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What Reagan Knew and Obama Knows

By Richard Reeves

LOS ANGELES -- The "fellas" who worked for Ronald Reagan -- he called them that because he couldn't remember their names -- rarely saw the boss angry. But James Lake, a campaign press secretary, did, just once.

Lake walked into Reagan's section of the campaign plane in 1980 and said he had to talk about something important, some issue of the day. The candidate blew up, growling: "Can't you see I'm busy. I'm working on my speech. Go away! We'll be there in 20 minutes and I have to give this speech."

Lake was stunned. What did it matter? Reagan gave the same speech over and over again, practically word for word. What he did not understand, and Reagan did, was that speeches were the candidate's real work. The words he was studying one more time, changing one or two, were what really counted. The 40th president, an amazingly effective one, understood a few big things.

This was one of them, told in two different ways:

The president's job is not to run the country; it is to lead the nation.

In that business, words are more important than deeds.

Poor Hillary Clinton! She is smart, knowledgeable and disciplined. And she has been getting it wrong, wrong, wrong -- 10 times in a row, at least. Yes, it was bad luck that she, improbably, had to run into this "kid," a former state senator from Illinois who knew what Reagan did and what John Kennedy did. In the end, in a great democracy, what a president can and must do is bring out the best in the American people. Some, tragically, bring out the worst in our nature, as President Richard Nixon did.

Ready to govern on Day One? Does Sen. Clinton think the Office of Management and Budget is the heart of the Republic? Does she believe there is something lacking in her opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, because he is eloquent and inspirational, because he can move people, because his words can persuade and prepare them to do what must be done? Does she know why no one remembers whether Lincoln balanced the budget?

Reagan knew. We used to laugh at him because he said one of his favorite presidents was Calvin Coolidge, whose idea of a good time seemed to be taking a nap. Well, there was a lot wrong with Coolidge -- for one thing, he wasn't much of a speaker -- but there was something important about one of the paragraphs in Coolidge's autobiography that Reagan underlined as a young man: "In the discharge of the office (of president) there is one rule of action more important than all others. It consists in never doing anything that someone else can do for you."

Ah, that Reagan, growing up along the Mississippi River, a regular Tom Sawyer, ready to persuade people to paint fences for him. Great training for a president. You can hire fence-painters and smart people.

Choosing a president is the great, most important, most dangerous responsibility in the world. It's a gamble on character, not so much the character of a candidate but the character of the American people. In her struggle to stay in this year's Democratic race by stopping Obama in Texas and Ohio, Clinton is right about one big thing: No one knows enough about the man to know if he will be a good president, much less a great one.

Obama does not know himself. Nor does Clinton know about herself. The job is sui generis. The presidency is not about qualifications or experience; it is about judgment. Beyond being wise and lucky in making appointments, much of any presidency is essentially reactive. The job is dealing with crises unpredictable and unanticipated: attacks, strikes, bombings, market crashes, revolutions, plagues of nature.

The best a voter can hope for is a man or woman who can find the right words to explain such things and persuade us all to follow the dictates of our better angels.

Copyright 2008, Universal Press Syndicate

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