Why We Already Miss the Gipper

When Steve Forbes announced for president last week, he said Republicans have an “empty feeling” about the ’96 race, and it’s true. They’re poised for victory, it’s a Republican year, they’ve already won the Congress, and yet . . . they’re frustrated.

There is an absence, a lack, this presidential year. Will Newt run? Will Colin Powell? Some say the general’s qualities are Reaganesque, but more and more of us see him as our favorite moderate Democrat. There is one Republican out there who unites the party; who has the respect and affection of both its elders and collegiate Dittoheads; and who, in a party riven somewhat by class, is happily claimed as One of Us by Greenwich millionaires, Chillicothe Christians and Little Rock auto mechanics; who soothes the chafing tensions between pro- and anti-gun, pro- and anti-abortion. And he even comes from California.

He is, of course, Ronald Reagan, more than ever the party’s undiminished hero. Seven years out of office, no one has quite taken his place. That’s what the empty feeling is — his big absence.

The feeling is not confined to his party. He is old now and ill, and for the nation, he is a poignant presence. He is in a kind of twilight; we cannot mourn him, but we can miss him, and we do.

Which is not to say his critics have ever stopped trying to tear down his record. But it doesn’t seem to have worked. Almost two years ago, I wrote to him and asked how he felt about it. “I’m not the sort to lose sleep over what a few revisionists say,” the president wrote back. “Let history decide; it usually does.”

Other presidents have loomed large. Nixon loomed, but like a shadow. Reagan looms like a sun, lighting the stage on which the year’s contenders stand. But his light is so bright they squint in the glare and seem paler, washed out.

Part of this is inevitable. We appreciate presidents more than we appreciate candidates. When a man becomes president, we suddenly discover virtues of which we — and they — had been unaware. If he is elected, Dole’s wit will be called not mean but trenchant and deep, a gallant mask for pain; Gramm’s stark and prickly conservatism will become a no-frills tribute to authenticity.

And it’s good to remember we didn’t always love Reagan. In 1980 he was called an aging nuclear cowboy who’d throw Grandma into the snow, a washed-up grade-B former-actor former-governor who’d run twice and lost and whose hands were clasped in victory over a pompadour people said was dyed.

The media and academe saw him not as a statesman but as a joke. And there were failures: he never really cut the size and scope of government, and the deficit grew. There were irritating excesses (glitz, glamour), insensitivities and derelictions.

But for all that, he is missed and admired, still the man you see when you hear the phrase The American President. Why? Because of a combination of qualities in the man and in his presidency.

He set out to make big change. Only a few times a century do you find a president who really changed things. Most presidents, one way or another, have no serious grievance with the status quo. Ford, Carter, Kennedy, Eisenhower, Bush — they made progress or mischief at the margins. But Reagan changed things as much as Franklin Roosevelt — only in the opposite direction. He changed the way we look at the role of government in America. In the 50 years preceding his presideney it was generally agreed (though not generally stated) that the government created wealth and should supervise its distribution. But Reagan said no — it does not create wealth, it is an impediment to prosperity, and it should not be distributing your money, you should. Like it or not, that was change.

He knew what he thought and why he thought it. He had thought it through, was a conservative for serious philosophical reasons, had read his Hayek and his Friedman, knew exactly why “that government governs best that governs least.” And he became a conservative at some cost, in the early ‘60s, when the country was beginning to turn left and the community in which he lived and earned his living, Hollywood, was turning lefter still.

He didn’t hold views to be popular, he held them because he thought they were right. The men around him sometimes used polls to divine which issues to hit hard. That’s not how he used polls. He used them to see if what he was saying was what people were hearing, and to cheer himself up when he was blue. He liked it when the pollsters could tell him 82 percent of the people thought he was doing a good job. He’d breathe the numbers in, stick out his chest and wade back into the fray. But his positions were not poll driven, and the people could tell. So even when they disagreed with him, they still respected him.

He meant it. His beliefs were sincerely held. And because he was sincere, the people cut him some slack where they wouldn’t cut it for others. geagan raised taxes in ‘82 and won by a landslide in ‘84. When George Bush raised taxes, they sent him to Elba.

