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Scripts for the Pageant


These briefing books for the 1980 television debate may be read as the equivalent for our own age of The Prince of Machiavelli. “As a prince must be able to act just like a beast, he should learn from the fox and the lion,” wrote Machiavelli in Chapter XVIII of his manual; “because the lion does not defend himself against traps, and the fox does not defend himself against wolves. So one has to be a fox in order to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten off wolves.” It is true that the briefing books do not command such simple and forceful language. But their object is the same: to teach the Prince of our own age how he may be a fox on television, while seeming to be a lion. But unlike The Prince, these are manuals for a democracy.  

The Reagan briefing book begins with the clear injunction: “Be yourself.” Gazing sardonically at the Borgias and Medicis he served, Machiavelli would scarcely have given such advice. How much more open our democracy! But having given such straightforward counsel, the briefing book then at once contradicts it. Its first purpose is to tell Ronald Reagan what “self” he should present to the people. He is told that “it is critical that you demonstrate constraint, firmness, moderation and compassion.” On the next page, he is urged to make the debate focus on “compassion.” On the page after that, he is informed that it will be one of his advantages to “appear robust and vigorous.” But these are only the preface to the passage which is the key text in all these works: “Televised political debates focus on image attributes more than issue positions.” 

The very words in this text show how debilitated the language of the political consultant has become. One remembers when the political vocabulary was first stretched to speak of “image.” Now there are “image attributes.” In the same way, “issues” have become “issue positions.” And what are the “attributes” which the Prince is urged to image forth? They are listed in this order: “Competence—Compassion—Reasonableness, moderation, and thoughtfulness—Strength.” This is a telling mixture of what are really only acquired skills, such as competence, and qualities of a man’s soul, such as compassion and strength, which not even every saint has always been able to find in himself. The attributes which Carter was urged to display—“Integrity, sincerity, openness, intelligence, steadiness and common-man touch.”—are less ambitious. Yet one wonders what a politician does before a mirror to practice openness, to strike a pose of steadiness, to emit intelligence like a glowworm. 

For the answer we have only to follow the instructions further. Reagan was told: “Compassion is most easily communicated by referring to situations during the course of campaign experience.” (Who told Lincoln how to “communicate”—for that is the crucial word—compassion in his Second Inaugural?)

Turning to the debate itself, we see that the man who would be Prince had mastered his lessons. Asked what he would do about urban blight and poverty, well-groomed Reagan followed his trainer’s advice: “I stood in the South Bronx on the exact spot that President Carter stood on in 1977. You have to see it to believe it…”; and so on, in an extended and rehearsed image from which he milked all the compassion needed to move a prime-time electorate of crocodiles to tears. But the incumbent Prince scarcely came up to scratch with his weak rejoinder: “When I was campaigning in 1976,” Carter said, “everywhere I went the mayors and officials were in despair.” 

Reagan was also told: “Emphasize strength and decisiveness while avoiding stridency. Anderson’s stridency hurt him in the previous debate.” The lion shouldn’t roar. His advisers were clearly worried about the “stridency” he had sometimes exhibited in impromptu statements as well as in his old radio broadcasts. He was instructed that he might “show righteous indignation” in only two contexts, and then: “Looking directly at Carter in such instances may be very effective. This not only causes Carter’s strategy to backfire, but also makes you appear strong and in control.” Even more emphatically: “Let Carter set the attack tone of the debate. Attempt to equal—but not surpass—his tone.” And again: “Remaining in control—composed—Presidential—is an absolute must.” He was also urged to use “disarming humor” to meet attacks by Carter, and to “build rapport and trust with the electorate”; or as James A. Baker III phrased it, to display “humor and a confident smile.” 

On the other side of the fence, Patrick Caddell in his memorandum was warning Carter: “I’m sure the Reagan people expect us to go right after him—direct, tough, mean. Reagan will be prepared to deflect these....” He warned in capital letters: “IT IS IMPOSSIBLE BOTH TO LOOK PRESIDENTIAL AND TO CHASE REAGAN.” Caddell was emphatic on this: “We do not want to try and ‘nail Reagan down’ on specifics….There is a temptation to pin Reagan down by firing direct challenges at him.” The main Carter briefing book gave the same warnings, by examining Reagan’s methods in previous debates: “He uses conversational [answers] effectively…to make his own points without sounding shrill or harsh”; “He occasionally injects a light touch…., including some self-deprecating humor”; “He is very disarming, always general.” Yet on the previous page, the briefing book had told Carter: “You may want to use the technique of challenging Reagan”; and it provided thirteen (unlucky number!) examples of how sentences may be begun: “I challenge Governor Reagan to deny/name/tell us/explain/be specific about….” These are set out like the simplest models in a third-grade grammar. 

