PRevious to their mutual political misfortunes in the early primaries, particularly in Iowa, Ronald Reagan of the Republicans and Edward Kennedy of the Democrats shared an assumption that the "hard sell" was best in US politics of 1980.Both played the role of storybook dragon slayers -- Reagan for the righteous of the right, Kennedy for the righteous of the left.
The both got themselves into trouble in Iowa. Both were nipped there by adversity. Both seemed to have acquired out of that adversity just a touch of that most graceful of all human mannerisms, the grace of humility.
I don't want to exaggerate out of scale. Both relapse at times into the tough guy role. Mr. Reagan sometimes sounds as though he wanted to wage civil war against those who enjoy welfare and social security and a national war against the Soviet Union. Senator Kennedy hurls Jovian bolts of lightning at President Carter and at such favorite targets of the left as the oil companies.
Yet the tough guy image has been softened at the edges in both Reagan and Kennedy performances. In its place there now is both that tiny touch of humility and also urbanity. Mr. Reagan's greatest moment in the campaign so far was that superbly played scene in Nashua, New Hampshire, when he tried, or appeared to try, to share the microphone ("I'm paying for this microphone!") with the lesser Republican candidates (Baker, Crane, Anderson) to the disadvantage of George Bush.
Urbanity is just the right word for the way Mr. Reagan played that scene, putting Mr. Bush into the appearance of being stingy and mean. It was damaging to the Bush image. Mr. Bush lost his famous "momentum" at that moment and has not yet managed to get it back. It probably ruined his political prospects as decisively as did George Romney's unfortunate admission that "I was brainwashed."
Mr. Kennedy showed the same quality of urbanity in the wake of his own disappointments culminating in Illinois. Except for Massachusetts, where he couldn't possibly lose, his showing in the early primaries was all but disastrous.
But instead of quitting or sulking or complaining he headed for New York and Connecticut in good humor. He joked about his earlier failures. He still used some hard sell in his rhetoric, but often with a twinkle in the corner of the eye. He, too, began to show that quality of urbanity which had already served Mr. Reagan so well. In New York and Connecticut, although not in Wisconsin or Kansas, it paid off handsomely, putting the senator back into the race.
So now instead of having hard sell, angry-imaged, political cold warriors in Messrs. Reagan and Kennedy, we have two urbane candidates whose fortunes are certainly on an upward trend and who might almost deserve the label which Al Smith won in 1928, the label of "the happy warrior."
It seems to me that these two important political figures have both done the prudent thing in urbanizing their images. In politics it is important to achieve an image that suits the needs and yearnings of the electorate. That can change with the times. What do the American people want at this stage in their career?
This is not a time for divisiveness. Everyone is worried about inflation; well, almost everyone. There are of course a few clever manipulators who manage to benefit from inflation. But by and large the whole population is worried about inflation and would like to put a stop to it, and yearns for the person who can stop it, but is distrustful of anyone who proposes a radical remedy.
When a common anxiety like this one about inflation is a top concern in the public consciousness, who wants divisive speeches, divisive politics, divisive demagoguery? One yearns rather for the calm, quiet, competent wisdom which just might find the answer to great national problems.
Thus, if I read the current mood correctly, Messrs. Reagan and Kennedy wisely have adjusted their manners and tactics. Just a touch of humility is reassuring to those who doubt that there is any quick easy, sure cure to the inflation.Just a touch of urbanity is reassuring to those who know that this is no time for any superman diving through the clouds.
The primaries in the US presidential year are at midpoint. The men have been separated from the boys. There seem to be four candidates still in the running -- Reagan and John Anderson on the Republican side, President Carter and Senator Kennedy on the Democratic side. At this halfway point Messrs. Reagan and Kennedy seem to be getting more attention. It seems to pay to be good-natured, cheerful, and friendly.