Like balloonists reaching for the balmiest air current, Ronald Reagan's packagers are now trying to float their man high above the fumes of ground-level politics. The Washington Post reports that Reagan is now "being kept as isolated from the press as possible."
This is Anti-Blooper strategy.In nervous awareness that Reagan has plenty more one-liners where the ones about Tuscumbia, Taiwan, evolution and the Vietnam war came from, his packagers figure it is easier to isolate Reagan than educate him.
At first, it appeared as if Reagan might be allowed to face down the press. He accused reporters of giving him "half-cocked" news coverage and said they were trying to saddle him with a credibility problem.
But this was another blooper in its right. Even Reagan knows that you have to be president before you can convincingly blame the media for your woe. As president, you have a cover. The press can be charged with threating national seacurity, not you.
With Reagan's political survival not yet generally perceived to be on a level with that of America's, his packagers are hoping that the humbler strategy of isolation will work.
It is likely to flop. Reagan isn't like other politicians who have reached national status. He arrived at the top as an actor. After a career of mouthing other people's lines, he now wants a bit of fun out of flie with some ad libs of his own. It's not too late, even at 69, to start living by your wits.
With other politicians, the years of succeeding by mother wit are happily behind them. What counts now is the saying of set lines. The script is written for you. You are an actor now. You are a political personage, no longer a political animal.
Because Reagan can't be programmed to be an actor, his novelty is to enjoy the feeling of being a political animal. He snarls at Carter for being cozy with the Klan. He growls that the Vietnam war was a noble cause. He boldly faces the challenge of the '80s by talking about an issue of the 1920s: the teaching of evolution.
Isolating Reagan from the nasty media won't change anything. On the occasions when he shot himself in the foot, he was already away from the reporters, safely on a podium delivering what his managers told him to deliver: the speech they prepared for him. Except he couldn't resist a line or two of his own.
It's understandable. Reagan is tired of using other people's scripts -- that was for the Reagan of "Bedtime for Bonzo," not for Reagan the next leader of the free world. How's a man to let the public know he can think on his feet, unless he improvises with his own lines?
Being a candidate who relishes his independent mind, Reagan was described by an aide in a Los Angeles Times story: "Ron is his own man, he writes his own speeches basically, and he'll pick up something from some article or someone telling him something at a reception and it will make its way into the speech. And if the crowd howls, he'll use it again every time, even when he can't remember the source."
Of late, the crowds haven't been howling. But even then, it may not occur to Reagan that running off at the mouth is his problem. He is defended by Richard Nixon. The Republicans' elder statesman said on the "Today" show that Reagan must "shape up that staff . . . You never knock you own man. The candidate makes a boo-boo. You go out and take the heat yourself. And that's what the Reagan staff had better learn."
As a committer of a boo-boo who convinced his staff -- or at least its G. Gordon Liddy faction -- to take the heat for him, Nixon doesn't understand staffs any better than he understood the press. Where is Reagan to find a staff so large that someone of sacrificial bent can come forward every time he puts his foot in his mouth and say it wasn't really Reagan's foot, it was my foot?
A sounder idea is to wire Reagan electrically. Whenever he departs from the prepared text, a specially designed Anti-Blooper computer emits a few volts to remind Reagan to skip what he is about to say. That way he gets the shock, not the public.