Before he began his political career as governor of California, Ronald Reagan was asked about the potential advantages, and problems, an actor could carry with him into public life. In the age of television, wasn't it possible the actor-as-politician would be especially adept, if so inclined, at deceiving the people?
Reagan thought the opposite.
"The television close-up is more revealing than when an audience only saw a speaker on the platform," he told interviewer Tony Thomas, who later wrote a book about Reagan's Hollywood career. "Only those in the front row saw him up close. To the others he was just a small figure on the platform. When the camera comes in on a close-up the speaker had better be honest and mean what he says. Honesty comes through, and vice versa."
In Reagan's case as president it's not doubt about his honesty that creates a problem. A strong sense of integrity permeates his public appearances. Probably that quality remains his most powerful political asset.
Nor is there much question that he means what he says. You are convinced he does.
Something else comes through his performances, though, that continues to be troubling. Instead of questions of honesty, sincerity or conviction, it's the contradictions inherent in what he keeps saying that are causing him problems.
With him, it seems, the closer the focus the greater the contradictions--therefore, the more serious the confusion about what he says he believes.
Witness the latest evidence, culled from his appearances over the last week.
A week ago Saturday, in Barbados, speaking from his vacation cottage, the president heatedly took on those who have been sharply critical of his plan to cut college student loans. People have been misled, he maintained. Loans won't be cut, just administrative costs. Thus, the result will be to make substantially more students (22 percent more over this year) able to get aid while money available reaches "the highest level ever."
No sooner had he spoken than Paul Simon, the respected Democratic Illinois congressman who chairs a House education subcommittee, described Reagan's statements as "amazingly confused."
At the same time, an administration official, commenting on what the president had said, offered a far different explanation of what the Reagan proposal would accomplish if enacted by Congress. It would result in cutting government subsidies for the loans, raising the cost to the student and decreasing the number of loans available, according to Edwin L. Dale Jr., spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget.
On Tuesday, back in Washington, the president defended himself against charges that he lacks compassion for the poor and that his budget cuts hurt them most. He reminded a group of religious leaders from around the country assembled in the White House of the churches' traditional "catalyst" role in helping the poor, and urged them to accept greater responsibility in aiding the needy. Their "catalyst" role had been "co-opted by government," he said, leading one of the participants to tell reporters later:
"The question that came to me was that he was not dealing responsibly with the catalyst role that government has to play."
On Thursday, in Chicago, the president entered the public lists again--and again gave an example of the basic conflicts between what he proposes on the same subjects.
His subject this time was tuition tax credits for private schools. Here you have virtually a case study in the contradictions surrounding this president.
Reagan wants to let parents write off up to $500 from their federal income taxes for each of their students attending a private or parochial school. If enacted, when fully implemented his plan would cost taxpayers about $1.5 billion a year, and that without taking the next step of granting similar aid to college students in private institutions. (An earlier proposal, in the form of a bill introduced by Sens. Bob Packwood of Oregon (R) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York, which called for extending such credits to college students, would eventually cost taxpayers about $7 billion a year, the Congressional Research Service estimates.)
This, at a time when the battle over reducing budget deficits grows more critical daily.
For the president to propose action now that would increase substantially the deficit by no means is the only source of controversy. As Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) put it:
"The tuition tax cut proposal would turn our nation's educational policy on its head, benefit the few at the expense of the many, proliferate substandard segregationist academies, add a sea of red ink to the federal deficit, violate the clear meaning of the First Amendment of the Constitution and destroy the genius and diversity of our system of public education."
Since Hollings is a Democrat thinking of running for president in 1984, his words might be discounted as partisan. But there's no doubt about the central contradictions implicit in this plan of the president's.
Look at it close up and you'll find this Reagan proposal clashing head-on with the core of the Reagan political philosophy, as enunciated repeatedly over the years.
It would do more than add greatly to public costs. It would mark another federal intrusion into the lives of citizens. It would expand Washington's reach, encroach upon state and local prerogatives and quite likely lead to increased federal regulations over a significant segment of America's privately run and financed enterprises, its private and parochial schools. It would encourage, by the precedent it sets, further federal intervention in other areas. And, to take the view of a strict constructionist, it's probably unconstitutional as well.
Some laissez-faire proposal from this supposedly most conservative of presidents.
If that's not enough in contradictions, consider these. Here is the president of the United States, calling for greater cutbacks in federal aid to public education and planning to kill the U.S. Department of Education, now asking for a new federal aid program to help private education.
On second thought, that's not so contradictory after all. From the beginning of hs presidency Ronald Reagan has been coming down on the side of private interests vs. public ones. He has done so again. Perhaps he intends to demonstrate that one hard vein of consistency runs through his contradictions.