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This sense of his integrity, of his thoroughgoing self-knowledge is a major asset. When he was making Dark Victory (yes, he was there, well behind Bette Davis, George Brent and Humphrey Bogart), the director (Edmund Goulding) bawled him out for playing a scene too simply and sincerely. "He didn't get what he wanted, whatever the hell that was," Reagan recalls, "and I ended up not delivering the line the way my instinct told me it should be delivered. It was bad."
Now, considerably freer to follow his instincts, his lines are delivered with consistent effect—simply and sincerely. At the close of the Carter television debate he posed several semi-rhetorical questions that are now said to have sealed his victory: "Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores?" And so forth. There is first the brilliance of the baby talk—"to go and buy things in the stores." But the real power in those questions came from the delivery, which if managed by a less sensitive speaker could have produced something strident, or assured, or worse, argumentative. Instead, Reagan's pitch trembled between helplessness and fellow feeling; it was to himself that he was talking; he who could not go and buy things in the stores. The U.S. was in a sad mess, not an infuriating one. Only a calm though suffering voice could rescue it.
Where more hard-nosed politicians will talk ceaselessly about polling techniques or some son of a bitch in a rebellious precinct, Reagan will talk about the art of public speaking. Even though he is a virtuoso, he works at that art, primarily because he is a politician only of the essentials, and knows, as his admired Franklin Roosevelt knew, that to reach and please the public is to put first things first. One sign of his amazing success as a speaker is that his plentiful gaffes are not only forgiven; even better, they are forgotten. Speaking in Columbus last summer, he deliberately made an error, substituting the word depression for recession in order to reinforce a point. The alteration set off a small squall of technical retractions by one of his economics advisers, Alan Greenspan, but the point was reinforced. His sense of timing is almost always a thing of beauty. After the "depression" error, instead of dropping the matter, he traded on it: "If he [Carter] wants a definition, I'll give him one. [Audience is on the alert for something punchy, perhaps funny.] Recession [split-second pause] is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression [same pause; audience grows eager] is when you lose yours. [Chuckles and titters; audience wonders if there will