Ronald Reagan and the Techniques of Deception

The President, a skeptical journalist argues, has exploited his theatrical background and a timid media to present a false picture of himself and his policies

BY JAMES NATHAN MILLER

ON JANUARY 8, 1982, THE U.S. TREASURY AND JUStice departments announced that the Reagan Administration was about to reverse an eleven-year-old policy in the field of civil-rights enforcement. The announcement set off a nationwide explosion of protest, and over the next ten days Ronald Reagan and his top aides produced a confusing series of explanations of the reversal, some of them contradictory. As the truth about the announcement began to emerge, grave questions about the President’s personal credibility arose. Civil-rights leaders say the incident was just the first to come to public notice in a pattern of “astonishing misrepresentation” of Reagan’s civil-rights policies. The facts behind this charge throw light on a much larger issue: the techniques Ronald Reagan has been using to explain his presidency to the electorate.

In the late 1950s, when the federal government began desegregating the nation’s public schools, southern segregationists responded by setting up private, all-white academies that they hoped would be immune from government integration orders. But these schools were heavily dependent on what was in effect a government subsidy—the tax exemption they received as nonprofit, charitable institutions. In 1970, the Nixon Administration dealt the academies a heavy blow by giving the Internal Revenue Service the authority to cancel the exemption of any private school that violated the civil-rights laws by practicing segregation.

Though segregationists fought hard to quash the order to the IRS (one of their main arguments was that a taxcollecting agency had no right to enforce social policy), they got nowhere. Congress refused to rescind the order, and the courts ruled that using the tax system to enforce federal laws was perfectly proper. Between 1970 and 1982, more than a hundred private schools lost their exemptions. But their supporters continued to fight, and a year after Reagan was elected President, the Supreme Court agreed to hear their argument.

That was what triggered the Administration’s announcement, which said that when the case came before the high court, the Justice Department would argue against the policy that it had successfully defended for eleven years. It would now claim that the IRS lacked the authority to cancel a private school’s tax exemption. Why? Because, said Administration spokesmen, a tax-collecting agency has no right to enforce social policy.

Almost immediately, vigorous protests were heard from civil-rights groups, lawyers, Republicans and Democrats in Congress, even the two main associations of private schools. At the Justice Department, half the legal and administrative staff of the Civil Rights Division signed a letter of protest. The criticisms were mainly of two kinds. Some protesters said that the announcement proved that, for the sake of a political alliance with the far right, President Reagan was permitting anti-civil-rights groups to set his civil-rights policies. Others said that, given past court decisions on the matter, the Administration’s position would inevitably be rejected by the Supreme Court. (Sixteen months later, in a forcefully worded 8-to-l decision, the Court did reject it.)

As the objections poured in, Reagan and his aides began what one White House source later called “a salvage operation.” It consisted of several artful explanations, the first from the President. He said that he was “unalterably opposed to racial discrimination in any form” and that the objections to the change in policy were the result of “misunderstandings” and “misperceptions” of the reason for it. Actually, he said, he believed the IRS should be allowed to cancel tax exemptions. But he had been forced to rescind the authority, because it involved “a procedure that we thought had no basis in law.” He then suggested a new way out of the problem. Congress should rewrite the law to make it clear that the IRS could cancel exemptions. That would enable him to reverse the reversal he had announced the week before.

The second attempt to take the heat off the President came a couple of days later. White House counselor Edwin Meese III told The New York Times that the President had not been told until late on January 7 or early on January 8, the day of the announcement, about the new policy; through an administrative mix-up, said Meese, he himself had okayed it without approval from the President.

Then came a third explanation, again from Reagan. “I’m the originator of the whole thing,” he said, but he admitted that the matter had been badly handled. He would never have reversed the policy if he had realized that the Supreme Court was about to consider it. “I didn’t know there was a legal case pending,” he said.

What, then, is the truth of the matter? In late January, a copy of a memo from a White House aide to the President was leaked to the press. The memo bore a scribbled notation in the President’s handwriting that appeared to contradict all three of the previous explanations. The memo had been written several weeks before the Administration’s announcement. It summarized a letter that had been sent to Reagan by Representative Trent Lott, a conservative Republican from Mississippi who was one of the leaders of the fight to get the IRS tax-exemption authority killed. His letter had outlined a way to do it. Calling the President’s attention to the fact that the issue was about to go before the Supreme Court, Lott had suggested that the Administration intervene in the case on the side of those who wanted to curtail the authority of the IRS. In the margin of the memo was Reagan’s scribbled notation: “I think we should.”

