We are fast approaching the birthday that Ronald Reagan shares with me or, as everyone else sees it, the one I share with him. Either way, I have a gift for him and it is this -- XXXXX. That's newspaperese for some wet kisses.
Don't read too much into that. They are meant as tokens of appreciation, even of awe, for the president of the United States. Where he is wrong, he is wrong, and I have never passed up the chance to point that out. But where he is right he is supreme, and that, it seems to me, ought to be pointed out too.
Never was that clearer than the other day when the space shuttle Challenger blew up, killing seven astronauts and traumatizing the nation. Almost immediately, someone asked whether Reagan would cancel the State of the Union speech scheduled for that night. No, I said, he would do nothing of the sort. He would incorporate the day's events into the speech and somehow bind the nation, make it feel better -- provide a sense of purpose on a day when that sense had, like the shuttle itself, seemed to shatter into a million pieces.
I was wrong, technically. The president postponed the State of the Union. But the sort of speech I was expecting -- we all were expecting -- he gave anyway. You could quibble with a word here and a word there, even note that the words were written by someone else, but the president accomplished his purpose. I quoted him that night to my son. "The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted. It belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them." Yes, my son said. We have to reach for the stars.
There is a term I use in a speech I give -- "the movie expectation." I use it sometimes in reference to Ronald Reagan himself. It means that you expect life to conform to the movies or television -- that, for instance, a punch is all sound and no impact. I grew up with movies in which big men hit each other very hard and did no damage. It came as a rude surprise to me, then, to learn the hard way that a punch in the mouth can hurt something awful.
Reagan is the master of that movie expectation. He has personalized it. He brings with him the expectation that things will turn out all right. This is the expectation that kids have for daddy -- that he can make it better, make the pain go away, explain things that really can't be explained. He did precisely that with his speech to the nation that followed the death of the seven astronauts. This is a talent. This is a gift. And in a television age it is as important as military leadership once was for the kings of old. It is what a leader must do.
Good old history will have to decide whether this talent makes Reagan a great president, a good president or something lower down the scale. It will have to take into account the deficit, the lack of progress in arms control, an ossified unemployment rate, the withering of the national infrastructure, the poor getting poorer, the amorality of constructive engagement, the coming debacle in Central America -- the lack of leadership in almost every area other than leadership itself. We really are standing tall. We just ain't going anywhere.
But this is a kiss. And so I must note the recent New York Times poll that showed, incorrectly, that the president enjoyed a 56 percent approval rating among blacks. (With a much larger sample, The Washington Post put the figure at 23 percent.) The Times' figure would have been a stunning finding since not quite three years before, the figure was 18 percent. Yet only polling professionals voiced skepticism. The rest of us -- and by "us" I include some columnists -- thought that this was just ol' Ron Reagan doing his magic.
When Gary Hart vamoosed to Troublesome Gulch to announce nationally that he would not run locally, he allowed that if Ronald Reagan had taught us one thing it was the importance of ideas. Hardly. If he has taught us anything, it is the importance of character and leadership, of standing tall even when you're in a hole, of making everyone smaller by being so much bigger. For these qualities -- for being Ronald Reagan at moments when, really, no one else would do -- he gets a well-deserved kiss.
Now, can we talk about Nicaragua?