He believes, in the manner which American has come to expect of its presidents, that he embodies the hopes and aspirations of the nation.
Preparing to take the oath of office as the 40th president of the United States, Ronald Wilson Reagan looks forward to an American future which he conceives as a renewal of the past. It is a past rooted for Reagan in Dixon, Illinois, and Hollywood and Sacramento but also, as he might say, in Valley Forge and Antietam and Vietnam. It is a past rooted in the poverty of the Great Depression and the optimism at the end of World War II, when most Americans still believed in an unflagging extension of prosperity for themselves and in the inevitability of a better life for their children.
Reagan shares that optimism, and he believes in both the reality and the legend of the American past.He knows that Americans want to feel optimistic again. He believes that his countrymen chose him to be their president because he can restore for them their lost America.
"Would you laugh if I told you that I think maybe that the people see themselves and that I'm one of them?" Reagan told a reporter on the eve of his presidential election triumph. "I've never been able to detach myself or think that I, somehow, am apart from them."
It is a naive belief, perhaps. Even on the Reagan staff there were those who smiled in incredulity. But in the mythic America which most of us inhabit in our hearts, those words are literally true.
As a reporter who has covered Reagan through most of his political career, I am repeatedly amazed that he is underestimated and unappreciated by otherwise serious and sensible politiicans. He wins elections, and he was a pretty good governor of California, but he somehow commends himself to others in the system as an abberation who is too conservative, too light-weight, too old, too out of touch. Certainly, after all Reagan has done, he deserves to be taken seriously.
And yet, it is impossible to see Reagan up close without also worrying about him. Some of his supporters are as concerned about Reagan's prospective performance as those who view him with skepticism or contempt. While Reagan could well turn out to be the most popular president since Eisenhower and while he has the potential to be the most successful one since Roosevelt, there are still questions in my own mind about whether he will prove a good president or even an adequate one.
This much I do know: Reagan's background, his positive qualities, his confidence and his sense of the country work much more powerfully in his behalf than his critics realize. Reagan, like all of us, is a creature of his family, his time, his place, his culture and his country.
His place was small-town Illinois in the years just before, during and after World War I, a place with American names like Tampico, Dixon, Galesburg and Monmouth, the sort of towns satirized by Sinclair Lewis in Main Street as "the climax of civiliation" and celebrated by Reagan as precisely that. The question of whether the United States was the best, the truest, the finest and the fairest nation in the world was not a debated proposition in that place and time.
Small-town midwesterners of that era knew that they and their country was specially favored and this knowledge bred in many of the region's sons and daughters a confident, cheerful optimism which remains Reagan's most appealing quality. In some Americans it also bred a smugness, but Reagan was spared this disability. The reasons would appear to be a devout and warm-hearted mother, who delighted in her second son's precociousness and encouraged his theatrical gifts; an engaging, if alcoholic, father who possessed a fierce hatred of intolerance; and the hard realities of the Depression, which swept over the nation like an evil storm while Reagan was in his late teens.
"We didn't have any money, but we never thought of ourselves as poor," says Reagan of those days. It is an accurate assessment. More than anything, it is the shared experience of the Depression which enables Reagan, in the comfortable affluence of Pacific Palisades, Calif., where his closest friends are even richer than he is, to speak words that resonate with Americans who will never own a ranch or wear a tuxedo.
Reagan never doubted this ability in himself. His origins were humble enough, and he had honed his speaking talents in hundreds of speeches to working men and women in General Electric plants in the 1950s. The GE slogan was "progress is our most important product," and it was for Reagan a simple and appropriate expression of the American dream.
Working on a contract which ultimately would make him a millionaire and traveling everywhere by train because he was then afraid to fly, Reagan spoke week in and week our at GE plants without needing to bother about negative news stories or losing an election because of a blooper. He emerged with a sure-fire style, a practiced modesty and many of the themes about limiting government and standing up to the Russians which still form the framework of his campaign speeches. In his prospective use of the presidency as Theodore Roosevelt's "bully pulpit," Reagan has the immense advantage of being the first American president who is an accomplished professional performer. He knows not only how to rouse an audience but how a speech will look on television. No one has to tell him where to stand or how long to pause in prayer.
