand out the sparklers, and the nation will gaudily salute the American dream. Reagan, master illusionist, is himself a kind of American dream. Looking at his genial, crinkly face prompts a sense of wonder: How does he pull it off?

His barber, Milton Pitts, reports that when Ronald Reagan took office his hair was about 25% gray. It is now 30% gray. The President has added a second hearing aid in the past year or so. He uses three combinations for his eyes: hard contact lenses for normal activities, half glasses over the contacts for reading, and a single contact lens (left eye) for giving speeches on podiums where he needs to focus on the audience and the TelePrompTer at the same time. Reagan still has his suits made with buttons on the flies. He refuses to wear makeup for television. He pumps iron every day. He rides a horse when he can. His favorite story is his old surreal barnyard parable regarding optimism --about the boy who finds a pile of horse manure in a room and cries excitedly, "I just know there's a pony in here somewhere."

The septuagenarian in the White House is not necessarily getting any younger. On the other hand, he does not seem to be getting any older. His suit size has been the same for years--42--and so have the ideological furnishings of his mind. His principles give him a certain serenity, and possibly the luck that comes to the optimist. Reagan keeps finding the pony. He proceeds, amiably and formidably, from success to success. His life is a sort of fairy tale of American power. The business of magic is sleight of hand: now you see it, now you don't. Ronald Reagan is a sort of masterpiece of American magic--apparently one of the simplest, most uncomplicated creatures alive, and yet a character of rich meanings, of complexities that connect him with the myths and powers of his country in an unprecedented way.

Sleight of hand: during a meeting of the Economic Policy Council last year, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Agriculture started lobbing grenades at each other over a proposal to sell grain to the Soviet Union. Others entered the argument. Voices rose, arms waved. Through it all, Ronald Reagan sat silently, apparently concentrating on picking the black licorice jelly beans from the crystal jar on the table in front of him. Occasionally, he would look up. Once, as he did so, he caught the eye of an aide sitting opposite him at the back of the room. The President winked. The tumult gradually subsided. When it was peaceful again, Reagan looked up, turned to Treasury Secretary James Baker, and said, "What's the next item, Jim?"

It had been a very private wink, but it seemed to its one witness to go beyond the walls of the White House, out over the Rose Garden and well outside the Beltway that surrounds the nation's capital. It was as if Ronald Reagan had winked at America, sharing the people's amused disdain for the sort of thing that goes on in Big Government.

But Reagan understands well enough how to function in that world. Last week the Senate pushed forward his chief domestic priority, tax reform, and the House advanced one of his greatest foreign policy goals--aid to the contras fighting in Nicaragua. It was a fine seven days for the White House. Reagan had nominated Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist to become Chief Justice, and Antonin Scalia to fill Rehnquist's seat, and they promised to be eminently successful nominations. In the months before, the Philippines and Haiti had gone his way, toward democracy. He had struck back at Muammar Gaddafi in Tripoli. He had flown to Geneva and spent five hours with the supposedly formidable Mikhail Gorbachev, doing well. None of this suggested the nursing-home President that some had envisioned.

The most obvious reason for Reagan's popularity is the relative success of his presidency and the grace with which he has accomplished it. Lyndon Johnson was terrible in success, contemptuous of his adversaries, delighted with his own genius. Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter could be irritating and bizarre in other ways. Reagan likes success, but is wary of it. He accepts the praise, ducks his head, winks, and moves on. Reagan has reasserted the force of individual leadership. Americans heard for years that the presidency had grown too complex for one person to manage, that the office had been crippled. Reagan seems to slide through a presidential day with ease. Leadership is a mysterious business, of course, but Reagan seems to derive his strength from the fact that he does exactly what he says he will do. He told the air-traffic controllers what he would do, for example, and when they persisted in their strike, he fired them and made it stick. All that has a tonic effect. It may give Americans the idea that they are getting what they pay for. His critics say Reagan is lucky. He is. The decline in the world price of oil, for example, was a huge fortuity, and may explain Reagan's current attraction for the electorate even more than his famous charm. Critics say that he is coated with Teflon, that no mess that he makes ever sticks to him. That is perfectly true.

