Style with substance

Times Staff Writer

His suits were boxy and sometimes the wrong color, his neck hung in a wattle, and his hair -- well, we all know that wax museums won’t have any trouble replicating it. He favored jellybeans and was quoted as observing, “You can tell a lot about a fellow’s character by his way of eating jellybeans.” He transcended, in a way that few ever have, the vast anonymity of television. When he tightened his lips and gave an aw-shucks tilt to his head, it was personal. It was one on one. Even if you didn’t like him, you knew that he was connecting, millions of times over.

Ronald Reagan, who died Saturday, transformed the American presidency and American politics.

The Age of Communications begat the Great Communicator, and he turned out to be a self-contained, nostalgic, sunny, sentimental, congenial, eminently comfortable California migrant. And like other such Westerners, he exercised settler’s rights to claim bits and pieces from the culture as it suited him. He wasn’t born to his destiny, he was self-assembled. His style, his persona, came to be part firebrand populist, part privileged rich, part flannel-shirt cowboy, part glamorous Old Hollywood, part Norman Rockwell.


He walked with a leading man’s rolling lope, he spoke in a leading man’s sonorous tones, he delivered with a leading man’s timing. He entered politics knowing how to work a crowd and where to find the cameras.

“Never turn your back on a camera,” he would say. In turn, it was Reagan’s great good fortune that the camera was always kind to him.

No one in such a high position, before or since, was so easy with the TelePrompTer. Who else in the age of mass media could coax such spontaneity out of a script?

During his presidential years, he wore just one contact lens when he appeared before crowds. His longtime speechwriter, Ken Khachigian, learned why when he tried to shorten the candidate’s stump speech. Every line that Khachigian proposed for elimination, Reagan defended. “He would say, ‘Have you seen the way people respond when I say that?’ ” Khachigian recalled.

Reagan knew precisely how his audience received him. With a single contact lens, he employed one eye for reading the speech and another for scanning the crowd. He studied faces for reaction. He personalized the moment by actually meeting the eyes of his listeners, not faking it. He was an actor, yes, and he was in a familiar role. But acting is no small skill.

It is often said that John F. Kennedy was the artist of political television. It may be closer to the truth to say that Kennedy was good, while Reagan was the first to master its transforming power. It was Reagan, and the team he assembled, who taught us that image was created chiefly by images, no less in politics than in Hollywood.


High style in politics

“It was always more who he was than what he was,” recalled former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, who served as a Democratic state assemblyman under Gov. Reagan. “He was in constant play with his audience, whether one or many. It was a personal challenge with him.” Brown, himself a student and practitioner of high style in politics, paid tribute to Reagan this way: “He was an elegant gentleman, always.” In his 1987 book “The Great American Video Game,” journalist Martin Schram recounted a moment of insight. Reagan was running for reelection in 1984. A network TV correspondent aired a hard-hitting report about the White House ducking “issues” for the sake of a “feel good” campaign. The correspondent prepared for an onslaught of White House criticism. Sure enough, her phone rang in the press room.

“Great piece. We loved it,” a Reagan aide said.

The correspondent thought she had misunderstood. “You what?” The president’s assistant explained: “We’re in the middle of a campaign and you gave us 4 1/2 minutes of great pictures of Ronald Reagan. And that’s all the American people see.” Today, this lesson is considered an axiom of modern politics. And it’s not entirely cynical to say so. Reagan’s electoral success and his legacy of breathing new vigor and credibility into conservatism demonstrate that blending style with substance is the essence of contemporary political leadership, for good and for ill. Millions of Americans defend the idea of voting “for the person” -- the person they met on television.

“All politicians since Ronald Reagan have tried -- most unsuccessfully -- to re-create his natural characteristics,” said Democratic political consultant Kam Kuwata. So far, he said, all have proved to be “rank amateurs.” Whether Reagan was a good president will be left for historians to decide. But surely he was good at being president.

