Back when Republicans discussed the future of their party, “Let Reagan be Reagan” emerged as the demand of purist Reaganites who feared that moderate Republicans had reined in the Gipper. While the current GOP congressional leadership seems too cowed to do anything but let President Donald Trump be Trump, the updating of the catch phrase raises the question of how Trump's brand of authenticity will measure up as compared to Reagan's.
As political originals and party mavericks, Ronald Reagan and Trump shared a weapon that none of their contemporaries could match — the public perception that each man was the genuine article, presenting himself without the usual filters of calculation and propriety. And yet, the defeats of Trump-endorsed candidates in Virginia, Alabama and Pennsylvania within the past six months show beyond reasonable argument that some mainstream Republican voters are disenchanted, if not completely alienated by the raucous uncertainty that currently rules the White House. As someone who rode the Reagan campaign plane in 1980 and covered the “gaffes” of his first year in the White House, I’m not convinced that Trump’s Teflon coating will last.
As political originals and party mavericks, Reagan and Trump shared a weapon that none of their contemporaries could match — the public perception that each man was the genuine article.
I am reminded of the most hilarious moment I witnessed in the same White House briefing room where Sarah Huckabee Sanders gamely now appears each day to sweep up the broken China. The late Jerry O’Leary, a crusty Washington Star reporter known for his impatience with spin, confronted Reagan’s press secretary Larry Speakes after the president had made some questionable declaration that seemed to alter a long-standing U.S. position. I don’t have the transcript, but I’m certain as to the key words of O’Leary’s question: “Larry, was the president making policy or was he just speaking for himself?” No one, including Speakes, could suppress their laughter.
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There is, of course, a serious journalistic question about how to assess mold-breaking officials. Political reporting should aspire to serve the reader rather than please the White House. And 38 years ago this month, my colleagues and I in the press pack assigned to the Reagan campaign plane were wondering whether the actor’s presumably limited intelligence and lack of foreign-policy expertise would prevent him from winning the Florida primary. His opponent, George H.W. Bush, was one of the best-credentialed candidates ever. And yet, starting as an underdog among Florida’s centrist voters, Reagan won by 27 percentage points, dealing Bush and the eastern Republican establishment a wound from which they never recovered.
Looking back, what “the boys (and women) on the bus (and campaign plane)” didn’t understand was that about half the electorate didn’t care about Reagan’s factual stumbles and knowledge gaps, which we recorded in colorful detail, because he had something that cancelled out such matters in middle America. He had authenticity. When The New York Times and the Washington Post ran detailed lists of Reagan’s press-conference misstatements, we didn’t grasp initially that many readers didn’t care, for the simple reason that Reagan’s errors were not news to them. They didn’t support Reagan because of what he knew. They supported him of because of the kind of man he seemed to be.
About half the electorate didn’t care about Reagan’s factual stumbles and knowledge gaps, because he had something that cancelled out such matters in middle America.
Being seen as genuine may be the greatest single asset any candidate for elected office can possess, possibly even more important than money. In Trump, we have a political showman who possesses both money and an aura of candor that has so far indemnified him against a lot of press and partisan criticism. It is possible to push comparisons between Trump and Reagan too far, of course. Reagan had a stately presence. His flashes of temper — as in his game-changing outburst, “I paid for this microphone, Mr. Breen,” in the 1981 New Hampshire primary — seemed based in reality. But both Reagan and Trump successfully sold voters on the perception that they do not disguise their true selves. And the fact that both men were elected despite being actors — in movies, television series and the Oval Office — adds another level of complexity. Was their authenticity in itself an artifice?
Either way, winning the election is only the beginning. And it remains to be seen whether Trump’s stark Big Apple individuality will prove as durable as Reagan’s cowboy affability. It’s easy to forget that no modern American president had his IQ more brutally questioned than Reagan’s was in his first two years in office. Clark Clifford, the mandarin Democrat and longtime presidential adviser, dined out all over Georgetown patronizing the new president as an “amiable dunce,” a lacerating phrase that made its way into the Wall Street Journal. In the end, of course, Clifford was disgraced by a bank-fraud indictment, and the triumphant “dunce” brought down the Soviet empire.
Reagan had a movie star’s calculated instinct for staying in character. Trump lacks that appearance of self-control, but that does not mean that true believers won’t stick with him or that the defectors in these early special elections can’t be wooed back. Individualistic politicians can claim a wide strike zone or they wouldn’t be successful. Indeed, in conversations with Trump’s Alabama supporters across the socioeconomic spectrum, one hears a forgiving indulgence for his contempt for presidential tradition and criticism. As one wage-earning divorced woman told me, Trump sometimes makes her “cringe,” but she believes billionaires don’t have to obey the rules. Where some might see a man out of control, she sees a mercurial independence to be envied by those on the daily treadmill.
Reagan had a movie star’s calculated instinct for staying in character. Trump lacks that appearance of self-control, but that does not mean that true believers won’t stick with him or that the defectors can’t be wooed back.
A big wild card is the Mueller investigation, with its steady drip of scandals like the Cambridge Analytica spying, which will play out in ways we can’t predict. The other main unknown is whether we are near the point where a president who has bet the White House on his “warts-and-all” appeal will lose his safety net of support in the polls. That didn't really happen with Reagan until Iran Contra, when it became apparent that whatever one thought of the president’s intellect, he was starting to lose his cognitive sharpness.
We saw measurable deterioration of Trump’s clout in support in Pennsylvania’s working class areas and a smaller, but decisive disenchantment is Alabama’s bare-knuckled campaign arena. Commentators in both states seized on the authenticity of Congressman-elect Conor Lamb and Sen. Doug Jones as key assets. Playing to their native political cultures gave Democratic strategists a stronger hand to play than they have had in a long while.
The main show, of course, is on the Republican side. Judged by his Tweet archive, not even Trump gives House Speaker Paul Ryan or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell much credit for reliable convictions. Their press appearances have become excruciating, hair-splitting exercises in whether to follow Trumpian authenticity off a cliff. Who can blame them for preferring the safety of prepared statements?
Howell Raines was executive editor of The New York Times from 2001-2003, editorial page editor from 1993-2001, and prior to that Washington editor, national political correspondent and London bureau chief. Raines won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1993 for an article on coming of age in segregated Birmingham. He currently lives in Fairhope, Alabama in the winter and spends his summers in Henryville, Pennsylvania.