• U.S.

Nation: Meet the Real Ronald Reagan

29 minute read

Shaped by his roots, he views the world with his own special optimism

TIME Senior Correspondent Laurence I. Barrett, who began reporting on national politics during the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign, started covering Ronald Reagan in January, and has been able to study him at close hand as he wages his fight for the White House. Here, as the campaign begins its final phase, is Barrett’s assessment of the Republican candidate for President:

The Boeing 727 jet called Leadership 80 is rattling through a cobblestoned stretch of sky, descending toward its third landing of the day. In the first cabin a stewardess is picking up crockery and leftovers; a reporter steals some conversation with a campaign official; Aides Mike Deaver and Stu Spencer gab about the next stop.

In the midst of this confusion, Ronald Reagan seems to be sealed in a private bubble. The man who once disliked flight so much that advisers had to badger him into the air prior to the 1966 California gubernatorial campaign is now totally at home in a plane and absorbed in preparing his message. He has forgotten to remove the linen napkin tucked between the buttons of his white shirt (he always wears white shirts, usually adorned with a wide, solid-color tie; the color of the little RR monogram stitched under the left breast varies). His glasses—rarely seen in public, where he tends to use contact lenses—are partway down his nose, and his lips are pursed as he silently sounds out phrases from the speech before him. Something does not ring right to his acute ear. He pauses, changes a few words with a fine-tipped felt pen, mouths the passage again, goes on to the next half-sheet of paper.

Finally he is done. Concentration had congealed his face into a map of worry lines and wrinkles proclaiming his 69 years, but now as he looks up and displays that broad, lopsided, life-is-wonderful smile, ten years disappear as if by magic. Soon he will be on the ground disseminating the message, and he knows he does it well. For more than half a century, since his first try at high school theater, he has been delivering lines onstage, over radio, in movies, on television, through newspaper columns, in speeches at formal banquets and chats in factory lunchrooms—in fact, by just about every medium available except skywriting and smoke signals. “Nature was trying to tell me something,” he wrote in his autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me? “Namely, my heart is a hamloaf.”

But despite all this, the talks and the speeches and the barnstorming across the nation, the real Ronald Reagan remains elusive. The question is not just where does the actor leave off and the man begin, but how could a figure who started politics so late come so far so fast that he now must be favored to win the race for the White House.

Reagan’s associates never tire of telling reporters that his opponents make the same mistake over and over again: they underestimate him. When they do, it is not surprising, because he comes from outside their experience. Presidential candidates normally spend decades in politics, or at least in some form of public service, before winning the nomination. Reagan is different: from modest beginnings, mostly by the force of his personality, he rose rapidly in two highly competitive fields, radio and movies, and turned to politics only after his show business career ebbed. More than that of any other major politician on the national scene, Reagan’s present has been shaped by his private past: he bases his attitudes toward public policy on successes and disappointments experienced long before he began campaigning for public office, which he did not do until he was 55, a year younger than Jimmy Carter is now.

One thing that must always be remembered about Ronald Reagan is his reverence for his roots, his childhood in Dixon, Ill. For all the family’s financial problems, his older brother Neil, now 71 and retired after a long career as a Hollywood advertising executive, says of their boyhoods: “You could draw a pretty close parallel with Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. We never had a worry in the world that I can remember.” True, the family moved five times in 14 years by Neil’s reckoning. Before Ronald left for college, the Reagans never lived in a house they owned. And yes, the father, Jack, drank a lot and gambled as well, switched jobs often (he was a shoe salesman, mostly) and was sometimes short when the rent was due. But the mother, Nelle, a strong woman of enduring good cheer, managed to keep it all together, teaching her sons that “God will provide.”

His progress from those beginnings to success on the screen and in politics has made Reagan a sunny optimist. He has great confidence in the individual’s ability to make his way in the world, if only the individual is worthy and will put forth an effort, because he did it. And he has a misty nostalgia for the way things were before the Government got big and intrusive, a generalized longing for a simpler world where there were no forms to be filled out in triplicate.

A line he uses often pops out when a group of wholesome-looking youngsters is close at hand. He will pause during a speech, glance at the high school band and say, “They’re what this election is all about. I’d like them to know the freedom we knew when we were their age.”

To a euphoric audience at Louisiana State University in mid-September, he recalled that in those days one did not need a driver’s license: you drove when Dad thought you were up to it. In an interview two weeks ago, he reminisced about a summer job helping to remodel houses at age 14: “At the end of the week, all the contractor had to do was reach in his pocket and take out the cash to pay me. No auditors, no bookkeeping, no withholding of funds.”

