It could be said that the wind-up was better than the pitch; that President Reagan's economic address to a joint session of Congress last night was less effective as television than his intimate grandfatherly chat of a few weeks ago. But compared to the televised addresses of many of his predecessors, Reagan's speech was still a bracing and decidedly brisk performance.
The Gipper went the distance, and in only about 35 lickety-split minutes. Reagan's accomplished breakneck speaking speed comes as a refreshing change after four years of murmured Carter dawdling. And it charges the atmosphere with urgency; Reagan certainly learned something from all those savvy directors and dialogue coaches out in Tinseltown. Although sometimes too technical in content to make complete sense to many viewers, the Reagan speech was so zippy that those confused by the message may still have found themselves invigorated by the medium.
President Reagan came across as a man who speaks quickly and carries a big ax.
Unlike previous presidents, he doesn't seem to build in pauses for applause; he had to be interrupted as he plunged forward on course. The Congress, of course, was eager to interrupt. Although preparatory remarks about this nation being "the last best hope of men on earth," went unclapped. Reagan got roaring ovations every time he took another whack at federal spending. The applause was undoubtedly supposed to impress the constituents back home.
Somehow the performance of the Congress looked calculated and political while the president, every bit as political a critter, appeared resolute, bold and dynamic. Gramps was giving us a big dose of bad-tasting medicine that we knew in our little hearts was going to be good for us. If you didn't know it in your heart, you saw it in his friendly old eyes. The man has a magical knack -- maybe not so much magical as professional -- for coming across on TV precisely as he wishes to be perceived.
Reagan and his speechwriters also show prowess at the rhetorical trick of personalizing or depersonalizing issues according to the desired persuasive ends. Reagan unreeled another anecdote about a typical American -- this time a Midwestern worker -- who'd told him how inflation was kicking the bejeebers out of the American Dream. (Where does the President run across all these walking, talking cross sections of the human race?)
But when it came time to advocate massive federal budget cuts, the president reeled off statistics that depersonalized the issue. No one listening would think of some valiant little arts group having the rug pulled out from under it when Reagan spoke of federal handouts funneled through 25,000 ports of call throughout the country. Twenty-five thousand! Good grief!
As in previous appearances, Reagan was adept at manipulating colloquial intonation without sounding phonily folksy. "Now, I've painted a pretty grim picture," he said after his description of the economy, "but I think I've painted it accurately." Walter Brennan couldn't have said it better.
After a clap-happy Congress ruined one of his closing lines by interrupting it with a klutzy standing ovation, Reagan said, smiling, "I should have arranged to quit right there." The president has powers of recovery comparable to those of Johnny Carson on the night of a lousy monologue, and he has a similar capacity to appear to take viewers into his confidence as he talks to them.
And he has sincerity, or a masterful illusion of sincerity, written along every wrinkle on his face. Whether he will be good for the country remains to be seen, but Ronald Reagan sure is good for television. The prospect now emerges of a viewing audience that not only doesn't dread and try to avoid presidential messages, but may actually look forward to them.
This, in itself, is virtually a revolution.