A new little booklet, titled “Quotations from President Ron,” published by prize-winning Washington Post reporter Morton Mintz, is the most recent reminder of the astonishing free ride that Mr. Reagan has received from the media both before and after he became President.
Lou Cannon, a biographer of the President and regular White House reporter, wrote in 1982 what he continues to observe: “More disgusting than Reagan’s performance or prospects on specific issues is a growing suspicion that the President has only a passing acquaintance with some of the most important decisions of his administration.”
“Quotations” gives some illustrations: The Russians “cannot vastly increase their military productivity because they’ve already got their people on a starvation diet of sawdust…”
“I’ve been told that something like 42 trillion rate decisions were given by the Interstate Commerce Commission in its 85-year history and they are not even indexed.”
“The suppressed study (by the EPA) reveals that 80 percent of air pollution comes not from chimneys and auto exhaust pipes, but from plants and trees.”
Mssrs. Nixon, Ford, and Carter must wonder what is Mr. Reagan’s secret or technique that Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder called “the Teflon factor.” These former presidents were skewed by the press when they made erroneous statements.
Well, as an observer of Mr. Reagan since he became governor of California, I’ve distilled Reagan’s Teflon formula into six rules.
Rule One is never get openly involved in the details. He who rises by details falls by details could be his motto. Stay general, preferably using heroic phrases of reassurance,
patriotism, and national pride.
Rule Two is amiability — especially an “aw shucks” demeanor with lots of even-toned voice, smiles and head shrugs to avoid any impression of the defensiveness and irritation that Nixon personified.
Rule Three is to be insulated from impromptu media exposure. Campaign and White House press conferences are carefully limited with predictable questions and reporters who know their inhibitions only too well. Earlier this year Mr. Reagan had some less inhibited high school students ask him questions and he got into some hot water with his inaccurate responses.
Rule Four is to induce condescension. If reporters and other opinion shapers think they are so much smarter than Mr. Reagan, then they don’t expect much and they forgive more. The former actor plays this role cagily.
Rule Five is to preside over such a banality of indifference, cruelty, and wrongdoing in the government that the media is deprived of novelty and the “so what else is new, what else do you expect” syndromes take over. Reagan’s anti-consumer, anti-environmental practices and appointments fit in this category.
Rule Six is to be blessed by an opposition party that has largely surrendered a basic contention of politics — which is to challenge and hold accountable the opposing incumbent leader. For this fall’s election campaigning, the Democrats are avoiding direct criticism of Reagan and his record.
Imagine that in a two party nation the alternative Party leaders are not personally tying Mr. Reagan to his gigantic national budget deficit, trade deficit, and chronic unemployment policies in many areas of the country. Nor are they taking him to task for his appalling refusal to implement anti-pollution, consumer protection and worker health laws, including his wrecking or suspending several cancer prevention enforcement programs which are designed to deal with pesticides and toxics in drinking water.
Without such checkpoints, Mr. Reagan retains his position in the polls as our symbolic, no-fault President, transforming the U.S.A. into a banana Republic with his Miller-Time politics.
(Mintz’s booklet can be obtained for $2.95 from Politics and Prose, 5010 Connecticut Avenue, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20008.)