Ronald Reagan: Yankee Doodle Magic

What makes Reagan so remarkably popular a President?

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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.

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