Once again, let’s turn from the primers to the debate itself and watch the Princes performing. Reagan displayed disarming humor from his opening remark in answer to the first question: “I don’t know what the differences might be, because I don’t know what Mr. Carter’s policies are. I do know what he has said about mine.” There, in the first minute, he had established the idea that Carter was mean and unfair. The humor came again on the unlikely subject of international terrorism: “Well, Barbara, you’ve asked that question twice. I think you ought to have at least one answer.” But as everyone remembers, the main use of this weapon came when Carter, on the issue of national health insurance, did precisely what Caddell had warned against. He ended his reply with words which sounded like a sneer: “Governor Reagan, again, typically, is against such a proposal,” and the way was open for Reagan’s most devastatingly disarming reply: “There you go again [laughter],” which of course won the audience. 

Carter’s talents on stage were worse but it must be said that his briefing material was inferior as well—judged by none too high standards. There are moments in reading all three of these elaborate briefing books when one has to pinch oneself, to recall that they were addressed to two grown-up men who were seeking to be President of the United States.

Drawing by Vint Lawrence for The New Republic

What the books show is not only a profound, malignant contempt for politics, for democracy, for the electors, but a deep condescension toward and disrespect for the candidates themselves. No opponent or critic of either man could think them to be such fools as their advisers take them to be. They do not have to suspend disbelief to put their candidates on the screen. They do not believe that their men ever exist outside their manipulation of them. What they are teaching their Princes is what they should have learned from Dick and Jane readers or, in Reagan’s case, from McGuffey’s First Reader. “Use catch phrases which people can remember,” Carter was told, and the authors of the briefing book promised, “We will provide them to you.” As an example they suggested this formula: “Kemp-Roth is a ‘rich man’s tax cut which would flood the country with dollars as fast as the printing presses could print them.’” That’s a catch phrase? It’s more of a tongue twister. Yet, sure enough, in the debate Carter three times spoke of “the Reagan-Kemp-Roth proposal” and its inflationary pressures. How many millions the next day went round saying catchily to their friends: “How about that Reagan-Kemp-Roth proposal! …”

Only a little less unsettling are the handwritten injunctions to Reagan at the top of various sections: “KNOW GENERALLY.” These sections are “Health Care”; “Arms Control/SALT”; and “Relations with the Soviet Union.” On these three subjects, apparently, the candidate could skip his lessons. He need only “know generally” about them. So is the Prince now treated as a pupil whose mind should not be stretched—and sometimes should be disguised. “DO NOT USE” warn some handwritten marginal notes in the Reagan briefing book. Do not, for example, make a reference to Carter’s position on Taiwan, the authors instruct, or to a Carter protest against the “racist” bombing of Vietnam villages: both of them points of which Reagan had made much in the past.

The most persistent advice given to Carter was that he should emphasize “what you have learned as President….The next four years will be better because of the unique learning experience you have acquired,” No advice could have been more disastrous. One of the worst impressions which Carter had given as President was that he had been learning on the job, and that like a Baptist Sunday School teacher he was proud of this humbling “learning experience.” Yet in his first reply in the debate, he followed the precepts of the briefing book: “I have had to make thousands of decisions since I’ve been President, serving in the Oval Office. And with each one of those decisions that affect the future of my country, I have learned in the process. I think I’m a much wiser and more experienced man.” In his closing statement, he reiterated: “…each one of those decisions has been a learning process.” What he was doing was throwing away any advantage which his experience in office might have given him: by his repeated emphases, he was giving the impression that he was still learning. Similarly, the briefing book had told him to stress that Reagan did not “understand the complexities” of the country’s problems. This was bad advice anyhow, bound to sound like a superior sniff, but it came out as “I’ve also learned that there are no simple answers to complicated questions”—making Carter again the slow learner.

 Carter was also urged several times to capitalize on Reagan’s statements that he relied on “experts” by saying that eventually the President must be the “expert.” Again, one wonders how the courtiers of this particular Prince could give such bad advice. One of the main criticisms of his Presidency was that he lost sight of the big picture in trying to make himself an expert on details. Yet in the debate he resorted to this tactic. “…the chances are the experts will be divided almost 50-50. And the final judgment….has to be made by the man in the Oval Office. It’s a lonely job.” In other words, only he was to blame, whereas Reagan, when he spoke of expert advice, left his experts exposed, but not himself.

