Politics, the saying goes, is an expectations game. Exceed expectations and you win. Fail to meet them and you lose. I’ve never had high expectations for Ronald Reagan anyway, but they were particularly low as we went into this year’s State of the Union, and most Americans felt the way I did. I half expected the president to be wheeled out on a stretcher with tubes of saline solution suspended above him, in a maudlin play for sympathy for the broken old man, or to seem him led up to the podium with Nancy on one arm and Pat Buchanan on the other in the ‘80s equivalent of the czarina and Rasputin, with Reagan, the last of the Romanovs, mumbling about deploying Star Wars, baiting Nicaragua, and bombing Iran or Iraq, depending on whom we happen not to be dealing with this week.
Boy, was I disappointed. As Sam Donaldson noted, Ronald Reagan proved he could still give “one helluva good speech.” And Sam’s right. Quoting every president from Wilson to Jack Kennedy, Reagan evinced homily, hominy, and harmony; it was the Gipper at his glibbest.
But, like good pie, any way you slice it, it just isn’t enough.
If the people of the United States have learned anything from the Iranarama fiasco, it’s that the fate of the nation and world events are more directly influenced by acts of substance, like selling arms to Iran in an effort to ransom the release of hostages and shipping the proceeds to the contras in Central America, than by symbolic imagery, like making believe you know what’s going on by acting presidential. Gorbachev has learned this lesson well. And that’s’ why his picture, not Reagan’s, was on the front page of the New York Times the day after the State of the Union, as a result of Gorbachev’s announcing electoral reforms such as secret ballots and multicandidate fields. This is talking substance and symbolism. So even as Reagan showed that he can still read a good speech, he proved, too, that –unlike his Soviet counterpart-he really has nothing of substance to say. The Iranarama revelations taught the rest of us a lot, but they apparently taught Ronald Reagan nothing
During the first phase of all the Iranarama contradance, all America was abuzz. The question was simple but two-pronged: did the president know what was going on and lie about it, or was he so out of touch with what was happening around him that he just didn’t know what the boys in the basement were up to?
That’s precisely the same question that I asked myself as I watched the once wildly popular president from Pasadena (actually he lives in Santa Barbara, but I couldn’t pass up the alliteration; the copy editor will probably change it anyway). Is he lying to us about the state of our union or has he totally failed yet again to comprehend what he’s done to himself and our country?