In his career as a movie actor, Ronald Reagan made more than 50 movies. One of them, "King's Row" was pretty good. The rest, including a rather famous one about a chimpanzee ("Bedtime for Bonzo") were dismal, but the subject of this essay is a movie Reagan did not make but in which he now seems to star. It is called "The Man Who Was Not There."
In some sense, of course, Reagan is everywhere. His trip abroad was one vast photo opportunity and the president was shown riding horseback with Queen Elizabeth, standing before the Berlin Wall, dining at Versailles and conferring endlessly (it seemed) with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Television ate it all up, as did the newspapers and magazines and, I suppose, the American people.
In fairness to Reagan, there was some substance behind the photos. He managed to blunt his image in Europe as a reckless talker, and he made some overtures to the Soviets that can be the beginning for a dialogue. More than that, he showed he continues to get his way with Congress. The budget approved by the House is the one he wanted.
But in a somewhat larger sense, the president seems to cast no shadow. It is true that he has an economic program and some startling congressional victories to prove it, but Wall Street, not to mention Main Street, has not seemed to notice. There is next to no confidence in the program, no sense, say, that things would be worse if there was no Reagan program. It just does not seem to matter.
In foreign policy, the situation is somewhat the same. Here, for a time, there was no program, just rhetoric. It was anticommunist rhetoric of the type that Reagan peddled so successfully as a well-paid after-dinner speaker. But what worked so wonderfully on the rubber chicken circuit merely scared the bejesus out of much of the world--especially places where the wonders of Lilly Pulitzer and the dangers of collective bargaining are unappreciated.
Ironically enough, the trip abroad merely heightened the perception that Reagan does not matter much. It didn't help the president any that he was asleep when his U.N. ambassador cast a botched vote or that he was frequently pictured going through some ceremonial routine while the Israelis were punching a hole in Lebanon. Sometimes it seemed that he was not in charge or that, when all is said and done, he cannot make a difference. Ronald Reagan may be in the unenviable position of not being able to convert his personal popularity into respect.
Whatever the reason for the perception that Reagan doesn't really matter, the consequences are real. Not only is the domestic economy looking, even yearning, for guidance, but so, for that matter, is what is sometimes called the Free World. Whether an American president likes it or not, he is the leader of the Western Alliance. Like some sort of father, he is not only there to lead, but also to discipline.
This father, though, likes to be everyone's pal. Either through inattention or by failing to assert leadership, Reagan has contributed to the recent chaos. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands were acts of war perpetrated by two nations that were led to believe, through one too many pats on the back, that they literally could get away with murder. Toward Reagan they have all kinds of feelings but respect.
The Argentines thought they could, with impunity, humiliate our closest ally. And the Israelis thought they could, if they wanted, bring the world to the brink of war without so much as conferring with their Number 1 ally--not to mention protector.
It is ironic that the one thing Ronald Reagan promised was leadership. We were going to have no more of the Jimmy Carter handwringing, no more hiding out in the Rose Garden. For a time, in fact, the issue of leadership dominated the 1980 presidential campaign, and when Carter's aides tried to turn the attention of the press to other issues--Reagan's intentions for food stamps, for instance--they were largely rebuffed. Leadership was the issue.
And so it may very well turn out to be. The economy is in shambles and the nations of the world are at play. Everyone knows where Ronald Reagan stands on the issues. What he does about them, though, is a different matter. The policy may be there, but the man just isn't.