President Reagan leaned forward in his chair, his thin stack of 3-by-5 index cards palmed discreetly for reference, and eased into the lobbying, up close and personal, of one more Oval Office guest.
"I understand you are on the tax writing committee," he said to Rep. James R. Jones (D-Okla.), "and I'd like your support on the tax bill."
This came as something of a surprise to Jones who, while a member of the tax writing Ways and Means Committee, also chairs the House Budget Committee. Unlike the other members of Congress with whom the president met in a hectic week of tax bill lobbying, Jones thought he had worked out an agreement with Reagan's aides that his talk with the president would be limited to budget reconciliation on which he intended to be helpful, not the Reagan tax cut on which he did not.
Jones responded, he recalls, by trying to turn the discussion to budget reconciliation. But the upcoming tax cut showdown in the House was understandably on Reagan's mind, and his tax cut index cards were conveniently at hand. So the president pressed on:
"Since you've been helpful to me on budget reconciliation, why can't you help on our tax bill?"
They went on that way for a bit, with the president talking tax cut, at times referring to his index cards, and Jones responding budget reconciliation, at times wondering what he was doing there. He was sitting in the presence of the Great Communicator, and together they were having a failure to communicate.
At the time, Reagan was working toward one of the greatest legislative and personal triumphs of contemporary presidencies -- a Republican tax-cut victory in a Democratic-controlled House that would mean a quick, clean sweep of his supply-side economic policies.
He was doing it with a presidential lobbying blitz that blended basic skills of mass communicating and one-on-one politicking, and raised both to a state of high presidential art.
Now, with the deed done, it is worthwhile to take a close look at how Reagan works his feats of politics and persuasion in those private sessions that are never made part of the president's publicly released schedule.
He does it not with a hard sell, as did Lyndon B. Johnson, the last president able to lay claim for a while to being King of the Hill. Instead, Reagan does it, according to the persuaded ones, mainly by listening and promising at least to look into whatever he is being asked to deliver or do. He does it by laying out his case in a low-key way, marshalling a few statistics and arguments to make his points. And he often does it, even in those one-on-one sessions, with the support of 3-by-5 index cards.
But on that day, not even those considerable charms could work their way with Jones, a fiscally conservative Democrat who hopes to ascend to high places in House leadership.
"I want to be honest," Jones recalls saying after a while. "I think both tax bills are bad for the economy." He went on to say he thought 1984 would find America locked in continued deficit spending coupled with high interest rates. The Republican tax cut bill made matters worse, he said, by indexing tax brackets to adjust for inflation, which guarantees reduced government revenues, while half of the budget expenditures are also indexed to compensate for inflation, which guarantees increased government spending.
"I think you and the country are sitting on a real time bomb," Jones concluded, pretty much ending this performance of friendly persuasion in one act that starred the president, plus a distinguished supporting cast: Vice President Bush, Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan and presidential advisers James A. Baker III and Edwin Meese III.
As one White House official recalls, the meeting with Jones marked the only time Reagan did not have his way with those members of the House he saw privately. And he proved almost as successful with others he saw in groups of threes and fours in the last days before the big tax cutting vote.
In the epic budget cutting votes earlier this year and in the more recent vote enacting three years of tax cuts, much attention has been focused on Reagan's success in luring the boll weevils, as those conservative southern Democrats call themselves, to his conservative cause. But in fact, the president's strategists believe he faced a far more difficult task in holding the moderate and liberal Republicans of the North and East firmly in his fold.
After all, it was not philosophically or even politically difficult for a Democratic congressman to explain to his fellow southern conservatives back home why he had voted for cuts in liberal programs that are unpopular in his district, or for bigger tax cuts. But it was difficult for northern Republicans to explain why they were voting for cuts in some programs so popular in their urban and industrial districts, and why they were voting for a Reagan tax cut that Democrats charged was skewed to benefit wealthy individuals and big business and oil interests.
