GOOD EVENING. THE SCENE is the House of Representatives where a joint session of Congress is preparing to hear President Reagan's State of the Union Message. Excitement is unusually high here ever since word reached Capitol Hill that the president angrily discarded the drafts prepared by his speechwriters. Just a few minutes ago, a very nervous senior White House official told me, "He's going to wing it. This could be as bad as the last press conference."
That, of course, remains to be seen. Right now, Ronald Reagan is on the podium and the next voice you hear will be that of the president of the United States. Vice President Bush, Speaker O'Neill, Majority Leader Baker, Members of Congress and my fellow Americans:
The other day, Jim Baker reminded me that Article II of the Constitution states that the president "shall from time to time give to Congress information of the state of the union."
The speech had totally slipped my mind. But there it was in black and white in the Constitution. Even though, as I explained to Jim Baker, it says nothing about my having to go before Congress in the same week as the Super Bowl. But those are the burdens that come with holding the loneliest job in the world and having your apartment above the store.
I want to tell you a little story about how tonight's speech came about. I was sitting in the Oval Office reading the help wanted ads when Jim Baker came in with a five-foot stack of speech drafts and legislative proposals and background memos. I hadn't seen so much paper in one place since Jesse Helms sent me over the text of his proposed constitutional amendments.
"Jim," I asked, "do I have to read it all? Couldn't you just summarize it for me? What is the state of the union anyway?"
"Mr. President," he said, "we can put a good face on anything. Instead of unemployment, talk about the 97 million Americans who haven't received their layoff notices yet. It's not deficits, it's revenue shortfall. Don't wring your hands over interest rates, stress the high yields on All-Savers certificates."
I thought about that for a minute because I've been in politics long enough to know that sometimes you've got to gild the lily. But then I said, "Jim, just between us, no leaks, what's it like in the rest of the country? Are they really putting candles in the window like I told them to?"
But Jim, who's been under a lot of pressure lately, was in no mood for small talk. "Damned if I know, Mr. President," he said, "I haven't been outside the White House in weeks. Ask Ed Meese -- he's been doing all the traveling."
Then I was alone again in the Oval Office watching the snow fall on the White House lawn. And I thought back on all the earth- shaking problems of recent weeks and how petty they seemed compared to what the rotten Washington weather does to my arthritis.
Richard Allen and Dave Stockman. There's a pair for you. One can't remember $1,000 in a little white envelope and the other can't forget a thing, especially when he's talking into a reporter's tape recorder. Then there was the whole flap with Helmut Schmidt. I kept telling the State Department that it would be a lot easier for everyone if I just told the Krauts exactly who won the last war.
Right after that Nancy didn't speak to me for two whole days because I chipped one of her precious china plates. I haven't been in so much hot water since I asked whether Betsy Bloomingdale needed a job since she seemed to have nothing to do all day. Meanwhile, I'm getting all those late-night phone calls from my daughter Maureen complaining about how everyone in California is being nasty about her Senate race.
But these were mere flies in the ointment compared to the whole mess over tax exemptions for segregated private schools. Now everyone knows that I'm not a racist. Al Jolsen was one of my earliest friends in show business. I even have Sam Pierce in my Cabinet taking care of the orderly sale of our remaining public housing units to private enterprise.
Last week, during my press conference, I took full responsibility for the entire decision. That's how it should be, the buck stops here, even when my staff doesn't tell me things. But I'll admit to you that we've been having a few organization problems in the White House lately.
Ed Meese, for instance, has been preoccupied with looking around for a new job that would give him a car with a siren. And the Mike Deaver thing is getting out of hand. I know it's hard to support a family on $62,000 a year, but does he have to stand outside the Oval Office wearing dark glasses and holding a tin cup and a bunch of pencils?
Bill Clark, of course, will be a great addition to the White House staff. But up to now he's been extremely busy mastering his flash cards on foreign policy. That and all the research he's been doing on lie detectors and bright lights and rubber hoses. Everyone knows that Jim Baker's a great administrator, but let's face it, he can't do everything. If he could, George Bush would be president right now, instead of sitting in back of me with that preppy grin on his face.
