Ronald Reagan's victory celebration Tuesday at the Ambassador Hotel was the anticlimatic "coronation" of Reagan the Republican nominee. The volunteers talked while he read a speech and tried to make it sound off-the-cuff. On the way down the elevator, said Reagan, he had jotted down a few thoughts. He then launched into a speech released earlier in the day to the press.
Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Kennedy was chalking up enough victories to assure boisterous doings at the Democratic Convention and Reagan was saying that he has not accepted Carter as his assured opponent "at all."
Still, it is Carter he is gunning for. As he said: "We haven't come to the end of a campaign; we're just beginning one. Let's make it a crusade." Reagan flashed that famous grin. The cheers of the faithful push-buttoned into the air.
It is two months before the Guns of August -- when Carter and Reagan are expected to square off -- but the first salvos are being heard during these days of quiet glory in the Reagan campaign.
There was a time last winter, after his defeat in Iowa, when uncertainty gripped the old campaigner. Reagan looked every bit of his 69 years -- feeble, even, at times when he would stare fixedly into space, awaiting his turn to speak. But no more, as Reagan goes for the gusto, aggressively honing his blitz of Carter -- stressing inflation, unemployment, government "interference" and his "peace through strength" litanies. It is pure vintage Reagan, often effective, ever simplifying and easily understood even by those too young to vote for several more years.
Reagan's main theme it so make the issue Jimmy Carter and his record -- to jab away, stay cool, put the president on the defensive, to tie all the present-day ills to Carter and, as one aide says, "never allow the tin can to slip from his tail."
At the same time, a crucial image-building job is underway as Reagan anticipates that the Carter crowd will paint him as a trigger-happy rightwinger, the ghost of Goldwater past.
And so, over and over, Reagan and his aides float an image of a reasonable man for all seasons -- more flexible and pragmatic that his rhetoric, an uncomplicated yet effective delegator. It is an image that even old California adversaries found accurate when he was governor. The Reagan staff is serving up what they hope will be soothing commodity for the turbulent '80s -- if you liked Ike, you'll love Ronnie.
Reagan is without deception, they say. The fast-emerging campaign cliche is "What you see is what he is." They hope that for enough voters gripped by recession, what they see in Reagan is what they want to get.
Reagan himself spells out the message as he sits in the front of a plane on the closing days of the primary campaign. He is a man at ease, with no nervous or wasted motion. One black high-topped loafer rests halfway up on the cabin panel in front of him. The scrubbed and creased face with its two matching red spots high up on the cheekbones shows no fatigue. Reagan is a commodity well-programmed both by himself and his aides. Reporters get a half-hour interview, tops. And you are never alone with Ronnie.
The campaign tape recorder flips on the same time a reporter's does. The reporter, engrossed in the hopeless quest of trying to lead Reagan astray from his cassette-like stock answers, notices a peripheral dark blur behind the front seat. There is Ed Gray, his dark-haired press secretary (destined to be sidetracked in a fast-shuffle three-days later), his head pressed to the back of the front seat, absorbed in every word.
For 12 years, Reagan has been seeking the presidency. With the nomination locked up, he is closer than he has ever been. What troubles him now?
"Well, I think the hardest job still to be done is the undoing of the image -- just like they created of Goldwater. You know, he wasn't defeated because he was a conservative, but because of the image that he was king of a hard-nosed right-wing radical. Fortunately, I think I have a record of governor that would help to dispel this image. You know, there are some people so imbued with their ideology that if they can't get everything they want, they'll jump off the cliff with the flag flying. As governor, I found out if I could get half a loaf, instead of stalking off angrily, I'd take it."
