Consider, for a moment, the book called "The Abandonment of The Jews." A best seller, it purports to show, among other things, that Franklin Roosevelt had a callous disregard for the plight of Europe's Jews. I have not yet read it, so I cannot say if the author makes his case. I can say, though, that when it comes to the reputation of Roosevelt it will hardly matter. His was the true Teflon presidency.
That term, of course, was coined by Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Col.) for Ronald Reagan. But it could just as well apply to Roosevelt or, for that matter, to any president whose standing and reputation, either current or retrospective, has as much to do with personal characteristics -- mainly the ability to impart hope -- as it does with his real achievements.
Take, for example, Roosevelt. He remains so much an American political hero that his mantle is claimed by Republicans and Democrats alike. Yet, he is the very same president who attempted to pack the Supreme Court, who did not end the Depression (the war did that) and who incarcerated Japanese-Americans for no compelling national security reason and then kept them incarcerated for what amounted to political reasons -- maybe even his determination to win a fourth term.
You might argue that whatever Roosevelt's sins, they are modest in comparison to his accomplishments -- and maybe that's the case. But among the people who most revere Roosevelt are those who care the most about civil liberties and human rights -- liberals -- and who profess nothing but astonishment at Reagan's so-called Teflon. Yet neither Roosevelt's incarceration of the Japanese nor the mounting evidence that he was indifferent about Europe's Jews, has prompted any of his liberal fans to call for a reappraisal. The man can still do no wrong.
It is the same with Reagan -- and for pretty much the same reasons. In the post-election issue of Newsweek, Walter Mondale's advisers, if not the candidate himself, were pictured as both confounded and chagrined by Reagan. The president got credit for his accomplishments, all right, but he also was excused his failures. In fact, his failures hardly mattered at all -- not the midterm recession, not Beirut, not even his inability, sometimes, to master the details of his own programs. Why?
For their answer, the Mondalians could have looked to Roosevelt. FDR's talent was abundant optimism -- that and a willingness to try almost anything in the name of the American people. His buoyant optimism was infectious, a tonic for the times, and in stark contrast to the dour pessismism of his predecessor. FDR had his Herbert Hoover the way Reagan had his Jimmy Carter. Where Carter seemed always to be explaining why things could not be done, Reagan seems to be saying that they can, by golly -- everything from reducing taxes to saving our children through his pie-in-the-sky "Star Wars" scheme. You can laugh at it all if you want, but the message is clear: the man is on your side.
That is the overriding message of Ronald Reagan, and it accounts for his incredible, and durable, popularity. A man who has the talent to communicate hope is a leader. FDR had it and so, for that matter, did Dwight Eisenhower. It was something you could sense in Roosevelt's voice, Eisenhower's grin and Reagan's mannerisms. The upshot is that the country bonded to these men, and they became near- indestructable political personalities.
It is one thing to identify Reagan's magic and quite another to be able to duplicate it. The talent cannot be synthesized. It's likely that even if Mondale and his staff had put their finger on it, they still would not have been able to duplicate it. The clich,e has it that you can't fool the camera. Maybe. But you certainly can't do it all the time.
This ability to impart hope is what accounts for Reagan's Teflon, and it's likely that no Bitburg-like fiascos are going to make much difference. If the man were younger and if the GOP, in an anti-Roosevelt snit, had not limited the presidency to two terms, there's no telling what he could do. But this much is certain. Just as long as he remains the man he is, the American people will mostly go along with him. His is the most awesome political power. He is judged not by his accomplishments, but by his intentions.