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Still searching for a superstar

By Richard L. Strout / October 22, 1982



How does a president win success? And what is ''success'' for a president anyway? The questions come again at the end of a mid-term election. In a few days we shall have a practical answer to one aspect at least: Mr. Reagan's success in persuading voters ''to stay the course.'' And we shall be judging the larger problems of the presidency, too.

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''Every four years,'' wrote political scientist Thomas Cronin in 1980, ''Americans search the national landscape for a new superstar, a story-book figure who is blessed with the mind of Jefferson, the courage of Lincoln, the grace of John F. Kennedy.''

Many hoped they had found such a man in 1980, a governor of California out of Hollywood. Automatically an opposition appeared too. This is the normal course. The political machine creates a presidential myth at the beginning of a term and then what some call ''the ritual destruction of the president'' often starts simultaneously. The clash develops, says James David Barber, owing to ''the ambivalence Americans feel towards the power of the president - the dislike of authority and power, and the contradictory admiration of dynamic leadership.''

There is nothing new in this. Lyndon Johnson's press secretary, George E. Reedy, felt there wasn't enough opposition to a strong-willed president. He gloomily concluded his book, ''The Twilight of the Presidency'' in 1970, with the forecast of an American dictator.

''The more probable outcome of our current difficulties will be a 'man on horseback,' '' he wrote, ''a George Wallace with a broader appeal or a Ronald Reagan with greater depth.'' (Mr. Reagan hadn't come to the White House then, of course, but Mr. Reedy was waiting for him.) He urged moderation on his countrymen: ''the middle course between chaos and suppression of dissent, of course, is subtle and sensitive'' and requires ''political leadership of the most pragmatic variety . . . .''

Presidents are criticized if they show dynamism and if they don't. At a breakfast with newsmen this week I asked Mr. Reedy if he still fears an authoritarian leader. Goodness no, he said hastily; he has accepted a more comfortable philosophy. He will have a new book out shortly on President Johnson and believes that ''somehow we must learn to govern our people from an office that is secular and not from a court that is sanctified.''

Everybody is writing books about presidents these days. Soon to be issued is ''Working with Truman'' (Putnam), by Ken Hechler, President Truman's research director and one-time congressman from West Virginia. Truman is the man, of course, who won the surprise election of 1948. The turning point for him came in his appearance before the American Society of Newspaper Editors in April 1948 when he finished the carefully drafted speech on inflation and the economy (which he didn't read very well) and launched on one of his own in forthright language. (His eyesight wasn't good and he had difficulty following a text.)

Well, he wowed them. ''He began an entirely different extemporaneous and off-the-record speech of his own, in his own vocabulary, out of his own humor and his own heart,'' wrote publisher Jonathan Daniels at the time, '' . . .made the story of his own problems seem one told in earnestness and almost intimacy with each man in the hall. He was suddenly a very interesting man of great candor who discussed the problems of American leadership with men as neighbors. He spoke the language of them all out of traditions common to them all.'' He had broken the communications barrier. To the surprise of everybody (save himself) he won the election.

The riddle of the presidency and how to lead the public isn't going to be solved easily. Ronald Reagan's affable style inspires confidence though whether it will elect supporters remains to be seen. We haven't decided what personality traits make a successful president, nor what makes one ''great.'' Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. in 1949 picked six ''great'' presidents, Lincoln, Washington, FDR, Wilson, Jefferson, and Jackson, in that order. As ''near great'' he included Theodore Roosevelt, Cleveland, John Adams, and Polk. Thirteen years later he reduced the ''great'' list to five (Lincoln through Jefferson) and added Truman (along with Jackson) to the ''near great'' (between Teddy Roosevelt and Cleveland).

Students argue over the problems of the president. Harold Laski gave an Englishman's view in his ''The American Presidency'' but found no final answer. We sigh over the heavy burdens of the one-man head of state which in parliamentary countries are shared by a group. Students say the president must establish goals, persuade people that these are obtainable and just, and then work out a strategy to achieve them. Yes, but how?