An "October Surprise" in 1980 was that Jimmy Carter did not do what many Reagan aides thought he would do in the debate. They thought he would quote all the, well, somewhat-too-colorful things Reagan said before he developed discretion. So at Wexford, Reagan's Virginia residence, a bunch of the boys were brainstorming about how Reagan might handle such pearls as:
When Patty Hearst's kidnappers demanded distribution of free food, including canned goods, Reagan reportedly said something like: This would be a good time for a botulism epidemic.
A Reagan aide at Wexford asked: "How can he handle that?" There was a pregnant pause, and then another aide piped up: "Say it was taken out of context!"
I know about that marvelous moment because I was there. The fact that I was there is now occasioning comment--although the fact was known at the time (everyone entering Wexford drove past reporters and camera crews), was reported when I appeared on ABC-TV the night of the debate and has been mentioned in at least two books. But today's comments, which reach interesting issues, give me a welcome occasion for noting a fascinating aspect--perhaps the most fascinating aspect--of the "briefing papers" story. There seems to be an extraordinary misperception of how successful politicians function. Begin at the beginning:
David Stockman was a friend of mine before Ronald Reagan ever heard of him. I was invited to go with him when he played the role of Carter in a mock debate. In his kitchen, he showed me some papers that he said the Reagan campaign had forwarded to him. (Stockman was not part of the campaign. He was a congressman running for reelection, and he had leaned toward John Connally for the Republican nomination.) A cursory glance, which is all they got from me, indicated that the papers were policy statements about basic matters (arms control, the environment) distilled from old public statements of Carter and his Cabinet. I thought no more about them and never heard them mentioned by anyone.
I did not write about them because their origin was unknown and their importance was nil. In a letter to Rep. Donald J. Albosta (D-Mich.), Stockman says the papers were useful. I do not think he really thinks so. Why, then, did he say so? I do not know, but I expect this is the reason: if he had said they were not useful, no one would have believed him; instead, he is being praised for his candor.
I did not write about what I saw at Wexford because to have done so would have violated an unspoken but nonetheless important understanding that there are times when a writer is allowed access to things that the writer should not turn into material for his writings.
(Last winter I attended a small dinner with Reagan, who enjoyed himself enormously--which is easy to do when Lee Iacocca is present and feeling feisty. The next morning Reagan evidently came downstairs effervescing. Soon, a reporter called me for details of what transpired at the dinner. I replied, starchily, that it would not be correct behavior for anyone to recount any president's table talk. The reporter probably thought, probably rightly, that I am peculiar. He said that some Reagan aides had urged him to get the details. Perhaps the aides thought this would show their boss in an interesting, enhancing light. I replied that such public-relations calculations could not change the fact that even in Washington--no, especially in Washington --reticence can be an obligatory civility. Then I uttered a silent prayer that should be included the next time the tinkerers tinker with the Prayer Book: "Please, God, protect all presidents from their helpers.")
Commenting the night of the debate, with ABC noting that I had been at Wexford, I said what most viewers thought--the banal truth that Reagan's need as a challenger was to prove that he could perform under "presidential" pressure, and he did. I also said that Reagan had not been particularly surprised. He was not surprised by the interrogators' questions (more about which in a moment) or Carter's familiar themes and emphases. There was this exchange:
Ted Koppel: George, it is my understanding that you met for some time yesterday with Gov. Reagan and I'm just wondering what you know of his game plan and how you think his game plan worked out tonight.
George Will: I think his game plan worked well. I don't think he was particularly surprised. If anything, he was surprised tonight, I would suspect, by the fact that President Carter, who on the meanness issue has been rather fierce in saying that Gov. Reagan's a racist, a nuclear bomb-throwing maniac, didn't do that.
An obvious but currently forgotten fact is that presidential "debates" are no such thing. They bear little resemblance to, say, the sustained, focused debates between the Illinois Senate candidates (S. Douglas and A. Lincoln) in 1858. Presidential debates are sort of simultaneous, parallel press conferences. The result is rhetorical boiler plate in response to questions that must be highly general. In 1980 the questions included: What would you do about the decline of America's cities? How do you differ about the use of military force? What sacrifices are you prepared to ask of Americans? How will you balance the budget while cutting taxes and increasing defense spending? (Read Reagan's answer to that one and laugh so that you may not weep.)
