Opinion: Real-life Reagan just like TV

First published in The Tacoma News Tribune, Tacoma on February 14, 1986.


WASHINGTON — “Ladies and gentlemen,” the voice intoned, “the President of the United States.”


Those of us seated earlier this week at the round luncheon tables in the gold-draped State Dining Room of the White House stood at the announcement and turned toward the door.


Ronald Reagan walked into the room, smiling his familiar smile, his hand raised shoulder-high in his familiar wave, his head cocked slightly sideways as though he were about to deliver his aw-shucks familiar wink. We applauded as he walked across the green and gold carpet to his table, and we continued to applaud until he grinned, shook his head and told us we should sit.


“I’m sorry I’m late,” he said in his familiar voice, “but since I took this job, I’ve discovered that every day I’m already late by 9 o’clock in the morning.”


“My God,” said a journalist at my table as we laughed at the president’s quip, “he looks and sounds just like he does on television.”


“That’s what makes him different,” said another newsman. “The in-person Reagan is the same as the on-television Reagan.”


The same couldn’t be said for Vice President George Bush, who had addressed the journalists in the White House briefing room that morning. On television, Bush often appears to be a little too thin, a bit pinch-faced, rather like the stern headmaster of a stuffy private school. His television voice sounds high, and sometimes is heard to crack.


In person, however, Bush was handsome and athletic-looking, his voice dynamic and his speech forceful.


On television, Bush sometimes seems to stammer. In person, he spoke with an easy eloquence, without notes and with ready recollection of hundreds of details about the affairs of government.


The televised image of White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan also belies the real man. On television, Regan often seems to glare at the camera. His televised face frequently appears puffy, and he seems rumpled. His voice often sounds scratchy and his speech humorless. In reality, Regan has a handsome countenance, and he often spoke with a wry grin and considerable humor.


“It seems that all the flakes haven’t left Washington after all,” he said, referring to the snow that had begun to fall outside and the fact that most members of Congress had gone home for the President’s Day recess.


Far from being rumpled, he was immaculately tailored, and when he spoke, his voice was clear and resonant.


Most of us, like Bush and Regan, probably would appear differently on television than we would in person. How many of us have said, “I don’t really ever look good in a photo.” How many of us have said, when we hear our voices on a recording, “Gosh, that doesn’t sound like me at all.”


Some people’s looks and voices, on the other hand, are improved by photography and recording. Many recording stars, for example, never sound as good in person as they do on records. Many models who appear glamorous in photographs are quite ordinary-looking people in real life.


That consistency of image may be the president’s greatest strength. He is friendly, familiar and comfortable — like a good pair of house slippers. Most people, wary of surprises, appreciate that. They want the package to reflect the product. Reagan, a professional actor, possesses the skills to project that consistency.


Yet, familiarity also can breed contempt among those who are used to the idea that images are not usually the thing they portray. A photo of a tree, for example, regardless of how good the photography, is not a tree.


One would be startled to go into a forest and find, instead of trees, merely cut-out pictures of trees.


Perhaps that is why this genial and energetic president surprises many who see him for the first time in person. The image and the reality are virtually the same, and they aren’t quite sure what to make of it.