ON THE DAY of his first presidential inauguration, Ronald Reagan invited the whole country into his new White House digs, in a way we had never gone there before. We were accustomed to Jimmy Carter, in his cardigan sweaters, fretting gloomily over America's malaise during our long national winter. Now we had Reagan all dressed up like New Year's Eve, lifting a glass of champagne and inviting everybody to drink along with him.
Some of us watched this on a TV screen in a little downtown lunchroom, barely pausing between sandwiches and gossip to listen to Reagan's address. Speeches we could hear any time. But this look at the White House interior, from this most media-conscious of all politicians, was the first hint that something different was in the works, and the lunchroom went quiet.
First on the TV, there was Reagan in a corner White House office, standing with an aide and beaming happily. In the office was a TV screen, and Reagan was watching it. Who was on the screen? Reagan was. The new president was watching himself watch himself on TV, without a hint of self-consciousness, and letting the rest of us glimpse his utter delight.
Then he moved, with wife Nancy and assorted political types, into a living room for glasses of California champagne. The cameras were there, too. And a TV reporter, signed on as an extra in the Opening Night cast, thrust a microphone into Nancy Reagan's face and reached for deep TV insights.
"What was going through your mind when your husband was giving his speech?" the reporter asked.
"I thought it was a very good speech," Mrs. Reagan said, smiling and quickly turning away.
The exposure, even in its thinness, was overwhelming. In the shadow of his death, at 93, Ronald Reagan's champions tell us that he changed the world. But first, he changed the environment. He created his own, carefully choreographed and meticulously carved out of an overall reality that attempted to blot out any looming unpleasantness. Reagan understood, better than any president this side of John Kennedy, that people's perceptions of his conduct were as important as what he was actually doing.
It is undeniably true that Reagan captivated much of the country, and also true that his sunny, self-effacing personality, his instinct for upbeat theatrical settings and his skillful use of the truth as sometimes only he saw it helped create that love affair.
He understood himself, and he understood what kind of a country he wanted. It was a kind of hindsight, filmed in Technicolor, of an MGM America that the country still remembered from old movies and wanted back.
Did Reagan's famous storehouse of uplifting anecdotes all carry the weight of accuracy? Nah. Even Reagan admitted it, with a sly wink.
The stories were intended as metaphor, as Greater Truth, reminding us of shared national virtues.
He perfected the art of political shorthand. He understood, in that era when local TV news was first flexing its muscles, what the medium's needs were - and how to make TV's needs meet his own.
One day, during his first term, Reagan came to Baltimore. He was catching heat for having minimal apparent interest in the problems of big cities. So the White House organized a trip here, to a book bindery at the Park Circle Industrial Park.
The bindery was intended as a symbol of all American businesses being held together (during a difficult and prolonged national recession) with pluck and determination and, not to be overlooked, no interference from Big Government.
The visit lasted precisely 12 minutes, and then it was over.
But the TV cameras caught Reagan smiling and waving, and then the presidential entourage took him downtown where he gave a lunchtime speech declaring his concern for working people.
Was he really concerned? Of course he was. But his sign of it was the 12-minute visit to a hopeful little company, and not the surrounding neighborhood landscape of enduring poverty and crime. He'd carved his promising environment out of the surrounding bleaker one, suitable for 90-second stories on the evening's TV news.
Reagan's defenders will say he had a point: He lifted our horizons. He told us to stop looking at the mess in the gutter, because the sun was shining above it. We needed that kind of message.
It was a movie-star kind of message, but it's the reason so many people go to the movies: We want to believe things will turn out in the end.
When NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, then a newly minted U.S. congressman, met Reagan, he tried talking to him about the problems of inner cities. Mfume later remembered Reagan changing the subject. Mfume said he was from Baltimore. Reagan instinctively connected this to the Orioles. He tied the Orioles to an anecdote of how he had broadcast baseball games long ago.
A nation was either charmed by such ordinary-guy moments, or chagrined by them. Reagan was the embodiment of how a lot of us want to see ourselves: good-natured, resilient, cutting through complexities to get at simple truths. In that sense, he was our national throwback to movie-star hero.
A lot of it worked for him. Some of it didn't. Sometimes it depended how much you noticed the world just outside the theater.