Puzzling, isn't it, that the same week President Reagan didn't have it in him to fire David Stockman he was able to dismiss Adm. Hyman Rickover? One did serious damage to the administration's credibility by his uncontrollable urges for candor, and he is retained. The other, a longtime public servant who would jabber to the press as soon as confide in agents of the Kremlin, is pushed out.
Nor could Reagan fire Richard Allen, who was creating needless problems for the White House because he couldn't say no thanks to a money-bearing Japanese journalist. A third unfired official was Alexander Haig. He reduced the president to being a truce-keeper in the guerrilla war that Haig claims is being waged against him.
That Reagan didn't unload even one of these liabilities is evidence that he is a weak president. Would Harry Truman have tolerated Stockman's secret gabbing to a journalist? He would have called it disloyalty. He would have told Stockman: The kitchen heat is obviously too much for you, get the hell out.
Would Lyndon Johnson, forced to squander time and public attention settling the Haig-Allen ego dispute, have said, as Reagan did, "We are all getting along fine"? Johnson would have picked up this pair of nipping beagles by the ears and banished them as runts of the litter.
Stockman's metaphor for his disciplinary meeting with Reagan was a "visit to the woodshed after supper." Stockman felt comforted. We were meant to also. This was a fatherly president, no doubt telling young wayward Dave that, by gum, this spanking will hurt Pop's heart more than the lad's bottom. Reagan in the woodshed was depicted as only temporarily teed off, not permanently and justifiably angry.
By not rolling any heads when a display of presidential wrath would have left no doubt about who was in charge in the White House, Reagan reinforced his image as an easy-does-it charmer. When he is ambling out to the White House helicopter for another weekend at Camp David, he'll turn to the media, cup his ears and call out an answer or two to reporters' questions. It's usually, yup this, or, nope that. Then the patented Reagan grin is flashed. No sensitive media feelings have been hurt. We're all getting along fine.
Reagan tries to have it both ways. He actually does avoid the press by holding few formal press conferences, but he is Good-Fellow Ron, ever available for the quickee quote when bounding across the lawn to Chopper One.
Reagan gets mad on occasion. He cried out "I'm paying for this microphone" in the 1980 New Hampshire primary when the moderator of a candidates debate attempted to silence Reagan by cutting off the juice. But this was theatrical anger. Reagan was on a stage.
Reagan's forcefulness appears to surface when his opponents are much weaker than he. He fired Rickover, now in his ninth decade and with only modest support in Congress. Reagan wasn't strong enough to tell Rickover face-to-face it was time to ship out. The unpleasantness was delegated.
When the controversy walks through his office door, and errant human beings are before him, Reagan wilts. James David Barber, the Duke University political scientist, believes that Reagan's personality feeds on affection. It was similar with Taft and Harding, conservatives also. "If you look over Reagan's life history," Barber says, "and see what things bother him most, he uses an inordinate amount of personal energy keeping away the kind of conflict he now has with his aides."
At the end of the week, Reagan went to Texas to shoot some turkeys. The symbolism was apt. He bagged no real turkeys in Texas, while back in Washington the metaphorical ones in his administration were still on the loose too.