There was a man from Washington on the network news here the other night talking about Ronald Reagan. He said Reagan gets his facts wrong, but his supporters -- his "fan club" -- do not care. They are "true believers," the television reporter said, and facts do not matter to them.
"The reporters are trying to do this," says Thomas C. Parsons, a 66-year-old insurance man, pillar of the Altoona Republican Boosters Club, and a true believer since 1961, when he read a Reagan speeech called "Losing Freedom by Installments" and was so impressed that he had 200 copies made.
"Did you know a reporter went up and took a hair off his head and had it analyzed?" says Parsons, with the air of someone whose infinite innate patience is being sorely tested. "Did you know that? That's the level they've stooped to. And they haven't found a thing on him. We don't expect a man to be a walking encyclopedia."
A lot of people in Altoona would agree with Parsons. This drab, depressed mountain city is almost certain to give Reagan a big majority in Tuesday's Republican primary, despite his lack of an organization here, despite the never-ending barrage of George Bush ads on the radio, and despite what journalists are saying about Reagan and facts.
Random Washington Post interviews with about 55 registered voters in Altoona, half of them Democrats, half republicans, and most more than 50 years old and with annual family incomes of less than $10,000 a year showed Reagan running neck and neck with President Carter as the preferred presidential candidate among them.
Those interviews also showed dramatically what Reagan's main strategic advantage has been: that he is the only presidential candidate this year who has a sizable constituency in place when he started running. Nearly three-fourths of those who said they support Reagan formed their opinion of him prior to the last few weeks. Only two of his supporters said they had decided to support Reagan only in the last few days.
The question -- why is it that these people like Reagan? -- is one that makes those in the political industry in Washington throw up their hands and resort to phases like "true believers." But from other interviews with strong Reagan supporters here, a clear picture of the nature of his appeal emerges.
There seem to be two strains in Reagan that make him popular among Republican voters in Altoona.
First, he is, like many presidential candidates since George Washington, a celebrity, and his celebrityhood is a quality that envokes in people not only admiration but also empathy -- the feeling that, while famous and successful, he is still an ordinary person like them.
Second, Reagan voters here see themselves as hard-working people to whose colossal detriment the main thrust of the activities of both government and business since World War Ii have worked. They believe Reagan understands their predicament better than any other candidate; and they believe a vote for Ronald Reagan is a vote against the way things are going.
The backdrop for these views is the decline of the Pennsylvania Railroad, which has been the central event in Altoona's recent history. Ever since the first half of the 19th century, Altoona has been the place where the railroad builds and repairs its cars. "The shops, " as the long, low red-brick diesel locomotive factory here is called, dominate the city economically, spiritually and even visually.
Back in the 1940s, 16,000 people worked in the shops, dozens of passenger trains passed through the town every day, and the railroad ruled Altoona. It built the hospital, the country club, the library, and the YMCA. It even imported much of the population directly from Europe to the shops.
Today the shops employ only 6,500 people, only one passenger train comes through a day, and the railroad is owned by a government-subsidized corporation. Despite a fairly successful effort by the local establishements to attract new industry, Altoona's population has fallen from its peak of 71,000 to about 60,000. The lobby of the Penn-Alto hotel is full of old railroaders talking about the good old days, and indeed the railroad is still the main topic of conversation in town.
"You wouldn't believe Regan's popularity in the shops," says Rick Geist, Altoona's 35-year-old state representative and an ardent Reagan supporter. "My friends are the intellect in town. They can tell you all the reasons why Reagan can't win. But you go down in the shops and it's a mystique for him. He has respect. It's almost like a father image. He has had a lot of guts to keep the same position for a number of years."
Geist is a civil engineer by trade, but every other man in his family has worked in the shops. The appeal of Reagan to him has a lot to do with the ethic of hard work and upward mobility of which he was raised. That's why George Bush turns him off.
"George Bush is, to me, the rich kid down the block," he says. "How many kids from Altoona are gonna go to Yale? How many have the opportunities he was automatically given? Ronnie Reagan is the grandfather next door. He started with nothing. He's built that American Dream. He's gonna be the guy who really understands Joe Lunchbucket's problems."
Like every other Reagan supporter interviewed, Geist mentioned federal welfare spending as a direct affront to the working person. The government spends about $7.5 million a year here in public assistance, as opposed to about $30 million in railroad retirement pensions. But the railroad retirees all worked hard for most of their lives, and the idea that federal taxes are used substantially to pay people not to work has tremendous power here.
