The wonder of President Reagan’s popularity is accurately assessed by Jack Valenti in his column “In Today’s Politics, a Seasoned Ham Brings Home the Bacon” (Op-Ed Page, Jan. 19).
He needn’t have limited his view to the present day, however. History is full of politicians, along with assorted potentates, preachers, pedagogues and pitchmen whose keen sense of drama enabled them to knead their audiences with great effect.
Scratch anyone who exhorts the masses and find an actor. But as Horace Walpole wrote, referring to a thespian of his day, “Be a little upon your guard: he is an actor.”
Many Americans over the past eight years were seduced into dropping their guard, though, by Reagan’s disarming impersonation of a President. He knew how to pluck the heartstrings of the public, just as he did as a movie poseur, or as a huckster of Van Heusen shirts, Boraxo, General Electric, and Chesterfield cigarettes. Here was a slick spellbinder who could hit his marks and deliver his lines with winsome conviction.
But in no way, as Valenti suggests, can this silver screen icon ever be equated with Winston Churchill or Franklin Roosevelt simply because they had dramatic personae. These statesmen were political pinnacles, while Reagan was a Disneyland Matterhorn.
In trying to fathom the high ratings enjoyed by our 40th President, more useful than Valenti’s view is that of Joseph Story, a Supreme Court Justice in the early 1800s: “A new race of men are springing up to govern the nation; they are hunters after popularity, men ambitious, not of the honor so much as the profits of office--the demagogues whose principles hang laxly upon them, and who follow not so much what is right as what leads to temporary vulgar applause.”
KYLE T. SCHWIMMER