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Which Side of the Bed?

November 01, 1987

Last Thursday, Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III seized control of the American presidency, jerked it hard to the right, and won the nomination of Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg to the U.S. Supreme Court. A few days earlier, Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. and Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III had captured the White House and nudged it slightly to the center. This was when the moderates sent the form of the Chief Executive out on the lawn to tell reporters that he was willing to negotiate a tax increase with Congress to battle the stock market crisis.

Even under the whirling copter blades, however, it was clear that the ideological struggle was boiling inside the figure of Ronald Reagan. The lips moved and said one thing, but the glare of the eye and the set of the mouth made it quite apparent that the heart was saying something quite different, such as: All right, I've said it, but if they really think I'm going to raise taxes . . . .

The struggle for the soul of the Reagan presidency began before Reagan even took office. In the early years it ebbed and waned as issues demanded. But the swings were not so frequent or radical because the presidency worked from a position of great popular strength and success. There was a clear agenda, and the early troika leadership in the White House was adept at dealing with Congress. Success begat success.

But now, with a battered presidency, outright schizophrenia is rampant in the White House.Each day official Washington wonders from which side of the ideological bed the body has emerged. Would the Reagan White House be the darling of Human Events or the New Republic that day? Would it be Weinberger's day or Shultz's? The Contras' or Arias'? Would it be a day to hang tough on Bork or acknowledge defeat?

With the departure of the imperial Donald T. Regan from the White House early this year, many people thought that the soul of Ronald Reagan would be rescued in the name of moderation and conciliation by Howard Baker as chief of staff. They knew that the well-liked former Senate leader had the ability to get Reagan to do what he has always done best: Appease the conservative ideologues with social-agenda rhetoric while he practiced pragmatic politics with the Democrats on Capitol Hill. This would lead to cooperation with Congress and accomplishments that would help salvage the Reagan legacy from the ashes of the Iran arms scandal. In the process the country would be well served.

Once freed, though, the ideological genie was not easily restored to the bottle. By the end of this past week the genie grinned triumphantly from the shoulder of Ed Meese while Ronald Reagan carried forth the Meese jihad against the illusion of rampant crime in the streets, and gave token deference to individual rights.

But the times are too perilous to allow the luxury of indulging in ideological holy wars. Resolution of the critical issues of the day--the economy, the Persian Gulf, arms control and more--demand the full focus of a united, rational White House working in concert with Congress.

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