And how would Reagan assuage the fervant desires of the litmus-test right-wing ideologues, and yet not lose the war in November? For many of his solid supporters, voting for the Panama Canal Treaty or for the ERA or for gun control is like shooting your grandmother. But, as one aide says, it is "crucial" to broaden the base of support and to pick a vice president who could appeal to Democrats and indenpendents concerned by Carter. Could he pick a vice president who voted for the Panama Canal treaty? That will have to be weighed "in the light of all the other attributes." Reagan flashes his smile, which after all these years still has a gee-whiz ingenue quality. "You know, there could be someone who voted that way then -- and now his regrets." Foreign Policy Tightrope
Reagan stands in front of a mammoth American flag, stretched as in the movie "Patton" across the entire stage curtain in a cavernous gym in Canton, Ohio. The room is filled with a Reagan rally of 3,000 -- mostly the card-carrying, faithful, conservative, middle-class, middle-Americans and, as one woman said, "hard-boiled Republicans." Reagan rails against Carter's military cuts, and then, his voice swelling with emotion as it always does at this particular point, he sounds a battle cry for military preparedness to preserve peace.
"We have to be so strong that no other nation on earth will dare violate the peace." Cheers erupt, as they always do in rallies across the country. The greatest moment in his life, Reagan says, would come when he, as president, would be able to promise -- again in that voice husky with emotion -- that "there will be no more Vietnams, no more Taiwans, there will be no more betrayal of friends and allies by the U.S. government!"
It is Reagan's climactic ending, embraced ecstatically by Lynn Horton, a United Airlines cargo worker, and Bill Leaman, an Akron railroad official, and Elmer Kirkpatrick, a retired steel-worker, as they sit up there in the bleachers far from the famous-faced Reagan.
Leaman "couldn't vote for anyone who gave away the Panama Canal. Carter only recognizes countries to the left. He's a communist sympathizer." Kirkpatrick says the greatest dangers to America are the "fifth-columnists and their friends right here at home."
But away from the roar, there are others like the Columbus cab driver who says, "Reagan would get us into war," and an anti-Carter Democrat who came to hear Reagan in Canton and went away saying, "Some of that patriotism worries me."
At press conferences, Reagan gets asked about the concern that he might be a reckless warmonger. He turns it back on Carter: "I think there's far more danger of a president who has a vacillating, weak foreign policy without any anticipated plan getting us into war by accident." He is purposely vague about how he would assure "no more Taiwans, no more betrayals," but insists "I am not trigger-happy, and not one who is going to rush out and wave a blood-soaked sword and yell, 'Onward, men.'" Domestic Tap Dance
Reagan bounds up to the mike at stop after stop, castigating Carter for every conceivable ill but Dutch elm disease. He is the old actor delivering lines, but there seems to be a note of genuine anger that sparks his performances these days as he denounces Carter's "politics of betrayal." Carter was the candidate who would "never use unemployment to fight inflation" but says this year that "we must increase unemployment in order to cure inflation. When he took office, the inflation was 4.8 percent and he said he was going to do something about it -- and he did. It now averages 16.4 percent. He says he was going to do something about unemployment -- and he did: 825,000 lost their jobs last month. We can't afford four more years of what we have."
Reagan's time-honored, simple solution for everything -- from increasing our energy supplies to improving our schools -- is "to get the government off our backs." Ohio's Gov. James Rhodes introduced him at one stop with "This man has the answers," and then brought snickers from the traveling press when he said, "You're not going to hear them now. The issues will come later."
Aides say they are purposely keeping things fuzzy. "I hope we can stay far away as possible from specifics. The more specifics you get into in a campaign, the more trouble you get into," said one aide.
Reagan lards his lines with statistics, if not specifics, and employs the debating technique of the worst case or the ludicrous example to illustrate a major theme.
Government waste is illustrated by the example of a government "that subsidizes a research experiment at the cost of $102,000 to find out if fish drunk on tequila were more aggressive than fish drunk on gin. Now I didn't know that fish had a drinking problem -- and I don't care."
There are no grand and lofty plans, no unique visions. Reagan plays to nostalgia, tugs at the heartstrings about an idyllic time that, for many in America, simply never was. To many he represents a world where men were men and women were in the kitchen and the kids weren't uppity and minorities were seldom seen or heard.
At his side, constantly lockstepping through it all with him, is Nancy Reagan, the wife whose ability to gaze adoringly at the zillionth rendition is awasome. Reagan beams back at her when Gov. Rhodes describes her as a "plendid lady who believes in the home. Now some would say that's old-fashioned, that there's nothing greater than a mother. This lady represents home. I know she can speak for every homebody in this nation."
