I am indebted to Lou Cannon, political reporter for Washington's preeminent morning newspaper, for running his fingers over the lumps and proud auburn hairs of Ronald Reagan's noodle and conveying to posterity this would-be president's Weltanschauung complete with quotations. Cannon reports that Reagan "sees a complex world in starkly simple terms." Worse still, Reagan's "vision of America is constructed of textbook images frozen in time;" and he "sees Soviet expansion in much the same way Roosevelt did Nazi aggression." Now remember, Roosevelt has been dead for 35 years! Even the Roosevelt children are full of years.
As an added service to concerned readers, Cannon produces quotations straight from the horse's mouth. For instance, in 1978 Reagan made bold to say: "At the heart of our [Republican] message should be five simple, familiar words . . . family, work, neighborhood, freedom, peace." Those words frighten me. I thought we had moved beyond these ancient concepts, these simple slogans, these stereotypes. Cannon provides other Reagan utterances apropos the conduct of foreign policy, the nature of society and domestic political issues; but let us decorously pass on.
In these bewildering times, will all the arcane forces working their devious wills against our great leaders, my frail consitution can take only so much dispiriting news. This fellow Reagan might be our next president, and so I have sought comfort and intellectual stimulation in the pensees of Sen. Edward Kennedy and that Lincolnesque figure now brooding in the White House. Reading them is a soothing balm after all those simple, outdated Reaganisms.
With his unerring sense of history, Prof. Henry Steele Commager has compiled some of Kennedy's most complex thoughts in one majestic volume, "Our Day and Generation: The Words of Edward M. Kennedy." It is a volume I cherish.
On May 18, 1976, Kennedy declared: "In foreign policy, we stand for peace with every nation, a defense strong enough to deal with any possible foe, and progress for the billions of people on this planet less fortunate than ourselves." On July 27, 1972, he sang: "We do not need more study. We do not need more analysis. We do not need more rhetoric. What we need is more leadership and more commitment." And on Aug. 12, 1977: "I see America now, moving beyond the Age of the Soldier and entering the Age of Justice, an age of challenge and opportunity that can be the most satisfying and rewarding and productive of all the ages of our nation. The question of our generation and our children's generation is, how long can America make its Age of Justice last?"
Southeast Asians, Eastern Europeans, Africans, Cubans and now Afghans are currently asking just this question. Foreign ministers in every NATO country also ask how long it will last. And Kennedy's complicated, forward-looking utterances keep on coming. Last week he asserted: "We're going to see a whole lot of auto plants and eat a whole lot of tacos." Let Prof. Commager remeber that stunning declaration when he compiles his next chrestomathy of Kennedy bulls.
Nor is Kennedy the only Cicero at work in our time. The public record is luminous with our great president's solemnities. On Jan. 27, 1980, he observed that "there are a lot of barefoot people in our country still, and they are looking to you and to me to alleviate their problems." Now there is a visionary statement for you. Let Reagan match it, or let him attempt to conceptualize statecraft with the analytical hugeness that our president manifested when he let fall this assertion: "I don't think there's any way you can separate responsibilities of being a husband or a father and a basic human being from that of being a good president. What I do in the White House is to maintain a good family life, which I consider to be crucial to being a good president."
As Cannon reminds us, "Though the world has changed, Ronald Reagan has not." Here is a melancholy thought. Had Reagan changed with the times, he might have been able to stand with Kennedy and watch us enter Kennedy's Age of Justice back in 1977. He might have stood with our president and seen all those barefoot Americans back in January.
In brief, Reagan might have become, like Kennedy and Carter, creatures of our time. I leave it to you to decide whether such men are statesmen worthy of emulation or accessories after the fact. I leave it to you to decide whether, when one enters a room ful of drunks, one's obligation is to join in the drunkeness or to throw the rascals out. And finally, given the times and the candidates, how relevant are Cannon's misginings?