You get the idea, wandering around Washington, that people here will forgive Ronald Reagan just about anything but his confounding of our set political patterns and cycles. He is due for a "slump in the polls" shortly or a "series of setbacks" or -- God knows -- maybe even a "plunge." But whichever it is, he'd better have it. Otherwise, how is he going to be qualified for his "comeback" in January? What will there be to come back from? You can sense people's discomfort with the idea that things aren't going quite according to schedule.
This is dire business. It is also typical of Reagan's defiance of those rhythms and rituals by which we live in this town. I have in mind the great moving consensus that decides what are a leader's strengths and weaknesses and perils and prospects at any given moment, changing these on (roughly) a fiscal-quarterly basis and (most important) somehow psyching out a president or candidate in the process, so that he is sooner or later transformed into the cliche we have of him. He starts living it. Then we put on a new cliche. It is sort of like a slide show.
Just about one year ago, at the end of the Republican convention in Detroit, Reagan, who was too old and too right wing and too intellectually limited to be nominated, was nominated and embarked upon an effort to unseat Jimmy Carter that was doomed because, in addition to his aforementioned disabilities, he was also too bellicose and too self-evidently reckless and too uninformed on policy to make it, especially -- poor devil -- if Carter took out after him. Since his election, Reagan, who was bound to be stymied when he discovered that it was impossible to cut sums like those he was talking about from the federal budget, has been . . . etc., etc.
This it, to date, the most extraordinary thing about the Reagan presidency, to my mind, anyway; the capacity of the man to elude our fixed and usually oddly self-fulfilling analysis. Such analysis, trendy and influential at once, is in part a product of laziness, in part of group suggestibility and in part of the need for predictability, order and ostensible logic in our political life. Something happens and we say, "Oh, well . . . it must be because of this . . ." or "It must mean that . . ." or "He's doing just what predecessor X did and we all remember [here a weary smile] how that came out."
I don't know, as I write, how the CIA director's fate will be disposed of. But I do know that the disposition of the case of his subordinate Max Hugel was almost cruel in its disruption of the gathering sense of doom and drama to be played out to a bitter end: professions of innocence and of victimization by a vicious press, matched by professions of undying loyalty and support from on high, leaks of damaging new information, hearings on the Hill, posturings, failure following protracted embarrassment. It seemed the least we could expect -- only it didn't happen that way. Departure followed expose in a matter of hours. Hugel was gone before you could say, "I'm proud of you, Bert" or I'm a thousand percent behind you" or "He is not a crook."
I know I am not talking about Reagan's being right here; that central judgement really isn't what it's about. I'm not even talking necessarily about his being smart in the sense of politically cunning. Reagan does surely seem to be that, but I think there are some other qualities that enable him so successfully and consistently to fetch up someplace other than where the conventional wisdom thinks he is headed at the moment.
One is a capacity to speak in a normal, familiar (from ordinary life), plausible voice. This gift, utterly rare in successful politicians at the top of their profession, can enable them to sound credible while saying the most incredible things. Reagan has it. Unlike 99 percent of his ambitious breed, he (and some of his top staff share this) does not exude anxiety or defensiveness or duplicity or aggression while he is speaking the most simple pieties. He sounds as if he means them. He will say homely things in a homely way that makes you believe they are authentic as an explanation of why he is doing something or of what he thinks happened or will happen.
"You tell me you're going to Minsk so I'll think you're going to Pinsk, when you really are going to Minsk -- so why do you always lie to me?" Thus the ancient joke. Ronald Reagan, however, really is going to Minsk and you never doubt it for a moment when he says so. You may not want to go with him (especially if we are to travel by MX missile), but that is another issue. To use our favorite word from high school, he sounds more "sincere" than anyone else in the room, and we are so starved for this we tend to forget that we aren't so crazy about the objects of his sincerity -- some of us, anyway. The result is that it is the commentators and observers generally who sound, in the classic manner of politicians, kind of tinny and contrived and implausible, responding to some timetable for slumps and comebacks and the rest, while Reagan stands outside their characterization of him and his condition.
He is also agile, quick moving, good at surprise and at seizing the initiative -- witness the nomination of Mrs. O'Connor, the playing of Congress like a violin, the fact that he has stayed in charge of the debate and the politics of this town since he got here. During every administration at just about this time, we start worrying that there is no foreign policy or that the parts of it don't hang together. We are doing that now and he keeps interrupting with bulletins from someplace else or comparable disturbances that begin to make the criticism look empty and somewhat disconnected from the subject it is aiming to describe. (Does Reagan not understand that we need to get on with this no-foreign-policy business so we can complete it in time for the First Big Domestic Setback early in the fall?)
A Democratic senator told me the other day he thought Reagan's great talent was his manifest ability to say no. It demonstrated to people that he could govern, manage, be in charge. I can't say I'm very pleased with what Reagan says not to -- or yes. A great deal of the time it seems to me he's got it the wrong way around. But I know what the senator was saying. mReagan may yet slump, slide, be set back or plunge. But I don't think he will be like the others. He's too normal for that.