In his 1986 State of the Union address a year ago, President Reagan told his fellow citizens: "Tonight we look out on a rising America--firm of heart, united in spirit, powerful in pride and patriotism. America is on the move!" As Reagan went before Congress that evening, his popularity was never higher nor his optimism about America more sure.
The nation that Reagan will address this coming Tuesday in his 1987 State of the Union message is essentially the same nation as before--the economic recovery muddles along although the trade deficit continues to soar, the budget deficit is somewhat smaller and tax reform has been achieved at an uncertain price. But the nation's mood is strikingly different, and the stature of the President in the American mind has been jarred and shaken. How will he address the nation now?
Even before the amazing Iran-arms/ contra -aid affair began to unravel in public, questions had been raised about the quality and judgment of our national leadership--by the Iceland summit, an ill-conceived Senatorial election campaign and a variety of problems that seemed to defy solution.
Was this buoyant, charming man suddenly vincible and vulnerable after all? Was his choice of aides flawed? Then, as the bizarre tale of Oliver L. North and an odd assortment of shadowy characters unfolded, a nation grudgingly was forced to ask itself: Was the President fully in control? Or had he abandoned his bedrock consistency, and his innocence, by winking at the law and his own policy on dealing with terrorists?
Reagan has lived a charmed life through most of his political career, managing to float above adversity as if it was someone else's problem, or to talk his way out of it. In his acting career he played good-guy roles where there was little question between right and wrong, good and evil. The Iran-arms dilemma is a decidedly different situation for Reagan. He is at fault if he knew, and allowed the sales to proceed while pretending to pursue his policy of not dealing with terrorists. But the alternative may be no more comforting: If he did not know, then Reagan had allowed his White House to run out of control.
Still another disturbing possibility is that the President knew and failed to distinguish the error of the policy and its absolute inconsistency with the guiding character of his presidency.
The question now is this: How does the President regain the confidence of the people? How does he reestablish that personal link of trust that has been the touchstone of his success? How does his Administration carry on the work of the nation without being consumed with putting the right "spin" on the Iran story or avoiding blame? A lame-duck presidency may mean two years of drift and lost opportunity that the country cannot risk.
Some thirst for the satisfaction of apology and contrition. But that is not characteristic of this man who believes deeply that he acts only to do good for the people and his nation. A hollow apology merely to appease his critics might only further erode confidence in the President. Still, stubborn defiance of his critics would not help, either.
Nor should the President filibuster the tangled Iran-arms episode with his patented form of inexhaustible historic chronology in an effort to explain it away or gloss over key points. Such a discussion would help only if it pinpointed the error and firmly explained what had been done about it.
The key to a successful State of the Union address Tuesday may lie not so much in the content of the words as in the manner in which the President chooses to speak to Congress and the people. He should do it with a candor that has been absent in his past homilies and faith that Americans can do anything that they want to if only government will get off their backs.
America can progress in a difficult and complex world only if it mobilizes all of its energies, public as well as private, behind a plan of action coherently set forth by its leader. This may mean some sacrifice. Achievements may be slow in coming. And it will take more than a reclusive White House apparatus that operates on the theory that if you do not trust us you must be against us, that says "bug off" when the media inquire about the President's capacity to lead.
The President must demonstrate above all that he is in control. There has been a certain admiration for his aloof board chairman's delegation of authority, but it may have failed the President in the Iran case. Reagan needs to get back to the basics of governance, heeding the words of a former President whom he admires, Harry S. Truman: "A President either is consistently on top of events or, if he hesitates, events will soon be on top of him."
The hour is late. Tuesday night is President Reagan's opportunity to demonstrate to an anxious nation that he is back on top.