President Reagan is trying to destroy Dan Rather and me. Why he has singled us out I cannot fathom, but it is chilling. The republic's media hawks now probe the strike against Dan as meticulously as investigators for a grand jury. I hope they will not forget me.
Last week, while Dan and I were duly applying ourselves to our arts -- he on Tuesday evening, I on Monday afternoon -- the president telephoned us with complaints. Did the late Alexander Graham Bell ever envisage his invention as a tool of government intimidation? I doubt it, but I can tell you that my esteemed colleagues throughout the media worry prodigiously about the effect of these calls -- CHILLING, CHILLING.
One can easily imagine the Columbia School of Journalism convening a high-level seminar to probe the question, "When the President Calls Must the Virtuous Journalist Answer?" Well, Dan and I answered.
Dan's call came as he was earnestly talking into his microphone during the evening news. My call came as I was tapping out a book recounting the glory of the Carter years.
Of the two, Dan was in far greater peril of being manipulated. Writing is more deliberative than talking, and I can erase. A presidential call could panic Dan, causing him to utter an indiscretion or, worse, an untruth.
The thing has happened before, and when it does Dan flummoxes millions of Americans who come to him for enlightenment while they stuff their faces or remove their socks. Nor is it reassuring to know that once Dan's wisdom has wafted across the airwaves it is defunct; most people forget in a matter of days and sometimes in a matter of minutes. TV news's impermanence ensures its slovenly standards.
When apprised of the president's call, many in Washington were at one with Roger Mudd, who adjudged it "interesting" because "it reveals how his (the president's) mind works." Here is how befuddled we have become by the Freudian whim-wham. The president enters a complaint, and the republic's sages fasten upon the matter of "how his mind works" rather than what he said.
To Dan he said, "I am concerned about the possible harm these reports (Dan's reports on U.S.-Taiwan relations) may do to our international relations." To me he said, "Did I get you in your New York office or in Indiana?"
He got me in Indiana, and professed his belief that he has remained true to his conservative principles and friends. Moreover he believes he made a satisfactory effort to staff his government with like-minded people. Yet it was not easy for him to attract conservatives to government, particularly conservatives from the business community. Many were reluctant to leave their jobs.
I can imagine his travail. Businessmen, contrary to the power-hungry image of them depicted on television, are often quite guileless, at times even stupid about current affairs.
Tom Wolfe tells the story of a dinner party conversation with a titan of industry. No matter what the topic of discussion, the dialogue went like this. Wolfe: "Do you think a Polish pope will change relations between the Vatican and Moscow?" Businessman: "I met the Pope. Charlie Small, the head of the Light Weight Corporation, got us an audience with him; and it wasn't one of those large ones, only 270 CEOs. You know Charlie Small? He's a Knight of Columbus. You ought to get to know Charlie Small."
I sympathize with the president. Political intelligence is almost as rare in the business community as in the American Political Science Association.
The Reagan administration stands at a crossroad. Guided by a man of the highest character and superb temperament, it has achieved much. Our standing in the world is being restored. Our economy is improving, though government spending remains gluttonous. The silliness that has encroached upon government is slowly being banished. Possibly some day American government will again reflect the character of the American people.
Yet many perceive that the administration is losing its steam and the the Reagan constituency is fragmenting. Can Ronald Reagan pull things together? He has surprised his critics many times before. I for one cannot count him out, nor can I say "he never calls, he never writes."