President Teflon has done it again. He has vetoed a work program for America's job-hungry youth and two health proposals that would have benefited older citizens. And, if his extraordinary luck continues, it won't cost him a thing.
It isn't because the vetoed measures are "liberal" and therefore out of step with the country's burgeoning conservatism. Even such a conservative Reagan supporter as Utah's Sen. Orrin Hatch had urged the signing of the health-care bills as vital to the president's now-shredded "safety net." It isn't because the voters share his opposition to the measures but because they simply refuse to hold it against him. His continues to be, in Rep. Patricia Schroeder's apt phrase, a "Teflon presidency," to which nothing seems to stick: not wrongheaded policies, not meanness, not factual misinformation, not out-to-lunch inattention to his job, not even what, if told by anybody else, would be just plain lies. He manages to remain, incredibly, America's nice guy.
His opponents don't understand it, nor, I suspect, do his supporters. I do have a friend who offers a believable (if unflattering) explanation of why no one can call him a liar and get away with it. He can't be branded a liar, she says, because he is "not qualified" to be one. A liar, she reasons, has to know that what he is saying is untrue -- or at the very least have good reason to suspect that it may be false, or else he must speak "in reckless disregard" for whether the thing is true or not. But: "Reagan clearly believes every word he says; and if tomorrow he says exactly the opposite, he will believe that, too. This scares the hell out of some people, but lots more people find it comforting and reassuring because, unfortunately, they are are not qualified to call anybody a liar; they do not know very much either, and they remember very little of what they did know."
My friend may have come as close as anyone to explaining why the misstatements and contradictions of earlier statements did not seem to matter during the debates. Pro-Reagan voters either never knew the truth or had long since forgotten the earlier statements and seemed blithely unconcerned when reporters pointed out the contradictions and errors. "Ask anybody," says my friend. "Already, Lebanon rings only a faint and distant bell. Something about Marines, but what? Or maybe that was in Syria, or some other confusing place."
"You know what's even scarier? We are stuck with a president for only four years, but we are stuck with the same electorate forever, an electorate that isn't concerned about the national deficit because the numbers are too big to grasp, and it is not clear who owes this gigantic sum to whom. The electorate can grasp a $400 screwdriver (or whatever), but the Pentagon has promised to do better, and who can ask fairer than that? Also, I guess, to qualify as a liar, a speaker must have some discreditable motive for tampering with the truth. Nobody doubts that President Reagan has only the best motives -- the purest, proudest and most patriotic."
The upshot is that critics of the Incredible Nonstick President are left floundering in a sea of soothing syrup or, as my friend puts it, left to play baseball with a badminton bird. "It begins to seem that all the issues have sprouted feathers and are floating freely in mid-air without ever touching down to solid ground. It's enough to drive anyone around the bend."