Reagan hastens to add that he is not proposing to do away with drivers’ licenses, Social Security or withholding taxes. He acknowledges that his rosy evocations of the past are selective, that blacks, for instance, were not exactly free (in fact, the Klan was active in Dixon during his youth). He even maintains, “I don’t want to go back to the so-called simple life. It wasn’t simple at all.” But he says that only after he has been backed into the corner that is reality. On the stump, the message is unadorned. As he told a rally in Paterson, N.J., “My idea of the way to start [as President] is to take Government off the backs of the people and make you free again!”

Reagan’s whole general move to the right, like his evocation of good-old-days nostalgia, is closely bound to his personal experiences. He started out, in his own words, as “a bleeding-heart liberal.” In fact his father was in the Democratic minority in the Republican small towns where the Reagans lived, and both the father and Neil held jobs administering federal welfare programs at the local level during the Depression. Reagan acknowledges that he was not very concerned about Communism until he returned from the Army after World War II to resume his movie career and became head of the Screen Actors Guild. It was a time of choosing up sides in Hollywood, of violent labor disputes and the bitter controversy about blacklisting. Reagan recalled it recently in one of those rambling monologues that sometimes seem to reveal more than he realizes. It produced a rarity in his usual discourse: a flash of real emotion in the form of raw anger.

He had returned from the military, as he now tells the story, “unaware that certain labor unions had been infiltrated by the American Communist Party. I was unbelieving until they made their big effort in a jurisdictional strike to gain control of the picture business. Then I discovered at first hand the cynicism, the brutality, the complete lack of morality of their positions and the cold-bloodedness of their attempt, at any cost, to gain control of that industry.”

For seven months Reagan tried to serve as a mediator, but eventually he led actors across picket lines to help break the strike. Tension ran so high that for a while Reagan carried a revolver; he thought that Communists were out to wreck his career and might even threaten his life. He is incensed now that some writers are taking a revisionist view of the period. Says Reagan, his mouth a thin line and his face more grim than he ever lets it get in public: “The rewriting of history that is going on about that era is the biggest fairy tale since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The idea that a little band of freethinkers was being persecuted by the motion picture industry! They had a pretty good control already. They could destroy careers, and did.” Reagan firmly believes that the unrest in Hollywood was directed by Moscow, and acknowledges that his experience helped shape his views of Communism. “We have been unrealistic in our approach to the Soviets all these years,” he often says on the campaign trail. “They have one course and one course only. They are dedicated to the belief that they are going to take over the world.”

The Hollywood and war years also seem to be the source of Reagan’s deep belief that the Federal Government, with its complex tax structure, nitpicking regulation and highhanded bureaucracy, is the root of much of what is wrong in American life. Reagan explains this aspect of his ideological roots with a personal anecdote. While serving as an Army base adjutant in California, he noticed that the civilian employees sent in by Washington were far less efficient than the military personnel. They had a much higher ratio of administrators to workers. Trivial, perhaps, but Reagan has brought up that experience in two conversations, nine months apart, to explain the beginnings of his belief that the federal bureaucracy is overblown.

Other factors were at work. When he got out of the Army, Reagan was dunned by the Internal Revenue Service for back taxes on his prewar movie salary; and though he never became a top star, by the late 1940s he was making enough money to find himself in the 91% income tax bracket. He did not like it a bit. While he voted reluctantly for Harry Truman in 1948, he was incensed by the Truman Administration’s policy toward the movie industry, in particular an antitrust suit that forced the major studios to give up their ownership of theater chains. Says Reagan now: “I saw the whole economic stability of the industry just simply eliminated, the end of the contract system whereby they had been able to take young people—directors, actors, whatever—and develop them.” It was the contract system that had given Reagan his start.

While the industry was under siege, Reagan’s own acting career was faltering. In 1954 he landed a job as host of the General Electric Theater on TV and traveling lecturer at GE plants. Inveighing against Government interference in the movie industry, he began collecting evidence of federal intervention in other industries, reading conservative literature and finding examples of the damage done by Washington. His GE tours put him in touch with more traditional, more conservative businessmen outside the film industry, and he was impressed. The point of this personal history is that Reagan’s political principles, while sincerely held, derive from his gut reactions to specific events rather than any intellectual process. By 1964, when Reagan burst on the political scene with an impassioned TV appeal for funds for the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater. his rejection of all things liberal and Democratic had become so intense as to make even Goldwater edgy. The Arizona Senator was at first reluctant to let Reagan speak in his behalf. Only after Neil Reagan, whose ad agency had landed the Goldwater account, read Ronald’s proposed text over the phone did Barry give Ronald the go-ahead.

