Ronald Reagan is America's pantomime President, a Marcel Marceau of the Oval Office.
Such moves. There is a point during every Reagan TV appearance--a speech or a rare press conference like Thursday's--at which you stop listening to his words and focus entirely on his face and body language. It happens unnoticed, a moment buried in your subconscious mind when the TV trap opens and your eyes control your ears.
When Reagan is finished, you are left with the impression that he is a superior communicator. In a sense, he is. Actions and gestures, whether calculated or instinctive, can have a certain eloquence. If not eloquent, Reagan does have a sort of visual glibness that fits TV, as it did during his press conference.
In my own notes, I wrote: "Nervous at first, but got stronger and stronger." Most of the pundits seem to share essentially the same conclusion.
If words, rather than TV moves, reflect the true man, though, a different picture emerges. When it comes to words, Reagan is our most imprecise and inarticulate President in the TV era, no match for Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon or Carter, and more verbally oafish than even Gerald Ford.
The press conference showed that anew. If anyone was listening as well as watching, that is. Or if anyone bothered to read the transcript.
From the White House's perspective, the object of this press conference was to show the nation that Reagan was not a babbling fool, that rumors about him not being in control of the government were untrue.
On 18 occasions during his 32-minute meeting with reporters, the President of the United States pleaded ignorance.
On other occasions, even after being well rehearsed and speaking from notes, he rambled and meandered and sometimes never answered a question, either because he was being intentionally evasive or apparently was unable to focus on the question.
An example of his press conference management style came early when veteran UPI reporter Helen Thomas asked Reagan this question about roles in the Iran/ contra scandal of former National Security adviser Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter and former national security aide Lt. Col. Oliver L. North:
"Mr. President, is it possible that two military officers, who are trained to obey orders, grabbed power, made major foreign-policy moves (and) didn't tell you when you were briefed every day on intelligence? Or did they think they were doing your bidding?"
"Helen, I don't know. I only know that that's why I have said repeatedly that I want to find out, I want to get to the bottom of this and find out all that has happened. And so far, I've told you all that I know and, you know, the truth of the matter is, for quite some time, all that you knew was what I'd told you."
The President seemed pleased by the cute and catchy last part of this reply--as if he'd somehow shown up Thomas. But what did he mean to say? That the press had been lazy or dumb? That the press would have known nothing of this story if not for him, even though it was an Iranian publication--not the President--that blew the lid off the Iranian arms deal?
After the press conference, Thomas could be heard complaining to Reagan that he had not really answered her question about Poindexter and North.
Not that it mattered, because he sure looked good.
The evening proved that Reagan--after cramming for a single televised quiz from the press the way students cram for a classroom quiz--could get through it all without embarrassment.
He showed that he was in control--of the news media. Presidential press conferences are as much a reading on them as they are on the President. It's everybody's photo opportunity.
Much of the public seems to see the White House press corps as a single, frothing bully pressing the President to blurt out impromptu answers to shouted questions. And it is true that the shouted question and off-the-cuff reply are seldom valid and carry added peril when the President doing the answering is not in command of his words.
Yet there is also a tendency to confuse reverence for the presidential office with reverence for the office-holder. The best way to show proper reverence for the office is to constantly scrutinize the office-holder. And better to err on the side of toughness than on the side of gentility.
On Thursday, the press erred on the side of gentility.
There were few tough questions, and the President did not get the grilling one would expect from a press corps that hadn't had direct access to the President in four months.
In fact, most of the hard questions came after the press conference was over, at that inevitable point when the reporters close in on Reagan and pepper him with questions as he appears helpless and adrift.
"Did Don Regan deceive you?"
"Did they lie to you?"
"Did Don Regan pressure you, sir, to change your testimony?"
"Did the vice president--did the vice president object to this plan in Iran, Mr. President?"
"You said that Shultz and Weinberger didn't. Did the vice president?"
"No," Reagan replied weakly.
"He didn't object to it? Thank you, sir?"
Thank you, indeed. Why wasn't that question asked during the press conference?
The curtain fell. "It was boring," former Democratic National Committee chairman Robert S. Strauss pronounced later that night on ABC. It was "show business," protested Hugh Sidey of Time magazine.
Of course it was. Americans are one enormous TV constituency. Show business is our life.
On CBS, meanwhile, Dan Rather noted that "the President seemed to be perspiring. Any particular significance to this?" he asked Bruce Morton.
Yes, that's what Presidents need in the TV age. Not better words or better thoughts, better anti-perspirant.