President Reagan's invitation to House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill (D-Mass.) had the same gossamer quality as the other elements in his shimmering State of the Union address.
The suggestion that they work together on the "broken" budget before they leave town seems as likely of fulfillment as the Orient Express that the president dangled before the eyes of those who wish to fly to Tokyo in two hours in a low Earth orbit.
At his press briefing the next day, the speaker explained why it wouldn't work out. "We kind of antagonize each other when we sit down," he said.
That's what happened at their last encounter, on Jan. 28 an hour or so before the space shuttle exploded. The president was going on about the allergy of welfare recipients to a day's work, and the speaker blew up. He told the president it was "a bunch of baloney" and that he, the speaker, would "not sit there and listen to it."
"You haven't grown in office," he said heatedly, and more than once.
As to whether Reagan grew in office, historians will have to judge. But a study of his first State of the Union speech shows he has not changed. The themes -- the Soviet threat, the need for more arms, school prayer, more voluntarism, less government, the heroism of ordinary citizens, the innate nobility of the American people -- are constant.
His 1982 address was much more detailed than this week's, written in the shadow of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law, which may have much more to say about who gets what than he does. All we really learned on Tuesday was that he wants more money for the Pentagon and space, and for the poor and the elderly sick, study.
He was dealing in poetry. The prose came the next day in the budget.
Only Reagan would suggest cutting Amtrak while envisioning low-orbit travel to the Orient. Or while he's slashing funds for an extension of the Washington subway system. He knows the American people will be prouder of seeing the Tokyo Express take off than seeing the people of Anacostia ride the Metro to work.
With him, circuses always win over bread. Life at its best is a Cecil B. DeMille spectacle.
Although he was standing in the well of the House, he wasn't speaking to Congress. He was sending candy and flowers to the American people, keeping their romance alive. He told them that they are the world's champion peace-lovers and said that it is strictly up to the Soviets whether we have a reduction in nuclear arms.
He still believes in the "Soviet drive for domination." The summit was dismissed. It is to be regarded only as suggesting a "more stable relationship." "Arms control is no substitute for peace," he warned.
Members know that Reagan can get away with kissing off arms-control failures. Come November, they may have to explain them.
Representatives from farm states are also mindful that they have to go home and tell their prostrate farmers that they can't get help from the federal government because Jonas Savimbi of Angola has to pay his public relations bills and the contras of Nicaragua need antiaircraft missiles. That's Reagan's idea of "a moral challenge."
Mere members can't stand up in public and run against Jimmy Carter again. Reagan can. He reminded his audience of "locked factory gates, long gasoline lines, intolerable prices and interest rates . . . ."
He didn't talk to Congress about what lies before them in the way of rock-breaking work of getting the fiscal 1987 deficit down to $144 billion. He was crooning to the people, telling them they are wonderful. He has never made his predecessor's mistake of suggesting that Americans are sometimes wrong. No, he remembers that Carter once told them they had "malaise." It was as if he had said they had bad breath. It was all over.
In Reagan's world of falling oil prices, a booming stock market and a healthy economy, citizens are asked little. They should look up, with him, look ahead and, with him, weep over fallen astronauts, cheer over athletic victories. They should give the odd farthing to charity, but not press the government to. "Defense . . . is government's prime responsibility."
That, of course, is why he and Tip O'Neill would waste their time if they sat down over the budget. O'Neill has the notion that government has other obligations, like helping the poor, the unemployed, college students, riders of public transport and other losers.
He said he will "help" Reagan -- "I want to help him inform the American people how much it costs to go to Toyko.