We liken the mood of your nation’s capital to the mood of Greater New York in November of 1970. In that dark hour for the Republic, a moment of electoral aberration in which James Lane (Fangs) Buckley was elected to the United States Senate, the suburban daily Newsday epitomized the icy fear that gripped the metropolis. “It crept in during the night…” began Newsday’s day-after election report. The story went on in a prose style usually reserved for promoting drive-in movies. To Newsday’s half-million readers, mild-mannered Jim Buckley became The Creature That Ate New York.
We were reminded of this great moment in journalism by recent coverage of the Reagan campaign. It has changed, we note, from casual disdain to agitated concern, from a smirk to a growl. The Reagan campaign, just another road show a few months ago, has become The Problem That Won’t Go Away. The premonition has crept into Chevy Chase that Ronald Reagan just might be our next President.
As the chimerical candidacies of Ted Kennedy and John Anderson drift off into the media ether, the stark reality obtrudes. Hear Joe Kraft stammering the godawful truth: “The depressing prospect of having to choose between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan this fall forces a Job-like question. Why? Oh Lord, why?” Poor Joe. Having endorsed the two-party system and ruled Jimmy Carter unacceptable, Joe is scraping the bottom of his option barrel. It may be time to scramble for the rhetorical lifeboats, men.
A third-party effort by John Anderson provides a way-station, of course, for those who simply refuse to believe that Ronald Reagan can be elected. Some will stick with Anderson, no doubt, as the only acceptable candidate in this year’s thicket of Job-like questions. But as his poll ratings start to slump, as he is disqualified from the ballot in major states, and as he reveals the petulant side of his personality, his support will disappear: the cry of “all the way with JBA” will echo down the empty streets of Madison, Wisconsin. Thus the central question of the 1980 campaign: How to deal with Reagan?
One response, peeking up here and there, is the hint that Reagan isn’t what he seems; that he may be, in fact, something of a closet liberal. This hint has surfaced in Ellen Goodman’s syndicated column and, at the other end of the spectrum, in Human Events. Mrs. Goodman reminds us that Governor Reagan signed a “liberal” abortion law, that he once supported the ERA, and that he signed 66 bills “supported and/ or initiated by the California State Commission on the Status of Women.” Dream on, sister. For its part, Human Events has launched a pre-emptive strike against Reagan’s logical choice for Vice President, Howard Baker; the Tennesseean is so liberal that his selection would amount to a “betrayal” of conservatives, says the Washington weekly. Shades of 1964. If Reagan can’t reach out as far as Howard Baker, a man smack dab in the middle of a deeply conservative GOP Senate caucus, now comes (Bill) Miller time.
Another response, more widely evident, is a redoubled effort to cut Reagan down before his campaign gathers undeniable momentum. This faction of the press has no love for Jimmy Carter, but it answers the call to the Higher Pragmatism. Consider Stephen Rosenfeld, who covers foreign affairs for the Washington Post. ‘Way back in 1976, Rosenfeld perceived in candidate Carter the virtues of fresh perspective and the gritty experience of executive office. The “outsider” could make contributions of great value to the incestuous community of foreign-policy experts. By 1980, with admirable candor, as they say, Rosenfeld tells his readers that he now sees things differently. What is clearly needed is an incumbent’s savvy.
Rosenfeld is clearing the decks in preparation for what, we guess, will be a sustained attack on Reagan’s inexperience in foreign affairs. Already moving to the offensive is Lou Cannon, the Post’s political reporter, a Californian who, it is hoped, cannot be accused of regional bias. Cannon has no patience with the cliché arguments about Reagan’s age or ideological extremism. He has traveled with Reagan’s campaign often enough to know that the candidate runs men half his age into the ground. And he was close enough to Reagan during his years in Sacramento to know that the former governor is a moderate, fair-minded man. The charges of kookery will not stick, however often they may be re-applied. Cannon has, instead, minted a new argument against a Reagan Presidency—the man is not too old, he’s not too right-wing, he’s too dumb.
Cannon’s line has already been picked up elsewhere—The New Yorker magazine and CBS News have played variations on the theme. Over the next month we can say with some assurance that it will pop up passim, tracing the influence lines of the media system with all the precision of a barium test. The line will spread for two reasons. First, because it’s a line with which the best and the brightest are utterly comfortable. It plays directly to the presumption of the Eastern elite about an ex-actor from California. And second, the line will spread because it is so difficult to rebut. (One remembers poor Senator Scott of Virginia. He was named by New Times as the dumbest member of the U.S. Congress. When he held a press conference to deny the charge, he appeared to confirm the estimate.)
It’s been an interesting year already. The idea of a Reagan candidacy was plainly meant to frighten us. Back in January, it was because he was too old—Do we want William Henry Harrison’s finger on the button? Then in February, it was because he was too docile—Do we want John Sears’s finger on the button? By March the real threat was Reagan’s extremism—Do we want J. R. Ewing’s finger on the button? Now, come spring, we’re told that he just doesn’t have the smarts—Do we want Chauncey Gardiner’s finger on the button?
Ronald Reagan, clearly the smartest of this year’s candidate crop, has ‘em just about where he wants ‘em.
— Neal B. Freeman is a contributing editor of National Review. This article originally appeared in the May 2, 1980 issue of National Review.