HE HASN'T SAID SO, of course, but Monday, Nov. 23, must have been the most satisfying day yet of Ronald Reagan's presidency, if not his life.
It had a little of Walter Mitty, a little of Cecil B. DeMille. The chief executive was acting out his fantasies, directing a huge production, with a cast of thousands, more extras ever assembled since Hollywood built the Pyramids.
Reagan was both star and producer of a spectacular that proved that when show biz meets civil service, it's not a fair fight.
It was lights, camera, action all the way: Ronald Reagan bursting into the White House press room -- and, of course, the morning news shows -- brandishing a veto and putting the whip to his old enemy, the bureaucracy, and his new one, the Congress.
"This is not theatrics," he said as he dashed off to an "emergency" Cabinet meeting. "It's for real."
That was just the beginning. He began living his dearest dream. He actually shut down the government. It was to be only for a while, but it was what he had always hoped -- and promised -- to do. He brought the bureaucratic beast to its knees. He left it prostrate by the side of the public trough.
All morning, he had the high of watching government workers -- whose numbers he would rather cut than the budget -- walking off the job. They were bewildered and humiliated. They wore in their hearts -- if not on their chests -- the great, shaming letter "N" -- for "nonessential." And that is how he has always viewed them. The conqueror was ruthless, but not inhumane. The tattered "safety net" was strung across the land for social security and other beneficiaries.
His true view of government's only real obligation was expressed vividly in the fact that not one of the million souls, military and nonmilitary, who toil at the Pentagon spending a record peacetime defense budget was "furloughed" -- not one sent home to wonder about being paid for being a spear-carrier in Reagan's exodus epic.
Ronald Reagan was telling the country in pictures, not in words, what he really thought, which is that all government really owes its people is armed protection against foreign foes.
There were symbolic touches that DeMille in his prime could not have improved: The Statue of Liberty's torch extinguished, the Washington Monument locked up. What better way to drive home the chilling message that everything government gives -- beyond armaments and contingency plans -- is a grace, not a right.
It was boffo box office. Anyone who ever dealt with a blockheaded regulator, an adamant IRS auditor, was shouting "encore!" Kick 'em again, Ron, said the audiences as they sat by their television and watched the fun. All applauded when the disheveled Congress blinked before Reagan's level gaze.
It was the best part Reagan ever had, and he played it to the hilt. The last shot of the day was of him bounding up the steps of Air Force One, waving good bye, ready to fly off into the sunset.
He had given the script a happy ending. Under the unflinching waste-watcher was a warm human being, a man who loves holidays, who cannot bear to break the Thanksgiving circle. He offered the critters in Congress a compromise -- a 15-day break during which they could ponder what he would do to them, on television, at Christmas if they fought him further.
Ever on the alert for special effects, Reagan gave a cameo part to a big name. David Stockman was dispatched to Capitol Hill for his first public appearance since his tremendous treason: since, that is, he told William Greider, in the pages of The Atlantic Monthly, that Reaganomics is eyewash -- specifically, a Trojan horse for the rich.
Stockman was good theater, the heretic spared the stake, a reminder of Reagan's humaty. But his gray presence was also a reminder that sometimes words triumph over pictures. His confession, meticulously recorded by Greider, could have been a policy statement of the Democratic Party. He belonged on the scene of Reagan's spectacular. After all, the former divinity student got his job as an actor -- he impersonated his former boss, John Anderson, in debate rehearsal. And what he revealed in his astonishing confidences to Greider was that for better than six months, he had been impersonating, for Congress and the country, a fervent believer in supply-side economics.
The Stockman drama -- it is also a mystery -- is far more engrossing than anything Reagan can ever stage. Why did he do it? Apparently because, like all politicians and, for that matter, most people, he wanted it both ways. He wanted to be an officer in the fiscal revolution, and he also wanted the brightest and most exacting chronicler he could find, to record, for later, his early discovery that the strategy was wrong and the war was lost.
The truth that he told Greider was what Reagan is really fighting. Whacking Congress and GS11s is good for the soul and great television. But it ain't no cure for recession.