President Reagan has been at pains lately to assure us that he is a realist. At his press conference, being quizzed about his change of mind on the jobs bill, he protested that he is "well aware of the harsh realities."
The next morning, Secretary of State George P. Shultz advanced the idea that the president is in touch with the real world--"He always comes back to being realistic about what is taking place."
Shultz was speaking to Reagan's core constituency, the right wing of the Republican Party, which was gathered in militant strength at the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Sheraton-Washington Hotel.
Reagan's motto, according to Shultz is, "Let's not kid ourselves."
According to some views of reality, the president is ignoring the facts on all fronts.
He exaggerates the economic recovery; he bankrupts the treasury for his arms buildup, aids the cover-up of a noisome scandal in the Environmental Protection Agency, disguises the bloody stalemate in El Salvador as "progress in democracy" and obdurately refuses to make progress in nuclear disarmament talks with the Soviets.
That, needless to say, was not the view at the conservative conference, where one moderator said he had gotten his news from "Human Events and The Reader's Digest, not from The Washington Post."
The conservatives brooded that we are spending too much money, not on arms, but on international banks that encourage uppity little "communist-backed" Third World countries.
They hailed Casper Weinberger as a hero and martyr. In the hotel ballroom, the concern was not that the 14 percent defense increase is too much but that it is too little.
They didn't clamor for action on foul play in EPA; they wanted a full-court press on the alleged Bulgarian-KGB plot on the life of Pope John Paul II.
When the president, having sent seven Cabinet officers to stroke his right-wingers, showed up himself Friday night, he got his biggest hand when he assured them in an aside that he was not trying to suppress the Italian investigation of the alleged conspiracy against the Pope.
Plots are very big with conservatives. They see them everywhere. At their meeting they were told about some they already knew about, the nuclear freeze movement, for instance, which has been revealed to them as a KGB front.
They heard about more that are willfully suppressed by a biased press that peddles "disinformation" and fails to report on such matters as a KGB-backed Cuban conspiracy to drug our nation.
They regard themselves as guardians of the "traditional values," which at one session were supposedly personified by Gloria Swanson.
The silent-film star, in a black velvet suit and cloche, was roundly applauded when introduced from the podium. They may have been thinking of what a wholesome contrast she provides to the goddess of the left, Jane Fonda, the mention of whose name causes the right a fearful grinding of teeth.
In the conservative universe, there are really only two foreign countries. One is the Soviet Union, the root of all evil. The other is Taiwan, a rich little police state that stirs a passion of protectiveness in right-wing hearts.
It is a world where the mention of the Carnegie Institute for International Peace prompted a cry of "shame" from the audience.
And a questioner from the floor asked if Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather and Sam Donaldson "are working with Soviet agents."
Voice of America director Kenneth Tomlinson, a former Reader's Digest editor, pointed out how much more the press made of the burning of one Buddhist monk in South Vietnam than of the millions of deaths in Cambodia, and how little attention is paid to the 17,000 slave laborers on the Soviet pipeline.
The conservatives are obsessed with the idea that the Soviets are winning not only the arms race but the propaganda war.
One speaker, John Barron, of Reader's Digest, told them that while one of our problems is vast numbers of immigrants, the Soviet Union has to employ "hundreds of thousands of border guards to keep people inside Russia."
You would think that those contradictory facts would persuade the right that we have won the struggle for the hearts and minds of humanity.
But somehow the conservatives don't think the word has gotten out.
To allay these fears, Reagan has announced a "Fund for Democracy."
The details are fuzzy, but it seems that in the teeth of deficits of $189 billion, Reagan has earmarked $65 million to make sure that the rest of the world understands that democracy is better.
By conservative lights, Ronald Reagan is still a realist, although wanting in paranoia. In the right-wing world, there can never be enough.