It's fortunate that Monday night was President Reagan's last State of the Union address because my tolerance for them has decreased markedly with each year of his presidency. As he was speaking, certain images, increasingly irreverent, kept flipping through my head, further diluting what little content the president offered us. As he talked, the strains of Aretha Franklin's "Dr. Feelgood" became a counterpoint to his words, intensifying what was already an unreal experience. The occasional deep-throated cheers from the audience began to sound like a chorus of doo-woppers.
Was he really congratulating Nancy Reagan for her war against drugs while in Washington, where he lives, the drug problem escalates daily? Where is the war on drugs when drug lords are killing people from suburban Maryland to Colombia, and no responsible official working with enforcement of the antidrug laws sees any abatement of the problems?
His rhetorical theme of America as "this shining city on the hill" further demonstrated his profound lack of connection with reality when one considers that so many persons within his own administration have been accused or convicted of wrongdoing.
And can he really believe his own picture of an America where "the rest of the world respects us," when our allies are in trouble in South Korea, the Philippines and Haiti, and U.S. credibility has plunged along with the dollar?
Of course, there are increasing signs that his cinematic view doesn't play as well in America any more. According to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll, the president is losing influence, and his speech fell on the ears of a nation that is lukewarm about his performance and badly split on his foreign and domestic policies. Furthermore, Americans are far less confident about their futures, the poll found.
Despite losing some of his gloss in the eyes of the American people, Reagan's ability to convince people of things that are directly contradicted by the facts remains mind-boggling, and he is abetted sometimes by the media when his mistakes are buried on the back pages.
Somehow a discrepancy may yet develop between people's desire that Reagan's views be right and the knowledge that they are not. Standing in the way of this understanding is Reagan's incredible appeal, which is based on his ability to reach back into the stuff of history and draw on it in a way that many Americans find compelling, even irresistible.
With the problems we face, however, I think most Americans want the government to respond to reality. Most Americans want a humane society in which people have a reasonable standard of living, in which there is money to fight health problems such as AIDS and in which the destitute are not reduced to homelessness.
The increase in the homeless, for example, is a catastrophic ending to what was in part a deliberate policy of the Reagan administration. Since 1980, there has been a 27 percent drop in available low-cost housing and a 44 percent increase in demand. Despite this, the media feed us mainly sad stories of the homeless and not enough in-depth pieces as to why the numbers have risen.
Indeed, to face the future, Americans may have to be willing to sacrifice the quick and slick answer and take the time to listen to the less colorful but perhaps more appropriate proposals being put forth by candidates who do not happen to be good actors. The corollary is that the media must learn to report complicated issues thoroughly and not go for the quick fix and juicy headline that may boost circulation or viewership at the expense of the public's knowledge.
Understanding complexity is harder in a media-oriented age of quick fixes -- whether the fix be the drugs someone on 14th Street is using or a State of the Union address from Dr. Feelgood.
Only the public can reverse the situation we're in. If people demand more information from politicians, they will get it. If they demand more depth from the media, they will get it. We must reconcile ourselves to the end of the era of easy answers and easy solutions and know that this nation, contrary to the rhetoric of the president's State of the Union address, has serious problems with complex solutions -- and we must be willing to hear them.