But that was not the end of the President’s misrepresentations in the matter. Five months later, during a talk Reagan gave at a predominantly black high school in Chicago, someone in the audience asked him what was the last major political decision he had made that hadn’t worked out as he had expected. He could think of one example, he said, that was a “beaut”—his decision in the IRS case. “This is the first time,” he told them, “that anyone’s ever publicly asked me to try and explain what I was doing.” He had made the decision, he said, because “I was under the impression that the problem of segregated schools had been settled, and maybe I was wrong. I didn’t know there were any court cases pending.” Then he added a remarkable afterthought: “I’ve had to answer some of your questions with figures of what I claim are facts. Don’t let me get away with it. Check me out. Make sure that what I told you checks out and is true. . . . Don’t be the sucker generation.” (When reporters tried to take him up on this challenge by submitting further questions through the White House press office, principal deputy press secretary Larry Speakes refused to accept them. “Don’t try to pick me apart on these mistakes again” was all he would say.)

Which brings us back to the charge by civil-rights leaders that Reagan has been pushing his civil-rights policies with a campaign of “astonishing misrepresentation.” The President denies it. It is he, he says, who has been the victim of a campaign of misrepresentation. “A pretty good hatchet job has been done on us,” he says. “I’d have perfect confidence in our chances with black voters if we could get the truth to them.”

WHAT IS THE “TRUTH” HE WANTS BLACKS TO know? An analysis of the Administration’s major speeches, congressional testimony, and pressconference statements on civil rights shows Reagan to have expressed the greatest pride in what he says he has done in six civil-rights areas: (1) reversing previous federal policies on both the forced busing of schoolchildren and the imposition of racially determined job quotas; (2) desegregating schools through means other than busing; (3) protecting minorities’ voting rights; (4) punishing criminal violations of the civil-rights laws; (5) cracking down on discrimination in housing; and (6) appointing blacks to high Administration jobs.

What exactly has Reagan done on these fronts? Leaving aside for the moment the first item on the list, here are the claims he has made in each area, along with the facts.

School desegregation. In a speech last July to the National Council of Negro Women, Reagan asserted that his Administration had been “aggressively combating segregation in schools.” As proof, he cited, without elaboration, two pieces of evidence. First: “We have authorized for filing three school-desegregation cases, more than were authorized by the previous Administration during its first thirty months in office.” This seemingly straightforward twenty-four-word sentence contains three carefully crafted semantic deceptions.

First, did Reagan actually file more school-desegregation cases than Carter? No. He filed only one, and Carter filed two.

Second, why then did Reagan say he had filed more cases than Carter? He didn’t say so—he just seemed to. What he actually said was that three suits had been “authorized” for filing. What does this mean? When I put this question to William Bradford Reynolds, the assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division (to whom the White House press office had referred me for all my questions on enforcement matters), he said that before the President made the speech the Justice Department had notified two schools that it was planning to file suits against them. Reynolds told me this three months after the speech. When I asked Reynolds if he had yet filed the remaining two suits, he would admit only that the suits were “authorized” for filing. He also refused to say when he would file them or to identify the two schools involved.

Third, had Carter, like Reagan, merely authorized filings, without filing the suits? No. Carter had actually filed the two suits. Then why did Reagan say he had “authorized” them? Reynolds answered the question this way: Carter couldn’t have filed them without first authorizing their filing; therefore, the sentence was “absolutely accurate.” (Here’s another version of the same one-up-onCarter claim, this one from a speech last July by Attorney General William French Smith to The Conference Board [a business-research group]: “The Department has authorized for filing a total of three new school-desegregation suits. For people who keep such records, that is one more than the Carter Administration compiled during the comparable period.”)

The second piece of evidence that the President cited to support his claim of aggressive action in school desegregation pertained to the single case that his Administration actually had filed. He said, “The Justice Department . . . has recently taken action against one state, charging discrimination in its higher-education system.” He did not provide the details that follow.

