Speaking on behalf of the American people, I would say this: Ronald Reagan still looks mighty good to me. The great communicator went on television and great-communicated once more with feeling last night, and despite recent news reports of his badly botched European travel plans and his defeat in the House on Central American policy, Ronald Reagan looked like a trillion again on the air.
A trillion is a million millions, you know. That was part of Unca Ronald's lesson last night during the budget address aired live from the Oval Office on all three networks in the first half hour of prime time. In terms of performance, Reagan seemed not diminished but in fact replenished as a television spokesman for his own programs. As for the effectiveness of his remarks, that will be judged by how many pro-Reagan letters senators and representatives receive in the days ahead after yet another mail call from Ron. Reagan was up to his old but durable trick of leapfrogging Congress with his direct TV link to we, the people. Will it work yet again? "Only a fool would bet against Ronald Reagan," said Lesley Stahl of CBS News.
Reagan managed to make a talk about bracket creep and budget balancing seem personal and folksy. "Let me interject something here, and I'll state it plainly and simply," he said at one point, as if he ever stated things any other way. Animated White House graphics illustrated his point about government spending rising excessively, a segment of the talk Reagan ended with the quippy remark, "Government spending -- that's the real Washington Monument." He also gave those living within the Beltway cause to shudder when he told the country, "It's no accident that some of the wealthiest communities in America are the communities surrounding the government in Washington, D.C."
Subsidies of Amtrak have been so lavish and cost-ineffective, Reagan said, that the government had a heavy investment in each passenger on each train and that "in some cases, it would be cheaper just to hand them plane tickets." Old Ronnie can still lob a zinger in there with the best of them. Indeed, he is the best of them.
Though seated at a desk, behind which a viewer could see nicely lighted trees swaying agreeably in the evening breeze, Reagan seemed to be striding about in Pattonesque hip boots when he taunted the opposition in Congress about granting him a line-item veto. "Then I'll make the cuts," said the president. "I'll take the responsibility. And the heat. And I'll enjoy it." Shades of Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman.
That the speech was impeccably delivered should not overshadow the fact that it was also very well-written. There were more than 20 uses of "you" and more than 15 of "your" to help personalize the tone of the talk -- "your pockets," "your earnings," and "you turned America around." At one point Reagan looked at those on the other side of the lens and reminded them "how generous you've been" over the years in funding government programs. He's a very special and supportive, caring president who's always there for us and wants us to feel good about ourselves. There were also several uses of "all of us" and one of "all of us together" as a way of drawing viewers into a sense of shared quest. And naturally there was the all but inevitable JFK quote -- "Ask not," yet -- near the finale.
Ronald Reagan's awesomely effective video presidency marks the first time in history that the president of the United States has looked and performed as slickly and professionally as the pampered network news stars who introduce him. Indeed, last night he looked better than Dan Rather, who was poorly lit in his New York studio, and better than Peter Jennings, whose hair was tousled, perhaps in part from all the gauche gusto he put into a lavish plug for the network's "20/20." In addition, somebody at CBS goofed so that Dan Rather was still introducing the president after Reagan had already begun to talk. It creates the impression that Reagan is a better broadcaster than the broadcasters. This, more than his policies, may be the thing about him that makes them cuckoo-banana. They're a trifle jealous.
After the speech, NBC and ABC let Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), the minority leader, have his say in a live follow-up. Byrd jiggled his head and sometimes his whole body when he talked and only on occasion seemed to be looking directly into the eyes of viewers. He did present something of an impressive figure, what with the wizardly mane of white hair, but squirming in a leather chair is not good television posture. When he spoke of the "absence of strong presidential leadership," he sounded silly, because we had all just seen Reagan looking healthy, vital and combative. He didn't just say "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." He said, in effect, "Meet me in the kitchen, pardner, and you'd better be a-wearin' yer oven mitts."
CBS delayed the airing of opposing remarks until 10:30 and rushed back to regular programming before its competitors did.
In Washington people may still be talking about the big "contra"-temps and Reagan's foreign policy defeat, and about the colossally mishandled itinerary for his forthcoming European trip, but the message that must have come through to viewers of Reagan's speech last night is that the president is still the undisputed champ. Dan Rather called him "an extremely popular president with an almost unique ability to communicate." That was hardly damning, but with the screen still warm from Reagan's bravura recital, it sure sounded like faint praise.