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Reagan's self-image

By Godfrey Sperling Jr.Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist. / May 8, 1984



PERHAPS no man in public life knows Ronald Reagan and what makes him tick better than John P. Sears III, the astute political operative who did so much to put Reagan into the presidency.

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Over several years Sears spent hundreds of hours in conversation with Mr. Reagan before being ousted from his role as campaign manager in 1980. He is widely regarded as a friendly but objective critic of the President.

Here's how Mr. Sears appraised Ronald Reagan in a recent interview:

Q: There's much talk these days about Reagan's ability to ''walk away'' from what many see as his blunders, and, particularly, his apparent serenity in the face of reverses. Is that a public pose? Is he sometimes privately devastated at such moments?

A: Never. That's Reagan being Reagan. What you see is what you get.

Q: But how can he do this? Doesn't he recognize the difficulty he is in at such times?

A: Well, it seems that he isn't in any difficulty because he is able to walk away, as you say. He's a fellow who has a lot of moves that really account for this. You know, you hear talk about this being luck or something. It isn't luck. It really comes from a long time back - before he was in politics - and having instincts about image that were necessary in his acting career.

The temptation that so many people have is to try to chase him on his so-called blunders or on his positions where he apparently is taking a minority position. People have been trying that for 18 years, since he's been in politics. It's always unrewarding. You can chase Reagan down a road. But when you get very close to him he turns around and hugs you to death. Or he just winds up behind you somewhere.

Q: So these are ''moves'' by Reagan, part of his political and, earlier, acting instinct and not the ''Reagan luck'' so many people are talking about today?

A: No, it isn't luck. I'll tell you what it is in part, too: With most politicians when they sense they have made a mistake or they have been told in the press that they have made a mistake, it is their natural inclination to try to justify what they did.

Reagan never tries to do that. He may not admit he was wrong. But when people are criticizing him for having troops in Lebanon he may get up and say that he is going to be more loyal to American interests than Tip O'Neill - but the next week he's got the troops out, or on their way out.

Q: How do you explain his outward serenity? Doesn't he ever get ''down,'' privately in the face of reverses?

A: I've rarely seen him ''down.'' In 1976 when he was losing some primaries, we had to pick him up a little. But not far. When things weren't going well, he would want to go out and work harder - a reaction we see in Reagan as President.

Q: Is this then a man who basically is optimistic, who when he looks at a glass will say it is half full rather than half empty?

A: Very often that's the case. But there are other elements in this man that bear on this question. He doesn't have the kind of arrogance that we often identify with people who reach this point in politics. His character and his view of himself don't suffer if he's made a mistake.

Very often by the time politicians who have spent their lives in this business and have reached this level feel that any public support they have is based on the fact that people think they are infallible. And they try to act as though they are.

Q: And Reagan doesn't view himself as infallible?

A: Not at all.

Q: How does he regard himself?

A: Oh, he likes himself pretty well but not to the point of feeling infallible. You know we've had a lot of Presidents of late - Nixon, Carter, Johnson - who believed that being President involved doing just about everything yourself. And they felt often that if anything happened, good or bad, which they weren't involved in, it was a sad commentary on themselves.

Reagan obviously doesn't have that problem at all. Indeed, he feels the job is run better when the power identified with the presidency is delegated.

Now people can argue that Reagan is delegating too much power. But what is refreshing about it is that people perceive a President who is not locked in heavy details. He seems to be saving himself for the larger issues.

He's sometimes criticized by some people who say he hasn't found a larger issue to occupy himself with. But at the very least people don't feel that the President is handing out passes to the White House tennis court or things of that nature, which we have seen in the past.

Q: Isn't Reagan's likability a great asset for him politically and part of his ability to be able to ''walk away'' from negative public reaction that would have damaged other presidents?

A: That is absolutely true. Reagan is the first man, for quite a while, except for Jerry Ford who was non-elected, who seems to be a likable person in the presidency. You have to go back to Kennedy for something like that.