I spent some long tough hours in the Oval Office thinking about this speech and reading my mail from children. Some pretty wild thoughts crossed my mind as I wondered what it must be like to be an ordinary average Joe, sitting at home in a real place like Tampico, Illinois, watching television and drinking beer without having to worry about Libyan hit squads.
I remembered how some kings in the Middle Ages would dress themselves in rags and go incognito among their people. Now I was a pretty good actor -- a lot better than some critics remember. I could still put on a cardigan sweater, some baggy pants and a little makeup and walk around the streets of Washington or Tampico without being recognized. At least, I could if the Secret Service would let me.
What finally occurred to me, as I pondered my constitutional responsibility to report on the State of the Union, was that maybe it was time to tell the truth to the American people. That just because the news media spend two years covering the race for the White House doesn't mean that a president can do much to improve day-to-day life for Mr. and Mrs. Run-of-the-Mill American once he gets there.
For example, did you know that when they compute the Nielsen ratings a president gets just one vote just like everyone else? I may be the Leader of the Free World, but I couldn't do much to help my old buddy Buddy Ebsen with that show out in Los Angeles.
Then take the economy ... please. Now, I hate high interest rates as much as any of you. After all, Nancy and I are still trying to sell our house in Pacific Palisades. Actually, if there is anyone watching who is looking for a comfortable house in the $1.7 million bracket, please call (202) 456-1414. The White House operator will be happy to put you in touch with our broker.
After I took office, I discovered much to my surprise that the president can't control interest rates; our system of government puts that power in the hands of Paul Volcker and the Federal Reserve Board. But when I called Volcker to complain, he said that the Fed no longer sets interest rates, they had given that job to market forces.
Then Volcker, who I might mention was appointed by Jimmy Carter, started talking economic mumbo-jumbo about M1, M2, M3, L and and the monetary base. Now I don't know the monetary base from first base, but something is clearly wrong over there. But I can't get rid of Volcker until his term expires in 1983. All I can do is to drop broad hints about his resigning during my press conferences. But somehow people in Washington never pick up on these hints. If they did, I would have been rid of Ray Donovan long ago.
My economic advisers -- sometimes I think their names are Joe, Moe and Curly -- tell me that high interest rates have plunged our economy into recession. And, as my favorite president, Calvin Coolidge, once said, "When more and more people are thrown out of work, unemployment results."
Now I understand the agony of men and women down on their luck, unable to afford a dollar for a Sunday paper chock full of help- wanted ads. I had my lean years in Hollywood, as well as the glory years. But what can I do about unemployment? I can't put all the jobless on the government payroll; finding a suitable post for Maurice Stans was tough enough.
What about all that talk of triple-digit deficits? I know I spent years talking about how the government is like a family and can't spend more than it takes in. But times have changed. These days we all have credit cards and if we run a little short at the end of the month, we just charge it.
In California, there's a grocery store that only accepts food stamps and credit cards. Well, that's how we're going to fund next year's defense budget. We're going to take $10 billion from food stamps, put $60 billion on MasterCard and $60 billion on Visa and we'll stick American Express with the rest. We may be going through tough times, but America is still the only nation on earth with the exclusive Gold Card.
As you know, we have cut the federal budget more than any administration in history. I'm proud of our record, especially the way we've handed all the tough problems to the states and local governments. We're going to continue this difficult fight, even though Nancy tells me I'm crazy to keep sending Dave Stockman over to Capitol Hill. This year we're going to turn our attention to the waste and fat in the defense budget. Just this morning, Cap Weinberger reported to me that he thinks we can save $50,000 by eliminating the tubas in the military bands.
I'd like to say a few words about Wall Street, which, had it existed in the time of Moses, would be right up there with plague and locusts on the list of Biblical afflictions. All through the early days of last year, these pin-striped bankers kept tromping through my office saying over and over again, "Cut taxes, cut spending, we're behind you." So I did and these ingrates dumped every stock and bond they could get their hands on. About the only way to restore the confidence of Wall Street is to put this Henry Kaufman fellow they all listen to under house arrest and make him shut up.