His style, his method, went deeper than just his smile. But no mistaking, it began there. He was likable -- so much so that people believed in him even when his politics ran counter to their own. Hence, legions of Reagan Democrats. They caught his contagious optimism; they believed in Hollywood endings, and he delivered with his nostalgic view of American exceptionalism. On the strength of his charm, his affability and the attention he lavished on people who felt they had been sidelined, Reagan was largely spared the stern test of having to live up to his own rhetoric. He was the “traditional family values” president, although his own family was more a model of contemporary stresses than Hollywood fable. He was divorced. His relationship with his children was aloof and sometimes sour.

He was the champion of the cause of the Christian Right, but this seemed to be altogether a political relationship, not a spiritual one. He was not even a regular churchgoer. As California governor, he signed a bill liberalizing abortion -- but largely escaped the commonplace political name-calling as a “flip-flopper” when he reversed course as president. As a fiscal conservative, he lavished money on his defense priorities and never came close to a balanced budget, yet devoted much of his political life demonizing irresponsible spenders.

Opponents fumed and granted him a sobriquet that anyone would covet: the Teflon president.

His winsomeness served him with his opponents too. Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill led Democrats in fierce resistance to much of the Reagan agenda. But the personal affinity of the two leaders was seldom in doubt. In his office, the speaker proudly displayed a photograph in which he posed with the president. It was inscribed by Reagan, “From one Irishman to another -- Top o’ the morning to you.” Reagan, it seems safe to say, relished being president more than the tasks of governing. He was famous, or, if you prefer, notorious, for insisting that policy choices be reduced to mini-memos. He delegated to the extreme. He frequently diverted pressing conversations with simplistic anecdotes and reminiscences of dubious relevance, sometimes to the astonishment of those who called on the White House. Still, he is apt to be remembered more vividly for his gift for the perfectly timed one-liner. “Honey, I forgot to duck,” he reportedly told his wife after he was shot in an assassination attempt.



Perhaps because he spent all of his adulthood among the glamorous, the successful and the highly competitive, Reagan never doubted that these characteristics were natural. They were all-American. They were virtuous. Yes, he had once been a liberal and a union man. But his devotion was to the individual. His “Reagan revolution” sought to throw off the idea that society should hold back winners and coddle losers. He cast a stigma on government that outlasted his presidency and outlived him. “We the people” became an argument between “us” and “them.” In this milieu, winners stood out. And throughout his public life, Ronald Reagan was conspicuous, and intentionally distinctive. He wore his neckties with the voluminous knot of King Edward VIII, later known as the Duke of Windsor. Like his hair, it was something out of the past. Yet he also freshened the rules for business dress. He shocked leaders in Washington and abroad by showing up in a brown suit, and once even attended a European summit wearing glen plaid.

“Ronald Reagan has changed the direction of fashion,” wrote John Malloy, author of “Dress for Success.” What had been everyday in California, suits beyond black and gray, became acceptable elsewhere.

For more than half a century, Reagan had his boxy, sack-like suits made for him by Beverly Hills tailor Frank Mariani, who also clothed Bob Hope, Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda, as well as gangsters Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen. In a 1998 interview, Mariani told the L.A. Business Journal that Reagan “never changed with all the fads. He likes the California look, a loose cut and not too much shape.” Like much that is said about Reagan’s style, the reverse is also arguably true. If he brought a measure of California casualness to the presidency, he also restored glitz and high-flying extravagance to Washington’s social life following the folksy tenure of Jimmy Carter. Yes, a president could wear jeans and chop his own firewood, but those were eccentricities suited for holidays on the Santa Barbara ranch.

Perhaps it is not stretching things to suggest an irony in Ronald Reagan’s long run in the public arena.

As an actor, he was said to be jealous of those marquee leading men who were better looking and more successful, in particular Errol Flynn. Reagan’s most famous screen line was uttered in the World War II film “Kings Row,” in which he played a veteran who awakens in the hospital to find his legs amputated by a malicious doctor: “Where is the rest of me?”

That became the telling title of Reagan’s 1965 autobiography, published one year after his final film appearance: a midlife question mark. Then, with his actor’s skills, he discovered his answer in the realm that he always claimed to detest -- “gub’ment.” There, he truly found his legs, his voice, his purpose, his calling. Two terms as governor of California, two as a transformative president, he departed the world as a very rare individual: an American politician who triumphed, who endured and who grew larger than life along the way.