Warning: Stop here if you can't stand to read another word about Ronald Reagan after his first year in office.
We live in a time of superlatives. Commercial games are acclaimed in advance as "super," the current performance is always hailed as the greatest, quality is measured by quantity and verbiage becomes our curse in all aspects of public life. So it comes as no surprise that the same traits encompass our politics, as the latest examples about the fortunes of Reagan amply demonstrate.
God knows what we would have made of Caesar had the noblest Roman completed the first 12 months of his reign in our age of "mass communications." Cast him in gold and mounted him on the highest hill of Rome with appropriate glare of klieg lights and breathless commentary, for sure. But we probably would offer no fewer words to explain him than we have done for our president after a similar brief period of leadership.
In the outpouring of stories, articles, assessments, analyses, voice-overs, stand-uppers, talking heads--you pick the best term to describe such an effusion--about the president's performance to date, perhaps the best comes from Reagan.
The day of sensational victories is over, he says. Now his followers must be prepared to move from the time "of glamor to the grit of the long road still ahead."
That, at least, suggests a nice perspective on his part about his past accomplishments and future problems. It also indicates a welcome touch of realism. He will need both perspective and realism in the days to come. It's encouraging to think that Reagan, unlike some of our recent leaders, doesn't appear to be kidding himself. He seems to understand that it's going to get tougher before it gets better.
If that's his reading, he's correct.
The 1982 political year looms as a make-or-break one, for him and for the country. While presidents possess far less of the power commonly ascribed to them, and their influence over events tends to be as exaggerated as the public fuss made over them, to an unusual degree Reagan stands at the center of fateful events. And with him, more than most presidents, his qualities as much as his policies hold the key to his ultimate success or failure.
Therein lies both his promise and his problem.
One thing you have to give this president: there's nothing complicated about trying to interpret him. His strengths are as obvious as his weaknesses. Draw up a ledger on him and it comes out something like this:
In his short time in office Reagan has clearly established himself as the president in the minds of his fellow citizens. That's not as simple as it sounds, nor is it by any means always the case with our chief executives.
Reagan exudes an indefinable presence that people, I believe, instinctively respond to as "presidential." Agree with his policies or not, you cannot fail to react to him. When he speaks, the country will listen. That in itself is a considerable accomplishment, one absent from a number of our recent presidential experiences and one entirely of Reagan's making.
It means he still has a great opportunity to lead the nation despite a dramatic, if not unprecedented, drop in virtually every public opinion survey about how well Americans think he's doing his job after his year in the White House.
And it's Reagan's personality, not his policies, that is responsible for his continued opportunity at genuine leadership. He radiates a kind of cheeriness and good will that I, and I suspect millions of others, think of as somehow vintage American. He appears totally at ease with himself and doesn't need to prove anything to anyone, again, traits missing from well-remembered presidencies when deviousness, egoism, rage, deception, tortured introspection and paranoia were operative norms.
With Reagan, you don't think he's trying to put anything over on you and that he sincerely believes what he says. In fact, his consistency stands as one of his virtues. There should be no surprise, from any segment of American life, about the policies and actions Reagan has taken so far. Nor should anyone be in doubt about what he stands for. He has laid out his views unmistakably over the years before coming to Washington, and stuck with them as president.
In that respect, perhaps his greatest strength lies in compelling the nation to assess the rightness or wrongness of his beliefs in this critical period of our history.
If he is judged to be correct, then he will truly have set the nation on a new course and brought about something approaching a political "revolution," that overworked word so often applied to him. If not, the consequences of failure will be far greater than merely the fall of another president.
They were all on display for all to see, disturbingly, at his latest news conference.
With Reagan as with no other president I can remember, you have a sense of acute unease when he talks extemporaneously. As David S. Broder commented a few days ago, you do literally hold your breath when he speaks. You fear he's going to make some terrible gaffe that will embarrass him, and the country. No one wants to see an American president in that position.
It's more than a matter of mistakes over facts and figures. To put it bluntly, you wonder if he knows what he's talking about. That concern becomes all the more crucial as we sail, full ahead, under his leadership into uncharted and dangerous waters with an unproven and potentially disastrous economic program. What if he's wrong? What suffering will have been wrought needlessly? What long-term damage will have been done to the nation and its people?
That leads to a final observation, and worry. It remains the central puzzle about Reagan as president.
For all his personal warmth and charm and, yes, the decency he exudes, Reagan seems surprisingly, if not shockingly, unconcerned about the problems of others and the hurt his actions may be causing them.
Whether it's a case of Reagan being unaware or insensitive or just out of touch too long with the lives of ordinary citizens are questions beyond the reach of this observer. But I'm certain of this:
Americans do not want to see another failed presidency, and will give Reagan more time and their support in hopes that he will succeed. I also believe they are willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the country. They will endure hardship if they think it necessary and if the pain is borne by all.
They will turn, though, on a leader they think unfair. While their judgment about Reagan in this respect remains to be fully formed, I think his presidency stands in peril on this point. After a year in office Reagan gives the impression he represents the few instead of the many. Only he can reverse that impression. As I say, it's a personal matter rather than a policy one.