"Sometimes the hardest thing is to hold your own people in line," says one Reagan strategist, pleased with the fact that only one Republican, James M. Jeffords of Vermont, eventually did not rally to the cause. There was a time when prospects looked considerably worse.
Consider the way the president politicked Rep. Margaret M. Heckler (R-Mass.).
The afternoon before the crucial tax cut vote, she was invited into the Oval Office for a chat. Waves of public support for the president's plan, stirred by his masterful television speech the night before, were already swamping the telephone lines and mailrooms on Capitol Hill. Still, Heckler had considerable problems with the Reagan bill and she says she told the president that when they sat down.
She told the president his economic package meant serious problems in her region and asked him to support a Northeast-Midwest Economic Action Council. He said he would consider it and asked adviser Baker to take notes.
She mentioned her concern that Reagan's across-the-board tax cuts would benefit most those earning more than $50,000. "Well, the third-year tax cut will benefit everyone," she recalls him saying. "And so it will therefore help those earning $50,000 and under, too."
All the while, Reagan made good use of his index cards. "He would flip through the cards to find the issues I raised," Heckler said. Reagan glanced at the cards and then reminded her he had included tax credits for high technology research and development, which she had earlier championed. And in the end, she told the president she had been persuaded to back his bill.
While Lyndon Johnson twisted more arms than Gorgeous George, this president prefers to start off lightly and persuade gently, as when four southern Democrats came calling. The president began by saying, "I guess you're wondering why I've called you here today." Since, of course, there was no wonderment, one congresssman, William V. Chappell Jr. of Florida, joked that it must be about a new Air Force bomber. "I guess you want to talk to us about the B1," he said. Reagan fired a pun in reply:
"Yes. Will you be one of my tax bill supporters?"
As they got down to business, Rep. L. H. Fountain (D-N.C.) asked Reagan what assurances he had that his economic assumptions for the next three years will be accurate. He says Reagan replied: "I just have faith it will work out all right."
Fountain pursued, asking if Reagan really thought interest rates would come down to 7.8 percent, as the president's advisers say. Reagan replied: "I just have faith they'll come down."
Fountain, who has been around long enough to have been lobbied by every president since Eisenhower, observed later: "I've met with various other presidents but no other one was like this. He never asked me to vote for his legislation directly." But Fountain did, just the same.
In front of a fellow politician, as well as in front of a camera, Reagan made good use of his former training and skills.
He used his performing past to underscore his policy points, as when he chatted in his White House residence with Rep. John T. Myers (R-Ind.), who was worried that his supply-side plan would lead to greater deficits not greater productivity. Reagan had no index cards this time. "We were just like two neighbors talking over the fence," Myers says. But he had his memories of the golden age of Hollywood.
"Well, when I was in the movies," Myers recalls Reagan responding, to illustrate the supply-side theory, "I'd reach a point each year where after the second movie I'd be in the 90 percent bracket. So I wouldn't make any more movies that year. And it wasn't just me, but Bogart and Gable and the others did the same. We weren't the ones who were hurt. The people who worked the props and the people who worked in the yard, they were the ones who were hurt."
And he used his performing skills to make his persuasive talents work. "I wasn't really in need of much lobbying," said Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio). "But he is just a great personality in a one-on-one situation. You feel good about him."
He added with a touch of admiration: "You know, he had those index cards with him throughout our talk, but I didn't know he'd had them until I got the photos of the session from the White House photographers. And there we are, the two of us are talking, and he has note cards in his hand. I didn't even know he had them."
EPILOGUE: The next day, when the House voted, the president held the Margaret Hecklers and John Myerses and Ralph Regulas of his party in line and had won 48 Democrats to his tax cutting cause. Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), defeated and despondent, sat staring at the tally board that flashed the full meaning of what Reagan had just accomplished. Rep. Charles Wilson (D-Tex.) put an arm around the shoulders of his fellow Democrat and tried to console.
"Danny, cheer up. It could have been even worse."
"How could it be any worse?" the dispirited Rostenkowski asked.
"Well," Wilson replied, "he might have come out against f-----g."