He was right. He said the Soviet Union was evil and an empire, and it was; he said history would consign it to the ash heap, and it did. Thirty-one years ago in The Speech, the one he gave a week before the ‘64 election and which put him on the political map, he said: high taxes are bad, heavy regulation is bad, bureaucracies cause more ills than they cure and government is not necessarily your friend. It could have been given by half the congressional candidates of 1994-and was.

He had the presidential style. He knew how to act the part. In this he was like FDR and JFK, who also understood the role. He intuited that a certain detachment produces mystery, and mystery enhances power. He was not on television every night. It would have lowered his currency, made him common. He wasn’t Ron-is-the-caller-there-Reagan, and wouldn’t have understood a president who is. He thought it boorish to be in the nation’s face all the time.

He would not have talked about his underwear on TV — they would never have asked him — and he not only wouldn’t feel your pain, he barely agreed to feel his pain. He had dignity. Clinton has the baby boomer’s discomfort with dignity: they equate it with formality and formality with phoniness, and what could be worse than that?

He loved America. He really loved it. His eyes went misty when he spoke of her. It was personal, emotional, protective and trusting. He was an American exceptionalist — we weren’t like other countries, God put us in a special place with a special job, to lead the forces of good, to be the city on a hill John Winthrop saw and hoped for. Clinton grows misty-eyed, too, but over abstractions: justice, harmony. Clinton loves America at her best. But Reagan loved America, period.

It worked. If, when he ran for president in 1980, a little angel had whispered in your ear, “If Reagan wins, by the time he leaves Soviet communism will be dead, the Dow will have passed 2000, taxes will be cut and we’ll all have a more spirited sense of the historical possibilities,” would you have voted for him? Of course you would have.

He won by 10 points that year, but if we’d known what was coming he would have won by 30. The fact is he was a big man who did big things, and that is why we already miss him.

A Time to Get Serious

    MEMO TO: The President
    FROM: Noonan
    RE: Your acceptance speech

Mr. President, remember the scene in that movie you liked, “Moonstruck,” in which Cher slugs the very fine and decent but also dispirited Nicolas Cage and says, “Snap out of it!”? That is our text for today.

You are George Herbert Walker Bush and you have been serving your country and keeping high its ideals since the day you were born. You went out to defend it with your life when you were an 18-year-old boy. You chucked security, got in the car, dug the oil, created a business, gave people jobs, got an ulcer worrying about the payroll, met it every week, kept trucking, went to Congress, went to China, protected the CIA in its toughest days, served a great man named Reagan with quiet, dogged loyalty, became a landslide president of the United States, went to victorious war against a nut with nukes, helped transform the Soviet Union—and kept, all this time, all these years, the honest, yearning love of your children and your wife.

You have lived a life. And now this—this Elvis impersonator, this boomer on a bus, this guy who calls his climb up the greasy pole “answering the call of public service,” as if he were sacrificing ambition for good works, as if politics were a nunnery and not a whore. Well.

And his friends, the newspaper poets! Back there tap-tap-tapping in the back of the plane, and every time they see Clinton their eyes shine because what they’re really seeing is . . . The house in McLean and the phone call in the night, the journal entry: “The president called again tonight, I knew why he was up, alone. Sarajevo. Again.”

Buttheads with laptops! Going for the Bradlee Cup! That’s what you think of them in your less charitable moods. Well, stay less charitable for a minute.

Mr. President, Clinton says you’re washed up. He says you’re through, you’re yesterday, and a new generation tempered by zip and disciplined by zero is going to run the country. And he will—right into the ground! You going to let him? Or are you going to teach him a little lesson in respect?

(Phew. It’s not easy doing a Roger Ailes impersonation.)

Four years ago today you were working on what we all thought was the most important speech of your career. We were wrong. This is. It’s also the most challenging. A lot has changed in the last four years. Last time you were up against a man caught somewhere between inept and inert. This time you’re up against a savvy young pol.

Both the Democrats and the Republicans think that you’re in trouble because of the economy. But it’s more. People are angry about the costs and demands of government, angry that no one has the courage to cut spending. They are uneasy about our culture, about its increasing coarseness, vulgarity, violence. If people had seen the past three years that you were led by discernible principle, if they had been able to see that you were thinking long term, long range, they’d have stuck with you from boom to bust. But they didn’t, so they haven’t.

