THE SPIRIT OF Marie Antoinette infuses the administration of Ronald Reagan. The president wears $1,000 cowboy boots. His wife sets the table with china worth over $200,000. The attorney general parties much of the time and the secretary of Health and Human Services poses for a magazine cover in white tie, tails and moronic grin. He is shown sitting down at a banquet table the same week the administration says that the size of school lunches will be shrunk and condiments will now be considered vegatables.
Let them eat ketchup.
Someone reading the papers years from now would have to wonder if the Reagan administration itself ever reads the papers. Stories of budget cutbacks are juxtaposed with stories about parties. Stories about programs being ended are juxtaposed with pictures of a president on horseback. Not since the Marx Brothers movies have the rich seemed so foolish. Not since Herbert Hoover has a president played the role of Margaret Dumont.
The question, though, is whether it matters. Is the president's -- indeed the administration's -- life style relevant? Does a man who thinks he has a mandate to shred all but the basics of Democratic-liberalism have to live modestly himself? Should a Richard Schweiker, who is presiding over a dimunition of the welfare budget, refuse -- simply for the sake of appearances -- to pose like a robber-baron in a Thomas Nast cartoon? Would things be better for the poor if Reagan and Schweiker and the rest of the administration lived poorly themselves?
The answer is, of course not. Reagan, after all, is not the first president to live well while in office. Recent history serves up the example of Franklin Roosevelt, the squire of Hyde Park, who smoked cigarettes through a holder, wore a cape and spoke with a Groton-Harvard-Columbia accent. Harry Truman, the man who followed, lived modestly, but that was not the case with Dwight Eisenhower, who vacationed in Palm Springs and Palm Beach and stocked his Gettysburg farm with gifts from his rich friends. Next came John Kennedy of whom no more need be said and then Richard Nixon of both San Clemente and Key Biscayne of whom lots could be said, but nothing that would disprove the point that modest living is not necessarily a presidential tradition. Jimmy Carter, of course, made up for them all.
It seems that a president can live in any style he or his rich friends can afford. But most of the presidents who lived richly, talked a different game. Roosevelt may have been an aristocrat, but he was the champion of the common man. The same was true of Kennedy, and while neither Nixon or Eisenhower were what you might call socialists, neither were they attempting to gut the social programs of their predecessors. Reagan is. He is the first modern president whose life style matches his rhetoric.
With other presidents, no matter how well they lived, they let you know by word and deed that they knew how the other half lived. The same can not be said for Reagan. His view of America is privileged -- unique. It has been cushioned by decades of living in Pacific Palisades and Santa Barbara, vacations in places like Palm Springs, and a circle of friends composed of millionaires. Under these circumstances, it is little wonder that he truly believes that the nation will not find $1,000 boots incongruous with an austerity program so severe that not even the all-but sacred school lunch program is to be spared.
This man seems to know only one kind of person and only one style of life. In that context, $1,000 boots must seem reasonable and the complaints of the poor just the opposite -- unreasonable. What matters, then, is not style qua style, but whether the style indicates that the president is out of touch -- that he really does not understand the pain of poverty or the anxieties of a middle class living on credit.
On the basis of the way he's been conducting himself, that seems to be the case. Sitting on a mountain above lovely Santa Barbara, associating only with millionaires, the world must look much like it did from Versailles. Like Marie Antoinette, Reagan's biggest problem may be not that he can't come up with the solution, but that he can't see the problem.