During the weeks before Ronald Reagan's inauguration, the Washington, D.C., establishment was drowning in a sea of depression. Not only had Jimmy Carter lost, but worse yet, his failure had cost the Democrats the Senate. The far-right GOP was arriving to take over the government, led by an actor who no doubt intended to turn the city over to a crowd of high-rolling Southern California used-car moguls - the kind who wore pastel polyester pants when they played in the Bob Hope Desert Classic. As if this wasn't bad enough, Reagan spoke for and to the religious right, that army of born-agains who failed to appreciate Christ's words about rendering unto Caesar. Together, the Philistines and zealots would lay waste to a way of life that dated back to FDR.
Following the swearing-in, the Gipper floated a number of names for Cabinet nominations that inflamed concerns. Worst of all was James Watt, a Pentecostal from Colorado, who was pegged to become Secretary of Interior. A former government attorney turned advocate for the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, we could count on Watt to give away all our public lands and to privatize our national parks -- all while he prayed in public.
Also worrisome, the new president gave every indication of moving fast on an agenda that involved deep tax cuts and massive defense spending, the result of which had to be enormous deficits. Even the Republican establishment was troubled. Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker worried that the president's proposals amounted to "a riverboat gamble." His own vice president, Bush Sr., had called his plan "voodoo economics" before joining the ticket.
But in the midst of all this gloom, something surprising happened. The Reagans threw a party. Significantly, they invited every Democratic heavyweight in town, and from all reports the president-elect and Mrs. Reagan proved to be gracious, engaging and altogether charming hosts.
At that time, I lived up on Capitol Hill among all the goings-on, and I can attest that the impact of the Reagans' party was palpable. Katherine Graham, the late publisher of the Washington Post -- the nemesis of all Movement Republicans (the very ones who had elected the Gipper) -- wrote about the party in her autobiography. She couldn't attend, so she decided to invite Ron and Nancy in return and, as she writes, "was delighted when they accepted." She recalls what she assumed would be a "tricky" evening. Significantly, it wasn't tricky at all. Reagan himself set the tone when he stepped from the limousine, embraced Mrs. Graham, and kissed her on both cheeks. The toasts were warm and cordial. From this dinner, in fact, Katherine Graham and Nancy Reagan forged a friendship that would last to the end of Graham's life. Mrs. Reagan even spent a summer weekend with Mrs. Graham out on Martha's Vineyard.
The photograph of the embrace and kiss, along with the developing relationship between Mrs. Reagan and Mrs. Graham, was a source of considerable consternation to Reagan's conservative supporters. But Reagan just ignored the criticism and breezed right on making friends along the way within an ever-widening circle of establishment politicians. Many were considered "the enemy" by GOP ideologues. That other Irish pol, Tip O'Neill, comes to mind. Over the contentious years, Reagan and Tip tossed down more than a few drinks while trading stories. Carter, by the way, never enjoyed such a relationship with the Speaker of the House.
Early on, we learned that while the Reagans might denounce the excesses of Hollywood to the delight of their far-right supporters, in truth they had never left the culture, the friends they had made there, nor the lifestyle they had come to expect.
James Watt eventually fell out of favor because he failed to see Ron and Nancy for who they really were. Here's the delicious story: Back in those days, the Beach Boys had become a fixture at the Fourth of July celebration at the Mall. Watt, who presided over the Park Service, found this '60s "hard rock group" to be offensive and a threat to the morals of American youth. So he refused to have them back. Instead, he ordered the Park Service to bring to the Fourth celebration a real family values man -- Wayne Newton. (You can't make this stuff up: Mr. Las Vegas was Watt's idea of a role model for America's youth!)
Turns out that the Reagans and the Beach Boys had been friends for years. At the first opportunity, Watt was fired. The official reason had something to do with ethnic slurs, but I've always thought that his piety, provincialism and social backwardness had more to do with Reagan's decision.
Oh, and the Beach Boys were invited back.
So Ronald Reagan was not a socially isolated, overly pious ideologue. And about our nation's Capitol? (You remember, in his words, "the problem, not the solution.") During their time in office, largely because the goal of shrinking government somehow turned out to be growing it by 7 percent a year, the Reagans encouraged, watched and applauded the transformation of our biggest government town into an arts center, a high-tech incubator, an economic hub, a much more energized intellectual place and the fastest-growing region in America.
Turns out that Ronnie wasn't playing the Gipper so much as he was playing Professor Harold Hill, trombones and all. He sold his supporters something entirely different than they thought they were buying. And the genius of Reagan is that not only did they never know the difference, but they loved him for it. Still do.
Publication date: 06/17/04