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1976-1985: Onstage With Two Bit Players and a Superstar

By Herblock
Sunday, December 31, 1995

Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter seemed unlikely candidates for the White House (Jerry Ford? Jimmy Who?). And putting aside Ford's congressional campaign to impeach Justice William O. Douglas and his presidential pardon of Richard Nixon (outside of that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?), he turned out to be, in the popular political phrase, "Better Than Expected." Meanwhile, after a "decent interval" following our exit, South Vietnam fell to North Vietnam on Ford's watch. Henry Kissinger was shocked, shocked that North Vietnam did not abide by the understanding that got our troops out.

Many presidents seem to benefit from the public's unhappiness with a predecessor. The disclosures of Nixon's shady operations made Jimmy Carter – a Sunday school teacher who promised always to level with the American people – an acceptable choice.

If Carter comes out fuzzy in one of these cartoons, that's the way he was perceived, despite his success in brokering an Egyptian-Israeli peace. I noticed, but never understood why, during his presidency he changed the part in his hair from one side to the other. And when he changed course or played routine politics, I think the public felt it had been conned. The Iran hostage crisis, to which he made himself a hostage, dogged him the rest of his term.

Appearance and perceptions are important. When Carter debated Ronald Reagan in 1980, Reagan came across as a strong man – and not irresponsible, as many feared. Carter, by comparison, appeared weak.

And so we came to the Reagan presidency. The Alice-through-the-looking-glass cartoon portrayed my impression of our entrance, through the TV screen, into Reaganland.

He told anecdotes that had no basis in fact, but they were good lines and he kept using them. He had campaigned for a balanced budget but never submitted one. He talked about fiscal responsibility and tripled the national debt to nearly $3 trillion. He may have helped ruin the Soviet economy – and our own in the process. He was hell on the poor but the Star Wars sky was the limit for arms of any kind.

Reaganomics included big tax cuts and, by the admission of his own budget director, David Stockman, involved cooking the books – shown in the cartoon of the well-boiled deficit estimates. A dedicated anti-communist, Reagan sent troops to Lebanon, where he'd been warned they would be sitting ducks. After two car-bombings, a third one took the lives of 260 Marines. But like a sleight-of-hand artist – look, over here – two days after that disaster Reagan had us invade Grenada. Reagan's staff hailed this "finest hour."

In this made-for-TV presidency, the star always looked good, read his lines well and had skillful handlers. Sometimes criticized for being an actor-president, he is supposed to have told an aide that he didn't see how anyone could handle this job without being an actor. If it was an act, it was a popular one, and he got a sequel in 1984.

An anti-welfare president and a believer in tax cuts for the wealthy, he also advocated constitutional amendments against abortion and in favor of organized school prayer; and he favored the teaching of creationism. A president who stacked government commissions he didn't like, Reagan began a revolution. Later it would come into full force when the Republicans won complete control of Congress.

Reagan's administration had to cope with many scandals, including the turning of the Environmental Protection Agency into a dump, which led to the indictment of an EPA official and the forced resignation of another. His attorney general, Edwin Meese, survived several investigations, and the administration's diversion of foreign arms sales funds to support contra rebels in Nicaragua was too much to conceal.

But Reagan spoke of the flag and patriotism and even the short distance from Nicaragua to our own Harlingen, Tex.

And he was such a likable guy!

© 2001 The Washington Post Company


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