Every now and then a president risks upsetting the balance of power in this country by trying to take a little of it back from television. Really, such impudence! But when the president himself is almost as much a creation of television as Fonzie, Archie Bunker, Scooby-Doo or Winky-Dink, the tussle does take on a certain irony.
Perhaps the irony has occurred to Ronald Reagan--though he's never seemed much of an irony aficionado--or, more likely, to his advisers, because yesterday, in remarks to the National Association of Manufacturers here, Reagan beat a retreat from the attack on the networks he'd made earlier in interviews with the Daily Oklahoman and TV Guide. Reagan had complained to the Oklahoman that TV news was on a "constant downbeat" bender in reporting on the economy. He said in TV Guide that there is "a tendency to editorialize in the media" and counseled more "editorial self-censorship" at the networks.
He also said in TV Guide that there's too much sex and violence on TV but that he likes "Charlie's Angels" because, ahem, "there's something about a detective story." Yup, that's our president!
You know that a TV comedy or drama series is in trouble when the writers whip up a wedding or a childbirth for one of the continuing characters. You know an administration is in trouble when it starts blaming others for the nation's woes. When the informal statute of limitations on blaming previous administrations looms in the distance, target No. 1 is always the media. Perhaps the most notable things about Reagan's attack are, one, that the networks didn't even trouble themselves with a response and, two, that Reagan all but gosh-a'mighty'd an "I'm sorry" lickety-split.
The same week Reagan attacked television news as unfair and too negative he appeared on network newscasts lifting sandbags to help stem a midwestern flood (whew, such symbolism!) and, on ABC's "Good Morning, America," he beguiled one and all with a presentable impersonation of his old movie-star pal Jimmy Stewart.
Love That President!
Of course, no president, not even Kennedy, has ever been quite so masterful on television as Reagan. Time and again he has soared over the heads of Congress on wings of electrons and disarmed his way into the American living room, TV set and heart, putting over programs that might otherwise have floundered. If network correspondents begrudge him anything, it's his mistress, the camera.
It has become not so much an administration as a TV series, and Reagan not so much a distant national leader as the one and only Uncle President. The camera loves him so much that he can't understand why other people have to intrude on this chummy relationship. He's a tongue-tied disaster at press conferences, but put him in a room--just him and a camera and 80 million folks out there in television land--and he's Johnny Carson, Grandpa Walton and Big Bird all rolled into one.
Now it is being widely speculated, on the basis of ample evidence, one might add, that the president is not possessed of a large capacity for deepthink. This is relevant to his performance as U.S. president, but irrelevant to his performance as Television President. He's just doing what he, and much better actors, have done for half a century or so in the talkies: faking it so appealingly that he can scarcely be doubted. It's like Bette Davis in "Jezebel"--the perfect combination of artistry and chemistry. Intelligence has nothing to do with it.
Ronald Reagan may be the first true Prop President, one whose real self is the image on the TV screen and whose shadow self is the man in the White House. Behind the scenes, the counselors take over; out in front of the curtain, Ronald Reagan is wowing the crowd.
Perhaps the performance is beginning also to resemble Mary Martin's in "Peter Pan." When the president and his advisers start advancing the notion that the media promote a gloomy national mind-set about the economy and this makes the economy worse, the next step may be for Reagan to go on television and ask everyone to clap if they believe in his economic package, the way Peter asked us to clap if we believed in fairies. It's not likely the economy will respond as dramatically to such a show of faith as Tinkerbell did.
Current talk about the honeymoon being over between the president and Congress isn't very interesting, except to Congress. The honeymoon to worry about is the one between Smilin' Ron and the American viewer. Charisma is enchanting, but eventually people realize that you can't eat it and it doesn't heat the house. As former White House press secretary George Reedy told Bob Schieffer on a particularly salient segment of the "CBS Evening News With Dan Rather" last September, "The public can be sold by clever communications at a period when it has not had actual experience with what it's buying. But once it has some actual experience, then the whole scene shifts. You see, what a president does speaks so much louder than anything he can say that once he starts doing things, that's what people believe."
Reagan knows deep in his heart that he has very little real complaint with television. Like all presidents, he has more access to it than anyone else, and unlike most presidents--especially his decidedly nontelegenic predecessor--he uses it brilliantly, so long as he controls the format. During the 1980 campaign, Ken Powery, a Reagan aide, grumped about Jimmy Carter's access to the almighty airwaves and the fact that even Carter's gripes about press coverage got more respect than Reagan's. "The president can complain and almost make the press look like they're being unpatriotic," Powery said.
Obviously Reagan's advisers have not forgotten that--hence the Reagan attack. And perhaps they subsequently counseled yesterday's hasty retreat not because they fear the power of the networks (though there are fearsome things about that power indeed) but because they began to feel the shock waves that a display of temper and pique by beloved Uncle President could generate. The man who wanted to ride the white horse to that oft-invoked "shining city on a hill" can't start sounding churlish or grouchy or panicked. That would shake the national confidence. It would be like the moment when the senator played by Melvyn Douglas in "The Seduction of Joe Tynan" suddenly lapsed into French at a committee session.
Enter Robert Young.
"Say! Why's my favorite president so nervous?"
"Wehl, it's these darn television newscasts and their unemployed workers in South Succotash."
"Whoa there, Ron--here, try some of this Sanka."
Three weeks later. "So, how's my favorite president getting along with the media?"
"Just fine. I think I've come to my senses."
"I knew you would. Ha ha ha ha ha."