A Presidential Close-Up


IT REALLY IS an oval office, where Ronald Reagan works. The room is crammed full of small inetal sculptures and American paintings. On the table behind the president's desk stand the photos of Nancy and the children. In the center of the room sit two overstuffed couches, to which the president politely gestures as "the place to get some talking done." The nearly empty crystal mug of jellybeans sits within easy reach on the coffee table.

Here Reagan receives the long line of lieutenants who wait patiently for a few minutes of his time. They present him with a variety of concrete solutions for every problem, and from these he chooses--simply and efficiently: In the space of half an hour, he confers with Vice President Bush, Chief of Staff James A. Baker III, and National Security adviser Richard V. Allen. Smiling as he emerges through the curved white door, Allen warns, "Now, I assume you will only ask the president about Social Security; that's all he's briefed on right now."

Though accessible to his inner staff, Reagan has proved an elusive subject to the press since taking office. Spokesman James S. Brady has noted somewhat gleefully that more decorum will be expected at press conferences. White House aides have clearly been instructed to cut back on their contact with journalists, an effort to restrict leaks to those most carefully planned beforehand. And even if you squeeze into an appointment with the president--in this case with a good deal of last-minute luck--the path to the Oval Office is a torturous one.

Sitting in the crowded room, sometimes used for official executive statements, but more often as a lounge for overweight television technicians, you look casual and hope no one asks you whom you came to see. Then again, no one seems interested, as the cameramen watch soap operas and the newspaper correspondents play gin back near the soda machines and telephones. On the lectern, behind which Reagan will stand many times over the next four years, someone has taped 36 cents--a reference to the visual aid the president used the previous evening in his nationwide speech. Two reporters read the attached message aloud, giggling: "Don't spend it all in one place. Love, Jimmy."

Ten minutes after the appointed time, as the perspiration stain on the reporter's notebook grows darker, a junior press aide steps from his office. "The president is ready."

Hustling through the surprisingly crowded corridors of the West Wing, you are reminded how Secret Service agents have a way of seeing everything without ever looking at anything directly. White House stewards shuttle in and out of offices with coffee, yellow pads, and pencils. Everyone is smiling except for the men with the plastic discs in their ears, one of whom whispers to the press aide, who immediately assumes a worried expression.

Yes, even in the White House things get screwed up., For a crucial 30-second period the right people had been in the wrong places, and out of touch. The president's schedule has somehow consumed one 20-minute slot labeled "Crimson interview." Several long moments of hesitation are followed by a show of bureaucratic pity: "We'll see what we can do; maybe a minute or two. Have him wait in the Roosevelt Room."

The Roosevelt Room is a very nice place to sit, even when you are all alone and wondering how to pass off a handshake and a "Pleased to meet you, young man" as an exclusive interview. Basically a cozy living room with a 20-ft. conference table plunked down in the middle, the Roosevelt Room is the spot Edwin Meese III, Reagan's top adviser, has dreamed of ruling for his whole life. That very afternoon, in fact, he is dreaming of having a brainstorming session there, and soon a troop of white-haired wisemen files in with matching black and gold briefing books. After several uncomfortable glances and an embarrassed exit the door of the Roosevelt Room is closed behind the intruders. A Secret Service man guarding the back entrance to the Oval Office is not at all pleased to find in his sector an unidentified stranger trying to look as if he is waiting for a bus outside the door of the Roosevelt Room. This is the type of moment the Secret Service has been trained for.

"Come with me, please." His mysterious elbow hold not only immobilizes his victim's arm, but also seems to make coherent speech impossible. Show him a Crimson press card, perhaps?

Luckily, nightmares of a term in the presidential clink disappear as a familiar press office face turns up in the vestibule of the Oval Office. "We're on any minute now," is the latest word. And indeed, Allen soon makes his joking exit, the large door is reopened, and the tall, dark-haired man can be seen standing next to his desk. He buttons his jacket as the unfamiliar visitor makes his entrance.

Ronald Reagan does not wear plaid suits very often anymore; he looks very presidential. Even his oft-parodied pompadour seems more subtle than in the past. He is a man of profound wrinkles, cavernous creases that make him the embodiment of the weathered but healthful land he calls home.

THE CHARM that captured the nation in 1980 and that made Reagan's forceful attacks on Jimmy Carter so much more palatable than the Goorgian's self-righteous whining, flows easily, even before an audience of one. The president concentrates very hard on being reassuring. He nods and smiles understandingly. He leans back on the couch and gesticulates with smooth imaginary lines drawn on the coffee table or his pant leg. He expects the same in return, and at any indication of a challenge, he easily slips into the "well, there you go again, talking about how bad things are" stance, which was so successful in the presidential debates.

Yet Reagan without a script, without a Meese outline, or without a microphone is anything but the man with all the facts in his head and a direct, imaginative way of expressing them--the man so many people are convinced they heard explain the nation's economic challenge last week.

Very few of the president's individual sentences carry any meaning. His syntax is jumbled, and his penchant for pronouns makes it difficult to follow the rhetorical conversations he constructs with unseen political opponents. He occasionally explains his vagueness with an unabasned admission of never having thought about a particular question before.

For instance, Reagan supports prayer in public schools, accusing those who oppose it of fostering a "counter-religion" that violates the Constitution and teaches that "there are places where God does not belong, where prayer no longer fits in." More fascinating than Reagan's twisted view of the separation of church and state is his matter-of-fact disdain for the related debate over the Supreme Court's jurisdiction in this area.

SUPPORTERS of prayer in school, who achieved new status on Capitol Hill with the conservative gains of last year, often link their efforts with a drive to restrict the Court from having any authority at all over the issue. Asked if there is a danger in limiting the Court the way Congressional conservatives have recommended, Reagan answers, "Well, there might be in that. I would have to--I have never given that much thought before," adding that, well, as long as he is thinking about the issue now, perhaps it is the Court that is abusing its power... but he's not really sure.

The man who now reclines comfortably in the sunny warmth of the Oval Office is not without a vision; his is merely a very hazy one. As has been noted by many Reagan-watchers, what he sees in America's future is the past. He genuinely believes that he stands for what has always been good in this country--individualism, strength, prosperity, God--and if you take in his words as a collective impressionistic work, you can sense what it is Reagan seeks. When he paints his stands in black and white, has them touched up carefully, and then projects them onto the big screen, he succeeds in inspiring the masses. But when closely scrutinized, those words yield contradiction, misinformation, and at times, hypocrisy.

Unfortunately, very few people will ever have the chance to chat with Ronald Reagan--to hear his rhetoric broken down into its components. And even in person, the president's grace and good nature make it hard not to feel secure, even trusting. Yet to understand what Reagan stands for and how he views the world, we must listen with a highly critical ear to what he says and decide whether or not we can ever recapture the culture of Reagan's youth, and if we even want to try.

Paul M. Barrett, who covers the federal government for The Crimson, had an exclusive interview with President Reagan last week.