Reagan has become a fascinating phenomenon of American leadership and psychology. He enjoys an easy and sometimes mysterious communion with the American people. He has become a ceremonial presence. "America is back," he told us, as if announcing the return of a loved one from years in a POW camp. He gives America heroes--heroes in the gallery when he delivers a State of the Union address, heroes from the Olympics, heroes from old movies, John Wayne and Gary Cooper quotations in the middle of political speeches. His amiable being--the sheer niceness and normality of the man--seems to transcend his policies, to immunize him from the poisonous implications of some of his own opinions. Americans respond to the strength and clarity of his character, the predictability of his resolve.

The mission that Reagan has embarked upon has nothing to do with his personal charm. He has set out to reverse the course of American government that was charted by Franklin Roosevelt. If F.D.R. explored the upper limits of what government could do for the individual, Reagan is testing the lower limits. Reagan's opinions and policies would be enough in another time to have protesters marching in the streets, or worse. And yet something about Reagan soothes and unites--even though the effects of his programs may repel. He softens the meaner edges of conservatism with populist effusions, reaching outside the rigid framework of ideologies to the pool of shared American experience, to our dreamy nostalgias. Two landslides and six years on, the Gallup poll gives Reagan a 68% approval rating, the best he has done since May 1981, after he was shot and responded gallantly to the ordeal. Pollsters say Reagan has consistently higher ratings over a longer period than any other second-term President since polling began.

Reagan possesses a sort of genius for the styles of American memory, for the layerings of the American past. Wright Morris once wrote of Norman Rockwell that his "special triumph is in the conviction his countrymen share that the mythical world he evokes actually exists . . . He understands the hunger, and he supplies the nourishment. The hunger is for the Good Old Days --the black-eyed tomboy, the hopeless, lovable pup, the freckle-faced young swain . . . sensations which we no longer have but still seem to want; dreams of innocence before it went corrupt." Reagan also understands the hunger. He does not delve cynically into the layers of American memory. He is not as mythically cute as Rockwell. He is simply saturated in the American identity, as, say, an utterly different leader, Charles de Gaulle, was saturated in the French.

Reagan's predecessors were just as profoundly and regionally American, of course: Johnson the Texan, Nixon from Whittier, Calif., Carter from south Georgia. But their pasts were all shadowed, in different ways, by an obscure sense of biographical hurt. Reagan's father was an improvident alcoholic in Dixon, Ill., and yet Reagan's mythic hometown America is a glorious place. Reagan communicates a bright and triumphant American past.

Reagan took office after a long, depressive streak of American history that began with the assassination of John Kennedy and proceeded through the riots and other assassinations of the 1960s, the Viet Nam War, Watergate, Nixon's resignation, the Arab oil embargo, the Iranian hostage crisis. Jimmy Carter was apparently overwhelmed by the presidency. The Club of Rome's Spenglerian predictions about the earth's shrinking resources shadowed the '70s, and Carter at last announced that there was a malaise in the land. The drift was bleak: things would get worse and worse and never get better again. Reagan's immediate predecessors were smudged by a darkness of failure and were all unhorsed by events they lost control of. Reagan's psychic weather is bright sunshine, and so far he has managed to keep the world from bucking him loose. It may be that his principal accomplishment has been to restore the prestige and plausibility of his office.

During the 1984 campaign, Reagan's best receptions came on college campuses. A White House survey for May showed that 82% of registered voters age 24 and under approved of Reagan. Says Presidential Pollster Richard Wirthlin: "This is an age cohort that has known only two Presidents." The binary vision of the young: in their memories, Carter meant failure, Reagan means success.

Reagan cultivates the young. They have become a principal theme of his old age, the promise of a legacy. Such are his ambitions. Just as Franklin Roosevelt's ideas set the style that would dominate the next four decades of American politics, Reagan--a zealous admirer of F.D.R.'s when young--wants the younger generation to complete the Reagan Revolution.

Ronald Reagan took to acting when he was in high school and later as a student at Eureka College in central Illinois. He discovered what it meant to "be together" with an audience, to stand on a stage and capture the people. Acting, when it achieves the right harmonics between performer and audience, is a work of almost intimate leadership. The actor enters into the minds of others and leads them through the drama, making them laugh or cry, making them feel exactly what he wants them to feel. It is a powerful and primitive transaction, a manipulation, but at its deepest level a form of tribal communion.