A hunch: You know what a lot of voters feel, deep in their hearts, with a certitude that finds no expression in focus groups? They think this election is a white-guy fistfight over power. That’s all. Two groups of guys in suits who want power. Stephanopoulos does, Teeter does, Carville does, Rich Bond. Bush, Clinton. People hate it. It makes them think that you’re none of you serious.

The Democrats ceded seriousness to sentiment at their convention. But seriousness is your salvation. It means that if you win, you win with meaning, if you lose, you lose with class. The first gives you a mandate, the second adds heft to your historical reputation. Here are some ideas:

Put the contest in context: The ‘92 campaign is a fight, on the one hand, between a solid Republican Party that has in your lifetime done an amazing thing: it has changed history for the better; it is the party that helped change an evil empire into a benign cluster of democracies; that unleashed a historic economic boom, and that spoke, again, for our country and the world, of the rightness of freedom.

On the other side, an evolving Democratic Party that has not evolved enough to lead. Their policies are new ideas wrapped in old entanglements, with the obvious left—The Groups, The Unions—quiet now, but poised to move in a Clinton administration. Nothing will change the Democrats but more history; their evolution is incomplete.

You think this. But you’ll say it better.

Your biggest problem? ‘Read my mind’: Four years ago you said: The Congress will push me to raise taxes, and I’ll say no, and they’ll push, and I’ll say no, and they’ll push again. And I’ll say to them: Read my lips. No new taxes.

Once FDR made a campaign pledge in a speech in Philadelphia. Later he broke it. When his image handlers wondered what to do he merrily instructed them to deny he was in Philadelphia. My advice: Don’t deny you were in New Orleans, tell people why you did what you did.

You said you’d fight the congressional Democrats’ desire to raise taxes by pushing back and refusing. Instead you compromised, trading taxes for spending controls.

Everyone has his reasons, and you had yours. But you never told them to the people. All they saw was a guy jogging by the cameras, saying, “Read my hips.” Your worst public moment as president.

Explain it. You knew you had to get the deficit under control, and the deficit is a spending problem. You felt facing the Democrats off to a standstill would get you nowhere, produce nothing but a daily argument, like a bad marriage. “[The people] did not send us here to bicker,” you said in your Inaugural, and you meant it.

So you held back from a war with Congress that had to be fought. You put your personal credibility on the line, you broke your word—but only in hopes it would break Congress’s habits. It didn’t. They’re still spending, the deficit is growing, but you learned something: never again. (This, as Kissinger used to say, had the added benefit of being true. You will never do it again.)

A mistake stays a scandal until you explain it. And this is a mistake to be turned to your advantage. It was the Democrats, Bill Clinton’s party, who insisted on the tax raise. Now they condemn you for giving them what they begged for. What will Clinton do when a Democratic Congress tells him to raise taxes even more than he intends?

Say what you did right: There’s plenty. But this year the Republicans have had trouble going positive—about themselves. One reason: good news that is old news is not news. How do you make it interesting that Republicans arrested inflation when inflation hasn’t mugged anyone lately? One way is to be terse, true—and funny. Give people something they can get a smile or a laugh with when they quote it to the neighbors. People want to fight on your side—a good line is ammunition.

They’re ba-a-ck: “Clinton says he’ll take back America and he will—to the Carter years.” That’s how Jim Pinkerton speaks of the Democratic ticket. Pinkerton, Mary Matalin, all the young, smart ones on your staff: they say to remind people the Democrats aren’t the answer, they’re the problem. You said it yourself: they’re not the fireman, they’re the arsonist. Drive it home.

War talk: In private you speak of Desert Storm with humility and quiet pride. On the stump your references take on a kind of agitated boastfulness.

Your normal approach to things is low key, modest, often wry. But your advisers tell you to show how you “feel” when you make a speech, so you “act” how you feel, and sometimes it doesn’t work because—you’re not an actor. (As a former adviser I feel free to say: Kill the advisers.)