It is odd that none of Reagan's opponents recognized the advantages conferred by his long apprenticeship in the movies and on the GE circuit. "Bedtime for Bonzo," they sneered at Reagan the actor, without understanding that most Americans approve more of movie stars than they do of politicians. Reagan ia a very good politician, but never mind that. To his opponents he was a know-nothing in the wrong business, a theatrical usurper on political turf. Beyond that, he was hopelessly conservative and irrevocably square.
By the 1980 election, he also was old, wrinkled and increasingly hard of hearing. At any time, in any campaign, he displayed a passion for statistics frequently unmatched by an interest in the facts upon which the statistics were based. Upon occasion, he mis-shuffled his four-by-six cards or stumbled over lines. His nearsightedness, which had kept him out of combat in World War II, made it difficult for him to read a speech, even with contact lenses. His basic speech was a rouser, but he gave the same speech over and over again. He seemed so vulnerable. And he was badly underestimated by every opponent he ever faced.
But neither Reagan's background nor his redundant style was a handicap with voters. Far from it. When Reagan was growing to manhood, California was the mecca for Americans, the last and best frontier in a pioneer country. In the decade before Reagan came to California -- that is, before the Depression and the Dust Bowl -- more than 2 million people came to California, 72 percent of whom settled in Los Angeles.It was the largest internal migration in American history up to that time.
Illinois, where Reagan grew up, was the largest source of migration to California in the three decades from 1910 to 1940. Iowa, where Reagan worked as a young man, was another major source of Californians. In Des Moines, as a popular sports announcer known as "Dutch Reagan," our future president rode the crest of the American sports boom. He journeyed from Des Moines to Hollywood, which in that pre-television age was the undisputed mass culture capital of the nation and a compelling influence upon the lives of Americans.
In short, the dream of the California good life became a reality for Reagan, who left the land of his boyhood for Hollywood to become an actor and strike it rich. It was a dream shared vicariously by millions of Americans. It was a fantasy which Reagan acted out in the real world.
Beyond this fantasy is the greater dream of the American West, in which Reagan participated and which he represents. We needed the frontier, we were taught in our boyhood. We needed it as Americans because it gave us something to conquer, something to settle, a place to strike it rich. My own father, also Jack, with qualities similar to Jack Reagan's, believed in the frontier. He believed that he would strike it rich. Many of us believe it still.
Reagan identifies with the pioneer spirit of the West, which is at heart a spirit of development, and that is why, more than the espousal of any doctrine, that he owns the West politically. His success in winning the presidency says much to a region which in a diffused way is as alienated as the South. "Look at that country, it's such great country and there's still so much of it," Reagan told a reporter as he flew over the western plains early in the campaign. It might have been the declaration of an early pioneer.
More than anything, it is Reagan's agreeable nature which commends him to his fellow Americans. He is not stuck up on himself, as they would have said in Reagan's day. He likes to tell stories about his business, which was acting, and he is both proud of his best work and suitably self-depractory about the days when he was the "Errol Flynn of the B-pictures." He thinks that a good dinner is macaroni and cheese. At the same time he is a recognized celebrity who appears not to operate on a political scale, and Americans forgive him more than they do orthodox politicians. They do this because they identify with him, as Reagan said.
This public tolerance of Reagan, when combined with the growing national conviction that government must be curbed or cut back, creates a transcendent opportunity for the new president. Sen. Paul Laxalt. (R-Nev.), a confidant who is as optimistic and agreeable as Reagan, believes that the new president has an opportunity unparalleled since Franklin Roosevelt to put his stamp on Congress and this country."The nation is ready for Ron Reagan," he says.
But this optimism may turn to ashes if Reagan fails. While opposition politicans underestimate Reagan, ordinary citizens tend to overestimate him, and there are millions of Americans who now believe that he can do more than any president could do.Will Reagan measure up to the larger expectations his character creates? Will he become trapped, as Jimmy Carter did before him, in the Washington grind? Does he understand the specialness of the federal government or will he continue to think of Washington as a big Sacramento to which California solutions can be faithfully applied?
