Picture Ronald Reagan. Okay, now picture him as a giant knee. Now here comes a doctor's rubber-tipped hammer shaped like the Philippines. The hammer hits, the knee jerks and the president immediately comes down on the side of authority. The president is the genuine article. He really is a knee-jerk conservative.
Since Reagan's initial statements about the Philippine elections, there has been some backing and filling, some hemming and hawing and the required dispatch of Philip Habib, the winged messenger of futility, on yet another dumb mission. But at the critical, almost Rorschach, moment, the president looked at the ink blot of the Philippine archipelago and saw the Berkeley campus of yore -- protest and pandemonium. As the kids say, he freaked.
Of course, Reagan cold hardly mention Berkeley. After all, he was not articulating a thought but an emotion -- what in Washington passes for ideology. That strongly felt emotion prompted the nonsense that leaped from Reagan's lips when the issue of the Philippines was raised at his recent press conference: There was no proof of vote fraud and besides both sides had used violence.
The average American, lacking a Habib but having a television set, knew the president was wrong. The bodies bled on camera, and the fraud was palpable. Richard Lugar, a conservative senator from Indiana, had certified it. Ferdinand Marcos was a cheat.
Notice that Reagan's statements regarding the Philippine elections were not all that different from those he made regarding South Africa. There, too, he said that there was violence on both sides. It seemed not to matter to him that one side was the government, with all its guns, and the other side, while numerous, was powerless. It seemed aso not to matter that the government was protecting privilege, racism and the raw abuse of power. The only thing that mattered was that it was the government -- authority. It had to be right.
For Reagan, this is a theme. At the same press conference at which he inarticulately articulated his position on the Philippines election, he defended his record on civil rights: "I was doing things about civil rights before there was (a government) program." Maybe he was. But when the individual efforts of countless individual blacks converged into an often rambunctious civil rights movement, Reagan recoiled and opposed civil rights legislation. It was as if the leper of Bolshevism was about to touch him. The rabble was at the gates.
Beginning with the classic study, "The Authoritarian Personality" by Theodore Adorno, social scientists have tried to determine what makes one person liberal and another conservative. In the case of President Reagan, the cause is less important than the consequence. The results have been damaging, and mar what some are already claiming to be a great presidency.
Reagan's civil rights posture, his statements on South Africa and now the reflexive kick he gave the vast Marcos opposition are more than personal utterances. They are official pronouncements, the face the United States turns to the world. Black South Africans and anti-Marcos Filipinos, engaged as they are in the often-messy struggle for freedom, must think they have seen the man's heart and found it cold indeed.
Reagan's instincts, so acclaimed here, are precisely where the underprivileged find him wanting. They are why, totally without evidence and to his evident dismay, so many American blacks say Reagan is a racist.
In the end, facts and reality sometimes overpower Reagan's conservative instincts and, almost imperceptibly, things change. U.S. policy toward South Africa is not what it once was -- although to many blacks there it hardly matters. When it comes to the Philippines, something similar will happen. In due course, Reagan will inch away from his initial rhetoric, and policy will dutifully follow. Trouble is, it may hardly matter.
The irony is that everyone seems to know this part of Ronald Reagan but Reagan himself. Faced with a challenge to authority, he still allows his reflexive conservatism to get the better of him. In following his instincts rather than his head, he does his country a disservice. It may be his knee-jerk reaction. But it's us who gets kicked.