Hamlet said his father, the king, had "an eye like Mars, to threaten and command." But the castle at Elsinor was a more disagreeable place than today's Washington, where Ronald Reagan threatens and commands with a smile. Last Tuesday he strode into the House chamber, enjoyed a sauna of applause that eased his aches, smiled as sweetly as only he can, and then, still smiling, threatened the applauders with fire and brimstone. Well, at least fire.
'This rare for a president to address Congress to push a single legislative package, rare still -- perhaps unprecedented -- for a president to use such an occasion to single out a congressional committee for a spanking. The House Budget Committee received a presidential designation as the thing that stands between the nation and bliss. This was a warning not lost on all the folks arrayed in front of the president: Anyone want a similar designation?
Reagan cited "instructive words" from Teddy Roosevlt: "The American people are slow to wrath, but when their wrath in once kindled, it becomes like a consuming flame." Then Reagan said: Golly, perhaps such wrath will be "deserved" if "our" answers to current problems are old policies. Translation: I intend to enkindle such wrath, to fan such a flame, if you frustrate me.
This phenomenon -- the president as pyromaniac -- is a new experience for Congress. Most members were first elected in the 1970s. Their experience has been with Carter, Ford and Nixon, three fellows with the charisma of whole wheat toast.
Reagan has not only a talent for talking but also a talent for luck. When Frederick the Great was asked to describe the kind of generals he wanted, he replied: "Lucky." Although it might seem peculiar to say of a gunshot victim, the president is lucky. His would forced him from view at just the right moment. It came after the media's saturation coverage of the transition, the inauguration and the first flurry of business. It forced him offstage.
As an entertainer, perhaps he instinctively understands this rule: Always leave the audience wanting more rather than less. This instinct is essential to a "Gaullist" conduct of office. And perhaps it is essential to effective leadership in any large nation in an age of instant, inceassant and comprehensive communication.
Temperamentally, two people could hardly be less alike than the sunshine boy from Pacific Palisades and the mystic from Colombey-les-deux-Eglises. But Reagan, like De Gaulle, may understand how a leader can dissipate the indefinable aura of leadership by not maintaining sufficient remoteness. Familiarity does not necessarily breed contempt, but it can wear out one's welcome in the nation's living rooms.
Of course more than luck brought Reagan to today's peak of popularity. As Stephen Leacock said, "I am a great believer in luck, and I find that the harder I work the more I have of it." Reagan has been working hard. He must work for support in Congress, especially for his tax cuts. For every devout communicant in the Church of the Suppy-Siders, there are two confirmed atheists, and six agnostics.
Ironically, this ratio is, in part, proof of the success of three decades of conservative arguing. At long last the public has subscribed to this proposition: A balanced budget is the key to happiness. But now the supply-siders are putting an asterisk over that proposition. The asterisk denotes this thought: "Even though inflation is high and the deficit is huge, the way to get a balanced budget is -- trust us -- with a large tax cut."
Perhaps never has a great nation risked so much (such as its currency, and hence its domestic tranquility) on a theor. Andd most Americans don't know Professor Lafferhs curve from Sandy Koufax's curve. So, regarding economic policy, most Americans just decide who they truist, then close their eyes tight, and trust will all their might. Today they trust the president.
The American middle-of-the-road has moved to the right. Reagan is a nontraditional president, significantly to the right even of what now is the middle of the road. And congressional Democrats are behaving as the opposition traditionally does, positioning themselvee between the president and the middle of the road. Thus the Democrats are well to the right of where they recently were. Their client groups are left in the lurch, and loneliness is making them strident. But they had better mind their manners or Reagan may smile the smile that summons flames.