Who had the great idea of scheduling a presidential press conference immediately followed by "The Wizard of Oz"? Two wizards in one night -- almost too much fun, too much magic, too many rosy red Technicolor cheeks.
The first press conference of Ronald Reagan's last year in office, live on TV last night, found the president looking as hale and refreshed as if this were the opening press conference of his first term. His appearance certainly says something for eating three square meals a day, getting plenty of rest and not having too many press conferences. His last was four months ago; he had only three in all of 1987.
But there he was in full bounce, striding down the hallway to his podium in the East Room of the White House and lobbing a zinger as only a Gipper can.
"On the networks at last!" he said at the outset, with a little mocking sigh. Of course it got a huge laugh from the reporters. Reagan was referring to his last attempt to appear on TV: on Feb. 2, when he wanted to make another speech beating the drum for contra aid, and the three major networks refused him the time. Only Cable News Network carried the speech.
The joke seemed, typically for Reagan, sly and good-natured, and it was delivered with self-effacing charm. It was his icebreaker. He knows how to play this room -- not the East Room so much as the living room -- the American living room, where, thanks to his captivating telegenic ways, Ronald Reagan has been a welcome guest since 1981.
Reagan made another crack after the press conference ended. "Gotta run for it now," he said, ambling back down the hall to avoid the crush of reporter questions. Bill Plante of CBS News called out, "How many more of these?" Don't hold your breath, Bill.
With a ha-ha-ha, and a ho-ho-ho, and a couple of tra-la-las, that's how we laugh the day away in the merry old land of Oz.
Just think, there might be only three or four Reagan press conferences left. Suddenly his departure from the White House looms as threateningly imminent. Unnervingly imminent, even. Last night Reagan was so clear-eyed and buoyant, he was like a Geritol ad. He did appear to be referring to notes more than he may have in the past, but otherwise he was assured and alert and in command. He was commanding.
There've been many nights when young David Letterman seemed a lot more tired. And when old Johnny Carson seemed a lot less funny.
(This business of a constitutional amendment prohibiting a third term -- isn't there some way around that? Couldn't Reagan stay on as Television President? As Captain President? As Uncle President? Something? The new host of "Pee-wee's Playhouse"?)
Where Reagan truly brightened was on questions about the 1988 presidential campaign. "The kids will play," he said sarcastically, and paternally, when discussing charges made by Democrats against his administration. It's clear Ronald Reagan just can't wait for there to be a Republican nominee so he can get in there and mix it up again. It isn't likely he'll hide in the Oval Office or be puttering around the Rose Garden when the going gets tough.
But his very luminance brings up a problem for the Republicans almost as much as for the Democrats. Of those now seeking the nomination, no Republican can hold a candle to Love-That-Ron. If anything, George Bush looks even worse than usual when standing next to Ronald Reagan. (Sometimes you get the feeling George Bush looks worse than usual when standing next to any living thing.)
When Reagan said "the kids will play," it sounded as if he was really talking about all the pretenders to the throne, not just Democrats. It's going to be a little like when they do a TV series version of some hit movie and you get Michael Landon in a part originated by, say, Robert Redford.
There were none of the usual White House corrections of presidential remarks after the press conference. Reagan had apparently not misspoken, as in the past. But the viewer-electorate probably never cared that he misspoke. He sounds better misspeaking than most people sound speaking. Reagan has never given the appearance of dissembling, even if that's what he was doing. He could probably stand up there and say the moon was blue -- or that he had a big balloon that would take us all back to Kansas -- and we would believe him.
"And in that balloon, my dear Dorothy, you and I will return to the land of E Pluribus Unum!"
As usual, 15 minutes into the press conference, the press started looking mean. They gave the appearance of picking on Reagan. No other president, at least in the video era, has been treated so sympathetically by the camera. Not even Kennedy, who had that aristocratic air. Reagan has that next-door-neighbor air. He's good old Thorny on "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," a guy you feel you could borrow a hose from.
And if you neglected to return it after two or three weeks, he'd just go out and buy himself a new hose and never mention it.
It's not as if the reporters were particularly rough on Reagan last night. For one thing, they have learned how bad that makes them look. Of course, it would be nice if they took those follow-up questions of theirs and put them in a very dark place. They could also check their egos at the door, but then there's probably not enough space at the door for all of them.
There seemed almost to be a collective sadness in the room as it sank in that there are few Reagan press conferences left. We're realizing now as viewers how much fun he has made many previously tedious official rituals, how much blithe and cheering television the Reagan years have given us. Maybe it hasn't been so great out there in the real world -- a porous and perishable sand castle built on the wave-battered beach at Malibu -- but on television, it's been tops.
You can almost imagine the documentaries that will be put together about Reagan some day, and one of them should be devoted solely to Reagavision, the president as TV superstar and video presence. Perhaps this film could have a prologue like the prologue to "The Wizard of Oz," something addressed to future generations who will look back and wonder:
"For ... years, this story has given faithful service to the young in heart; and time has been powerless to put its kindly philosophy out of fashion. To those of you who have been faithful to it in return, and to the young in heart, we dedicate this picture."
When Dorothy woke up, she insisted Oz had been "a real truly live place" and not a dream. When we wake up, who knows what we will insist?
The balloon carried the wizard off before his passenger could join him. "I can't come back," he called down. "I don't know how it works." Television has been Reagan's balloon and Reagan the befuddled pilot. He probably doesn't know how it works, either, but he's a natural-born balloonist.
And down here in the Emerald City, we miss him already. We seem to be changing from color back to black-and-white.