Driving along the road the other day, heading through the autumn countryside now ablaze with color, moving from one Midwest community to another with the radio blaring forth what seems endless mournful ballads of hard times and family breakups and lost loves, one could hear the familiar voice of the president over the airwaves.
He was speaking, with what sounded to be a tone of exasperation, about the economy. It was, he said, "the most cynical form of demagoguery" to suggest that the way his administration has fought to lower inflation has contributed to rising unemployment. Democrats in Congress "were exploiting helpless people for their own political gain," he said.
In the days following, still moving through the Midwest, one heard that message repeated by the president and his men. Heard far from Washington, it came over with what appears to be ever-more-strident urgency.
White House counselor Edwin Meese III is quoted in the local papers as saying, "The poor and the elderly are better off than they were two years ago, vastly better off, as a result of decreased inflation and lower taxation."
Then President Reagan, culminating this 1982 fall campaign theme pitch, told the country more of the same at his televised news conference. His policies were bringing America back from the brink of disaster, he said. "We're better off today than we were."
Mr. President, that isn't so.
One of the tragedies of present American political life is the way it isolates a leader from the people. There are, of course, good reasons.
Heavy security exists because brutal realities compel it. Pollsters ask survey questions about national attitudes and feed them into computers for printout opinion clues because the country has grown too large and complex for intuitive seat-of-the-pants guesses about what and why people think.
Political consultants measure trend lines, assess winning strategies of the past and prescribe more of the same for the future. The leader becomes trapped in the cocoon of isolation.
Whether that's the case with Ronald Reagan is not the point here. But it is hard to believe that he wouldn't be shaken by some of the sights and sounds encountered today in the American Midwest. Admittedly, these come from one of the nation's most hard-pressed regions where farmers and merchants, bankers and industrialists, factory workers and clerks are battling grimly for survival.
Don't tell them things are better today. They know otherwise.
Their concerns go far beyond politics or slogans or repeated expressions of hope. The political ads may exhort them to give the president's policies a chance, but that's not what they are saying. They certainly hope the nation is turning the curve toward prosperity, as the president said the other night, but they are becoming increasingly wary about those prospects. And they are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the response from Washington, presidential as well as congressional.
Here are some of the kinds of comments you'll hear from people met along the way:
A businessman: "People read the papers and watch the TV looking for answers to what they're going to do about it in Washington. And what do they see? They see an amendment for school prayer that ties up the Senate for God knows how long. And then they go on to an abortion amendment which everyone knows there's no government answer, and can't ever be. So they don't talk about the real issues. They don't get anything done."
A lawyer, talking about a big-time farmer client who calls him in desperation: "Ed, I'm not going to be able to make that payment. I'm looking out the window at the crop that I thought in April was going to bring me $145,000. If I get $80,000, I'll be lucky."
A social worker: "I think a lot of people thought when they listened to the rhetoric of Reagan and the people that surrounded him, that they were really going to start getting tough; throw everybody out that's getting something for nothing. They were going to wave the American flag and everything was going to be great.
"Now they find that they're the ones that got thrown out. They're stuck with mortgages and children to educate and no jobs and no prospects. And you ask how people feel?"
A union member, expressing now rarely heard old-fashioned idealism with a new sense of frustration and pessimism: "Our union is part of being free. Look at Poland. Unionism is one of our basic rights as a free person, and they're trying to take it away. They're trying to make people beg for jobs, and now they're doing it."
People don't blame you for the problems, Mr. President. At this point, little of the poisonous kinds of hatreds that enveloped your most immediate presidential predecessors surrounds you. Given the situation, there's remarkably little anger directed at you.
Oh, someone did say, "if he comes up here, we'll lynch him," but that was noteworthy only because it was so unusual. Most, as one person said, think you're a nice guy trying to do what you think is right even if they wonder about how you're going about it and your understanding of realities. And they are fully aware that some of the present economic woes have been building a long time, that they're worldwide in nature and not easy of solution, that everyone must share blame.
But it would be a great mistake to interpret those sentiments as some sort of approval of your policies or personal endorsement of your performance.
As one of your supporters said, a man who voted for you, believed in you and would like to continue doing so:
"Although many of the things he said are true, you still have to take care of human beings."
Believe it or not, Mr. President, there are many of your people who think you're failing that test. Despite what you say, they know that for many their lives simply are not better. They are worse.