In a celebrated Pittsburgh speech during the 1932 presidential campaign, candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt promised a balanced budget. President Roosevelt instead proposed an out-of-balance budget, and the political question was how to reconcile the budget with the promise. An aide dryly advised: "Deny you were ever in Pittsburgh."
Television has deprived Ronald Reagan the luxury of such a strategy. There the Gipper was in Boston last Wednesday, cameras rolling, as he shared his low opinion of the corporate income tax with a group of friendly businessmen.
It was not the best of days for the president to be on the loose. Politics thrives on advance work, which in this case had placed Reagan in a males-only saloon the day after a State of the Union speech in which he had tried to close "the gender gap" with carefully calculated political appeals to women.
Reagan drank from a mug of ale, which he doesn't like and didn't finish. He had enough, however, so that when he made his remark about taxes later in the afternoon it prompted a reporter to say about Reagan: "They shouldn't let him drink." Maybe it would be safer if presidents just stayed out of bars.
There are worse mistakes, however, than going to the wrong bar or denying that you were in Boston, and the president has been making them. As his economic and political problems have multiplied, Reagan, like other presidents before him, has found that his difficulties lie not in his stars or in double-digit unemployment but in his press coverage.
Reagan's once-muted criticisms of press "distortions" now surface with increasing frequency. Meanwhile, his spokesmen take a get-tough line.
First, there was the drive by communications director David Gergen to stop leaks and force administration spokesmen to speak on the record--a directive honored in the breach by the White House in background briefings for the State of the Union speech and the budget.
Then there was the counterattack last week by deputy press secretary Larry Speakes, who earned the plaudits of the president and deputy chief of staff Michael K. Deaver by prematurely blaming the press for the demise of the presidency.
What Speakes and Gergen may not realize is that they are likely to wind up the scapegoats when the White House fails in its avowed aim, expressed by Speakes, to promote "a happy hour" on television.
In the next few days, the top staff at the White House will bring in a favorite Reagan trouble-shooter, assistant Navy secretary John S. Herrington, to evaluate the communications and press divisions.
Herrington, 43, is a no-nonsense conservative who pushed prosecutions of draft evaders in his current job as assistant secretary for manpower. Before that, he was moved into the shambles of the personnel office in the early days of the Reagan administration to improve procedures and see that true believers were appointed.
Of Herrington's ability, there can be little doubt. But there are reservations aplenty, even within the White House, about the administration's growing tendency to blame the messengers instead of the message for the president's lapses. This didn't work for previous presidents, and it isn't working for Reagan. Because it isn't working, they'll soon be blaming each other at the White House.
Trying to free himself from the cocoon of the White House, Reagan is holding a series of informal dinners at which he will explore ideas with several persons who do not usually receive invitations to the White House. On Wednesday, guests will include two Democrats whose cooperation is important to the success of Reagan's legislative program, Sen. Henry M. Jackson (Wash.) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (Ill.). "The idea is just to chat," one Reagan intimate said.
The president has appointed the ailing and popular Joseph R. Holmes, director of military television and radio services, as a special assistant. Holmes, 54, has been in charge of compiling a television record of Reagan's official actions that is said to be the most extensive in White House history. He also originated the idea of Reagan's Saturday radio broadcasts, which have become an effective staple of the president's public relations campaign.
Richard F. Staar, the hard-liner who recently resigned under pressure as chief U.S. negotiator at the Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction talks in Vienna, may resurface as national archivist, say White House sources. They add that Staar has not decided whether he will take the new post or return to the Hoover Institute from whence he came to the Reagan administration.
Reaganism of the Week: In the same speech in which he criticized the corporate income tax, the president expressed this view about the lack of economic understanding in the United States:
"I think that one of the challenges facing all of us on all of this is a great lack of understanding among otherwise well-educated and intelligent people on things of this kind. And the marketplace, how it functions and what is required to make it work. And much of what remains is prejudice."