For weeks, I have been wrestling with the terrible decision of whether to raise taxes to deal with the federal deficit. The unanimous recommendation of my advisers was to tax the hell out of other people's vices like rotgut liquor and cigarettes, but to leave cigars, champagne, vintage wine and premium Scotch alone. Most of their energies were devoted to trying to invent a new name for higher taxes. Entire meetings were spent arguing the merits of "revenue enhancers" versus "budget augmenters."
But to steal a line from that great humorist James Thurber, "I don't care what you call it, it's still spinach." That how I feel on the subject of these so-called sin taxes, especially after Nancy discovered that Congress wanted to add a surcharge on fur coats and designer dresses.
I vetoed those recommendations. And I pledge to you tonight that there will be no new taxes on anything -- not by any name whatsoever, not so long as I'm president. But I do want to tell you that I was tempted when I received a letter from a third-grade class in Bangor, Maine, suggesting that we slap a stiff tax on spinach and Brussels sprouts.
However, holding the line on taxes is not easy. We must raise revenues somehow. That's why I agreed to a plan developed by my interior secretary, Jim Watt, that will add $70 billion in new money to the Fiscal Year 1983 budget. It may be ridiculed by a few so- called environmentalists, but it will involve few real sacrifices for most stay-at-home Americans.
We don't look to the federal government to provide us with television shows or movies or great events like the Super Bowl. nteresThese our Founding Fathers have wisely left to private enterprise and the entire nation has prospered because of their wisdom.
So it should be with the National Park system. I don't see why the American taxpayer should foot the bill for Smokey the Bear and the rest of his ilk -- or should I say elk? -- when any working family, with a little gumption and a little belt-tightening, can afford their own ranch. That's how Nancy and I got ours.
During Fiscal Year 1983, we will auction off the federal government's vast holdings of parkland and wilderness area. In making this decision, I have been heavily influenced by the vacation habits of the American people. Time and time again, you have voted with your feet and shown that you prefer the free- enterprise wonders of Disney World and Knott's Berry Farm to the socialistic enclaves known as the National Park system.
In the weeks ahead, I will also be sending to Congress a series of proposals to grant new powers and responsibilities to our states and local governments and, by the way, ridding the federal government of a lot of irksome responsibilities like welfare.
Yes, even in the White House, we have heard the complaints of big-city mayors who claim they don't even have the money to pay for existing services. For example, I have had several long talks with my fellow Republican, Mayor Ed Koch of New York.
But where there's a will, there's a way. New York City, despite its fiscal problems, continues to maintain that mugger's paradise known as Central Park. If New York were really on its uppers, they could sell Central Park to real estate developers.
Other cities can do the same. For example, we are going to transfer Rock Creek Park to the city of Washington, D.C. There will be only one small caveat. This prime real estate must be used to help ease the critical shortage of luxury housing in our nation's capital. Mike Deaver of my staff will assist Washington Mayor Myron Berry in this noble endeavor.
In a few weeks, I intend to report to the Congress on the critical questions of foreign policy just as soon as we figure out what they are. This interlude will give Bill Clark a chance to learn the names of a few more world leaders. Actually, we already have a speech draft, but Secretary of State Al Haig hasn't fully caveated it yet.
Let me end on a personal note. A short time ago, I got a touching letter from 7-year- old Jason Jensen who lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Let me read you Jason's letter in its entirety: "Dear Mr. President: Whenever I see you on television at the White House you look like you have a lot of problems. But when I see you on your horse at the ranch, you look happy. Why not live at your ranch? Riding a horse is a lot better than being president."
Jason, I have thought long and hard about your letter. And you know, you're right. Being president isn't nearly as much fun as riding a horse.
Thank you and good night.
Walter Shapiro is a Washington Post Magazine staff writer.