December 28, 1987 12:00 PM

When Ronald Reagan pulls off a good one these days, as he did at the summit with Mikhail Gorbachev, he acts like a mellow old movie cowboy with the oh-gosh grin, boots tugged on, big belt buckle out front, sauntering with Nancy on his arm toward the helicopter to go to Camp David and rest up for the next calamity to be dumped on his doorstep. Against the odds, he continues to occupy center stage, a place his critics had hoped and believed he had vacated.

He is, by presidential standards, virtually unmarked by the burdens of office. There are more wattles, a few new pounds, some extra gray hairs, surgical scars inside and outside. He is a bit more drowsy’ and forgetful, but a good show, like the summit, pumps him right back up.

Overtrusting, hyperhopeful, frequently confused, minimally informed—all those political and journalistic epitaphs have been delivered in the last few months. Yet Reagan refuses to heed the obituary waiters and expire politically, spiritually or physically. His Teflon coating apparently has not yet Worn out, his luck obviously has not deserted him. His second term may not, after all, be one too many, and his Presidency cannot by most measures be declared a failure.

As Reagan wanders toward his exit a year from now, the world that watches this singular leader is muttering in disbelief yet one more time—intrigued, perplexed, amused, astonished at one more great act from the political Houdini of the age. For somehow Ronald Reagan endures. “He does not hate,” one of his doctors once said. Sometimes he gets mad, but it does not last. A persistent critic of his new Soviet friendships has been conservative columnist George Will, who was nevertheless invited to the elegant state dinner for Gorbachev. Simply no hard feelings on Reagan’s part, even though Will later confided, “Gorbachev is not a man I would want to take fly-fishing.” Reagan probably would.

It is apparent that after seven years of unrelenting and often brutal analysis, few if any experts know exactly the qualities that sustain and propel this man on a journey that has taken him happily through three-fourths of the century. Perhaps those qualities are destined to be a mystery forever, known only to God, who has no media outlet down here, and Nancy, who can only use words like the rest of us. She feels his intensity, but talks about it only in terms of results, as she did at the end of the summit: “By golly, Ronnie did it.” Still, one thing is clear: Reagan is a spiritualist in the midst of statisticians, a romantic among pragmatists, clinging not to meticulous head counts but to those strange inner voices that seem to whisper to him after breakfast. He is a man utterly given to the novel belief that a lot of things can be done to make America better, even as he is told they cannot. He personally puts in many of those passages in his speeches about the greatness of the American people. He got the lines out of Hollywood, but he believes them and he may be right.

Thus, it is virtually impossible to assess Reagan’s record by measuring bills passed and dollars spent or summits held or even treaties signed. Lyndon Johnson used to carry such a compilation in his inner coat pocket. Hindsight suggests it fooled LBJ as well as a lot of other people. Reagan has nothing in his coat pocket.

Academics who have been ignored, political consultants who have been beaten or thwarted, journalists who have been just plain wrong, have, particularly in these past months, formed a somber chorus that has exaggerated Reagan’s failures and predicted with unseemly eagerness the grand demise that has not happened. In fact Reagan’s list of failures is almost as long as that of his successes, but not quite. The scales still tilt his way, which is the way one must judge a President. The world is overarmed and overheated, the economy obviously ailing. But Reagan’s bottom line gives him the longest period of general peace and prosperity in the last half-century. The groaning pundits and professors suggest either that the President may have hopelessly mortgaged future generations by his military profligacy or that he has sold out to the Soviets with his deal to junk intermediate-range missiles. They could be right; then again, they may relish catastrophe.

One thing is clear: Ronald Reagan will never resign the office unless he is physically disabled. He loves the job too much—the dinners, the travel, the cameras. A while back he had a group in for dinner, and composer Burt Bacharach played the piano while his wife, Carole Bayer Sager, sang. Secretary of State George Shultz’s tired body slumped into repose. Diplomats snored. Businessmen checked their watches. Near midnight, the oldest man in the room, Ronald Reagan, was urging Bacharach to “play another one.”

Whatever historians finally write about Ronald Reagan, they cannot ignore him. He made conservatism a religion in Washington equal to liberalism. He dragged a reluctant world into a fight against terrorism, and to the world’s astonishment we seem, for the time being, to be winning. He made capitalism, with all its excesses and pain, respectable again, extolling the sheer joy of innovating, risking and profiting, and unleashing amazing bursts of national energy.

Reagan promoted a new era of self-sufficiency—in schools and communities—which sometimes has been unnecessarily cruel but more often has uncovered resources long forgotten and grown rusty from disuse. He burnished anew the doctrine that in this country government is not the greater partner in the system. People are.

Oddly, over the past few years many of the world’s leaders began their relationship with Reagan barely concealing their contempt for an aging actor with cue cards. Canada’s thin-lipped Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau scoffed, then became a Reagan friend. West Germany’s Chancellor Helmut Schmidt was open in his doubts, but changed his tune after meeting with Reagan. Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has never wavered in her personal affection for the President. And now we have the Mike and Ron show, for what it’s worth, which could be quite a lot.

It is so hard for Washington, informed and sophisticated and devoted to political vivisection, to live very long with a man who gets his stories from Reader’s Digest, eats granulated bee pollen, does not dye his hair at age 76 and has his suits made with buttons on the fly of his trousers. As always, the capital will be kinder to the man when he’s gone.

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