Is the current good feeling for the president in the wake of the assassination attempt a signal of a new esteem for this president? Are the American people going to allow themselves to reward the apparently extraordinary grace and style Ronald Reagan exhibited following the assassination attempt by adding him to the pantheon we've created for the likes of John Kennedy and even Lyndon Johnson in the beginning of his term? l
Or, is our current mood a temporary extension of Reagan's honeymoon from public criticism, to be gradually replaced by the negative mind-set we developed for Jimmy Carter and Jerry Ford?
If we follow the practice of the recent past, we'll soon turn our attention to the faults and frailties of this president, forgetting his apparent dignity and heroism in time of personal crisis. But how relevant, really, is a preoccupation with either extreme of personal behavior?
As a people we have developed a pronounced ambivalence about the office and the man. We rejected the imperial presidency of Richard Nixon and the populist presidency of Carter. We've occupied ourselves with the foibles of First Ladies, First Brothers and First Daughters. And The Man himself we hold to a standard that demands the best "American" character traits, but at the same time we expect decisive boldness and slashing action to cure our problem with the stroke of a pen.
We take pride in investing our "citizen leader" with national characteristics. So it's natural to expect that, when our frustration again increases about inflation, high energy costs or unemployment -- as it certainly will -- we'll start searching for some inherent defect at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to explain our fall from grace. Somehow, the president personally is held to account for our inability to recapture our World War II preeminence and leadership, for our lowered expectations and for our reduced vision.
To be sure, presidents deserve it to some extent. They tend to take credit for all the achievements of our society, not just of their administrations. And when things go wrong, any malaise they are ill-advised enough to talk about is thrown back through the White House gates.
It may be postulated for Reagan, as it was for Carter and Ford, that this man really is not "a president" in the Rooseveltian sense. He's simply a man who has been elected to the presidency. The constant media coverage lets us know him as we would if we were his valet, but "to his valet there is no great man."
Imagine a present-day president asking the news media, as FDR did, not to photograph him on crutches. And imagine our image of Roosevelt if the media had handled his crutches the same way it handled Ford bumping his head on a helicopter door or Carter mentioning that a rabbit attacked his fishing boat.
The negative impressions the American people develop about their presidents affect their ability to assess them rationally. Ford's IQ ranks in the 98 percentile. He is a graduate of America's finest colleges. He had sufficient intellect to be selected by Republican members of Congress to be their leader. And yet, large numbers of Americans considered him not adequately intelligent to be a good president.
Likewise, Carter appointed as many black Americans to senior government posts as had all his predecessors combined. In just four years, he increased by 70 percent the amount of federal dollars directed to black households. Yet large numbers of black leaders opposed his reelection on the grounds that he had done nothing for the black community.
Prior to Vietnam and Watergate, international survey research showed that Americans far surpassed citizens of other nations in believing that their government and national leaders were acting in their best interests. tAfter Vietnam and Watergate, surveys showed that we Americans were no longer unique in that respect. We've lost our innocence.
It may be good that we are hesitant to give our presidents more power than any man can handle. But, how have we adjusted our expectations of them as leaders and as human beings?
Our nation's conduct over the last few months has been an example of how we used to treat our presidents. Members of Congress have displayed a paucity of unfair criticism. They are making allowances for minor mistakes, in sharp contrast to the treatment Carter and Ford received after their honeymoons ended.
News coverage of the last few months has focused pointedly on those programs and proposals that are the official business of a president. There has been a pleasant absence, for instance, of news stories about a first lady's expectation regarding her daughter's premarital sexual practices.
People outside Washington haven't displayed the intolerance they showed for Carter and Ford after the first six months of their presidencies. They still seem willing to give this president the benefit of the doubt.
It may sound unusual for lifelong Democrats to say this, but we hope Reagan's honeymoon is prolonged.
Let's criticize him and his programs when we think he and they are wrong -- but only then.
Let's condemn the alternatives he lays before us for solving our nation's problems -- but only when we have better solutions.
Let's deal with him as president and not as a private person: let's keep away from those matters that don't directly affect his performance in that job. a
Finally, let's understand the short-run insolvability of some of the problems facing our country and the president as the nation's leader.
Some of the performance problems experienced by Ford and Carter were direct results of the president and his people reacting to and being preoccupied with extraneous issues. Foreign governments sense such a presidential weakness and take advantage of it, to our nation's detriment.
Changing America's negative mind-set toward its president is of crucial importance to the long-term strength of our nation. Let's do what each of us can to help -- not just Reagan, but the institutions that give our government its strength and power. Let's keep the presidency presidential.