And again the grand old days are lionized when Reagan says the automobile industry has been choked by government regulations, forced into low productivity and higher prices. "The automobile gave us our last great freedom -- freedom to go where you wanted to go without being bound by a timetable."
And finally, with the violins: "We're being told that we should say to our children that the best is past. That they're going to have to share in the scarcity. Well, I don't believe that. There's going to be unlimited opportunity in this country if we can get the government off the backs of people." A Heart of Ham-Loaf
"My heart is a ham-loaf," is the way Reagan once described his love of acting. He has been at it for half a century now and has a remarkable facility for the deft remark that leaves him laughing. He never seems to tire of the tableau that has gone on for eons: the fund-raising banquets. The Reagans are a couple of older pros who know how to face the camera's eye, chewing discreetly on their breakfast toast with no awkward moments. Reagan pulls from his pocket a penlike vial and squirts two drops of sweetener into his Sanka, shuffles his cards and goes forth.
Reagan has a limited repertoire of crowd chitchat. He loves to tell longwinded Hollywood stories, but it is not all rehearsed with Reagan. He is a man with genuine wit. He has told, for example, that Carter took a swipe at him recently, saying that when both attended governors' conferences, "Gov. Reagan would come into a meeting without doing the long, tedious work . . . and would 'hold a press conference and then leave.'" Reagan quickly quipped, "I think he's describing Jerry Brown." Once in 1968, looking at a scruffy crowd with "Make Love Not War" signs, Reagan said: "They don't look as if they're capable of doing either."
And today he borrows a bit from the old anti-intellectual appeal of George Wallace as he describes the typical Washington economic adviser, "the kind with the Phi Beta Kappa key on his watch chain -- and no watch on the other end."
Reagan also perks up when asked to try a quick word game to describe people off the top of his head:
Barry Goldwater: "He was a kind of John the Baptist. There had to be a Barry Goldwater because the people weren't ready to believe at that time that the federal government couldn't solve all those problems."
Andrei Gromyko: "He is just one of that group in the Politburo. They all have the same game. That is imperialistic -- to the ends of the earth."
Richard Nixon: "Brilliant man. In foreign policy, he had us on the right track. I got that direct from many heads of state of foreign countries." Reagan feels that Nixon's flaw was being too insecure and driven, "but I still think his greatest guilt was trying to protect others."
It was on to the Democrats:
Ted Kennedy: "He isn't Jack or Bobby."
And finally, Carter. It is mentioned that many view Carter as capable of being mean and running a mean campaign against him. For the first time, Reagan allows a grim look and nods yes, he is certain Carter has that trait. "What else would explain his unnecessary attacking of Vance, after Vance's resignation? I don't know of any other way to explain it. It was unnecessary."
All of us have to have a place we go back to; Dixon is that place for me.
There was the light that has shaped my body and mind for all the years to come after . . . watching the marvelous flickering antics of Tom Mix and William S. Hart, as they foiled robbers and villains . . . weeping and laughing boisterously from the second balcony at the touring plays . . . going on reading binges . . . waiting for the winter freeze so that we could go skating on the Rock River . . . It was a good life. I never have asked for anything more then or now. -- From Ronald Reagan's autobiography, "Where's the Rest of Me?"
As strange as it may seem for a man who left the small-town Middle-America of Dixon, Ill., for the fame and fortune of Hollywood and national politics, Reagan seems peculiarly unchanged, the darling of Dixon frozen in amber. His autobiography, written when Reagan was 54, is unabashedly homespun and syruply sentimental, filled with Hardy Boys phraseology.
Eureka College with its 250 students is remembered rhapsodically. Regan wrote of their tradition of taking dates to the nearby cemetery: "One of the minor ceremonies attached to such a night was the fraternity whistle. Some brother might feel lonely or scared; if he did, all he had to do was to pucker up for a trill. It was wonderful to hear the response from all parts of the cemetery. To see the tousled little heads popping up from places you were sure were deserted except for katydids."
The very "Main Street" that Sinclair Lewis satrized, Reagan eulogized for time immemorial. He seems disbelieving that anyone could question his rosy portrait. There are no pinch-mined souls in his Middle West. "I think there's been a cynical tendency to downgrade the Americans, and I think they're probably the greatest people on earth."