When Reagan took office, the U.S. Department of Education was under a 1980 federal-court order to accelerate its attempts to force the state of Alabama (among others) to desegregate its dual system of predominantly white and predominantly black colleges. The negotiations with Alabama had been dragging on for several years, with no results, and the court said that if no agreement was reached by May 15, 1981—four months after Reagan’s inauguration—the Administration must prepare either to cut off all federal education funds to Alabama or to take the state to court. The Reagan Administration did neither. Instead, it asked the judge to grant it a further delay. The judge pushed the deadline back seven more months. But it wasn’t until last July—a year and a half after the second deadline—that the Justice Department took Alabama to court. Ralph Neas, head of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, comments: “This is the first President I know of who claims he’s taking aggressive action when he obeys a court order to stop dragging his feet.”

Voting rights. In 1982, Congress passed a toughly worded extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The measure represented a major triumph for civil-rights groups, which had managed to fend off a concerted effort by anti-civilrights forces and the Reagan Administration to extend the law in emasculated form. Yet when Reagan signed the extension, he claimed that its passage represented a triumph for his Administration as well. Here are the facts behind this claim.

The Voting Rights Act is widely regarded as the toughest and most effective piece of civil-rights legislation ever passed by Congress. (Since 1965, it has revolutionized politics in the South by doubling black registration overall and increasing it tenfold in some districts.) What makes the act so effective is that it not only outlaws discriminatory voting rules (literacy tests, gerrymanders, etc.) but also gives a specific agency—the Justice Department—both the responsibility for preventing these practices and extraordinary powers to act on that responsibility.

The law says that every voting district with a past history of discrimination must submit every proposed change in its balloting procedures—from major redistrictings down to such minor matters as changes in polling hours—to the department’s Civil Rights Division for review. And it gives the department power to veto any changes, out of the thousands submitted to it each year, that it views as discriminatory.

These policing powers were what opponents of the act wanted to weaken. They proposed two amendments—one that would make it much harder for the department to prove that voting rules were discriminatory, and the other to reduce substantially the number of districts obliged to submit their changes for review.

What position did the President take on these amendments? At first he refused to take any position, saying that he was studying the problem. His neutrality enabled civilrights forces to score a smashing victory in the House of Representatives, which rejected the amendments and sent the bill to the Senate by the landslide margin of 389 to 24. Then, shortly after the House action, the President stepped into the fight. Calling the House version “pretty extreme,” he urged the Senate to adopt the two amendments. He also authorized his two top voting-rights enforcement officials, William French Smith and William Bradford Reynolds, to lobby for the amendments, and he backed them up by threatening to veto the bill if it was passed without the amendments.

But the President soon realized that his position was setting him up for a major political defeat. The Senate Republican leadership refused to support the amendments he wanted, sixty-five senators signed up as cosponsors of the House version, and even the conservatives on the Judiciary Committee who had wanted to weaken the bill began backing away from the amendments. The showdown came on May 3, 1982, when one of the most influential Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, Robert Dole, of Kansas, held a press conference and announced his support of a clarifying “compromise” amendment designed to end the stalemate. The amendment (which had been okayed by civil-rights leaders, since it did nothing to weaken the bill) was bitterly opposed by Smith and Reynolds. Dole’s announcement was, in effect, an ultimatum to the President—if he did not reverse himself, he would take a shellacking from his own party. Within an hour of Dole’s announcement, the President withdrew his opposition to the bill.

A month later, when the bill reached the President’s desk (backed by a veto-proof Senate vote of 85 to 8), Reagan invited an incredulous group of civil-rights leaders to the White House to share credit with him for its passage. His remarks featured a glowing description of the right to vote as “the crown jewel of American liberties,” and he unblushingly told his guests—most of whom knew firsthand about his attempt to weaken the bill—that “this legislation proves our unbending commitment to voting rights.”

In addition to giving himself credit for the passage of the bill in unweakened form, Reagan now claims credit for tough enforcement of it. In a speech last August to the American Bar Association (ABA), he declared, “The Department of Justice has reviewed twenty-five thousand proposed electoral changes under the Voting Rights Act [and has] objected to a hundred and sixty-five on the basis of racial discrimination.”

What the President did not say was that the act requires the department’s lawyers to make the reviews and the objections enumerated; they would be violating the law if they did not do so. Moreover, the sections of the law requiring these actions are the ones Reagan called “extreme” and sought to weaken; if he’d had his way, both the number of reviews and the number of objections would have been substantially smaller. Finally, the 165 changes that the Justice Department objected to out of the 25,000 submitted to it represent a drastic reduction in the rate of objections. From 1965 until Reagan took office, the department had vetoed 2.4 out of every 100 changes it examined. The figures the President cited show a veto rate of .7 changes per 100—a decrease of 71 percent.

