Not since American conversation began to be punctuated by bursts of inarticulately grunted expressions such as you know and I mean and well, like has any phrase so set my teeth on edge as the emergence of the current favorite, on a roll.
It comes to us, I suppose, as another gift from our blow-dried and breathless TV types, who keep telling us, over and over, that so and so "is on a roll." The phrase, as presently employed, springs from the locker room, not the kitchen, although it surely has roots in the high-rolling artists of gambling ("roll them bones," or something of the sort).
In any event, the phrase gets its greatest coinage today from sports announcers. They proclaim any sort of momentarily successful maneuver, or movement forward, as an indication that the Redskins are on a roll (we all hope) . . . or Joe Theismann (we pray) . . . or John Riggins (we wish) . . . or the Dolphins . . . or anybody else.
In recent months, the phrase has wandered beyond the boundaries of jockdom into other areas of our national life. Wall Street, for instance, is on a roll. So are many other things.
All, that is, except Ronald Reagan. Here's how bad things are getting for the president of the United States: No sooner does he deliver his State of the Union address to the nation from the halls of Congress, than he turns up in a bar in Boston, hoisting one with the boys.
For Reagan, the trick obviously is to reverse his roll.
Pity the president. This most amiable of politicians seems unable to please anyone at present. His State of the Union message, a laundry list drawn, it would seem, to be all things to all people, apparently has satisfied no one.
Women's groups, labor groups, education groups, black groups--all immediately blasted him. Liberals accused him of not going far enough. Some of them thought he was even moving farther to the right and declaring new war on America's poor. Moderates thought he lacked a unifying theme and had missed an opportunity to mobilize the nation for an across-the-board effort against economic stagnation. Mainstream congressional Republicans joined their Democratic counterparts in warning that key Reagan proposals wouldn't fly.
But these were nothing compared with the real attacks savagely launched against him. His greatest problem, as with Warren Harding in different circumstances, lies not with his enemies, but his friends. And what friends.
To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway's famous rejoinder about the rich, these conservatives are very different from you and me. They have more bile and are displaying it for all to see.
And what irony. Here we have the most ideological and partisan president in memory taking a drubbing the likes of which even the woeful Jimmy Carter didn't sustain from within the ranks of his digruntled and disillusioned followers.
William Safire, that elegant conservative stylist, under the heading of "Reagan's White Flag," tells his readers in The New York Times of the president's surrender of principles. Reagan, he says, sends forth the signal that he "had admitted failure and abandoned 'ideology.' " To Safire, "this worst of Reagan speeches invited the grinning contempt it received."
John Lofton, the angry fulminator from the dark and conspiratorial caverns of the Far Right, writing in The Washington Times, has an apoplectic seizure after watching the latest Reagan national peformance. To Lofton, Reagan stands as a "political 'Tootsie' . . . wearing clothes which quite frankly (at least when he was a candidate) I was unaware were in his wardrobe. And the maddening thing is that despite the fact that he is now decked out, again figuratively speaking, in a big floppy hat, a skirt, high heels, wearing bright red lipstick and carrying a purse, the president and his men tell us--with straight faces--that there has been no change!"
The outrage of it all so infuriates Lofton that he leaps up and down in print with a series of exclamations: "No change! We are told that the Ronald Reagan we see today is the same person he has always been!" And so on.
In The Wall Street Journal, the president's steadfast defender and in some ways creator of his supply-side Reaganomics, the tone is more of sorrow and sadness than anger. "Another president," its lead editorial solemnly states, "this one a truly hard case, has been brought under control by the old pros of Congress."
Perhaps it will come out all right in the end, The Journal speculates hopefully, but concludes in mournful mood: "Of course, it is also possible and perhaps, we're sad to say, probable, that next year's State of the Union speech will be even more timid and resigned than this one and that by then we will have heard the last of Ronald Reagan's once-bold ideas for government reform."
The final seal of disapproval came in an Evans and Novak column. Even as they proclaimed "the de-Reaganization of the president finally . . . an accomplished fact," the columnists deplored "the un-Reaganlike hand-wringing over hard times."
Wow, what a roll they're all on.
Permit a dissenting view.
Okay, Reagan didn't please everyone, or anyone, and it wasn't the Gettysburg Address we saw and heard the other night. But vague and imperfect as it was, this president has gone leagues beyond the narrow position in which he had previously placed himself. Instead of rigidity, he has signaled a new flexibility, a willingness to move into the center where, politically, the great majority of Americans stand. That's just what seems to worry the conservatives.
And what is Reagan's great sin in their eyes? Evans and Novak defined it best: "Stripped of ideology, the State of the Union message was a centrist plea for bipartisanship in the manner of Dwight D. Eisenhower."
Precisely, and not a bad model to follow, either.
In a way, the right wing may be doing Reagan an unwitting favor. By its caustic assaults, it is freeing him to head down a different road. Now, if he chooses, he can put the old, hard ideology aside and adopt more moderate and practical policies.
And as for dropping in the neighborhood bar from time to time, well, that might be an improvement, too--especially if he stays long enough to hear folks describing their thoughts and feelings about the really grim conditions average Americans face today. That's a far sight better than grousing about the slobs in South Succotash complaining about being out of work.
So go for it, Ronnie. Even get on a roll, if that's what it takes to succeed.