05/04/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT
Television is the microscope of politics. Under its merciless lens, most modern Presidents have squirmed. Jimmy Carter too often came off as a simp, Gerald Ford as an off, Lyndon Johnson as a slicker and Richard Nixon as a sleaze. In Jack Kennedy, the orthicon camera glimpsed a Cary Grant of candidates who won the election in large part because he was gorgeously, confidently telegenic. But JFK proved a tyro of the tube after a 43-year-old Hollywood has-been named Ronald Reagan jumped from the large to the small screen.
Camera-wise and politically conservative, Reagan signed on as host of CBS's General Electric Theater and as a traveling spokesman for big business. By 1964 he was an oratorical stem-winder who played television like a Stradivarius. His soft-sell tones flowed over the electorate like an avalanche of pillows and showed the world what one man could do with a few fetching notions and an unlimited supply of cathode rays. In eight years as Governor of California and eight more at the summit of world power, the Great Communicator adroitly manipulated the hearts and minds of his countrymen and transformed American politics—not necessarily for the better.
Once and for all, Reagan demonstrated that in a nation equipped with 162 million TV sets, politics is the art of the visible. Image wins over substance, star quality over sound ideas. He and his skilled media advisers employed TV to capture the Presidency and bully Republican programs through a Democratic Congress. The Reagan revolution was ultimately won by the electron gun—and by the fascinating persona it projected.
There he stood, wrinkled as a torn turkey, a gimpy old Hollywood cowboy who appeared better qualified for Boot Hill than for the White House. But when those little red lights lit up on the cameras, Reagan glowed like a man welcoming his best friend—and somehow he made you feel that you were that best friend. His voice was as soothing as warm honey, the voice of a kindly old family doctor reassuring a sick child. Even when he was mouthing fright-wing absurdities (he called Medicaid recipients "a faceless mass waiting for handouts"), he spoke with a televangelical conviction that invited belief. When he was under fire, the old "ham loaf" (as he called himself) would slyly angle for sympathy, and he usually got it. Let a reporter shoot him a cutting question, Reagan would duck his head in a way that suggested he was being abused, but then, smiling the smile of a good sport, return the kind of soft answer that turneth away wrath. The man really seemed to believe he could please all of the people all of the time.
Mr. Nice Guy was about the only role Ronald Reagan ever played. He learned it at the knee of mother Nelle, a chronic do-gooder, and refined it during 27 years as Hollywood's Kid Vanilla. But offscreen, he was anything but the "amiable dunce" his critics later deplored. Politics was his passion and information his vice. He read books by the shelf load and spouted data like a village explainer. "Don't ask Ronnie what time it is," first wife Jane Wyman once sighed. "He'll tell you how a watch is made."
Reagan learned about leadership as president of the Screen Actors Guild (1947-52) during the nightmare era when many were convinced that Communists were trying to take over the movie industry. When his union tenure began, he was (in his own words) a "hemophilic liberal"; when it ended, he was a fiery apostle of the Far Right. Television gave him his podium. For eight crucial years (1954-62), as host of the high-rated G. E. Theater, he was a weekly guest in America's living room. The audience for any one episode would rival the total number of people who saw all of Reagan's movies. Such was the power of television, and Reagan seized it. Between shows, while whistle-stopping the nation as a goodwill ambassador for G.E., he thumped the tub for conservatism before hundreds of civic groups.
Rhetoric honed to a razor's edge, Reagan was itching for a national political audience. Again, television offered its services. In 1964, during Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign, Reagan delivered a thrillingly eloquent oration on NBC. The address raised $1 million for Goldwater and was acclaimed by one commentator as "the most successful national political debut since William Jennings Bryan's Cross of Gold speech." Reagan was off on a roll that carried him to the White House. Television powered his bandwagon all the way. In the 1979 debates, he seemed more presidential than President Carter, who let his challenger chide him ("There you go again!") like an amiable headmaster reproving a naughty schoolboy. And after his election it was TV that made President Reagan a national hero. To admiring millions, correspondents reported how the old actor, on an operating table with the assassin's bullet lodged an inch from his heart, played his greatest scene. Grinning up at his surgeons, he murmured with superb nonchalance: "Please tell me you're Republicans."
In that moment Ronald Reagan became the John Wayne of American politics, a folksy emblem of grace under pressure, and from sea to shining sea a wave of affection swelled that carried him all but unscathed through deficits and scandals and partisan pummeling ("This would never have happened if Reagan were alive"). His main regret, friends say, is that the Reagan Show had to be canceled at the end of eight years. After an election that seemed to return presidential campaigning to the electronic Dark Ages, millions of his countrymen agree.