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The Presidency: Is Reagan a Flexible Prince?

4 minute read
Hugh Sidey

From Macchiavelli to Melvin Laird, which is a not inconsequential span of experience, the historical record suggests that survival is easier for those leaders who stay out of the way of political steamrollers. Indeed, the successful statesman is usually one who is agile enough to dance ahead of great surges of human feeling and direct them to his own purposes.

Machiavelli defined his ideal prince as a head of state with a “flexible disposition, varying as fortune and circumstances dictate.” Melvin Laird, the consummate congressional pol who served Richard Nixon as Secretary of Defense, lived by the rule that a wise man never says no to the inevitable and rarely encounters a situation that cannot be turned in some way to his advantage. In 1970, for example, a helicopter-borne rescue team penetrated North Viet Nam’s air defenses but found that its quarry—U.S. P.O.W.s held at the Son Tay prison camp—had been moved to parts unknown. In the Pentagon, Laird looked at the men around him, shattered by the failure of the mission, and ordered in to rush out and extol American bravery and determination. A plan that had yielded nothing somehow produced a sense of accomplishment anyway.

Some of the people who understand the politician’s need for subtle adjustment are now worried about the instant litany of nos produced by Ronald Reagan’s White House on everything from nuclear-arms limitation to the budget. Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev did not offer anything new in his proposed missile freeze in Europe, but the quick, harsh U.S. rejection spooked the world. While the clock feet toward serious economic trouble, Reagan still drags his feet on budget compromise. “The worst mistake the President made,” one of his Cabinet officers said the other morning, “was not to accept [House Speaker] Tip O’Neill’s tax bill last year. That would have brought the Democrats in with Reagan and still given him much of what he wanted. We would not now be arguing about huge deficits.

The great architects of conservatism, like Edmund Burke, envisioned their political philosophy as a kind of intellectual cathedral, resting on solid principles but being modified and enriched by later craftsmen. “All government,” wrote Burke, “indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter.” Many of the modern Presidents who have been hailed by Reagan shared that view. Dwight Eisenhower had an uncanny instinct for outrunning events and using them, hence his proposal for an international agency to guide peaceful development of atomic energy (“atoms for peace”) and a scheme to open the U.S. and Soviet Union to mutual military surveillance (“open skies”). “I’m tired of dealing with mature men already set in their prejudices,” protested Ike, who was then 68.

Richard Nixon in 1969 sensed the yearning of China to join the real world. He was torn between his old reputation as a Red baiter and the new opportunity for acclaim as a diplomatic pathbreaker. Henry Kissinger described Nixon at this hour as “schizophrenic,” deploring Peking’s decades of hostility but sniffing some thing geopolitics in the wind. Nixon grabbed the moment, and the shape of geopolitics was changed.

In fairness, Reagan has shown flexibility on small matters, and there was a spirit of conciliation in his speeches last week. But close friends of his are concerned lose the public sense of his stubbornness could persist, that he could yet lose the opportunities in defense and budget matters. True, what some perceive as cast-iron prejudice may be wily calculation, designed to pressure Congress into creative response. But a key question remains: Does Reagan have the attribute that Ike’s onetime aide Sherman Adams thought most crucial? “I believe,” said Adams, “that a President should above all understand his own prejudices.”

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