PALM SPRINGS, CALIF. -- It has been unseasonably cold this holiday season in this desert playground of the rich and famous, perhaps an omen for an economy that seems to be drifting into a wintry recession while an isolated president watches without a plan.
As he has for the last two decades, Ronald Reagan greeted the new year in the remote splendor of the 220-acre Walter Annenberg estate, fenced off from economic tremors and workaday cares. The well-dressed guests who honored him at the Annenberg's lavish annual New Year's Eve party were
the big beneficiaries of Reaganomics,
rich men and women who have become richer and paid less taxes during
the last seven years as the nation's
debt tripled and the gap between the haves and have-nots of America widened.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, a cheerful bureaucrat not admitted to privileged sanctuaries of the wealthy, served as Reagan's tenuous link to the outside world. In the dimly lit briefing room of the garish Gene Autry Hotel here, Fitzwater obediently followed orders to make happy talk in response to questions about a week of depressing economic reports.
The spokesman airily assured reporters that the worst monthly plunge of leading economic indicators in the last six years was merely "a one-month blip on the screen." When reporters then asked what the government intended to do about the declining dollar, Fitzwater said the dollar appeared to have stabilized. Instead, a day later, the dollar reached post-World War II lows against the Japanese yen and three major western European currencies.
Reporters on the White House beat, scratching unproductively for year-end stories, were as isolated from Reagan as he was from unpleasant realities. Those who bothered to put in wake-up calls were aroused by a recording of one-time singing cowboy Autry urging them to "get up and get back in the saddle again." Where they were supposed to ride once mounted was not clear. For all that reporters saw of the president during the week, they might as well have been stationed on the moon.
This is a period of transition for Reagan, whom friends have found in good spirits after a trying year in office. A year ago, the revelations of the Iran-contra affair sent Reagan's popularity plummeting, and the loss of the Senate to the Democrats appeared to signal the effective end of his presidency. As Reagan emerged from this crisis and slowly regained popularity last fall, he was hit hard by Nancy Reagan's cancer surgery and the death of her mother. These personal crises coincided with the stock-market crash.
According to those close to him, the usually optimistic Reagan became deeply dispirited by events of 1987. He was shattered by his loss of public credibility and, like presidents before him, blamed the media for his troubles rather than himself. While scars of Iran-contra remain, Reagan is now said to believe that this scandal will be historically overshadowed by U.S.-Soviet progress in nuclear arms reduction. He may well be correct in this view.
Buoyed by the courageous recovery of the first lady, Reagan has certainly bounced back. But the economic edifice on which much of his reputation as a successful president rested has been falling apart. While Reagan is doubtless better off than a year ago, the economy and many Americans are not.
The president's motivations have never really been at issue. He has, at his best, lifted the American spirit. Reagan's prescription of "peace through strength" has produced results. Even the abysmal Iran-control adventure was propelled by genuine compassion for American hostages.
But Reagan's willingness to face the downside of his policies has always been questionable and, with it, his ability to lead in times of crisis. For years, economists of varied persuasions have warned of a crash at the end of the joy ride of lowered tax rates and ever-growing budget and trade deficits. The president ignored the warnings, secure in a comfortable isolation aptly symbolized by his Palm Springs holiday. Now, he must end his isolation and
find a way to lead the nation. The economy will not wait for the next president.
Reaganism of the Week: In a televised New Year's Day message to the Soviet people, the president said: "Let us consecrate this year to showing not courage for war but courage for peace."