Mr. Reagan's turn under the spotlight

Now Ronald Reagan is the one at front and center stage in the great American presidential year drama. He is a trooper, an old pro at this sort of thing. Of all the candidates who have walked onto that stage over the past year he is the most comfortable up there, although John Anderson has come a close second. The others have all proved that they are amateurs in stagecraft.

So the chances are that Mr. Reagan will give a good performance and emerge through the drama of nomination as a genuinely plausible candidate for the presidency.

But no one knows better than Sen. Edward Kennedy that being front and center stage is also a risky position, the best place in the world for political disaster.

This is the opening of Act Three in the current US presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan's act. It follows Acts One and Two, during both of which the man at stage center, front, got himself into trouble.

Act One was the entire story of the Carter presidency from its opening down to the day in November of last year when Edward Kennedy took over the spotlight by declaring his own candidacy for the Democratic nomination. That first Carter act was a downhill story. As do most new presidents, Mr. Carter had his early honeymoon, and then matters tended to go downhill from poor to worse. There were occasional upbeat passages, such as Camp David. But so long as the spotlight was on Mr. Carter at center stage, Mr. Carter's prestige declined.

A Carter revival dates from the time it became clear that Senator Kennedy really was going to try to take the Democratic nomination away from the President. At the White House, when they saw it coming, they did a long overdue reshuffle of the President's staff and organization. A number of new, top quality recruits were brought in. White House performance improved notably.

On stage it was then Senator Kennedy's act. It started downhill almost from the first moment. It had been so long expected and with such exaggerated assumptions about stagecraft that the actual performance produced startled disillusionment. Senator Kennedy never really recovered from the early unfavorable reaction. He got good marks at the end for tenacity and endurance. Yet in the dramatic sense the Kennedy act was a tragedy. You knew when it was over that you had seen the decline of a presidential possibility.

At the beginning of the Kennedy act it was widely assumed that the senator could take the nomination away from the President. At the end of the act the senator had ceased to be a plausible candidate for 1980. He had probably lost out for 1984 as well. The President's plausibility had been restored not by what the President did, but by the obvious failure of the Kennedy performance. It would almost seem to prove that Mr. Carter does best when out of the spotlight.

Now we come to Act Three. We see a fine actor on stage. But as the curtain goes up we realize that we know very little about him. Most Californians think he turned out to be a good governor of their state. But this performance was markedly different from his billing. He ran as a tax and budget cutter. He raised California taxes, and spending, massively. In the process he is credited with substantial improvement in the quality and competence of the state bureaucracy. His administration was clean of corruption.

What else do we know about him? During the primaries the farmers in the wheat and corn states learned that he does not understand farm parity. The veterans learned that he was not up to date in their affairs. He thought Vietnam veterans were not getting veterans' benefits. They are. And the blacks learned that he was not willing to break a Mexican holiday to address the annual convention of the NAACP. The primaries proved that Mr. Reagan has a lot to learn about people and their causes and interests in the other 49 states.

During Act One of this play everyone else benefited from Mr. Carter's misfortunes. During Act Two Mr. Carter benefited from Mr. Kennedy's misfortunes. Who will benefit most from Act Three? The chances seem to be that Mr. Reagan may break the rule and be the main beneficiary. The chances are that he will still be a plausible candidate when the last act opens in September and the issue will have narrowed to just the two performers, the President versus the governor. But now the curtain goes up on Act Three. The spotlight turns on Ronald Reagan. We should know a little more about him than we do now when this act ends.

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