In a few hours of video melodrama from the Republican National Convention, American voters got a quick education on how Ronald Reagan might operate as president in the White House.
His political instincts are sure and pragmatic. He tries for the best outcome, even if it means a long reach toward the improbable.
His decision-making, however, can be hesitant and reactive. He lets himself be pulled along by events, listening to this group and that group. Sometimes those events can pull him off the track he wanted to follow.
Would Gerald R. Ford be his running mate? Would Reagan agree to share his presidential powers? The TV audience, in a few hours of rapid flashes, heard conflicting answers. Yes. Maybe. Finally, no
Confronted with mass confusion, Reagan moved swiftly to his second choice, George Bush. The matter was settled, but not to everyone's delight.
Reagan's campaign counselors hope and believe that his wavering performance Wednesday night will not damage his candidacy significantly, but even they acknowledge what critics were saying today more forecefully: that it was a bad show for the former actor.
The American audience, the voters, may soon forget the Ford fiasco as a passing political snarl. Still, it accurately reflects how Reagan looks upon the presidency.
When Reagan romanced Ford with the notion that the former president could be "a super-director of the executive office of the presidency," he was acting on his basic belief that the U.S. government is not so different from a giant corporation.
The president serves as "chairman of the board," and delegates operating roles to the managers beneath him. Whether or not this would work for the federal government, it is the same concept Reagan put into practice as governor of California, and he liked the results. His state cabinet became part of a working management team, the same approach he would like to bring to the White House.
Reagan's political instincts told him to go after Ford as his running mate, to choose his old rival for Republican leadership, even though Ford has a different ideological outlook and a different party base.
That pragmatism -- some would call it cynicism -- is also characteristic of Reagan's political behavior. Despite his powerful oratory on conservative principles, Reagan is perfectly willing and usually able to reach outside the conservative camp for appointments and support when he feels it is necessary.
While Republican delegates were debating the ideological merits of "moderate," George Bush vs. the "conservative" Jack F. Kemp, Reagan was doing what Lyndon B. Johnson or Jimmy Carter might have done -- taking a poll to see where the voters stood.
What he found from the polling was that every potential running mate except Ford would hurt his candidacy in varying degrees. The best thing for Reagan, the poll said, would be to run alone. Since he couldn't do that, the next best thing was to take Ford as his running mate.
Ford seemed unavailable, however, and there were those in the Reagan entourage who came to look on the survey as a boost for Bush, who was clearly the second-best running mate. But Reagan read the poll literally.
If Ford really was the best, Reagan seemed to believe, why not go out and get him?
The package had political appeal, and Reagan is -- consistently and invariably -- a master politician.As governor of California, he kept key members of the inherited Democratic bureaucracy who could help him. This year, when conservatives, including his own campaign chairman, were after the scalp of Republican National Chairman Bill Brock, Reagan kept Brock. In every Reagan campaign, the candidate has tried to corral every moderate he could find and get him working for him.
Yet there is little evidence that Reagan and his managers foresaw the enormous constitutional implications of parceling presidential powers or the political difficulties of the idea they were entertaining.
The potential for trouble didn't dawn on them until it was suggested that -- out of this "dream ticket" of shared powers -- Reagan might wind up with Henry A. Kissinger again directing U.S. foreign policy. That was apparently enough to chill the entire proposition.
But what has bothered some people about Reagan, over the years, is not his political common sense or his comprehension of executive powers. What sometimes troubles them is the decision-making style revealed by episodes like the Ford bargaining.
Even some of his old allies were shaking their heads today, believing the political damage was slight but acknowledging embarrassment. Once more, Reagan had flirted with disaster, and been forced to put out a fire his own indecision had ignited.
Reagan's style is to let his advisers propose while he disposes. He has the valuable quality of not looking back on decisions, but also the limiting one of sometimes being unable to make them. Often, his political sense comes to the rescue, and he gallops in at the last moment, like some hero in a B movie, to rescue the girl tied to the railroad tracks.
What Reagan had to rescue this time was the vice presidential selection process, which Ford's rejection had imperiled. The No. 1 choice had turned Reagan down, so there was only one thing to do: take the second-best running mate. Quickly. This time, there was no indecision. Reagan knew that Bush wouldn't turn him down. "Call George Bush," the candidate told an aide.
This last-minute solution was unnecessary. For weeks, Reagan had had before him the information on which to base the decision he made in a few high-pressure moments before mid-night Wednesday. Is this any way to run a railroad? Maybe not, but it might be typical if Reagan becomes the chief executive.
In the end, Reagan reached the Republican convention hall in the nick of time early today, made a dramatic entrance just before adjournment and saved the situation with graceful speech announcing the selection of Bush. His audience was satisfied, even delighted, and Reagan departed without explaining much of anything about what had happened to him.
So, one of the slower decision-makers in the West once more survived a test, made a pragmatic and even moderate decision, and emerged with his constituency intact.
But the lingering doubts that have always been there were heightened by the episode. This time Reagan came to the rescue of his own confusion. What would happen, as president if he id not get there in time?