"At one time in this area," says Winifred Schultz, a 57-year-old office manager in the shops, "the people on welfare had to work. And when the Kennedys came in, we got the directive here, they weren't allowed to put them to work."
"I think you can find a design to wipe out the middle class," says Schultz's friend Marjorie Adams, 53, who also works in the office at the shops. "You put all the peices together and there it is. It's people like us who are behind bars. The criminals are set free."
"I like the way Reagan faces the issues," says Schultz. "He has . . . he is not solely business. He is compassionate. He is against wasteful welfare. He believes in business, but he believes in people. In California he benefited the truly needy. He only stopped the fraud."
William Shiffler, a beefy 48-year-old who started his career in the shops and is now an administrator at Altoona's vocational-technical high school, agrees. "I like Reagan's stand on some of the welfare and giveaway programs," he says. "As a taxpayer, there's more and more leaving that I can't get my hands on. There are more and more living off the government that could be working for a living. I see myself as one of the people in the middle that's always being squeezed to pay for the rest."
The same goes for Ken Brubaker, 63, the manager of the cable television company in Altoona. "I know a boy 31 years old who's never had a job," he says. "He's living through welfare. He worked at the shops for one day and said, 'I'm not working any more.' I don't think the system should permit that. Part of what I worked very hard to get goes to these people who aren't deserving. That's probably the most serious problem I see with the government today."
As for Ronald Reagan the celebrity, perhaps the best way of getting at him is through Eddie Fisher, since that's how Myrna Greene did it.
In the winter of 1972, Greene thought she had only a year left to live. To lift her spirits, her husband, Clair, coordinator of the Altoona vo-tech school, drove her to Pittsburgh to see a concert by Fisher, who had been her childhood idol.
"I watched the aging baritone perform," Myrna Greene wrote later. "He made sad jokes about himself and his ex-wives. His voice cracked and he looked physically like the one who had been told he had only a year to live." Because she needed to take her mind off her own problems and because Fisher seemed to her to be a symbol of his age, Myrna Greene decided that night to write a book called "The Eddie Fisher Story," which was published in 1978.
"You grow up and think somebody's really great," says Myrna Greene today, sitting in her living room, her health recovered. "I thought Eddie Fisher was great -- he had it all. And as I started the book that's what I thought. And I began to find out some things about him -- drugs, women. And he kept falling, falling, falling.
"Ronald Reagan had it all too, but he didn't lose what he had. He didn't allow somebody else to rule his life. He's his own man. He's never done anything to detract from that. His public and private life are the same."
"It's, I must admit, kind of a gut feeling thing," adds Clair Greene. "I look at Reagan pretty much the way I look at myself. I think as a school administrator I have an image in the community. I shouldn't be seen coming out of a bar downtown. And Reagan has an image, too."
"It's not what he can do," the Greene's 16-year-old daughter Diane chimes in. "It's the image he can create."
"In all sincerity," says Myrna Greene, "we are lacking a hero figure. We've been lacking that. A father figure, a hero. America has no heroes anymore."
"I think there's a need for an allegiance to our country, a patriotism," says her husband. "Reagan to me is a man's man. I think he's a genuine guy. sHe's the type of guy, if you met him on the street, he would stop and talk to you. He wouldn't high-hand you."
"He's the type who's shake your hand and he wouldn't have a clammy handshake," says Diane.
Reagan, in other words, seems to combine the mythology of humble beginnings and hard work leading to success and fame with a sense that he is different from other famous people. In interview after interview, people in Altoona spoke bitterly of well-known politicians who were rich by inheritance, or power-mad, or promiscuous, but spoke fondly of Reagan as someone who had remained friendly and honest and connected to ordinary people.
As Myrna Greene points out in "The Eddie Fisher Story," "The American public has always been inclined to admire and respect heroes -- men and women of ordinary backgrounds who achieved greatness."
As she also points out, in recent years most of these heores "would eventually fall and bring about disillusionment, distrust, and lack of respect for what had once been positive values." At the same time, in politics, "government support of big business and industry . . . had now become coupled with government support of the poor and aged . . . The rich and powerful could avoid having to pay the tab for those programs, and the full financial responsibility would fall on the American Middle Class."
Feeling disillusioned and squeezed didn't decrease these people's desire for a hero. And in Altoona, some of them have found one.