You could use the war to make two points. (1) Tell about building the coalition against Saddam Hussein. You gathered together the civilized world. It was masterful. Underscore the fact that Clinton has nothing like your quarter-century experience in foreign affairs. (2) The war was fought with minimum loss of life because of state-of-the-art hardware that was only developed because Republicans led the nation the past 12 years. (Imagine people who two years ago had VISUALIZE PEACE on their bumper stickers in charge of the Pentagon budget!)

My only lobbying: Mr. President, we need a defense to protect our continent from a madman with a well-aimed missile. A week ago the Democratic Senate voted all of SDI down. You care about it. Fight for it in this speech.

The Democrats, the media, hate it. Do you know what regular people on the street know that the elites don’t? It is not possible for so many men to have so many unclear arms and no one will ever use one. It’s going to save lives someday.

No more tears: Some will say, show your heart. They’ll mean: Be personal and autobiographical and talk about the pain in this thing called life. You’ll refuse. On behalf of the American people, thank you.

When Al Gore was talking about his son at the Democratic convention I saw a television producer watching with tears in his eyes. At the end she turned to me and said, “That was so manipulative.” I said, “You were moved.” She shrugged. “I’m a mother, I got a cheap cry.” Everyone’s on to everything. Cheap tears win no votes.

Watch out: Democrats keep saying it will be a mean campaign and here’s a reason why: they still think they lost ’88 because of Willie Horton, and they still don’t understand that voters viewed Dukakis’s actions (refusing to meet with Horton’s victims, etc.) as . . . liberal arrogance.

The Democrats think it was all an ugly racist trick. The good news: this means they’re still confused about why people vote against them. The bad news: people who think you’ve been evil to them usually do evil in return.

And don’t forget the merry pranksters in the press. They are so hungry for ugly, in my view, that the smallest thing you do will be turned into a big thing. And they’ll goad you into the small thing. You’ll be walking through the plane to say hello to reporters and someone will ask, “How did you like the dress Mrs. Clinton wore on ‘Arsenio’ last night?” And you, wanting to be diplomatic but also not wanting to look like a weenie who’s afraid to have fun, will say, “Oh, the dress, well, not my favorite color, but . . .” That’s all they’ll need. He’s even attacking her clothing!

Mr. President, if a prankster baits you, wag your finger and give ‘em a little Ward Cleaver. “Now Beaver, it’s good to try and make life fun, but it isn’t nice to start trouble. Wally, I’d like you to talk to your brother about taking democracy seriously.”

The importance of belief: Some of your staff used to walk around calling the Reagan years “the pre-Bush era.” There are many names for such people; “historical idiot” is one. You know and feel that Ronald Reagan was, is, a great man. When your delegates hear his voice Monday night they will erupt in joy. They will shake their heads and say, “I miss his voice.” They’ll mean: I miss belief.

You have a chance to tell people, again, what you believe, what you intend, how you will achieve it. If you meet the challenge, voters will give you a second look.

People like to forgive. When a friend says, “I’m sorry if I let you down. But I know what went wrong and it won’t happen again and I’m asking for another chance,” you’d have to be ungenerous to turn the guy down. And you will be talking to the most generous people on earth.

Behind Enemy Lines

The veteran political reporter R. W. Apple had the blues. He was sitting in the makeshift New York Times bureau off the convention floor, hunched over his laptop computer, looking the way Tom Wolfe once described Jimmy Breslin—like a bowling ball radiating steam. “These Democrats,” Apple groused. “Aren’t they acting like . . . Republicans?”

It was a serious allegation, but true. It seemed to me, a former Republican speechwriter asked by NEWSWEEK to observe the Democrats, that they were acting just like us—now brawls, no epithets. Even Jesse Jackson was showing up time.

The delegates, like their nominees, were proper boomers, businesslike and tailored. There was much talk of unity, but what I saw was the pretty homogenized gathering of one of the great parties of an increasingly homogenized country—a country that has been ironed out, no lumps and wrinkles and grass stains, a country in which we are becoming all alike, sophisticated, Gapped, linened and Lancomed.

This is one of the things that leave reporters depressed, this is why Johnny Apple had the blues: they want life to be authentic, they want people to be vivid, they want conventions that are a punch in the nose, they want to play a role. But it’s hard to play the part of city-slicker reporter now, because no one will play the part of rube.