Criminal litigation. In his speech to the ABA, Reagan said that in his first thirty months in office the Justice Department had filed more than a hundred cases charging criminal violations of citizens’ civil rights. (Most of them involved police brutality.) “That’s not just a respectable number,” he said, “it’s substantially more than any prior Administration during a comparable period.” But the President was careful to cite statistics on only one part— the less important part—of the department’s litigation work. To understand the reason for this selectiveness, consider the strange legal history of the figures the President cited.

During the century following the Civil War, the federal government possessed only one legal weapon with which it could protect the civil rights of blacks: the criminal laws. But they were an exceedingly limited weapon, usable almost exclusively in cases of physical violence. For example, the government could file a criminal suit if a black was physically prevented from entering a voting booth, but it was powerless to move against any of the nonviolent techniques, such as poll taxes, that were often used to keep blacks from voting.

Indeed, the four main techniques that were used for a century to keep blacks in an inferior position—educational segregation, housing bias, job discrimination, and restrictive voting rules—were all beyond the reach of the criminal laws. The impotence of criminal laws in these areas is what led to the Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka decision and to the watershed civil-rights statutes of the 1960s—the Fair Housing Act, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, the Voting Rights Act, and so forth. These laws were the triumph of the civil-rights movement, finally allowing government lawyers to move beyond “physical abuse” and get at the pervasive peaceful methods of oppressing blacks.

Blacks have seen these laws as their principal hope for achieving equality with whites. Moreover, since their passage, violence toward blacks has substantially decreased (and state and local protection of blacks’ rights has substantially improved), which has made federal enforcement of the criminal laws even less important in the overall scheme of things. “We’ve come a long way on that score,” says William L. Taylor, head of the Center for National Policy Review, a Washington civil-rights group. “Violence is no longer the central problem. Today, the critical measure of any Administration’s civil-rights enforcement is its record in civil cases—housing, jobs, and all the rest.” (One measure of the need for stronger enforcement is that although it is now illegal to refuse to sell or rent a house to a person on the basis of race, 2 million blacks and Hispanics are refused housing each year solely because of their race, according to Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates. Other estimates put the figure at twice as high.)

What President Reagan mentioned in his speech was the number of criminal cases filed during his first thirty months. In this category he is a bit ahead of the Carter Administration: 101 cases were filed by Carter, 114 by Reagan—an increase of 13 percent. But in total cases filed, criminal and civil, Reagan is well behind Carter: 225 cases for Carter, 156 for Reagan—a 31 percent decrease. And if civil cases are considered alone, the decrease under Reagan is a precipitous 66 percent (124 cases filed by Carter, 42 by Reagan).

Fair-housing enforcement. Reagan also told the ABA that he was rigorously enforcing the fair-housing laws and that, to make future enforcement even tougher, he had just sent Congress a new housing bill with “real teeth.” But civil-rights groups say that he has virtually abandoned housing enforcement and that his housing bill is far weaker than the one they have been pushing in Congress, with strong bipartisan support. What are the facts behind these claims of Reagan’s? The merits of Reagan’s housing bill cannot yet be judged, since it is brand-new and has not been subjected to the scrutiny of committee hearings. But evidence is available to support the charge that Reagan has not been enforcing the present housing law.

At a press conference last July, a reporter asked William Reynolds why the Administration had filed only two fairhousing suits during its first two and a half years. Reynolds replied, “Well, that again is some more misinformation. . . . We actually have filed nine housing cases—as compared, by the way, to eight housing cases that were filed in 1980, the comparable period of the prior Administration.” Although the reporter’s figure was wrong, his error is insignificant compared with the errors in Reynolds’s reply.

First, Reynolds suggested that a twelve-month period under Carter was comparable to a thirty-month period under Reagan. Second, Carter filed twelve housing suits in 1980, not eight, whereas Reagan filed six suits during his first thirty months, not nine. Third, the cases Carter filed were in no way comparable to those Reagan filed. Beginning in 1979, Carter’s Justice Department began a new policy in fair-housing enforcement, abandoning its former practice of bringing a large number of randomly selected suits—some legally important, some insignificant—and instead concentrating its legal resources on a small number of nationally significant, precedent-setting cases. As soon as Reagan took office, the department abandoned this policy and resumed the scatter-gun approach. Thus, qualitatively, Reagan was even further behind Carter than the numbers indicate. He averaged only one randomly selected case every five months, whereas Carter’s average was one significant case every month. Finally, if Reynolds had given his listeners the figures for the truly comparable periods—the first thirty months of each Administration, when both were bringing randomly selected cases—the comparison would have reflected even more unfavorably on Reagan: forty-six cases filed by Carter, six by Reagan—an 87 percent drop.