We do not know the answers to these questions. But we do know some things about Reagan's character and practice that give us clues. We know that he believes both in God's grace and in good luck and that he has been an especially fortunate politician. We know that he can, without changing his rhetoric, abandon plans which fails to work in favor of those which do. We know that he is comfortable with himself as a person. We know that his political instincts are usually sound. We know that he is one of the most gifted communicators of our age and that he can direct this communication toward a political course of action.
We know, also, that Reagan is one of the most confident persons to begin a difficult presidency. My friend Dave Nyhan, a thoughtful Boston Globe reporter who bet on George Bush in New Hampshire but applauded The Gipper at the end, is reminded by the new president of the optimism incarnate displayed by that glorious, doomed football hero George Gipp, whom Reagan played in his first noteworthy film role. The scene is a Notre Dame football practice. Pat O'Brien, as the legendary coach Knute Rockne, asks Reagan-Gippif he can run the ball back through the varsity defense. Reagan-Gipp gives O'Brien-Rockne a cocky, insolent grin, "How far?" he asks the coach.
"A long, long way, Mr. President," I would say, respectfully. That's how far Americans have bought your notion that the economy can be made right again and that we can have respect in the world and all that, and they will expect big gains, not small excuses. The scene now is a country which expects more from you as President than Notre Dame ever expected from the original Gipper, or even from Rockne.
As one who has been writing about Reagan since his first campaign, it seems to me that the distance Reagan runs depends upon three identifiable and open questions as well as the aforementioned good luck.
The first open question is whether Reagan chooses to involve himself in the daily business of the presidency. He has a justifiable and useful suspicion of being consumed by the detail which unduly fascinated Carter. But he has not yet demonstrated that he is as interested in being president as he was in being elected.The difference in Sacramento and in his campaigns between an engaged Reagan and one who was resting on his rhetoric was as considerable as Mark Twain's celebrated difference between butterfly and buttercup. It was the difference between the somnolent Reagan who went through the motions and did as he was told in losing the Iowa caucuses and the aroused politician who routed Bush at Nashua and all his other opponents after that.
The second question is whether Reaga, after being so agreeably favored by fortune, can demonstrate the compassion for those who have not prospered that is properly expected of any American president. This will require a skill and selectivity in his budget cuts that would challenge even the most engaged of chief executives. In making these cuts Reagan would do well to remember the admonition of well-wisher columnist George Will that Americans are conservative but that part of what they seek to conserve is the New Deal.
The third question is the most unknowable and open of all. It is whether Reagan, while clinging to the essential purpose of the American dream, can recognize some logical restraints upon the doctines of individual liberty which the dream evokes. It is a marvel that this new president, who will soon be 70, can communicate so splendidly with modern Americans about their needs and aspirations while remaining oblivious to many of the changes in America. It is a marvel, but a danger, also.
Many of the streams of smalltown Illinois where Reagan played as a boy are polluted now. Ending racial discrimination is no longer a matter of admitting Jackie Robinson to organized baseball. The blue skies of Los Angeles which Reagan saw upon his happy arrival in Hollywood are choked with smog that reaches even to the gates of Pacific Palisades. The World War II analogies that permeate Reagan's foreign policy speeches are out of date. So, too, are many of the economic analogies that Reagan makes with the Depression or the John F. Kennedy presidency.
Reagan would argue that the essential commitment of the United States of America to liberty and to material progress remains unchanged. He would say, with his early hero Roosevelt, that America still has its rendezvous with destiny.
"I find no national malaise, I find nothing wrong with the American people," Reagan said in his final television speech of the presidential election campaign. ". . . More than anything, they are sturdy and robust as they have always been." Reagan's conviction, he told his fellow Americans on the eve of receiving their mandate, is that "an era of national renewal" is at hand. He believes that this renewal can be accomplished during his presidency and through his personal leadership. It is possible he may be right. And whatever else can be said about Ronald Reagan as he embarks upon his presidential adventure, he brings no shortage of conviction and confidence to the task.