You look to the podium, and you want to hear thoughts as big as the room, words bright as balloons. You yearn for something spontaneous and real, for a moment when reality breaks through the screen—a chant begun in the back of the hall that spreads and rings the rafters, a demonstration nobody planned, a speech full of things that are true.

You get lonely for the big heart of politics. You root for the rhetoric.

But—life is life and not bad but sometimes thin—and what you get is this:

Jesse Jackson and Mario Cuomo. Both hit it out of the park in ‘84, both this time hit a double.

Note to those who would be great speakers: Jesse Jackson doesn’t use a TelePrompTer. He memorizes set pieces that he has debuted elsewhere and weaves them together into a new whole. And he knows how to use fear. When he first comes out he stands back and sucks in the tension and high stakes in a great nostril-flaring inhalation; somewhere in his chest they turn into energy and the actor’s art. This is a trick particular to born politicians and schizophrenics.

Mario Cuomo also is a great actor. You have to act a speech. It’s a paradox of modern politics: to “act” is to be phony, but because of the demands and limitations of bigroom oratory, if you don’t act the text you’ll look wooden and—phony. Natural politicians understand and master this intuitively, without thinking.

When Cuomo puts out his hand to maintain his command—that movement that says, “Don’t clap yet, the applause line is coming”—it is the short, blunt hand of a masseur. He’s not only controlling the crowd, he’s massaging them. He’s touching the audience’s shoulder and saying, “Lie that? Wait’ll I get to your back.”

Cuomo talks about justice, Jackson talks about love, and something else. The constant subtext of his speeches is how hard it is to be alive, how tiring it is to go every day to a job that hurts your soul, your back. “She works haaaaaard for the money!”

Delegates and reporters want to be moved; Jackson moves them. Which is why they forgive him anything.

Al Gore. Earnest, modern, blandly debonair, he was the surprise of the convention, with the best speech. He had context: the war is over, the world has changed, our next great battle is not on the land but for it. Great Elvis joke—focus groups must be showing the Elvis stuff is a plus—“It is time for them to go” a good chant. Gore seems half suburban high-school principal and half preacher man; he’ll be good on the stump and tough in debate. Kids, Tipper and mom are great, dad made me think of the John Huston character in “Winter Kills.” I believe he may be running the secret government Perot found out about before he quit.

Ann Richards. The only person in America of whom one can say: she reminds me of Lana Turner and Stu Spencer. Actually she’s like the matriarch of a big family of deeply attractive sons and daughters on a Ponderosa-like spread in a TV show with a name like “El Paso!” Cursed like Mario and Jesse with high expectations, her speech wasn’t the dazzler of yesteryear, but it was solid and did the job. In a quiet moment outside the convention hall, Richards ruminated on human nature and said, “People are what they appear to be. That’s been true in my experience. People aren’t good at hiding what they are.” This struck me as the smartest thing I heard anybody say in four days.

Bill Clinton. Oh Bill. For days I’d been picking up great speech ions, I could feel it coming. I was wrong. The big speech was good, not great, and not quite the equal of Dukakis’s—“The Reagan erruh is ovuh”—in ’88.

It may have been a focus-group speech—“We gotta say something about Bush’s lack of vision,. that gets a very strong response in groups”—or a committee speech—“That pretty part from Ted, that can be one of the endings!” Whatever, the result was a weak cup of coffee, somewhat stimulating but essentially insubstantial.

“We can do better” was JFK.” Now that we have changed the world it’s time to change America” is almost word for word George Bush. This is known in the speechwriting dodge (William Safire) as being fiercely derivative (Oscar Wilde).

You think Republicans won the past 12 years with lines, not ideas, so the Clinton speech was a series of applause lines largely unconnected to thought, ideas, philosophy. And a chicken in every pot– or, as you put it,” “An America where health care is a right, not a privilege” is a promise—not, as you said, a vision.

“I don’t have all the answers . . .” was refreshing. “ More empowerment, less entitlement” has potential and should be developed. Ditto “A government that is leaner, not meaner.”

