The big news to come out of the Williamsburg summit of (count 'em) seven industrial democracies is not that inflation is at an end or that budget deficits are no more, but that the president of the United States, the honorable Ronald Wilson Reagan, did not--how shall we say it?--screw up.
The Washington Post said so and so did The New York Times, but, of course, in its own way. The Post quoted a White House aide as saying the president had avoided a "disaster" while The Times said he had won "high marks" from the other world leaders. As for the latter, one of them, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, said that President Reagan had been "well prepared and well assisted and managed the whole thing with a sense of humor that helped a lot." And Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, partial as he is to a pretty face, swooned for the president. He said he had been a marvelous host.
You would be forgiven for not realizing that the object of all this praise is the 72-year-old president of the United States. Presidents are, after all, supposed to avoid disasters (The Post) and get high marks from world leaders (The Times). They are supposed to be well-prepared (Kohl) and be terrific hosts (Trudeau), and they should be able, at a minimum, to speak the language of economics with other world leaders--although a sense of humor is a distinct bonus.
But this president is treated by both the press and foreign leaders as if he were a child. He earns praise for the ordinary, for what used to be the expected. His occasional ability to retain facts is cited as a triumph when it should, in fact, be a routine occurrence. It is major news when he honors a political or economic discussion with a germane remark and not an anecdote about his Hollywood days and everyone is left speechless when the president--the president of these United States--can actually walk into a room of his peers and, as they used to say, dish the issue with them.
You could not imagine the same open-mouthed wonder if, for instance, the subject at hand were Margaret Thatcher. No one would evince either surprise or admiration at finding her well-briefed. The same could be said, of course, for Reagan's predecessor, Jimmy Carter, who all but briefed the briefers. And with the exception of Gerald Ford, you might have to go all the way back to Calvin Coolidge (pausing at Dwight Eisenhower) before coming to a president about whom so many thought so little.
The upshot is that Reagan gets judged against himself. He--and not other leaders or former American presidents--becomes the standard by which he is compared. In this way, the ordinary (being a good host) gets turned into the extraordinary, and the expected (knowing the issues) becomes the totally unexpected. The press, joined by foreign leaders and led by the pompon boys on the White House staff, wind up celebrating the mundane, and we all get the feeling we are watching home movies--look at Ronnie walk. Big Deal!
This, though, is nothing new. Ever since Reagan entered political life, he has had the disadvantage-cum-advantage of being perceived as something of a dummy. Maybe this is because he was once an actor. Or maybe this is because there are times when he does appear not to have the faintest clue about what's going on.
Whatever the reason, though, the net effect has usually redounded to Reagan's benefit. After an initial period in which he is dismissed as intellectually inadequate, he winds up praised for turning out to be better than (almost) everyone thought. This is how Reagan happened to "win" his first debate against President Carter. He turned out to be smarter than a lot of people thought he was. He didn't really beat Carter; he just beat himself.
Nothing has changed. Reagan continues to be judged by standards he's set himself. He has been getting away with this for so long that any fair-minded person would have to conclude that the answer to the question that continues to intrigue Washington is readily apparent. How smart is Reagan? It's obvious.
A lot smarter than we are.