What Reagan could learn from Tom Dewey

Listen up, Ronald Reagan. History is calling. In fact, it might be well for the entire Republican Party to lend an ear. A young Harvard graduate, Richard Norton Smith by name, has some advice that might be the key to your political fortunes.

Actually, it's not original stuff. He got it secondhand - and not even in person - from one of the biggest losers in GOP presidential history. That's right, Tom Dewey.

But just the same, Smith may have something here. And although it's been 35 years since ''the little man who looked as if he fell off the wedding cake'' suffered the most stunning political upset (at the hands of Harry Truman) in modern politics, Dewey's message to President Reagan and Republicans in general may be especially pertinent.

It's this: Mr. President, appear to be more visible in the role of president of allm the people. Your policies are on track. But the image being conveyed is at variance with what you intend.

And Republicans, practice moderation. Remember, the middle of the road is where America wants its presidents to be.

Of course, this guidance comes by proxy. The crime-busting, straight-talking diminutive three-time governor of New York has been gone for over a decade. But his political philosophy and legacy of what he called centrist, enlightened Republicanism is revitalized today in Smith's near-monumental biography, ''Thomas E. Dewey and His Times'' (New York: Simon & Schuster, 703 pp. $22.50).

In an interview with the Monitor, Richard Norton Smith said he did his extensive probe of the career of Thomas E. Dewey largely because ''no one has ever done it.''

Smith was born in the 1950s - in the twilight of Dewey's career. But he painstakingly traces his political subject as a lawman, a New York crime-fighter , and an efficiency-minded governor. As a result of his research, Smith decided that the sometimes abrasive and chilly Governor Dewey was a man who ''made government work.''

Dewey is remembered by his friends and constituents - and even by some political enemies - as an odd mix, a pay-as-you-go liberal and a compassionate conservative.

In three terms as governor, Smith says, he created a state university, championed a tough civil rights law, tripled spending for public health, pushed public housing for the poor - and all within the context of balanced state budgets.

''No doubt he was a conservative,'' Smith insists. ''But he was also realistic.''

What kind of president would Dewey have made? Smith sees him as a ''streamliner of government.'' He was a strong supporter of the Hoover Commission, which was charged with reorganizing the federal bureaucracy. In foreign affairs Dewey, like President Reagan, would have emphasized defense. As to domestic social issues, he was a civil libertarian, as evidenced by his record as governor of New York.

Further, if Dewey had been president during the McCarthy anticommunist furor, he ''would have preempted the issue,'' Smith reckons. ''He just wouldn't have allowed McCarthyism to flourish.''

''Dewey was a strong defender of the two-party system,'' Smith explains. ''He felt that both parties should contain liberal and conservative elements. But he was very concerned about polarization. He felt that government was too important to leave to the ideologues, the sloganmakers.''

Could a Tom Dewey flourish in US politics today? Smith says that Dewey - the hero, the crime-buster - would survive. But he doubts that media-dominated campaigns could effectively present the late governor as a salable presidential choice. ''Ironically, the qualities that made him a good governor and prosecutor may have made him a loser as president,'' Smith says.

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