On March 11, 1967, a newly elected Republican governor of California named Ronald Reagan addressed the Gridiron Club in Washington on a night when the Democratic speaker was Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.).
Kennedy was a big hit. Reagan was an uncharacteristic flop. When a guest encountered him afterward and praised his speech, Reagan waved the compliment aside and said, "I blew it."
Two months later, when they appeared together on a satellite television show to answer questions from European students, Reagan had done his homework so well that he outshone the redoubtable Kennedy. The question now is whether Reagan, at 73, retains his performer's capacity to assess what happened and bounce back against Walter F. Mondale in round two of the 1984 presidential debates.
To hear the president's advisers talk, the problem is preparation rather than the president. These advisers have more theories about what went wrong than the president does positions on Social Security. Here are the favorite criticisms:
Reagan was overprepared. Reagan, who never met a statistic he didn't like, behaved as if he had been briefed by an accountant. Usually, he talks values better than numbers. This time he supposedly was so overstuffed with statistics that he forgot to be himself.
Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.) called this "being brutalized by a briefing process that doesn't make any sense," a criticism aimed at the White House inner circle, especially chief of staff James A. Baker III and presidential assistant Richard G. Darman.
Mondale was undervalued. Reagan had prepared for a "mean" Mondale, who would repeat the mistake of Reagan's past opponents and attack him personally. He wasn't ready for a respectful opponent who zeroed in on the issues. This flaw is directed at Reagan political advisers Stuart K. Spencer and Edward J. Rollins, who had anticipated that Mondale would attack.
Reagan was overprotected. The "debates" are really glorified news conferences, and Reagan, a performer who benefits from rehearsals, was out of practice. His last news conference was held July 24. Deputy chief of staff Michael K. Deaver, the one staff member who has openly accepted responsibility for Reagan's preparation, also was architect of the overprotection.
Reagan was underprotected. Last week, a government scientific expert on aging said, "Reagan was stupid to accept a 90-minute format." The man who accepted the format was debate negotiator Baker, a favorite target of right-wingers who blame him because Reagan tired at the end of the debate. Reagan even lacked a chair to sit on, which President Gerald R. Ford's negotiators insisted on in 1976 when Ford was 64 years old.
Reagan was mistrained. His principal preparation was five grueling 90-minute debates with Office of Management and Budget Director David A. Stockman impersonating Mondale. Stockman won. Reagan responds best to positive reinforcement. He was, an adviser said, "psychologically conditioned to lose."
Reagan was misdirected. "Reagan plays terrible defense but very good offense," one adviser said. Following the front-walker strategy that has been his campaign trademark, he said little about what he would do in a second term and avoided attacking Mondale.
Some of these conflicting alibis may have merit. But the central problem was Reagan, not the process. He was not elected just because he is The Great Communicator but because he had something to communicate.
In 1980, Reagan stood clearly for tax reduction, defense budget increases and a balanced budget. Some of this was real, and some wasn't, but Reagan was a focused candidate with a clear agenda. Despite his huge lead, or perhaps because of it, he has been unfocused and adrift in 1984.
The keys to Reagan's character have always been competitiveness and optimism, qualities only occasionally evidenced in the Louisville debate. Can he get off the floor as he did the second time against Kennedy? Can he deliver a coherent closing statement? My guess is that he can, but it is up to him rather than his staff. Although Reagan is 17 years older now, he still hates to lose.
Reaganism of the Week: Answering a debate question about an increase in poverty during his presidency, Reagan said: "Yes, there has been an increase in poverty, but it is a lower rate of increase than it was in the preceding years before we got here. It has begun to decline, but it is still going up."