(In a 1982 speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Reynolds said that under Reagan the Justice Department’s civil-rights litigation activity had “outstripped that of the prior Administration . . . in virtually every area of civil-rights enforcement” and that anyone who claimed otherwise hadn’t looked up the facts. “Nowhere,” he said, “have those engaging in such political rhetoric invoked the record.” When I invoked the record by citing the figures on his housing litigation and asking him how he could have been so wrong in such an important area, he had no answer beyond that he would look into the matter and provide me with an explanation. As subsequently relayed to me by his public-relations man, the explanation was, “Apparently he was confusing something in his own mind.”)

Presidential appointments. In his ABA speech, Reagan said, “We are committed to appointing outstanding blacks, Hispanics, and women to judicial and top-level policy-making positions in our Administration. . . . In our first two years we appointed more women to top policy posts than any Administration before us.” What do the facts show about these claims?

Last year, on the basis of a five-month study of the 980 presidential appointments that Reagan had made in his first two and a half years, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission issued a comparison of his appointments of women and members of minorities with those of Jimmy Carter. Meticulously separating the recipients into groups by race and sex, and the appointments into types of jobs (Cabinet posts, judgeships, ambassadorships, etc.), the analysis showed that in thirty-three of the categories, minority and female appointments had declined proportionately since Reagan took office; in only eight categories had they risen. Here are the comparative percentages in three of the categories the President singled out for mention in his speech: Carter 22.1 percent, Reagan 3.3 percent in appointments of blacks and Hispanics to the judiciary; Carter 15.1 percent, Reagan 8.3 percent in appointments of women to the judiciary; Carter 22 percent, Reagan 8 percent in appointments of women in all posts.

IN EVALUATING THIS RECORD OF ANTI-CIVIL-RIGHTS actions, we need to keep in mind that the examples were taken not from a list provided by the President’s critics but from his own enumeration of the accomplishments of which he is proudest—the actions he says he’s confident would win him support among blacks “if we could get the truth to them.”

What do we make, then, of a President who assures us that he is “unalterably opposed to discrimination in any form” but orders his Justice Department to argue in favor of giving tax subsidies to schools that discriminate; who takes credit for the passage of a law that he lobbied against; who claims commitment to the appointment of minorities and women but brings about a drastic reduction in such appointments; and who says that he has been waging a campaign of aggressive litigation to enforce the civilrights laws at the same time that he has staged a retreat from their enforcement on all significant fronts?

I can think of three factors that are helping Reagan to get away with these deceptions—all of which, I believe, also help to explain how Reagan has been getting away with similar deceptions in foreign policy and in other areas of domestic policy. The first is the brilliant use he has made of what might be called his “decoy issue,” the issue that is first on his list of civil-rights accomplishments: his opposition to busing and job quotas. With many opinion polls showing that he has a majority of the public behind him on this question, he waves the issue before his audiences the way a magician waves his left hand to distract his audience while his right hand goes under the table for the rabbit.

Observe, for instance, the battle Reagan has been waging against the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, the only government agency that seems to have noticed how he has pulled back from enforcement. Reagan has been carrying on an offensive against the commission, with the aim of firing its independent-minded commissioners and replacing them with his own appointees.

But he has conducted this offensive in such a way as to make it appear that he is solely concerned with busing and quotas. In his ABA speech, for instance, the longest discussion of the civil-rights issue—and the section for which he reserved the headline-making language—was the following defense of his Civil Rights Commission nominees: “They don’t worship at the altar of forced busing and mandatory quotas. They don’t believe you can remedy past discrimination by mandating new discrimination. . . . But these fine Americans are under fire. My nominating them supposedly compromises the independence of the commission. Well, forgive me, but that’s pure hogwash.” (That evening, the “pure hogwash” quote was the featured snippet from the speech on ABC and NBC network news broadcasts.)

Civil-rights leaders gnash their teeth in frustration at the success the President has been having with this technique. They say the public has no idea that their main complaint is about Reagan’s systematic dismantling of the enforcement mechanism. No matter how much they try to explain it, they say, the public seems convinced that the argument is strictly over busing and quotas.

