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The Presidency: It Takes Some Getting Used To

3 minute read
Hugh Sidey

Ronald Reagan last week was talking to leaders at the U.N., the same folks who used to curse him and whom he in turn used to vilify. But this time there was warmth and friendship, and the President was fantasizing. Suppose this old world were subjected to an extraterrestrial threat, he said. Then people would band together, forget petty differences and grievances, and face the common enemy.

It is the oldest political law known to man: nothing like a good war to get the populace behind you. Maybe Reagan had on his mind the fact that there really is not a good old-fashioned war — hot or cold — around right now, and both government and politics seem at times bewildered without such a focus.

“Peace is breaking out all over,” chortles Secretary of State George Shultz. “The peace epidemic” is what Harvard foreign policy expert Stanley Hoffmann calls it. The Joint Chiefs of Staff came over to the White House the other day to meet with Reagan and reported their services in excellent readiness but with an unprecedented lack of battles to fight. Peace is threatening in Iran-Iraq, Kampuchea, Afghanistan, southern Africa and even Central America.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater has noticed that he employs a different public language from even a year ago. Last December, just before Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in Washington, Fitzwater cautioned reporters that the meeting was to be “a summit of old enemies, not old ; friends.” Gorbachev complained so much to his buddy Ron that even that mild rebuke was banned. The White House Situation Room sits empty, gathering dust, last geared up three months ago when the U.S.S. Vincennes shot down the Iranian airliner. Old-timers like Richard Helms, the former CIA chief, marvel. “On my watch,” says Helms, “we almost lived there because of military clashes someplace in the world.”

But as John Kennedy said back in the Cuban missile crisis when a U.S. pilot strayed toward the Soviet Union, there is always one guy who doesn’t get the word. Actually, there seem to be two: George Bush and Michael Dukakis. Bush started his campaign claiming, rightly, that having power and being willing to use it had helped bring the peace. Then he proceeded, wrongly, to rattle our rockets. Dukakis denied, rightly, that military hardware is the sole basis of influence but then, wrongly, jumped in the M1 tank to match Bush. The world waits — yearns — for a new political chapter to be written.

Interestingly, at the President’s meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, it was the admirals and the generals who told Reagan that now was the time to re- evaluate totally the nation’s war planning and fighting ability, matching the new realities with the resources available. But calculating peace could be more perplexing than war, since there is no one around who has ever tried it.

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