Reagan has not overextended his library privileges these days, but to his credit, he says so flat-out and doesn't fake it with a staff debriefing on current books. If elected, he will be no Teddy Roosevelt, who as president once read 500 books in one year. "Public life" has taken away Reagan's time for pleasure-reading. He cannot remember the names of any favored authors when he was an "inveterate reader. I read so much, so many." And then the presidential candidate begins musing back over a long trail, "I started out with Brown of Harvard and then went on the Rover Boys and on up to Tarzan. I never knew the author of the Tarzan series was famous for another series. But then I discovered it. Did you ever know that he did a great series, 'John Carter, Warlord of Mars?' He dreamed up the weirdest adventures." Reagan smiles at his memories -- and says that today he can only "dream of time for fun reading. The Shrewd, Simple Man
On the campaign plane, aides carry what one describes as the "brain bag" filled with issue papers and statistics. Reagan reaches down and pulls out his own black attache case and flips it open to show the memos from the "distinguished group of advisers we have; essays and so forth."
Aides and adversaries alike describe Reagan as a simple, uncomplex man, but warn that he is shrewd, a quick study and too often underestimated. Although bright, he is no deep thinker. No one is promising Adlai Stevenson with the Gipper. Peter Behr, a liberal California Republican, once cracked, "If you walked through Ronald Regan's deepest thought you wouldn't get your ankles wet." But some of the best and brightest around Regan take pains to paint him otherwise.
"He takes advice probably better than any other political figure that I've been associated with. He has a great source of information,has a deep concern for this country and a capacity to manage," says Richard Allen, one foreign-afairs adviser who used to work for Richard Nixon.
Roger Stone, who orchestrated Reagan's win of the Northeastern primary states, says, "He is much more intellectual than given credit for. He is not a political animal and he gets bored by politics. He is an honest student of government -- interested in solving the problem, not who the ward bosses of East Philadelphia are."
Regan in private seems as unaffectedly nice as he does public -- a non-hater who can get mad, but doesn't carry a grudge. A word seldon used to describe politicians is often mentioned about Reagan: He is "kind." Above all, in the profession riddled with people driven by ego needs to bolster their feelings of inadequacy, Reagan is a man confoundingly comfortable with himself. But for God's sake, don't ask him why, if you're looking for introspection. He seems puzzled at the question: Why is he so secure?
"Well, I don't know.I like people. Maybe I'd just assume that because I like people, they'll like me." It is pointed out that that is not exactly the same as being secure. "Maybe it came from all the experiences in public." t
Many around Reagan also worked for Nixon, and they are always quick to point out the night-and-day differences. "Both are kind of loners and yet totally different," says one. "Nixon is terribly insecure. Ron has the confidence that he can do a good job. I'm not sure Nixon ever thought he could do a good job," one former aide said.
Although Reagan clearly loves the roar of the crowd, his eyes glint and his cheeks flush when he is touched by the excitement of the campaign stop. But he was quickly boared with the actual details of being governor and made an untroubled 9-to-5 job of it.
"He is one of the few people I know who can be comfortable alone. Ron has a world of confidence in himself, although it's hard to say why. His father was an alcoholic, his mother was a kind of religious nut. They moved from one small town to another as his father tried to make a living selling shoes. It's not the kind of a life to make a kid feel secure."
Regan depicts his childhood as one of easy warmth. His parents were avant-garde enough that the children called them by their first names. Regan describes his father as a witty, driven, first-generation Black Irishman who loathed discrimination and once slept in his car because the hotel he was checking into wouldn't permit Jews.
A fatal flaw was drinking. "I was 11 years old the first time I came home to find my father flat on his back on the front porch . . . he was drunk, dead to the world . . . I wanted to let myself in the house and go to bed and pretend he wasn't there. . . I felt myself fill with grief for my father at the same time I was feeling sorry for myself . . . I could feel no resentment against him."
Reagan gives his mother credit for his attitude, writing that she stressed to him that alcohol was a sickness. Today, this man, who is close to 70, speaks softly of his mother. "If she heard of a family in trouble, she would find her way to that family. The first thing she wanted to do when I brought her out to Los Angeles was to go off and visit the jails."
