Ronald Reagan will be reelected.
There, I've said it. I realize that if I'm wrong, my forecast will come home to haunt me. If I'm right, no one will remember. Mr. Mencken of Hollins Street once intimated that just about anybody could beat FDR at the polls. He was never allowed to forget it. He also predicted that Harry Truman would win the election of 1948, but no one remembers that.
As a longtime liberal I make my prediction with a pang, but I consider it my responsibility to tell you the truth as I see it.
Will Ronald Reagan be reelected because his foreign policy has brought peace to the world and his domestic policy has driven want from the streets? Not at all. It will be because Horatio Alger is alive and well, and not only in Peoria; and Ronald Reagan personifies Alger's philosophy far more than any other political figure.
Horatio Alger's preachy little books for boys dominated the field of juvenile fiction for an entire era, the period between the Civil War and World War I. In those books he artfully--well, not so artfully--preserved and propagated some major middle-class values. We see them crystallized in the form of one general attitude and three personality traits.
The attitude is one of concern for the male and indifference to the female. His tales told poor boys how to succeed in the business world. Admittedly there wouldn't have been much point to telling girls at that time; regardless, his whole orientation was male.
He could describe the males he'd observed and make them live. His female characters he cut from cardboard. The three personality traits he embodies in his boys were honesty, industry and cheerfulness in adversity. He believed that these characteristics were innate but could benefit from reinforcement. For example, Ragged Dick the bootblack, his most famous hero, is born with a bent toward honesty that develops as he matures.
I'm convinced that to this day many members of the middle class agree with Alger, whether they know it or not. And they are Reagan's strength. I'm likewise convinced that the media have minimized both the staying power of these middle-class values and the political strength of the middle class. Newspapers and television, in their thirst for novelty and color, have focused on change. Certainly some new values have overlaid some old ones, but the old ones survive.
Much of the feeling that men are superior to women remains imbedded in our culture. The drive for sexual equality has been a crusade of our time, and we've seen some heartening victories. On the other hand, an article I read recently gave me pause. A college teacher reported that his class had been talking about the motion picture "Tootsie," in which Dustin Hoffman masquerades as a woman to get an acting job. The teacher asked his students to imagine that they'd changed sex and to write a page about it. It turned out that most of the men didn't even want to envision themselves as women. But most of the women showed an innocent, old-fashioned delight in thinking of themselves as men. They'd drop their clothes on the floor when going to bed; they'd go out alone sometimes in the evening; and occasionally they'd even stay out all night.
Though it doesn't always look like it, the esteem for honesty, hard work and cheerfulness in adversity also endures. For instance, the career manual is a favorite American book. Recent bestsellers are typified by Robert Ringer's "Winning Through Intimidation." The title tells all. Yet the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore has just ordered a half-dozen new copies of a classic manual of the 1930s, Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People," because the old ones have been read to tatters. Of course, there are other values imbedded in Carnegie's book, such as eagerness to please; but the middle-class values beloved of Alger are all there, including the male orientation.
They are Reagan values and I predict that they'll reelect him.
But there's one thing I haven't dealt with. Did he himself ever read "Ragged Dick" or any of Alger's less-known novels? I phone the White House. Fortunately, I find a helpful young woman who agrees to ask the president--if she can catch him on the wing. The other day she caught him. In his boyhood he had indeed read and relished the works of Horatio Alger. How about that!