As his own campaign progresses, Reagan seems to be undergoing another conversion. His rhetoric has become more muted, his tone less bellicose. On domestic affairs he has changed his mind about the federal bailout of Chrysler and loan guarantees for New York City (he is now for both) and disavows any thought of asking for repeal of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act. Such moderation of views, aides insist, is consistent with his record as Governor of California from 1967 to 1974. In Sacramento he once went along with a tax change after proclaiming himself embedded “in concrete” against it. He sometimes brings that up voluntarily these days, and says, “Well, my feet aren’t in concrete” on this or that issue.

The turnabouts do indicate that Reagan possesses some flexibility, but they have to be put in perspective. The switches in specific positions have been relatively few and have not involved any issues of national consequence, or any that are really still open for discussion. Who, at this stage, would reverse the Chrysler bailout or the New York City loan program? Asked about his basic attitudes last week, Reagan said, “Well, I’m still where I was over the past 20 years.”

Industrialist Justin Dart, one of the most conservative members of Reagan’s California coterie, seems dead right when he says, “No politician on the face of the earth can function without some compromises. But Ronald Reagan makes fewer than the others. The only compromises he will make as President are those that are forced on him.” And Stuart Spencer, a top strategist on Reagan’s staff, also seems correct when he says, “I see less change in him than in any political figure I have ever known. He has a set of values, and everything stems from those values.”

If one checked a list of the 13 or 15 most important and most emotional issues that are susceptible to left-right delineation, Reagan would not have changed on a single one since 1976. The list would include the Panama Canal, abortion, gun control, SALT II, prayer in public schools, dealing with southern Africa, gay rights.

Reagan’s world view is nothing if not clear cut. Because the Soviet tiger will not change its stripes, it must be caged, or at least tamed, by American might. He thinks that little has changed since the most frigid days of the cold war except that the U.S. has surrendered the strategic superiority and thereby tempted Moscow into adventurism.

Harry Truman, he thinks, was wrong to stage the Berlin airlift. The U.S. should have sent its trucks overland and called the Soviets’ bluff; Moscow would have backed down and might have been better behaved thereafter. Douglas Mac-Arthur was correct about Korea. Had the general’s view prevailed, Reagan speculates, “I don’t think there would ever have been a Viet Nam.” And Solzhenitsyn is correct today in his dark vision of what will happen tomorrow if the West fails to pull itself together.

Occasionally Reagan’s extemporaneous musings on the subject run to the absurd. While campaigning in New Hampshire last winter, he suggested that the expulsion of Western journalists from Iran might be connected to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and might also have been a prelude to a Soviet army move into Iran. But his considered rhetoric tracks more logically. In a pair of long, painstakingly prepared speeches to veterans’ organizations two months ago, he provided the essence of his policy: a large military buildup, which he defined as “whatever it takes to be strong enough that no other nation will dare violate the peace. That is what we mean by superiority—nothing more, nothing less.”

Reagan has not talked about other phases of foreign policy in great detail during the campaign, but his general ideas come through plainly enough. He thinks little of the way Jimmy Carter’s human rights policy has been applied. He feels that approach has been feckless and hypocritical because it undermined loyal allies like the late Shah of Iran. Preventing “additional Cubas” in Central America must take priority over moral preachments.

What Reagan calls “our alignment with Israel” must be continued. Concerning the Middle East, Reagan takes what might be termed the obligatory candidate’s position: strong support for the Jewish state, sandwiched between generalities about enhancing peace in the region and improving relations with all parties. His stated ideas about NATO also run to unexceptionable generalities.

One of the few fresh ideas he has offered is small bore: creation of a “North American accord” to enhance relations among Mexico, Canada and the U.S. The suggestion implies some kind of European Community approach, but Reagan has not developed it. In fact, Reagan’s thinking and staff work have been much more concentrated on domestic economic affairs. That is where the votes are next month.

As Reagan swept to the nomination, he welcomed the support of Republican moderates, but they came to him, not he to them. In one conversation, he discussed party unity this way: “I think the division of the Republican Party grew from pragmatism on the part of some, the Republicans who said, ‘Look what the Democrats are doing and they’re staying in power. The only way for us, if we want to have any impact at all, is somehow to copy them.’ This was where the split began to grow, because there were other people saying, ‘Wait a minute. There is a great danger in following this path toward Government intervention.’ ” He made very clear his conviction that unity has been restored because the “pragmatists” have now conceded to the conservatives, and equally clear that he was not using the word pragmatist as a compliment.

