Years ago, Russell Baker, the Y columnist for The New York Times, called the force that instantly transforms men into presidential candidates, "The Great Mentioner." Having provided that public service, Baker ought to now discover who designated Ronald Reagan, "A Great Communicator." If it is the Great Mentioner in another guise, the years have not been kind to it. At the very least, it has become hard of hearing.
The evidence, in fact, is that to a whole lot of people Ronald Reagan is not a very good communicator at all. He seems to say things he does not mean. With blacks and other minority groups, for instance, no matter how he phrases himself, no matter what he says, no matter how many times he insists that he has no antipathy towards them, they remain unconvinced. There is something about the man they do not trust and it is not simply his policies.
Blacks are not the only ones who seem to hear something that others don't when Reagan talks. Organized labor, for instance, seems to bristle at the mere mention of the man. True, Reagan has policies that labor finds abhorrent and, true, he is the first president in some time to (rightfully) bust a union, but there is something more at work here than a mere disagreement.
The same holds for those Europeans who seems to spend every weekend marching in the streets to protest American nuclear policy. They are getting some message from Reagan that he does not intend. He is not, after all, the originator of American nuclear policy and in terms of making policy he has said nothing that other presidents have not. Still, these Europeans are hearing something.
The Israelis, too, seem to be hearing things that are not said. Of course, America and Israel have had their policy differences -- AWACS being one. But the distrust, the nervousness in Israel, is not based on a mere vote in the Senate. Reports coming out of Jerusalem indicate a high degree of anxiety, of mistrust. There is something more than policy at work here. Reagan is communicating something to the Israelis he does not mean to -- indifference to their plight.
In all these cases, what Reagan actually says is, of course, important. From time for time, he has made gaffes that have been costly. Sometimes he says the wrong thing and sometimes he does not seem to know what he is saying. He often conveys a sense that he is telling you all he knows, that his knowledge is superficial at best and that a follow-up question will get you nothing more than the characteristic Reagan response -- a shrug and a smile.
But to some people he seems to be saying something more -- not less. He communicates a lack of empathy. He has shown time and time again that he lacks a certain kind of understanding. It is not that he does not understand the issues -- that, after some coaching and study, he does. What he does not understand is what it is like to stand in someone else's shoes. He measures everything by what has happened to him. His personal experience is where he gets his economics, his view of the world, even his foreign policy. Europeans sense that Reagan does not appreciate what it is like to occupy the no-man's land between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Israelis feel that Reagan does not I understand what it is like to be one of them -- how vulnerable it feels, how insecure, how threatened. It is the same with blacks. There is not the slightest hint from Reagan that he knows what it is like to be poor. He sees poverty as a lack of money, as a temporary economic condition that could be alleviated if only the person had the gumption to work. He does not understand defeat, befuddlement, the pathology of poverty. He feels sorry for the poor, but he cannot empathize.
In all things, his view is that of a comfortable American. He sees the world as a vast California and he talks to Europeans, to Israelis -- to lots of people -- as if they lived in the San Fernando Valley and not, say, under the guns of the Russians. He can be told their concerns, but he cannot appreciate them. It is not sympathy where he is short, but empathy -- the ability to appreciate what others feel. He hears only what he wants. That's why he can not be a Great Communicator. He's a lousy listener.