It was by no means the first time he had been underated.Just 10 months before he would drive the incumbent engineer from the White House in a national landslide, he, a two-term governor of the nation's largest state, had been dismissed this way by the nation's most prominent columnist; "a pleasant man, who without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be president."
The prominent columnist was not alone in patronizing the "pleasant man"; others besides Walter Lipmann had equally inflattering things to say in 1932 about Franklin Roosevelt.
For weeks now, supporters of the new conservative Republican president have been busy inviting just such comparisons. Ronald Reagan is manifestly pleasant, and he has fashioned a truly remarkable political career at least in part by being constantly underestimated by his adversaries and his critics.
The new official designation, it now appears, is Communicator. President Reagan is a communicator, and so were Presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy. All of this may be true and may as well be beneficial to the republic. But is not without its price to our politics. For we Americans understandably do want our presidents and our country to succeed and prosper. But our optimism every four years effectively outruns our experience. For at least our last five presidencies, we have been collectively addicted to seeing and trumpeting in our new presidents those qualities that we found lacking in their predecessors.
When Jerry Ford replaced Richard Nixon, who among us did not salute President Ford's openness and naturalness? Ford was and is both open and natural; Richard Nixon was never either. But openness and naturalness did not translate into reelection.
By that time, we were looking for, and of course discovering Jimmy Carter, competence and intellect. Four years ago about this time, there was uninterrupted rhapsodizing over the prospects of a presidency constituted of equal parts compassion and competence. In an earlier and happier time, we did not go through such convulsions. Then we generally defined the qualities we prized in our presidents by the character and the personality of the incumbent president. Even the most anti-New-Deal Republicans of the day sought in a president the same qualities of leadership, eloquence and self-confidence that they saw in FDR. The Republicans simply did not like the man or his policies.
Even as late as 1960, John Kennedy's major obstacle to his election -- besides his Catholicism -- was his perceived lack of experience. Kennedy was running then to succeed the uniquely experienced Dwight Eisenhower.
True, Jimmy Carter did not appear to enjoy the company of politicians or, for that matter, to appreciate the importance of non-electoral politics. He instead seemed to thrive on the substance and the specifics of programs and policies. For the time he was there, Carter was arguably the most able staff man in the entire federal system.
Reagan is more pragmatic than programmatic, we are told. One impressed House Democrat even converted Reagan's earlier unfamiliarity with the Washington acronym of cost-of-living adjustment into a professional compliment: "He probably doesn't know a COLA from a Dr. Pepper, but he sure understands the personal touch in politics."
We are optimistic and encouraged once again because our new president is not like the last one who disappointed us. Reagan is applauded because he does not footnote his own speechs, and because he keeps regular work hours and because he communicates with other politicans and the public. And to keep track of all those thousands of details on all those hundreds of federal programs, Ronald Reagan even has his own Jimmy Carter -- David Stockman.
But before it can happen again, let's give him -- and us -- a break. Out of fairness to the president, and the nation, let's suspend all beautification proceedings until at least next Labor Day.