On the other hand, he wants to win, and ambition has sandpapered the edge of some of his most obvious political splinters. He is courting blue-collar votes, but he has not changed his mind on any of the important labor legislation pending before Congress. He is making a token attempt to win black support. In public, if someone raises the question, he will say that opposition to the landmark civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s has faded, and of course as President he will enforce those laws. But in private he will still say that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was too selective and unfair to the Southern states. In short, Reagan is still a Reaganite, though a more mature and polished Reaganite than in the past.

His new patina, however, has neither obscured nor answered the most troubling question about Reagan. Put starkly, that question is whether he is smart enough to be President. The U.S. has seldom demanded that its chief executive officers be intellectuals, of course. But clear-eyed realism, sensitive and discriminating judgment, a feel for power relationships, instinct born of at least a general knowledge of how the System works are all demanded in a President.

Using these criteria, the evidence about Reagan is at best mixed. He has clearly shown a capacity to grow and meet new challenges. One expert adviser says that Reagan’s instincts are sound and his mind open to argument, but adds candidly that Reagan has difficulty seeing the connections between related problems and goals. An aide who is much closer to Reagan personally says, “He isn’t dumb, but sometimes he has a lazy brain. He reads something, and it goes into the reservoir he has up there without checking. It comes out when he turns the spigot on.”

After this tendency to spout believe-it-or-not “facts” had got him into repeated trouble, Reagan brought it mostly under control; he still tears many clippings out of newspapers, but now adays he passes them on to his staff for checking before using the information in speeches. Last week’s Mount St. Helens gaffe was an exception. But he still clings to favored notions, sometimes beyond the point of reason.

An example of how Reagan’s mind works is his view on welfare. As he says, the system is a mess—costly, self-perpetuating and so far immune to reform. Reagan blames the bureaucrats. Welfare recipients, he says, have become prisoners of their caseworkers’ need for a clientele. His solution is to get Washington out of the system by turning over all responsibility for administration to states and localities, along with sufficient taxing power to finance the case load. But welfare already is administered by states and communities; that nasty caseworker is typically a county or municipal employee. How would giving the locals total power over money and regulations change anything?

When that question was put to him in June, Reagan replied, “I still think the greatest fault lies in Washington, because they’re the ones who make the regulations and the regulations make it impossible to check up on people.” The truth is the other way around: Washington for years has been pressing the states and localities to eliminate ineligibles. Reagan just cannot see that, because one of his abiding convictions is that Washington is the fount of most of what is wrong with the country. Remove the federal involvement, he thinks, and matters are bound to get better. In this area his conviction seems to have reached the point of compulsion.

A couple of Reagan’s more candid assistants acknowledge that some of the candidate’s miscues are caused by an almost naive desire to prove that some conviction he holds dear is correct. The other day he visited the Santa Marta Hospital in a chicano area of East Los Angeles and told the institution’s staff that he had asked a nun there whether the hospital gets “compensation from Medicaid or anything like that.” She had answered no, he reported, and then told the group, “I appreciate your pride in that.” But a puzzled senior administrator later informed reporters that, in fact, 95% of the patients were subsidized by Medicaid or Medicare.

Whether Reagan misinterpreted what the nun said or she answered his question incorrectly does not really matter. The point is that a man running for the White House should have known that no hospital providing what amounts to charity service for most of its patients can exist today without Government help. Reagan was misled by his eagerness to discover a little island of independence from the feds.

Reagan is well aware of the doubts about his brainpower, and occasionally jokes about the subject. He told one audience, “I’m not smart enough to lie,” and quipped to construction workers in New York City the other day that a proffered hard hat would not fit because “I have a pinhead.” But the humor is forced; cracks about his intelligence obviously hurt.

“You can’t help be a little irritated by that,” he admits. “You say to yourself: ‘How intelligent are the people who are writing this? Do they lack the intelligence to take a look at a state that is the size of California that was run successfully for eight years—a multibillion-dollar business?’ I was intelligent enough to surround myself myself as Governor with the kind of expertise and the kind of people who could make these things happen.” He has a point. His administration of California was competent, and he did not let ideological principles prevent him from doing what had to be done.

