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The Presidency: Using Hope Against Adversity

4 minute read
Hugh Sidey

Ronald Reagan even takes his optimism to bed with him. Last Tuesday at 5:30 a.m. his phone routed him from sleep with the news that Lieut. Robert Goodman had been released by the Syrians into the eager arms of Presidential Contender Jesse Jackson. Reagan huskily brushed aside the option that he play down Jackson’s triumph. Reagan never met a piece of good news he didn’t like, even at dawn. His instincts told him Goodman, Jackson, the U.S. and Reagan could all be winners.

By 9 a.m. he had elevated Goodman’s release to a religious experience. When he encountered an aide in the Oval Office, Reagan blurted, “Our prayers have been answered. We’ve got him home.” Two hours later, the President was surrounded by somber staff members who were grappling with the larger problem of peace in Lebanon. Special Envoy Donald Rumsfeld poured out his frustration. Other aides piled high their grim tidings of confusion and doubt. Yet Reagan rummaged through the debris for new ideas and different combinations, glints of hope no matter how faint. Finally Mike Deaver, who knows the inner Reagan better than anyone else, leaned over and said, “There’s got to be a pony in there some place.” The tension dissolved in laughter.

That punch line from one of Reagan’s favorite jokes (Confronted with a pile of horse manure, an optimistic boy digs through it cheerfully, proclaiming, “There must be a pony in there some place”) may sum him up better than all the words that have been written about him. Nothing about the man endures like his optimism.

It has carried him intact through the third year of his presidency, which legend says is the toughest. It is the rainbow he is riding into 1984, the year described by one friend as “the fateful fourth.” This President still believes he can nudge the world into better shape.

Presidents in the past—Lincoln during the Civil War, F.D.R. during the Depression—have made things happen by the sheer force of their convictions. Presidents usually find it easier to influence events at home, where their powers of persuasion are felt most keenly. If the economy continues to hold up, Reagan believes his fourth year will be dominated by foreign affairs. How to reach the mystic Syrian Hafez Assad and the ghostly Soviet Yuri Andropov? He is using Goodman’s release in an attempt to change the Lebanon environment before time runs out for a settlement. In the next week or so he plans to give a major address urging the Soviets to come back to the arms negotiations. Assad and Andropov may prove to be implacable. But Reagan has had too much success for anybody to laugh at him for trying. At the same time, he has had too many setbacks for him to believe in his own invincibility.

Reagan has abandoned any private coyness about his candidacy (“If I decide to run . ..”). Returning from California last week, he spoke frankly with his advisers about the upcoming campaign for a second term. In a singular way he is exhilarated by the promise of political combat. It gets him out of Washington and into the fuselage of the majestic Air Force One, no little joy. “It sure beats TWA,” says an aide.

Reagan is the first President in 20 years to work only in the Oval Office, not in the hideaways down the hall or in the Executive Office Building. That is a measure of his unabashed, boyish pride at holding the top job. That pride is undimmed, despite the mudslinging over the likes of Watt and Wick. “Part of the game,” shrugs Reagan. He has never removed his coat in the Oval Office, nor will he, so strong is his sense of tradition. The Oval Office now reflects the subtle colors of Reagan’s West and displays his bronze cowboy figures, but it remains, with its oil paintings of events and leaders, a polished museum of American purpose, from Lexington and Concord to the present. That purpose was shaped by a faith, much like Reagan’s own, in the power of hope over adversity.

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