The malleability of the news media when confronted by these public-relations techniques has been the second factor enabling Reagan to get away with his deceptions. Out of ignorance or timidity, the media have failed to challenge him. For example, when Reynolds, “confusing something,” presented incorrect figures on Reagan’s and Carter’s fairhousing cases, he did so before a roomful of White House reporters. Not one of them questioned him on where the figures came from, nor did any subsequent report mention the deception.

Finally, Reagan has made skillful use of the manipulative techniques of Hollywood. Employing an array of acting and scriptwriting clichés—the self-deprecating joke; the heartwarming anecdote; the boyish grin; the look of principled determination; even, on occasion, the catch in the voice and the hint of a tear in the eye—he has cast himself in the classic Hollywood role of the embattled Honest Politician, a role that was most memorably played by his friend Jimmy Stewart, in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Note, for instance, the President’s response to a question on his civil-rights policies put to him during a White House meeting last February with Washington, D.C., television anchormen. Would he comment on “an apparent continuing perception among a number of black leaders that the White House continues to be, if not hostile, at least not welcome to black viewpoints?”

“I’m aware of all that,” Reagan began, “and it’s very disturbing to me, because anyone who knows my life story knows that long before there was a thing called the civilrights movement, I was busy on that side.”

This seemingly artless statement is actually a masterful piece of stage setting. The first key phrase is “my life story,” which established the form of what was to come. Specifically, it allowed Reagan to move the discourse out of the form he is least comfortable with—a discussion of the facts, in this case the facts of his civil-rights record—and into the form he handles best: a dramatic narrative based on unverifiable material about his personal life.

The second is “long before there was such as thing as the civil-rights movement,” which shifted the locus of his comments to a time and place so far removed from present-day Washington that nobody among his listeners—indeed, nobody in Washington but the President himself—could know whether the plot was fact or fiction.

So skillfully did this first sentence of Reagan’s reply segue into a flashback that when he started the second sentence he was addressing the anchormen in the past tense: “As a sports announcer, I didn’t have any Willie Mays or Reggie Jacksons to talk about when I was broadcasting major-league baseball. The opening line of the SpaldingBaseball Guide said, ‘Baseball is a game for Caucasian gentlemen.’ And as a sports announcer I was one of a very small fraternity that used that job to editorialize against that ridiculous blocking of so many fine athletes and so many fine Americans from participating in what was called the great American game.”

From there he went immediately to a second flashback, in which he faded into the even more remote past and introduced his parents. “God bless them, my father and mother, both long gone now, but I can remember when I was only that high and one of the all-time great motionpicture classics, Birth of a Nation, came to our town. In our household my father simply announced that no member of our family would see that picture because it was based on the Ku Klux Klan. And to this day I have never seen that great motion-picture classic.”

Reagan has a copious supply of such memories. (Significantly, they tend to refer to activities and attitudes so noncontroversial that they would not offend even a conservative hard-liner.) His father, he says, once slept in a car “during an Illinois blizzard” rather than stay at a hotel that barred Jews. The only thing his parents were intolerant of was intolerance. When he played football in college, his “closest teammate and buddy” was a black.

To the best of my knowledge, no member of the press has ever asked Reagan what relevance these ramblings have to the criticisms of his policies by civil-rights leaders. (They might be intended as replies to charges that he’s a racist, except that civil-rights leaders have scrupulously avoided such charges.) Regardless of their relevance, the anecdotes have unquestionably had an impact on the general public. Richard Wirthlin, the President’s pollster, has remarked that the main “anomaly” of Reagan’s standing in the public-opinion polls has been that his personal popularity ratings have remained consistently high, even when his job-performance ratings have been low. The reason seems clear. Through his mastery of storytelling techniques, he has managed to separate his character, in the public mind, from his actions as President. This most anti-civil-rights of postwar Presidents has succeeded in making a large part of the electorate want to believe that he’s not anti-civil rights. This achievement represents a transfer of a specific show-business objective—the willing suspension of disbelief—to politics. He has, in short, mesmerized us with that steady gaze.

Since so few reporters and political writers have learned to cope with this new form of political discourse, the voters have been given little help in separating the truth from its opposite in what the President tells them. The best advice one can offer to both press and public is the suggestion Ronald Reagan himself gave to the students in Chicago right after delivering two whoppers in a row: “Don’t let me get away with it. Check me out. Don’t be the sucker generation.”