Things always get a little upchucky in Washington about now. The trendies, of course, are first to go. Thus, some of those who have done the most over the years to undermine liberalism by getting it idenfified with their own extravagant, inane or authoritarian ideas are now busily explaining that liberalism is quite justly and unregrettably dead of -- guess what? -- its own extravagance, inanity and authoritarianism. And others who have spent the past year defaming Ronald Reagan as a bloodthirsty, wizened monster were a-squeal last week with the "revelation" that -- are you ready? -- he is not. Their revised appreciation was almost as gooey as their original portrayal had been cruel.
This part of the reaction to Reagan's triumph and his subsequent visit to Washington was corrupt. Another part was pathological. We really do want a daddy for president, and in the capital's jostling to be noticed, known and loved by the new president last week, and in its freely offered obeisances and awe, you could see the process of daddy-fication going on.
I don't want to overdo this thing. Obviously, the respectful response of many people to Reagan's gestures since his election has proceeded from a decent and straightforward hope that his presidency will succeed. And obviously, too, the president-elect's magnanimity and sure-footedness have been factors. But watching Reagan make his way through a Washington that was manic with pleasure and excitement last week, I couldn't help wondering if he knew that this was par for the course, that this is what we do to presidents around here -- just before we do them in. t
I'm using the all-purpose, all-encompassing "we" in this context, meaning the town, the government, the public, the press, the system -- the works. America gangs up on its presidents and ruins them, and it always begins with an adoring smile. Arduous and draining as it is, it is easier, I think, for a man to be elected president than to become president, to acquire and weild that peculiar authority that doesn't just "go with" the job, but actually defines it. And to some extent we impair a man's ability to acquire such authority, first, by deluding him into thinking he already has it with our post-election burst of attention to and solicitude for his every move and whim.
But this we tend to withdraw as capriciously as we first gave it. Four years ago the town was giddy with grits talk, and people were lined up twelve deep to meet Hamilton Jordon. It was a memory that haunted Jordan's newly silent, packing-case-littered office the other day when I was there -- even as the press pack was thundering by in pursuit of a visiting Reagan. Yet more is at play here than a four-year love-the-ins/forget-the-outs turnabout. This cycle, a kind of up-and-down approval rating, takes only a few months to complete one full turn and then start over. The important fact about the cycle is that the changes seem to have almost nothing to do with merit or performance, and everything to do with current fashion.
The impact of this on a president can hardly be benign. We encourage arrogance and/or self-pity when, in the grip of a rosy mood, we let a president get away with murder and, in the grip of a bleak one, refuse to acknowldege his achievements. And, by its nature, this cyclical pattern misleads any incumbent seeking a standard for measuring his success.
I think some sort of simple and misbegotten self-righting principle accounts for these swings, just as it accounts for a second way in which we confound a president's likelihood of succeeding: we keep him in a continual cross fire of a particular criticism, charging, from one side, that he is simply doing boring old business as usual, and from the other, that he has affronted all the conventional and essential norms and doesn't know what the hell he is doing. We want him to be an insider when he's being an outsider and vice versa. Especially in this city, we will work ceaselessly, night and day, to get a president into the "mainstream" -- and then look up in disillusion and disappointment and ask him what he's doing there. Finally, we are equally ambivalent on the daddy-fication issue: we at once long for and fear a politically towering, masterful figure as president.
Leave aside Jimmy Carter's individual faults. In some respects his presidency crashed because he could not resolve or transcend any of these conflicts. We loved his walking the inaugural route, despised his equally humble bearing when he was embodying American power. We groaned at his clunky outsider's ineptitude, but abominated most of all the failures of his handpicked insiders, establishment government. And we roller-coastered him unconscionably for four years, from peaks of approbation to sudden abyss falls of contempt, although he couldn't have kept changing that much.
How does a president find his voice and his power in all that? Some of Reagan's wiser friends and counselors are urging a kind of big, dramatic, shock-laden economic program for openers, mainly to bust up (permanently for him, they hope) the cyclical patterns getting started -- the patterns of slow-going trimming and retreat that will have him on a popularity downturn and a doomed course by late spring. Some are talking of the need to restore to the White House and it's works a sense of grandeur and importance that has been lacking. And everywhere there is a determination not to repeat the Carter errors of isolation and even coldness.
So far so good. But finally it will depend on the acuity and toughness of the man. We really do not know about Reagan, as we knew about Nixon or Johnson or Kennedy or Carter, why he wanted to be president. He doesn't exhibit the familiar neurosis. We don't quite see the drive. Will it manifest itself surely and successfully in an assumption of the authority of the office? Will he acquire the power and use it well? His Washington well-wishers should be telling him at the moment that 1) everything in government is stacked against his doing so and 2) the current gush, while in some part well intended, can be both misleading and a tip-off of colder times to come.