The "Great Communicator" has come to communicate with the American people on a tribal level, a fascinating feat considering that the U.S. embraces so many different competing tribes.

Sleight of hand: Reagan is the first complete television President. The implications of that mastery are unsettling. Says Political Scientist James David Barber of Duke University: "Television news is very heavy on feelings. There is always a temptation to reduce the question to sentiment. Reagan's criterion of validity is theatrical rather than empirical."

The White House team in charge of image making, started under Michael Deaver, is almost too skillful at exploiting the media in order to make policy points. Deaver's successor, William Henkel, orchestrates presidential photo opportunities in which the President acts out little dramas on location, playlets of policy. In March, for example, Reagan "dropped by" the State Department to view a collection of Soviet and other East bloc weapons captured from the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The point was made. Reagan overrides the print press and captures the electronic image-making tools. The image, without the mediation of language, feeds directly into the brain. Reagan goes directly into the American bloodstream, the American consciousness.

On the other hand, a President can fool only some of the cameras some of the time. The camera tends to be a truth-telling instrument. Reagan has wonderful theatrical instincts, but he could not feign the qualities of his character that came across when he honored the Challenger crew, for example, or when he and his wife hugged every one of the family members of the 101st Airborne Division soldiers killed last year in the crash in Newfoundland.

Reagan's personal authenticity is one of his greatest strengths, one reason why people tend to trust him even if they utterly disagree with his principles. Better, perhaps, to deal with a man one trusts than to be fooled and manipulated for the best of ends. Reagan is manifestly a man at home in his own skin, in contrast to, say, Richard Nixon, in whom dark civil wars always seemed to be raging.

Reagan may be the dumbest and the smartest President that the U.S. has ever had. He has made a brilliant career out of being underestimated. Critics have rather superciliously thought that an actor coming into politics was somehow getting in over his head, working in deeper professional waters than he should try. To a politician, an actor was a lightweight, which may say something about the limited self-awareness of politicians. If they had thought more carefully or taken Reagan more seriously, they might have recognized that the actor's gift, applied to politics, has profound implications, some of them potentially sinister.

But then Reagan has always been attended by an aura of amiable averageness. The producer Alfred de Liagre said that Reagan on film "always had the manner of an earnest gas-station attendant." Liberal writers have dismissed him as ideologue, cretin and airhead, or worse. They have thought of Chauncey Gardiner, the transcendentally brainless seer in Jerzy Kosinski's novel Being There. Gardiner, in the eloquence of his idiocy, becomes a national oracle. "How humiliating," the columnist Nicholas von Hoffman wrote of Reagan in 1982, "to think of this unlettered, self-assured bumpkin being our President."

As he has succeeded, Reagan has driven his enemies to ingenuities of denunciation. His sheer serenity, the frictionless certitude of his beliefs, has made him seem a sort of anti-President who has made a virtue of his poolside manner and his ignorance of the world.

But Reagan has turned out like nothing that his critics foretold, not the amiable dunce nor the dim-witted geriatric that they joked about, receding into befuddled twilight.

The actor in old age is not King Lear. His poise and vigor are astonishing. If one were to look satirically at Reagan, it would be to see him not as a doddering old man but as a weird presidential version of one of the "action figures" with which children of the '80s play: G.I. Joe, Captain America, He-Man. Saturday-morning TV dialogue emanates from the Oval Office: "Quick, Cap, there's not a moment to lose! The evil Gaddafi is attacking our fleet inside the 'line of death'!"

Lincoln, the story says, wanted to send his generals a case of Ulysses Grant's whisky if drinking it would make them fight like Grant. If Reagan is afflicted by senility, some of the world's leaders might try a case of it. Whether Reagan will ultimately be judged a great President remains to be seen, but he has shown himself to be one of the strongest leaders of the 20th century.

Reagan's success results in part from his impressive basic consistency. He organized a clear set of goals. He kept his serious agenda relatively short and easy to understand: lower taxes, lower domestic spending, a bigger defense machine and a tougher foreign policy. "This is a man who is 75 years old," says White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan. "He has thought through most of his philosophy. He has tested it in three campaigns on a national scale now. The things he believes in, he believes in deeply, and he is not about to change."

