Last night, Ronald Reagan proved again how adept he is at working the crowd, whether it's a crowd of around 750 -- those who gathered for a joint session of Congress -- or the 50-to-75 million who were watching on television as he returned in triumph after recovery from an assassination attempt that was also seen on television one month ago.
So much advance fuss had been made over the expected tumultuousness of the congressional reception ("You're about to hear some loud cheering,'" Frank Reynolds told viewers of ABC News) that the welcome Reagan got may have seemed ever so slightly anticlimactic. No one literally danced in the aisles, no babies were thrown from the balcony.
But Reagan himself was in spectacularly good form as he pitched his economic policy at the Congress. His face did look thinner, and the creases around his mouth deeper than they did before the March 30th assassination attempt. But the apparent vigor and good humor of the president had a tremendous rejuvenating impact. He does not seem preoccupied with symbolism -- perhaps because he mastered the art of symbol deployment a long time ago -- but no one could miss the iconographic significance of his appearance.
This was to be a landmark in the annals of video Reaganalia.
Some of the speculation about the speech was a tad morbid: Would Reagan cough, and if so, how many times? There was a lot of loud coughing in the chamber, but none from Reagan. He beamed and smiled and looked very much the born-again Gipper; loud applause brought that old look of humble surprise to his face, and made his eyes glisten.
Playing President Reagan is clearly not second nature to him. It is first nature, the best-fitting role he has ever had. Olivier couldn't have been any comfier as Hamlet.
Bruce Morton of CBS News recalled after the speech that Jimmy Carter once threatened to go over the heads of Congress to the public when his programs were embattled, as Reagan's "Economic Recovery Package" is now. A cute threat, but Carter didn't have the oompah, particularly in terms of crucial television projection. Reagan has no such problem.
He mentioned in the speech that he was speaking "directly to all of you and those who are watching and listening tonight," just before a gracious and heartfelt thank-you for all those cards and leters from folks out there in Television Land. The folks out there in Television Land had to be snugly in his pocket by that time.
Then came a Reagan trademark, the visual aid, this time a letter from a second-grader who wrote, "I hope you get well quick, or you might have to make a speech in your pajamas." There was even an adorable P.S. kicker -- right out of Sam Levinson or Art Linkletter, but seeming immeasurably more sincere.
There were tributes to the Secret Service agent who placed himself in the path of the assassin's bullets, to the D.C. policeman injured at the scene of the shooting, and to still hospitalized White House Press Secretary James Brady. Reagan denied that the attempt on his was evidence of America being a "sick society," which of course brought the Congress to one of its 14 fits of applause.
Reagan used the space shuttle success to close his speech, tying in the emotional kick the viewers got from the flight of the Columbia with a Carl Sandburg quote and a recitation of Reagan's "dream" for America. He said the space shuttle "raised our expectations once more, it started us dreaming again."
He did not mention that his proposed budget cuts in the space program would put the kibosh on dreaming again, at least about scaling the stars. But this ws not to be a night of demurring words. Indeed, one wonders how constituents back home reacted to pans of Congress which showed some Democrats not applauding Reagan's remarks on the economy. Surely NCPAC was taking names.
How could they not applaud? This brave and valiant old-timer? Who could shout "humbug" at a Wizard of Oz as wizardly as this?
When Reagan is on television, he's Judy at the Palace, or Jolson at the Winter Garden, or The Duke in "True Grit." Questions about possible disparities between reality and illusion are as welcome in such circumstances as werewolves at a weenie roast. Last night President Reagan gave TV viewers what they crave: a happy ending. For now.