A while back, Barbara Walters in interviewing Nancy Reagan, Katharine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall, asked them what sort of tree they would be if they were trees. Since they were not trees, they gave an answer, but it would be interesting to ask Ronald Reagan what country he would be if he were a country. I think he might say Switzerland.
Nothing so becomes our president as neutrality coupled with high altitude. He likes to be above it all. It was Reagan, after all, who fervently adopted the so-called 11th commandment of the GOP, which held it to be a sin for one Republican to speak ill of another Republican. To him, party unity is more important than informing the voters.
More recently, the president declared neutrality in the Falklands crisis, initially discerning little difference between our amigos, the Argentines, and our mates, the British. This was the 11th commandment as applied to nations: Thou shall not speak ill of any ally--even when one of them is fascist.
At about the same time, the president pronounced the budget as beneath his consideration. He worked it up, he presented it but he wasn't going to get involved over such a trifle as its enactment. Having condescended to submit the thing, he then clambered up his mountain and left the drudge work to others. This president does not do windows, either.
Now he has some entirely different matters not to deal with. His attorney general and erstwhile tax lawyer, William French Smith, turns out to have invested in tax shelters of dubious legality. As if this was not enough, it turns out Smith accepted a $50,000 fee from a steel company nine days before becoming the attorney general. But from the president comes down word that there will be no word. The president stands by his man, we are told--and that, it appears, is that. Some things are just not worth talking about.
Similarly, the president has no official position when it comes to his secretary of labor, Raymond Donovan, who is accused of having known, socialized with or done business with representatives of organized crime while in the construction business in northern New Jersey. Donovan denies these allegations, although he does not explain how it is possible to be in the construction business in northern New Jersey and not know, socialize with or do business with at least one person of the white-on-white shirt persuasion.
Of course, it's smart politics for Reagan to say nothing when it comes to Smith and Donovan. He would be foolish to become involved in the travails of either man when he does not need to. One only has to remember how much injury Jimmy Carter did to himself by rushing to the defense of his budget director, Bert Lance, who has since been exonerated of any and all charges.
Still, where Reagan is most like Switzerland is not in his ability to declare high-toned neutrality when he wants to, but in the expectation that this will happen. The press, which held Carter accountable for everything that happened in his administration, has accepted Reagan on his own terms. If he says he's out of it, well, then, he's out of it. The man does not have to be president unless he wants to.
Carter, though, would have been asked repeatedly how come the United States finds itself impotent in the Falklands crisis? How did we allow things to slip so that two of our allies are now at war? Similarly, Carter would have been asked why he is being surprised now by allegations concerning Ray Donovan. And he would have been asked if the financial shenanigans of his friend and former lawyer, Smith, reflect his own financial philosophy? It's not too much to suggest that if Smith were Bert Lance he would be called a "crony" and the press would demand the answers to some very basic questions. Instead, an entire press conference passed without Reagan being asked a single question about Smith.
In some sense, this is healthy. It is utter nonsense to hold the president accountable for all and everything that happens in his administration--something Carter encouraged by trying to be on top of everything. But it's just nonsense to accept a president's terms of what he will and will not answer for--either because this is the way he wants it or, as is the case here, because we have come to expect so little.