No one who wins a presidential nomination needs to go to earth for days to decide what he thinks about such things. He has been thinking--well, talking at any rate-- about them most of his adult life. Preparatory mock debates are useful, if at all, only for cosmetic refinements, such as getting used to standing at a podiummfor a long time.
In a mock debate at Wexford, many people (such as Jeane Kirkpatrick, then a Georgetown University professor) asked questions. I recall asking only a question that was unlike a presidential debate question but satisfied my curiosity. I had never seen Reagan asked a question that would reveal his knowledge, or lack thereof, about Israel's dilemma. So I asked a recondite question bristling with references to "Resolution 242" and "the green line." The candidate did not distinguish himself.
Recently, newspapers and networks analyzed a "briefing book" (not, I gather, anything that Stockman saw). They noted that the book mentioned Reagan's original opposition to Medicare and his running mate's reference to "voodoo economics." The analysts then noted that when Carter mentioned both subjects, Reagan was "ready."
Ready? For more than a decade a problem for Reagan's aides has been to get him to pipe down about Medicare, the mere mention of which still gets him going about how he favored "Kerr-Mills" (an alternative program now remembered only by Reagan). And for months Reagan had been up to what he calls his "keister" in controversy about his "voodoo economics."
By mid-October 1980, Reagan had been crisscrossing the country speaking his mind for upwards of 30 years. He had entered electoral politics (after much experience in union politics) 14 years earlier. He had been running for president for six years. Now, really: is it not odd to say that Reagan needed to be told what to say about the basic issues of American life, or how to say it? My impression of Reagan then, an impression strengthened by watching him as president, is that he so thoroughly --at times alarmingly so--knows what he wants to do and say that it is a wonder he endures the attentions of his advisers.
The relation of columnists to politicians can be different from that of a straight news reporter. Walter Lippmann, Arthur Krock, Joseph Alsop, Charles Bartlett and others have had various relationships with presidents from Woodrow Wilson on. All journalists have political views--who would want journalists who do not?--and those views influence their journalism, sometimes in ways unseen even by themselves. Columnists, of course, are different. Concerning their views they are as secretive as steam calliopes. Certainly no person who read or heard a word I wrote or spoke in 1980 is today slapping his palm to his forehead and exclaiming: "Gadzooks! George Will favored Reagan!"
Some journalists are raising serious questions about the sort of contacts that are correct for journalists of various kinds to have with political and governmental events of various kinds. To those who ask: Should you have accepted access to Wexford?, my reply is: I think so. It was a valuable chance to see certain gears and pulleys of the political backstage. I recommend the experience to some persons who today seem to have strange assumptions about how politicians at the highest levels of our life go about their craft.
Would I accept a similar invitation again? Wild horses could not drag me. This, for three reasons. First, some of the questions now being raised seem to me to have merit. Second, it makes so many people anxious. Third, my relationship with ABC is now formal and different. (Then I generally appeared in a semi-debate format with a more liberal person.)
Anyway, another invitation is a temptation I do not expect to have to master. I am bemused--and Reagan may be even more so--by the notion that I am too supportive of Reagan the president. I have become annoying (I know, because millions of readers tell me so, trenchantly) by reiterating the quintessentially un-Reaganite doctrine that we are, as a nation, undertaxed. (That idea recently caused a Reaganite editor to cancel my column--a rather touching protest against elementary arithmetic.)
I am the proud author of what I think is the most quoted and savage sentence yet written about the Reagan administration (that the lifting of the grain embargo showed that the administration "loves commerce more than it loathes communism"). And I have just published a book that has National Review and other custodians of pure Reaganism mad as hornets because it argues--irrefutably, if I do say so myself--that Reagan's kind of conservatism is in important particulars unsuited to contemporary life.
And now it occurs to me that I may have another problem. Recently I had separate lunches with two Democratic candidates, Fritz Hollings and John Glenn. We talked politics and swapped ideas: what their problems are in contesting the nomination, Reagan's vulnerabilities, what a Democratic campaign should look like. I wonder if something I said constituted "advice" or "coaching." Those fellows--professionals at the top of their profession and the peak of their powers--need advice from amateurs like me about as much as Glenn needs flying lessons from me. However, just in case, and for the record: Senators, strike everything I said after "Please pass the butter."