Washington — The question that voters are asking as much as any other these days is: What is Ronald Reagan relly like? It is a natural question. It was asked about Jimmy Carter when he was a candidate and for some time after he became President. Now, it appears, most people have sized him up. Some say they like him, some say they don't. But he no longer is a stranger to them, as he was for so long.
Mr. Reagan comes onto the presidential campaign stage quite well known nationally -- but more still as an actor than as a politician. In fact, it is because of his acting career that Reagan remains a puzzle to many people. They have difficulty separating the screen star from the man who is seeking the highest office in the land.
Because of Reagan's movie career many voters continue to wonder whether someone who has specialized in performing from the script of others has the capacity to write his own scenario for running the nation. The question "How intelligent is Ronald Reagan?" usually follows "What is Reagan really like?"
The jury seems to be out on just how bright Mr. Reagan is. Anne L. Armstrong , who is considered particularly intelligent, says she is impressed with the Reagan intellect. And James Baker -- thoughtful, articulate -- agrees. They both, of course, are working closely with the Californian in his bid for the presidency. But they are honest observers who usually say precisely what they think.
Comments Mrs. Armstrong: "I've been watching Ronald Reagan as he works with his staff. He listens to what they have to say and then, swiftly, sums it up in a most impressive way. Yes, he's an intelligent man." Mr. Baker provides a similar evaluation.
John Sears, longtime No. 1 political adviser to Mr. Reagan, might well be expected to give the man who fired him a low intelligence rating. Instead, Mr. Sears provides this assessment: "There are all kinds of intelligence," he said. "Reagan is a quick study, a quick learner. He is not puzzled by new, complex concepts. He weaves his way through them with dexterity."
Mr. Sears adds: "Reagan is not a deep person. He is not an intellectual. But neither was FDR. Roosevelt's talent was in dealing with people. And Reagan has that talent, too."
In the first week or so of the campaign, Mr. Reagan helped to underscore the so-called "intelligence question" by his ad-lib flubs.
And now, to avoid such blunders, the candidate has agreed to a policy (following the advice of his new aide, Stuart Spencer) of staying away from the media as much as possible and saying nothing in his public addresses that isn't written in his speech texts.
Says one Reagan aide: "Reagan isn't very good at speaking off the cuff. Oh yes, he is always interesting. But he may get tangled up in an issue or commit a political impropriety.
Applicable here, perhaps, is a comment by Viscount James Bryce -- historian, jurist, ambassador to Washington -- who wrote almost a century ago: "A President need not be a man of brilliant intellectual gifts. . . . Four- fifths of his work is the same in kind as that which devolves on the chairman of a commercial company or the manager of a railway. . . . Firmness, common sense, and most of all, honesty, an honesty above all suspicion of personal interest, are the qualities which the country chiefly needs in its first magistrate."
As governor of California Mr. Reagan did indeed show the people there -- or enough of them to elect him to a second term -- that he was a competent state chief executive. And those voters who liked him quite often spoke of how firm he was, how much integrity he had, and how much common sense he possessed.
Also, there is no context where Reagan speaks without text and where he and his people believe he excels -- debating. His TV encounters with William Buckley and Robert Kennedy seem to bear out that assessment.
"In debate," says the Reagan aide "Reagan is not ad-libbing. He first does his homework and is fully prepared. He becomes a highly disciplined performer in that context. And he's awfully good at it."
Indeed, Mr. Reagan in the upcoming debates might lay the intelligence question to rest, once and for all.