"You are such a friendly man," Ronald Reagan says he was told by the president of Colombia at an airport farewell. During the Latin American trip, the Reagan friendliness -- the charm, the homeyness -- couldn't have failed to impress every dignitary on the four-nation, five-day whirl.
Why shouldn't it be? Here at home, we too cherish Reagan's friendliness. Its force is that of a relaxant that much of the public seems to need like a drug to ease the tensions being worsened by the president's policies.
In our relaxed state, public anger is not easily rallied against Reagan's policy decisions that continue to set new records for unemployment, bankruptcies and military spending. His warm support during the Latin American trip for the dictator of Guatemala who is exterminating peasants in sieges of mass slaughter was no help to the poor who may be on tomorrow's death list.
After electing a run of presidents who turned out to be personally unlikable men -- Johnson, Nixon, Carter -- voters are grateful for a respite. It's as though now that we have a truly charming leader, we can't bear to discern the damage of his policies from the friendliness of his manner.
Discernment would be easier if the so- called friendliness were examined for an authenticity greater than mere smiles and storytelling. The president wasn't such a charmer when he stayed away from the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial down the street from the White House. The commander in chief who called the war a "noble cause" gave the surviving troops a noble cold shoulder.
That was one of several recent insults. The supporters of the nuclear freeze were told by the president that they had been infiltrated by foreign agents. Reagan explained that his lips had to be sealed about the agents' identity. This was the second alarm about foreign agents up to no good. Earlier this year, Reagan told of Libyan hit squads on the prowl in America. Reagan backed off from supplying more information than that, except to say that Muammar Qaddafi "knows" the terrorists were here.
The Libyan rascals were never found. Presumably, they donned wigs and went to New England town meetings to undermine America by infiltrating the freeze movement.
For someone given to friendliness, Reagan doesn't appear to be surrounded by similarly amiable spirits. When explaining the now-scotched scheme to tax the unemployment benefits of the jobless, Edwin Meese said that "when unemployment benefits end, most people find jobs very quickly after that."
A few days before the nation was given the Meese Law of Human Motivation, the U.S. Conference of Mayors held an emergency meeting in Washington. It told of unprecedented waves of homeless people turning to city halls for help to survive the winter. The mayors, saying that their budgets were overloaded and that private charities were swamped, concluded that the desperation requires federal help from Washington.
A few days later, Reagan, discussing the problems of cities in a speech, gave the answer. He not only ignored the issue of homelessness but lectured the assembled mayors in Los Angeles that they had better shape up on their own: "You . . . must call on all your imagination and creativity to find new, local answers for today's urban problems."
Few think ill of Reagan for these insults and slights. If Jimmy Carter were still president and did what Reagan is doing, he would be loathed for meanness. As it was, Carter insulted far fewer groups but was still tagged as mean-spirited. Eventually, the voters decided he should pay for it.
No similar resentment about Reagan appears to be rising. Reagan can say, "I bleed for the unemployed," but then bloody programs that help a few of the poor get by, and the difference between words and action is not seen as a character flaw.
For citizens to be disgusted with their choice of Reagan is to admit that they fell for the con of friendliness. It's a hard admission, although every time the president puts down another group he is making it easier.