In September 1980, a curious thing happened. I was asked by the Reagan campaign to help prepare Ronald Reagan for the presidential debates. These sessions turned into an audition that soon would give me an opportunity to implement my own Grand Doctrine. This unexpected yet rather welcome opportunity came by way of a phone call from David Gergen, who was on the Reagan debate team.
"We'd like you to play the part of your old boss," he told me. He said they wanted someone who knew how John Anderson would come at Reagan. It was a great opportunity to see the candidate close up and to meet the inner circle people I knew only from reading the papers.
Though I didn't hesitate to say yes, I was a bit uneasy about playing the role of my former rabbi. Anderson would obviously find out about it. Just as obviously, he would feel betrayed. I didn't like that prospect because I valued Anderson's friendship and all that he had taught me; but what could I do? His candidacy was hopeless, and the cause of striking a blow against the Carter Democrats and their disastrous policies seemed more important than anything else.
Getting myself prepared for the rehearsal was a crash, round-the-clock exercise.
I holed up for several days and studied Anderson's campaign propaganda. It seemed he was changing some of his earlier positions, making them more palatable to the Brie-and-Chablis set. I drew up my outlines; soon I was ready.
I was nervous, pulling up to the gate of the estate in Wexford, Va., where the rehearsals were to be held. It was the country home of Sen. John Warner and Elizabeth Taylor. The Warners had offered it to the Reagans to use as their east coast retreat.
The place was nicely remote, with one of those two-mile-long driveways. "Here we go," I thought, qj as the car went through the gate, leaving the clutch of security men and reporters behind. By the time we'd gotten to the end of that interminable driveway, I was even more nervous. I was about to meet the big-time players who, if their candidate won, would be running the country.
This always happened -- every time I took a step up the ladder. You always thought the people up on the next rung were going to be supermen. Few of them actually were.
This group appeared, on first inspection, a pretty regular lot. Everyone seemed to have a clipboard. William Casey, the campaign director, mumbled much of the time, but I figured he had to be smart. You didn't get where he'd been -- SEC chairman, Wall Street tycoon -- simply on bad elocution.
Jim Baker looked like the efficient production foreman, with a pencil behind his ear. He cussed a blue streak and told off-color jokes. He was tall, trim and self-confident. He had a way of moving things along, of pointing to the ceiling and spinning his arm around in a 360-degree circle, saying, "Let's go, let's move it." He struck me as the one who really knew what he was doing.
Ed Meese came across as almost the opposite of Baker. He was heavyset, rumpled and jowled; he always appeared relaxed and had a kind of twinkle in his eyes. But he was clearly the closest to Reagan, the one who understood his mind best. He had worked alongside him for over a decade and Reagan trusted him. Meese seemed to have two or three short points on every topic. Some of them didn't make much sense, but I figured that was due to the wear and tear of the campaign.
Mike Deaver was on the sidelines, saying very little, as was his wont whenever substance was involved.
As for the object of this gathering, Ronald Reagan, he was very affable, dressed in plaid shirt and cowboy boots. He seemed somewhat distracted.
They wanted everything to be as realistic as possible, so they had converted the garage into a kind of mock TV studio. Four, sometimes five expert "panelists" were involved: John Tower (defense), Marty Anderson (domestic policy), Alan Greenspan (economics), Howard Baker (politics) and Jeane Kirkpatrick (foreign policy).
There were about 20 people milling around, but finally Ed Meese called the session to order. I didn't have an especially easy task, taking a completely alien viewpoint and fitting into the tight time frame the debate format called for.
Reagan's performance was, well, miserable. I was shocked. He couldn't fill up the time. His answers just weren't long enough. And what time he could fill, he filled with woolly platitudes.
There was one question about the upcoming MBFR (Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions) conference. After a few lines he broke off, smiled and said, "You guys will have to forgive me now . . . I've just lost that one completely."
You felt kind of sorry for the guy, but his lack of agility was disquieting.
But by then it was too late for second thoughts. I'd already converted -- since Reagan had been converted to supply side -- so for better or worse, Reagan now was the voice of the revolution. It was just a matter of getting him up to speed for the debates.
The trouble was that John Anderson, self-righteous as he may have been, was smart. His brain was an encyclopedia, and he was about as fluent as they came. At the end of the first session I thought, "Anderson's going to kill him. The whole campaign will be upended, and Jimmy Carter will be the beneficiary."
I was there as an actor, so it wasn't for me to take the lead in the follow-up critique. But nobody seemed to want that role. The campaign staff handled him with kid gloves. No one would tell him, "That was a lousy answer."
It was all on-the-one-hand . . . on-the-other-hand. Reagan doesn't even have thin skin. He would sometimes rise to his own defense, but very lightly. They could have told him where he was slipping up.
I should probably have stopped in the midst of all this for some serious rumination, because by now two things were clear. One, that the candidate had only the foggiest idea of what supply side was all about; and two, that no one close to him had any more idea.
When it came to specific policy issues, the whole group tended to back and fill, searching for the woolliest generalizations possible. Agriculture, environmental regulation, the Chrysler bailout, textile protectionism -- these issues raised the basic agenda of supply side. Their answers: We're concerned and going to carefully look into it.
You couldn't take a stand at the Alamo on everything. I knew there was an election to win. But you couldn't get a mandate if you kept your agenda buried in the oatmeal answers, either. Yet on every domestic issue the staff kept leading him back to a pat answer. Chrysler? It's a symptom of Carter's failed economy. Farm subsidies? More Carter failure. Aid to the cities? Still more Carter failure.
There was a tone to all this that really bothered me: Their notion of policy ideas stopped at name-calling and partisanship. Perhaps I should have questioned whether the Reaganites were really revolutionaries, after all. This sure sounded like scapegoating politicians.
But when the siren of ambition is wailing, you end up hearing the most favorable case. Governor Reagan was firmly committed to our program -- Jack Kemp said so himself. And his advisers had the right slogans.
At the time I thought that what they needed was some help in articulating why radical economic policy change was necessary and in formulating a detailed action plan to carry it out. So I decided to stay on the campaign bus.
But my doubts at Wexford were actually bearing witness to a huge accident. By September 1980, a revolutionary chain reaction had really penetrated deep into the mainstream of American politics. It had begun only a few short months earlier.
*1986 by David A. Stockman.
From the book "The Triumph of Politics: Why The Reagan Revolution Failed" by David A. Stockman. Published by Harper & Row, Publishers Inc. Distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate
Next: The Coming of the Revolution