Reagan is a contented man, in part perhaps because success came Reagan's way often and early. He was good at football; he didn't like Nixon, just warm the bench. He made his "Bedtime for Bonzo" movie clunkers but also gave respected performances in classics such as "King's Row."
He laughs today with great ease about how he often starred on the B-list, the movies that "they didn't necessarily want good -- thay wanted them Thursday. But once in a while, they'd shove you up to a lesser part in an A picture. It was playing the Gipper [in the all-time Knute Rockne tear-jerker] that turned the corner for me."
Somewhere along the line, Reagan shifted from a liberal to a conservative. One moment of truth for him came when he was active in the Screen Actors Guild, began to believe there were communists at every corner and wound up being a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activites Committee. Today Reagan is unswerving in his dunuciation of the people labeled communist in Hollywood, who were blacklisted and lost their careers.
"Let me tell you, that history has been rewritten and made to seem as if a scared bunch of fascists were taking out after these honest citizens who only wanted to express themselves." Regan looks severe. "Those people were responsible for a great deal of misery and unhappiness. There was a plot to take over the motion picture business. They had infiltrated 43 unions."
But another California politican recalls that some of the people were merely "innocents who got caught in the crosscurrents. In World War II, they were making movies about Russia, our great ally. After the war, they were suddenly terrible communists. Some couldn't make that jump that quickly. Reagan moved fast with the historical tides. By then he was rich, and like Sinatra and others, when the tax bites into your higher earnings, its pretty easy to become a conservative."
Reagan's greatest weakness may be his tendency to cling to simplistic solutions. He has, for example, continued to use facts and statistics in his speeches after they have been proven wrong. One aide worries that he will "use his California experience as his frame of reference," to the exclusion of looking at the larger picture. Longtime observers say that Reagan sees issues, no matter how complex, through personal experiences or terms.
Asked about the problem or turning welfare over to some states such as Mississippi, which have a history of running a punitive welfare program, Reagan launches into how effective he was as governor with the California welfare system.
Reagan often rails against Occupational Safety and Health Administration, although many unions feel the agency is vital to protect their workers' interests. Reagan earnestly envisions an OSHA that would not, in his mind, cripple plants with regulations. There would be a wonderful give-and-take between industry and OSHA, as he envisions it. "My idea of an OSHA would be if government set up an agency that would do research and study how things could go to it and say. 'We have a problem here and we seem to lose more people by accident in this particular function. Would you come and look at our plant and then come back and give us a survey of what should be done?"
One United Auto Workers official on the same plane with Reagan snorts "The likelihood of General Motors calling on OSHA or even any of the private safety research institutes is ludicrous."
It is the end of an earlier flight going into Newark and Reagan is congenially answering all questions. Asked what angers him, he said: "Well, I'm often tired of having to deny, first of all" -- and then he puts in a little chuckle here -- "that I dye my hair." There are a few gray hairs showing these days. "I'm probably the only person who cheers about seeing that. I look at that and I say, 'Oh, goody.' And then there's minor annoyance when these cliches are repeated in every story; for example, that Ronald Reagan always plays the fella that never got the girl. I always got the girl; in 'Voice of the Turtle, and 'John Loves Mary' -- every one of them."
He seems a little uncomfortable discussing the fact that his second son is a ballet dancer and he often stresses a sports anecdote about the boy's chosen career. "It's a funny thing about him and how that started. Do you remember a few years ago when all the talk started about professional athletes taking ballet because of the conditioning? He played basketball in high school and he was in one of the groups that started to do this. It took hold. He was at Yale his freshman year and said he would like to withdraw and would like to try [ballet]. How could I say no? As he said to me, nobody said no when I wanted to be an actor."
If Reagan loses for the presidency, one of his close advisers sees him rather comfortably riding off into the sunset at his ranch, continuing to do the banquet circuit and to broadcast.
Reagan's face gets a soft look of happiness as he describes his moments of relaxation with Nancy at the ranch "We open the day with riding, and then it can range from repairing roads that have been washed out, to digging post. The only heat at the ranch are the fireplaces and so I've got a chainsaw and a log splitter and I'm out there cutting firewood."