Thursday, January 27, 2011

Slow Beltway Wisdom: Sam Donaldson Admits He Underestimated Reagan

In an interesting tribute to Ronald Reagan Sam Donaldson admits that he initially underestimated Reagan's presidential abilities.
"Ronald Reagan's longtime friends said people constantly underestimated this former Hollywood actor, and I must admit that when he came to the presidency, I was one of them.

"You see, political reporters come to understand how the system works and what personal traits appear to shape a 'player's' ability to work it. Reagan wasted no time working the system."
[emphasis added]
But at the time Donaldson did not think Reagan was competent or knew how to work the system. Donaldson thought Reagan said dumb things.
"Shortly after coming to the Oval Office, Reagan summoned reporters to explain how he had asked the Treasury Department to stack up thousand-dollar bills and then multiply the stack by the size of the national debt.

"'Sixty-three miles high,' the president announced triumphantly. Huh?

"And then there was the day that Bob Michel, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, went to meet with Reagan. The president referred to him as 'Congressman Michelle.' Though Michel was clearly not wearing a dress.

"When Reagan's infrequent press conferences would end, his aides would scurry after reporters in an attempt to correct their boss' misstatements: 'What he meant to say was 'this.' You understand on 'that' he was speaking metaphorically and knows that what he said was not literally true.' But of course.

"So it became easy for some to dismiss Reagan, as the late Democratic presidential adviser Clark Clifford did in calling him 'an amiable dunce.' But having a front-row seat to the Reagan presidency certainly changed how I viewed this nation's Great Communicator, and I came to believe Clifford was only half right. Amiable, yes; dunce, most certainly not."
[emphasis added]
Donaldson never says exactly when he came to see Reagan's ability and greatness. But, his description of why he initially believed Reagan fell short of presidential standards is enlightening. First of all there's his description of Reagan as a "former Hollywood actor". Pedigree matters. Two terms as governor of California had slid into oblivion for Donaldson.

Donaldson also saw incompetence in misstatements, analogies and mispronouncing a congressman's name (though Reagan obviously got the gender right with "congressman"). Ability and greatness are assumed to come in the mastery of details. Thus, the continuing prevalence of "gotcha" questions in the media and obsession with supposedly flawed answers.

True greatness, however, is in understanding how to respond to crucial issues and inspire the nation to needed action. But, reporters, pundits and establishment insiders too often look for someone who inspires them. Since they show their ability through mastery of detail, they think that's how presidential leadership works too. So, they get blindsided with the likes of Reagan, Andy Jackson, Abe Lincoln, and Harry Truman.

When greatness shows up, you take it in the package it comes in. Too many inside the beltway learn that too late to be of value.

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