Big tonal mistake: Bush is down, but Americans are fair; they’re mad at the president, but you don’t convince them you’re better by treating him with scorn. Put-downs are most effective when you’ve established a spirit of generosity. (And if you’re going to be a pugilist you better be a poet.)

Second total mistake: references to “my fighting spirit” and “the passionate commitment that I have.” Never talk this way about yourself in a speech. Or in a conversation, either. (You don’t have to put a hat on your virtues and make faces. Your hero JFK’s references to himself were self-mocking.)

The new covenant sounds both Biblical and, well, new. If it catches on it will be because people understand it, which so far they don’t. Repetition alone won’t do it; context and clarity are all. (Note to speechwriter: context, as you know, is often lengthy and rarely snappy. Your communications director will resist what he calls “long globs of no sound bite.” Write it the way you know it should be and smuggle it to Bill on the plane. If the communications chief threatens to fire your, offer to return home to write a snappy campaign memoir. After he takes you to dinner and asks you to stay, keep smuggling.)

The Film. The most compelling rhetoric of the last convention night was in the Bill Clinton bio. It was wonderful—stirring, soft focused and emotional—and alarming. Clinton’s focus groups show people think he was born rich; in the film, Hillary just happens to mention that when she talks to people they tell her the most amazing thing, they think Bill was born rich!

And can we get this one straight? Reporters and the Clinton organization keep saying he was “born in poverty,” but from all the pictures and the facts that have been revealed, Clinton appears to have been born middle or lower-middle class—the meaning of these phrases keeps changing—like just about everybody else in those days. Grandma and grandpa, with whom he lived as a child, had a cook/housekeeper. Grandpa had a store. Billy had a cowboy hat. This is poverty only by the standards of—forgive me—Northern boomer media snots who see Southerners as . . . naturally impoverished. (It was probably the outhouse that began the hagiography.)

I bet half the parents in America suspect that the real nature of Clinton’s deprivation wasn’t financial but emotional. Grandma and grandpa worked, mom was at school, his father was dead. But politicians can’t say, “I was born in loneliness . . .” to show they know something about pain.

Speaking of which: it is good that those who seek to lead us tell us of their lives, and the events that shaped them. But—there was a lot of my dad died, my son almost died, dad was a drinker, my sister died.

Why do modern Democrats have to declare to each other that they have suffered, that they are victims? In group therapy this is known as saying hello, but—this is government. The real pain in a person’s life is interior; the anguish unveiled in these speeches seems a surrogate for genuine pain, and the device seems not revelatory but deceptive.

But then, this is a party half in love with death. It is almost three decades since his passing, but JFK was the most popular man at the convention, RFK the most beloved; the first great moment of applause came when their pictures came up on the squares of a screen. All conventions are obsessed with something, but Democratic obsession with the Kennedys speaks of their continuing confusion about the facts of their predicament. They didn’t lose the presidency because when the Kennedys died they lost their charisma; they lost the presidency because they lost their voting base.

The Suit. This is a departure. Most people running for president wear your basic Brooks Brothers suit, but the one Clinton wore through most of the convention has bigger, sloped shoulders, and a sharper break. Kind of a Montclair, N.J., real-estate salesman’s suit. I wonder how many days or weeks his staff debated it. “Look, I don’t wanna get in your way but we’ve already got a Slick Willie problem, OK? You look at it and see chic breakout outfit, but other people are gonna think of the guy who screwed ’em at the closing.”

By the way, Clinton goes home to Little Rock to get his hair cut at a local place. This is so he’ll have an average-guy haircut so the voters will think he’s a regular guy. And the voters do notice it. They think to themselves: he goes to the local Clip ’n’ Snip so he’ll have an average-guy haircut so the voters will think he’s an average guy.

Clinton’s charm and warmth and intelligence are obviously real. His friends whisper the famous flaw: he wants too much to be liked. So do most politicians, of course. They love the roar of approval, the hands outstretched to touch their faces. Clinton’s flaw, I think, starts with a fleshy calculation, an instinct to blunt disagreement and split the diff, to shade and swallow. All presidents manipulate. FDR did, and so did Ronald Reagan. But with them, people perceived that beneath the overlay was a core of hardness and toughness. Clinton has survived a great deal this year. But one wonders: at the core, where it counts, what is there?