Once again, we are reminded that facts and figures don't speak to Ronald Reagan, people do.
Thanks to Newsweek magazine, we learn that the president was moved to act in the Ethiopian famine by a letter from Mother Teresa. He had hitherto been hung up by the circumstance of a vicious Marxist government; once he read her words, he unleashed $100 million more in aid.
No such magical missive from a megawatt personality has been received at the White House about the federal budget. Reagan holds to his notion that the ever-growing deficits will be sopped up by a booming economy. He thinks he can raise military pay while cutting Pentagon civilians.
He thinks he can slash social spending and merely wave the ax at the Defense Department.
One other way to get his attention is a hunger strike. Mitch Snyder, the aggressive defender of the homeless, almost starved himself to death to get a better break for his charges. Reagan blinked. Snyder got promises of change. Party-going Cabinet officers might not find the tactic appealing in the Christmas season.
While editorial writers gnash their teeth and Republican senators pound the walls, Reagan is enjoying himself. He wishes to prolong the glow that comes from squashing an opponent by 18 points, from observing an opposition party that cannot choose a chairman.
The White House staff, pondering charts and ledgers, has taken to staging elaborate shadow plays that are supposed to bring home to the Gipper the error of his ways and to nudge him into accommodation with reality.
In desperation, they cast Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger as locked in mortal combat with the rest of the Cabinet. By representing his Pentagon clients with matchless gall and devotion, Weinberger had, they said, produced a "paralysis" in the government. He was the heavy.
When this was called to Reagan's attention, he was indignant. He gave a version of the Boys' Town answer: "He's not heavy; he's my brother."
On defense spending, Weinberger long ago won Reagan's heart and mind. It is not just that the president agrees with him that there is no waste and fraud in the Pentagon, at least none that Weinberger has not discovered. It is that the secretary presents things to him in a winning way: little sketches of drooping eagles or erect GIs, to show the president the dire effects of following the counsel of Office of Management and Budget Director David A. Stockman, who has never learned to draw and who wants to cut $58 billion in defense spending over the next three years.
In Weinberger's presence, Reagan knows that he is right about his conviction that the government's only real obligation is to defend the country.
No one listened more intently to the campaign speeches of Ronald Reagan than Ronald Reagan. While he was on the stump, he was in a beautiful world where peace reigned and patriotism bloomed, where deficits disappeared and nobody took a pay cut. Why would he want to rush to the chilly realities that await him?
Soon he must send a budget to Congress. He puts himself through the process cheerfully enough -- it helps his "in charge" image. But he slips out to sit in with Weinberger, plainly, and tells him stand his ground and hand the knife to Congress.
Weinberger suits Reagan perfectly. He loves weapons, but he's not keen to use them. He made a speech recently laying down strict conditions for committing U.S. troops. Meanwhile, Secretary of State George P. Shultz has been clamoring for use of force to combat terrorism.
The president has yet to take sides in the dispute. He has just come through his first hostage crisis. He handled it pretty much as President Jimmy Carter handled his -- he complained bitterly about the Iranians and did nothing, for the same reasons that Carter waited months to send a rescue mission.
Reagan wasn't standing tall, as he promised to do. But he is not being compared with Carter. The difference is luck. Carter's crisis lasted 444 days and cost him the presidency. Reagan's lasted six days.
About the one thing we have learned since Reagan's reelection is that it is not wise to utter in his presence a sentence that begins "You can't . . . . "
A man who has won the country, 49 states to 1, just doesn't believe it.
He wishes to linger awhile in the precincts of fantasy. Until someone taps on the old actor's door and says, "Five minutes, Mr. President," he will go on pretending that money for the Pentagon need never be written in red ink.