As Governor, Reagan also developed an unusual management style that he is likely to revive if he reaches the White House. He relied very heavily on a small group composed of his immediate staff and the heads of major state agencies for information and advice; they in turn recruited large task forces of experts to study specific problems. Reagan set general directions and made the major decisions, but left policy coordination and execution to the aides. He usually left his office about 5:30 p.m., often poking his head into a conference room on the way out to call to his staff, “Hey, you guys, get out! go home to your wives!”

Reagan’s chairman-of-the-board style has some advantages: for example, it leaves him free to concentrate on major policy issues, while avoiding the details that can suffocate an executive who fails to delegate. It also has a huge disadvantage: it leaves him dangerously vulnerable to poor work by aides, whom he rarely criticizes. Says a former California assistant: “Ronald Reagan has never even disciplined a maid.”

Two incidents from the campaign illustrate how the staff system works, and sometimes fails to work, in practice. The first is the zigzag evolution of his economic program. During the primaries, Reagan vigorously advocated cutting personal income tax rates 30% over three years, on the appealing argument that the reductions would, rather quickly, generate so much extra revenue through stimulating the economy that the risk of inflation-building deficits would be minimal. In retrospect, it now seems clear that Reagan did not really understand the implications of this position, and he came under heavy attack from opponents because he could not supply figures to justify his stand.

During the spring, however, Martin Anderson, a shrewd economist in Reagan’s inner circle, began putting together an impressive array of experts to draft a more credible program. They could not talk Reagan into stretching out the tax cuts, but they did succeed in changing the whole rationale for them. Now it is admitted that the rate reductions themselves will not necessarily stimulate enough new revenues to offset the loss. Instead, a strict curb on new spending, plus the natural growth of the economy, would provide enough margin to permit the tax measure. Reagan accepted this substantial alteration without much complaint. However he got there, and however little he understood the trip, he arrived at a position that, while still highly debatable, certainly makes more sense than his simplistic pre-convention stand (see ECONOMY & BUSINESS).

The second incident revolved around the firing of Campaign Manager John Sears and his aides Charles Black and James Lake. In each of his presidential bids, Reagan relied heavily on one adviser. Sears was the man in 1976, and Reagan chose him again last year, despite the objections of his more conservative friends and despite the fact that he did not much like Sears personally. Reagan was acting on the advice of his personal staff, particularly Mike Deaver, who deeply respected Sears’ ability. So totally did Reagan rely on Sears last winter that he permitted him to eliminate two of the candidate’s most loyal retainers, Lyn Nofziger and, of all people, Deaver. Not until his unexpected defeat in the Iowa caucuses in January did Reagan really rebel. He was also annoyed by the way the press was playing up Sears as a kind of Svengali, and the candidate as Trilby.

Five weeks of anguish followed, during which Reagan worked behind the scenes to reorganize his conflict-ridden staff. Sears ended up trying to fire Ed Meese, his last important rival in the entourage. Finally fed up, Reagan discharged Sears and purged the whole top echelon of his campaign staff on New Hampshire primary day in February.

Though that was a bold move, the long imbroglio and its aftermath raise some serious doubts about Reagan’s ability to handle subordinates. After Sears left, Reagan for months was responsible for an untidy and ineffective operation.

The staff now seems better organized; it has been strengthened by the rehiring of Deaver and, more recently, Stuart Spencer, which illustrates another side of Reagan. Spencer had helped elect and re-elect Reagan as Governor, but in 1976 he joined Gerald Ford. During that year’s California primary, Spencer coined the slogan, “Governor Reagan couldn’t start a war, but President Reagan could.” Nonetheless, at convention time this year Reagan welcomed Spencer back as a part-time consultant, and by the second week of September, Spencer was serving full time on the campaign plane. Usually he sits just a yard from Nancy Reagan, who curdled at the warmonger talk four years ago and who is known to hold a grudge. To her husband, winning is more important than any grudge, which he seldom feels anyway.

Indeed, for a former actor, Reagan shows a narrow range of emotion of any sort. He rarely displays genuine delight or anger, a reserve that has served him well during the campaign. He has replied to Jimmy Carter’s attacks with a kind of puzzled hurt that has been far more effective than rage. Reagan’s substitute for strong emotion seems to be humor, both memorized and spontaneous. He is a walking repertory theater of show-biz anecdotes, one-liners, elaborate routines (interestingly, he almost never tells a political anecdote). On the campaign plane, Nancy Reagan has made a ritual of rising a few moments after takeoff to roll an orange toward the emergency exit at the rear, which she usually manages to hit. When she is not along, Reagan takes over the routine and converts it into an act. Sometimes he is a bowler, sometimes a football player, frequently a pitcher squinting toward an imaginary catcher, shaking off sign after sign, going into a full windup before finally releasing the orange, which almost never hits the exit.