 A whole section in the Carter briefing book was devoted to “SACRIFICE.” (After four years in office, appealing for sacrifice is unwise.) But what is interesting is that in the model answer to the test question on this theme. Carter was instructed to say: “I have asked the American people to make some sacrifices over the past four years and they have responded well.” In the debate itself, he stated: “Yes, we have demanded that the American people sacrifice, and they’ve done very well.” Reagan had no difficulty in meeting this: “…he has blamed the people for inflation, …he has then accused the people of living too well, and that we must share in scarcity; we must sacrifice and get used to doing with less.” Yet the trap for Carter had been laid in his own briefing book.

The question inevitably arises at this point: is there evidence in the Reagan briefing materials that the possession of the Carter briefing books was useful to the Reagan camp? The answer is yes. The Reagan volume opens with two memoranda from Richard Wirthlin, dated October 21 and 24, and one from James A. Baker, dated October 24, four days before the debate. These are followed by a section of five pages which are in manner and typescript—one can tell even from the Xerox—quite unlike any of the other sections which follow. This section is called “LIKELY CARTER ATTACK LINES,” and is divided into two parts: “Carter Attacks” and “RR Flip-Flops.” No one who has read the Carter briefing book can have much doubt that this section of Reagan’s book was written by people who had also read the Carter materials. In fact, their clear, clean summary of “Carter Attack Lines” is almost identical with the one I made as I read his briefing book, and very similar indeed to the original itself—the list of attacks and flip-flops follows exactly the same order. Moreover, there is some other internal textual evidence of plagiarism. This section entitled “LIKELY CARTER ATTACK LINES” comprises the only pages in the Reagan briefing book which have not been underlined or otherwise marked by someone on the campaign staff.

The advisers who told Reagan to “Be Yourself” also told him what of himself he should not show. Having instructed him to concentrate on Carter’s incompetence and his own compassion, they say abruptly: “Neither position can be reinforced when the Governor defends past positions,” Again, the Republican and conservative candidate is warned: “It is extremely important to avoid references to ‘Republicans and Democrats’ or ‘I am a conservative,’ because ticket-splitters are nonpartisans who are put-off by these words.” Still later, in the section on women’s issues, he is instructed: “Do not reiterate abortion position.” Carter got the opposite advice. He was told to emphasize that he was a Democrat, that Reagan was a Republican, and that the differences between them were deep. There is no need to quote from the transcript of the debate to show how both candidates followed the advice of their briefing books. Reagan contrived to appeal above party to the ticket-splitters and even disaffected Democrats; Carter again and again fell back on the party labels and sharpened differences instead of bridging them.

So one could go on, combing these dreary manuals for our political leaders. How much should we be dismayed by them? On the first page of the Reagan briefing book, he is told: “Our advantage lies in the fact that you are the best electronic media candidate in history.” Caddell’s memorandum to Carter takes up the theme: “Reagan is an actor....After all, he is an actor.” From this, he deduced the wrong advice: “Whatever the veneer, [Reagan] will go into the beginning of this debate nervous, even scared.” Really? There were no signs of stage fright, from his first disarming sentences right through to the end. In fact as the debate went on, it confirmed the abrupt, brutal prediction in the Reagan briefing book that Carter “will likely appear bleached out and tense.” But in precisely the comparisons which I have been using in this paragraph lie the most ominous message of these works. Even as one reads them, one begins to accept their standards, their tests, the qualifications which they think make a good, salable Prince.

For four hundred and fifty years Machiavelli’s advice to his Prince has been open to widely different interpretations. Certain of its qualities, however, are indisputable. Machiavelli expected a great deal of the Prince. He was to unify fractious Italy, no less, to prevent further anarchy and war. He might be modeled on Cesare Borgia: he might be an amoral and calculating tyrant. But at least Machiavelli found some majesty in the work which a people’s governors must do. The Princes in these briefing books are stripped of all majesty, and so, necessarily, are the votes which are being invited from the people. The advice given to the Prince here is calculating and amoral—but to no end other than the deceiving of a nation. He is taught to be foxy, indeed; but is held back from being a lion. These are scripts for our age: the Prince in drag.