SOONER or later all of our presidents get hit with the taunting stories about how much they are spending on their personal comforts while the rest of us are called upon to sacrifice. And sooner or later most of them end up making ostentatiously stupid, fake, symbolic gestures of economy, intended to show that they are scaling down the style to which presidents have become accustomed, in somber compliance with the need to economize. It seems to have come sooner, rather than later, in Ronald Reagan's case -- much hooting and howling about the Great Economizer's expenditure of several hundred thousand dollars in public funds to get himself ferried to California and back this weekend. The earliness of the complaint is one distinction -- it doesn't usually come so soon. We hope a second distinction will be a refusal by Mr. Reagan to yield to it.
The presidency costs money. You can make a demonstration of economy as other presidents have done by going around the White House turning out lights or traveling in a smaller plane (which Lyndon Johnson briefly did, thereby giving the communications and security people fits) or scaling down the quality of White House hospitality or telling your top advisers to take the bus or causing the Sequoia to be sold or God knows what all else. But is is baloney. It deals with relatively inconsequential sums, results in relatively negligible savings (if any at all) and therefore contributes mightily to the general air of fraudulence that characterizes so much of the exchange between this country's political leaders and the electorate.
In this last respect it also distracts and diverts attention from the real sources of economic trouble in the country, substituting instead play-issues, like the cost of Air Force One travel from coast to coast. We leap at this opportunity to point out that the defect is also one that Mr. Reagan himself actively cultivates in other connections -- e.g., some of his anecdotal, tiny-bore examples of misused welfare or Social Security funds, as if to mention (or even correct) these were to deal with the larger economic problems of the domestic transfer programs. The presidential cushy-life-style issue bears the same relation to the national economic distress: that of a side event, an entertainment, a distraction.
Let Mr. Reagan fly to California for R&R as he wishes, on the presidential plane. Let him spend the several millions of dollars per year this will entail if he chooses to go often. Don't require him to show some phony working-purpose or public mission for these trips. If the man wants to have that time away from the White House -- let him take it. No more artifice on this score. The president needs to leave town for what he regards as essential relaxation. And for this he needs transportation. Why not the best?