TWO OF THE PRESIDENT'S trinity of advisers, Edwin Meese III and James Baker, staged a preemptive strike on their press critics by putting out early their own review of Ronald Reagan's first year in office.
It was printed in a 186-page document, rich in the detail of the triumphs of 1981 -- a year so good, Baker volunteered, that they would be perfectly willing to "take another one just like it."
The congressional conquests, the budget cuts were indeed substantial victories. But on the eve of Reagan's first anniversary, his most stunning accomplishment is his ability to make the U.S. public accept him on his own terms, to wound constituencies and escape from blame.
Everyone knows the phenomenon: the newly jobless auto worker who still wants to "give Reagan a chance"; the bus driver who is hit by the cutback in school lunch programs, but who admires Reagan's stance against the communists, and does not question the wisdom of spending school lunch money for missiles; parents who can't afford to send their children to college without student loans, but continue to regard Reagan as an exceptionally nice guy.
Winning Gramm-Latta I and II, even the AWACS sale to the Saudi Arabians were nothing compared to his genius for getting away with outrageous statements that would sink another politician.
Consider, for instance, that just the other day, he told Ben Wattenberg in a PBS interview that Franklin D. Roosevelt had in his administration men who espoused fascism. He named no names. Mind you, he had said something like it before. But to administer an affront to those who revere Roosevelt -- the president, incidentally, whom Reagan professes to admire most -- was, at the least, gratuitous. It suggests that Reagan has a reflex to feed the animosities of the implacable far right from whom he derived his first support.
The president did something worse. In an interview with People magazine, he was asked about the famous confession of David Stockman -- the budget director who, in a series of 18 interviews with William Greider, admitted that the assumptions of Reaganomics were wrong, that the budget cuts were inequitable and that, without serious reductions in defense spending, the economy was doomed.
After an intense internal debate, the president decided to keep Stockman on. It was a public relations decision, obviously, made on the theory that if Stockman stayed, his shattering judgments on the policies he continued to execute would somehow become unsaid -- "inoperative," to use the words of a famous predecessor who could not face facts.
Here is the version of events he gave to the People interviewer: Stockman, he said, "was betrayed by a long-time friend who distorted and misinterpreted things that had been said in complete confidence and the understanding that it was off the record. The author used his own interpretation and very frankly, I liken it to another assassination attempt -- which I hope will be as unsuccessful as the first."
This is libelous, for starters. The most cursory questions, the hastiest reading of Greider's copy would have confirmed for the president the fact that Greider is a first- class journalist and an honorable man. David Stockman was not born yesterday. He saw the tape recorder on the table. He knew that Greider was, and is, an assistant managing editor of The Washington Post and was in the process of writing a piece for The Atlantic. Did Stockman tell the president he thought Greider was taking notes for his diary?
It is monstrous for Reagan to compare Greider to John Hinckley Jr., the twisted young man who is charged with shooting him. It is, in fact, character assassination, something nice guys don't go in for.
The story caused little stir.
Nothing much was made of another unconscionable statement in the PBS interview, about the antinuclear demonstrations in Europe. The president compared them to past antiwar demonstrations in the United States, which were also, he said, the work of the World Peace Council, "which is bought and paid for by the Soviet Union." So much for the clergymen, housewives, students and government officials who took to the streets on both sides of the ocean to protest what they consider immoral policy.
During his long march to the White House, Reagan, the hip-shooter, was often called to account. But as president, he is not. As the hard days come upon him, he is reverting to type, quick to utter the brutal, damaging word. He has not learned to bite his tongue. He smiles when he says these things. Apparently, it makes all the difference.
The year-end report can accurately say Reagan has had his successes. The vindication, an improved economy, is yet to come.
So is magnanimity -- and better information.