Washington — A recurring question which comes from many readers these days is what kind of a president Ronald Reagan would likely turn out to be. Surely this is the bottom-line question which every voter will have to decide for himself before he casts his ballot on Nov. 4.
It can't be answered very fully at this early stage. We will need to listen and to watch closely everything Mr. Reagan says and does when, as is hoped, he begins to reveal his ideas during the campaign. If I ventured a dogmatic answer , I trust I would doubt its validity. At this point the best we can do is to ask the right questions and look for clues.
There are plenty of precedents for not knowing how a potential president would perform in the White House.
Did anyone have a clear idea what kind of a president Truman would make when the heavy responsibilities of the office were suddenly thrust upon him? Some feared the worst; few expected very much. Actually he turned out quite differently than most people thought possible.
I am reminded of a quick Q-and-A which arose in the midst of a breakfast session with Richard Scammon, former head of the Census Bureau and one of the more scholarly and objective political analysts in the business.
A colleague, apparently expecting to extract an answer which would support his own thinking, asked: "Have we ever had a presidential nominee of a major party about whom we knew so little as we know about Ronald Reagan?"
Mr. Scammon's answer was instant: "Yes, Jimmy Carter."
It is well to be reminded that we knew little about what kind of a president Mr. Carter would make when he was nominated and not much more at the end of the campaign. One reason was that he campaigned, in part, on the premise that lack of contact with national affairs and with Washington leaders would be an asset to him in governing the country. It wasn't.
Unquestionably it is easier to say what Mr. Reagan will do, if elected, than to project how he will operate his presidency once he is confronted with the hard realities of office. I have watched him perform for two terms as governor of California (not the same as being president but somewhat revealing), have covered much of his two campaigns for the Republican nomination, and talked with several who have worked closely with him. I can make this report:
Reagan aims to have a strong chief of staff in the White House, comparable to what Sherman Adams was to Eisenhower. He does not intend to be the prisoner of administrative details. He expects to surround himself with able and trustworthy people in his Cabinet and leave much of the running of the government in their hands. He plans to convene the Cabinet regularly and he sees his role as "chairman of the board." This is what President Truman tried to do in the early months of his administration and he found that for him it didn't work very well.
My judgment is that Reagan will emerge as less the conservative ideologue than many think. As governor of California he proved to be flexible and pragmatic within the boundaries of his basic conservatism.
He will put strengthening the nation's defense ahead of a balanced budget and I would not expect him to have a jittery finger on the nuclear panic button.
Despite his fumbling and frustration in his relations with the California Democratic legislature during the early period of his administration, Governor Reagan found a way to get most of his policies approved with reasonable compromises. Here he demonstrated that his experience and skills as radio commentator and public speaker helped him. One California Democrat who worked with him put it this way:
"He is very good at going to the people. He is extraordinarily good at formulating a political issue to the public and getting them on his side. It is an ability that would be a potent force for a president trying to deal with a difficult Congress."
It would seem logical to me to expect Reagan, if he becomes president, to revive his version of the fireside chats which Franklin Roosevelt used so effectively.
This is how, in part, I see Ronald Reagan as of two months before the voting.