Reagan, in his heart, remains an outsider. It is a conceit that irritates some of his critics, especially those who believe in the power of government to affect lives for the better. Here is Reagan, still getting away with a campaign gambit, divorcing himself from any governmental action, even his own, that seems unpopular. He has an eerie gift for distancing himself from failures, for behaving, in a bizarre and cagey act of dissociation, as if what he had just done had nothing much to do with him, as if it had just vanished into the air, passed into nonexistence.

There has always been a certain legerdemain, if not hypocrisy, in Reagan's professed personal values. He preaches productivity and rugged individualism, but has always been something less than a workaholic. He preaches the sanctity of family, but is the only President to have been divorced. His relations with his children seem to have been distant and somewhat troubled. He allies himself with religious Fundamentalists for political advantage, but rarely goes to church. Such inconsistencies are human enough. They point a little, however, toward a window onto the uglier side of Reaganism, if not Reagan, the side where some old American meannesses dwell--religious hatreds, fanaticism, intolerance.

Yet Reagan's successes, both objective and subjective, outweigh his failures. He has presided over one of the longest economic recoveries in recent history, now in its 43rd month, which has been attended by an end to both inflation and the wage-price spiral. Some argue that it was Fed Chairman Paul Volcker's policies that conquered inflation. But Reagan was the catalyst for the recovery. Nine million new jobs have been created during the Reagan | Administration. It was Reagan who, in the aftermath of Jimmy Carter's "malaise" and all that had come before, revived some exuberance of purpose, of entrepreneurship, patriotism, self-pride.

The economic recovery is undoubtedly the chief reason for Reagan's popularity now--that and the absence of war and the general atmosphere of national self-confidence. The process was painful. Midway through his first term, the New York Times wrote in an editorial, "The stench of failure hangs over Ronald Reagan's White House." Almost 11 1/2 million people were out of work. Reagan's approval rating in the polls fell to 37%. Pushing huge military budgets while cutting social programs created the "fairness issue." The idea of Reagan as a superlatively nice guy was not always operative during the first term.

Reagan's greatest failure involves the huge federal debt, now $2 trillion, half of it accumulated during the Reagan years. He administered a deep tax cut during an enormous military buildup. Tens of thousands of family farmers have been destroyed, and the economy of the Midwest has been badly shaken.

He lost the Marines in the barracks in Beirut. Scandals--the "sleaze factor"--shadow the White House and Cabinet. And Reagan committed so many press-conference fluffs and bumbles and misstatements and fantasies wrapped in anecdotes that eventually no one paid that much attention anymore, assuming that that was just the way Reagan was. Who cared? The results seemed to come out all right.

During the late 19th century, Henry Adams despaired of the quality of American leadership. "The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant," he wrote, "was alone evidence to disprove Darwin." What would Adams have had to say about evolution in the office from Thomas Jefferson, say, to Ronald Reagan?

Reagan's reassertion of presidential leadership will undoubtedly be regarded as one of his most important contributions to the presidency. And yet there seems now a certain inadequacy about the Reagan magic. Other than tax reform, Reagan has not exploited his popularity to push for new initiatives so far in his second term. As the nation begins to show signs of yearning for a more generous social vision, as the Reagan prosperity prompts a renewed concern for the have-nots both at home and abroad, Reagan sometimes seems behind the wave, exalting individualism rather than a more lasting sense of altruism. There are time bombs for which Reagan has responsibility. The nation's debt service alone consumes $140 billion a year, or 14% of the budget, roughly twice the percentage of a decade ago.

After the November elections, the scramble for the 1988 election will begin. Reagan has been too strong a figure in the past six years to be relegated soon to the status of a lame duck. But his time is receding. Perhaps the Reagan era is to be remembered simply as a quietus. Perhaps it is the illusion of a long summer celebration of the past, an illusion necessary before the future can begin.

And yet Reagan's significance is larger than that. He has restored the authority of the American presidency. He has given Americans an optimism, a pride in themselves and in their country that they have not possessed since the death of John Kennedy. And he is the first President since F.D.R. to alter the debate over what the role of government should be. As one keeps score in the art of the possible, that is not bad at all.