This is the week that Ronald Reagan begins his second term as president and we in the press begin our second term of writing about him. I wish us both a better record this time around. Reagan will spend a large part of the next few weeks spelling out the administration's second-term resolutions. I will spend a few minutes now spelling out ours -- or at least what I think they should be.
My basic premise is this: that with a few notable exceptions among us, we have tended to swing back and forth between stomping Reagan and gushing over him in a kind of mindless and certainly ineffectual way; I also think that for the most part, where we have been engaged in adversarial encounters with Reagan, we have lost and he has won. As I say, there are exceptions, but mainly the kind that prove the rule. Anyone who looked at the president's recent press conference will know who came off better and who worse in that evening's exchanges. My point is not that we should be savaging the president -- or rolling over for him, either. It is that we haven't done nearly as well as we should have at reporting the Reagan presidency or analyzing it. By "we," I mean myself, of course, and the 2 billion or 3 billion other earnest, offensive souls seen running up and down "the corridors of power," as the government is pretentiously known, whenever anything notable is happening concerning the presidency.
Where did we go wrong? First, in trying to fit Reagan to the mold of other presidents, fighting the last war, as we like to say when we are complaining about the generals. We misinterpret him, looking for the moves of a Nixon or seeing the power plays of a Johnson in his actions. Remember for a moment the famous electric encounter between Dan Rather and Nixon (each sarcastically asking the other on national TV if he were running for office) and try to imagine Reagan in such a role. You can't. He plays a different part. And since this part is seen by so many people either on the tube or in their own mind's eye as they read what he has said and done, the contrary description of him has no credibility. The press becomes suspect for portraying someone other than the person the public knows, and it is seen as doing a number on him.
I'm not making the familiar point here about Reagan's being an actor. I don't think this is a performance that covers over the true nature of the man. I think Reagan is a different mixture of ambitions and characteristics from what we have become accustomed to, but that we don't quite want to accept that fact -- along with the added work (for us) it implies. We have our assumed "sets" of attributes -- what goes with what, and so forth -- and Reagan confounds them, makes our job harder.
So my first resolution would be that we should stop trying to see Reagan as some other president -- a smiling Nixon, a socially conservative Johnson. My second would be that we stop thinking that merely to describe what he is doing is a devastating act of criticism, an exposure of error and malfeasance so great that he will immediately retreat, if he does not in fact deny altogether the hideous truths we have unearthed. "Reagan wants to eliminate social programs" -- we excitedly reveal -- "Reagan wants to completely upend national nuclear strategy. . . . Reagan wants to invade a small Caribbean island. . . . Reagan wants to put the troops in. . . ." Sometimes the president backs off. But nine times out of 10 he says: "Why, yes, . . . that's it, that's it exactly. That is exactly what I am doing, and high time, too." At this point the revealers of the truth and we who editorialize on it warn of the ominous consequences if he should actually pursue this misbegotten course of action. He does, and the outcome is different from what we had envisaged -- not always, but enough times to make a mark.
Clearly, in many of these encounters Reagan is seen as the radical, the innovator, the man who is doing the thinking while his political critics and journalistic scourges, emitting gasps of horror at what he plans to defy or dismantle next, are seen as tired-blood old defenders of a failed status quo. Electorally speaking, the rest is already history. On specific issues -- dealing with the Russians, with the Congress, with his own conservative critics -- enough has now happened to suggest another resolution: we should stop predicting with such cocksureness (or perhaps at all) how other people and institutions are likely to react to Reagan's moves. They react differently.
My final prohibition would be on all attempts to correct Reagan's anecdotes. This is not because they are usually true. It is because (I speak as one with battle scars) you can never get these things completely right. You can only achieve your own alternative version of wrong. I cannot tell you how many times we in my office have set forth to establish exactly what did happen in the welfare and other horrors Reagan refers to -- calling state agencies, putting in days on who did what to whom. We produce a set of facts that 1)generally contradict Reagan's and 2)are generally also proved not quite right by nightfall.
Remember the little boy Reagan likes to talk about who for merely trying to express his gratitude to God for his milk and cookies in the school cafeteria was immediately hauled off to the Gulag where he languishes to this day -- or something like that? This much-argued- over anecdote, as I understand it, is now on its third bounce, having gone from true to untrue and back to true again, at least in some amended version. We waste our time attempting to straighten out these stories. We should grant Reagan the anecdotes and just assume there is something wrong with them. We should concentrate on straightening out other kinds of claims -- political, programmatic and statistical.
I realize that this is negative counsel, but only in the sense that diets and the Ten Commandments and other documents we aspire to live by are negative, full of thou- shalt-nots. But the thou-shalt-nots, if abided by, can produce a very positive result. They can help us to see and reveal and, yes, to criticize mercilessly where it may be justified the fellow who keeps eluding us as we pursue an unreal image: the actual Reagan, the one who was inaugurated for a second term yesterday.