For all his geniality, Reagan seems very much a loner. The company of politicians, Nevada Senator Paul Laxalt and one or two others excepted, does not interest him. In fact, he has few intimates in any walk of life. He is not particularly close to his children. Only Nancy seems to receive much real warmth from him.

Nancy and his love of horses, Old West brica-brac, cowboy shirts and boots, anything Western. Riding is more than a hobby, far more important to Reagan than, say, golf is to Gerald Ford or running to Jimmy Carter. It answers a need that Reagan finds difficult to put into words. Says he: “I always had the biggest yen in the world to ride. I don’t really know where I got it.”

At Rancho del Cielo, his 688-acre spread in the Santa Ynez Mountains, north of Santa Barbara, Reagan is a man transformed, serene, under no compulsion to entertain. He shows off the fences that he and the hired man, Lee Clearwater, put up together. He displays his black thoroughbred, Little Man, a handsome brute that knows its master. From about 30 yds. away the horse responds to Reagan’s call, trotting up for a pat on the nose and a piece of carrot.

Wandering around the hilly acreage, oblivious to the dry heat and flies, Reagan tries to explain what the place means to him: “It casts a spell on you when you’re here for a while. Seclusion is the thing. Here there is real privacy.” The roar of the crowd, theatrical or political, has been important to Reagan since adolescence, but equally important are the sounds of solitude.

If Reagan is elected, what would his Administration be like? Reagan could be counted on to live up to his rhetoric in areas where a President has a high degree of control, such as appointments to the judiciary and the top echelons of the State and Defense departments. He would attempt, to the extent that Congress would permit, to make good on his promises about beefing up the military, focusing initially on personnel.

If Congress remains Democratic and goes for big-spending programs, Reagan would use vetoes the way he did in California. He cast nearly 1,000 during his eight years as Governor, and only a handful were overridden. He would make a pass at dismantling the Department of Education and the Department of Energy. Reagan would use commerce and industry as a talent pool far more than Carter has. The regulating agencies would take on more of a pro-business cast.

Reagan’s aides talk about attempting to restore the Cabinet’s prestige and decrease the clout of the White House staff. Most incoming regimes give lip service to that idea; Reagan would be more likely to follow through. To fill Cabinet posts, he would seek men widely recognized as experienced, competent and stable. Speculation centers on such Washington veterans as George Shultz, Caspar Weinberger and Charls Walker, all onetime Nixon Administration policymakers. Two Democratic Senators, Henry Jackson of Washington and Sam Nunn of Georgia, are mentioned often. In the Reaganites’ view, either would provide good performance and good public relations.

A Reagan Administration would likely focus its energy on a relatively small number of high-priority items. Reagan would move quickly to submit a tax program and a revised 1981 budget containing some spending cuts. Another early goal: some attention-getting elimination of Government regulations that affect business. A tyro in foreign affairs, Reagan probably would move more slowly in that sphere. But because he is a suspect stranger in capitals abroad, he would be likely to make some early gestures of reassurance to U.S. allies. One crucial difference between Reagan and most previous Presidents taking office for the first time is that, because of his age, Reagan would start out widely regarded as a one-term Chief Executive. That might have a liberating effect on his behavior and decisionmaking.

Whatever its specific policies, the general thrust of a Reagan Administration would be clear. The point arose during a discussion of his intellectual abilities. Asked if he thought that criticism of his mind was based on snobbery, he instantly answered yes. Then he elaborated: “I think there is an elite in this country and they are the very ones who run an elitist Government. They want a Government by a handful of people because they don’t believe that the people themselves can run their lives. And this, I believe, is what the political contest has been all about in recent years. Are we going to have an elitist Government that makes the decisions for people’s lives, or are we going to believe, as we had for so many decades, that the people can make these decisions themselves?”

That is distilled Reaganism, pure and very, very simple. Down with the feds, up with “the people,” which in practice means state authorities and the movers of industry and commerce. Reagan believes this message in every cell of his 6-ft. 1-in., 185-lb. body. If he starts sleeping in the Lincoln bedroom next January, the U.S. will see the biggest change in tone and direction from Washington since F.D.R.’s wheelchair rolled into the Oval Office nearly 50 years ago.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com