This article appeared in the Australian 12 June 2004 p28

Chameleon controlled by mates

Ronald Reagan failed to convince everyone he was truly in charge
of the White House. One of the sceptics was Elisabeth Wynhausen

In May 1980, six months before Ronald Reagan was elected president, a friend in Washington took me to the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents Association. I sat next to a man by the name of Cline who run a research arm of the C I A. His eyes fixed on my cleavage, Cline proceeded to give me a lesson in realpolitik.

At the risk of being obvious, I observed that incumbent president Jimmy Carter, Reagan's Democratic opponent, was more intelligent than dozy Reagan. The CIA man shook his head. Presidents didn't have to be smart, he said. What they had to be was lucky.

No doubt he was right. Carter is largely forgotten, though he wasn't that bad a president (even if too obsessed with detail to project a comforting image). In contrast, Reagan won a place in the history books, although he was often out to lunch in the first term and eerily vacant in the second.

It later emerged that he had Alzheimer's disease and that wife, Nancy, had helped arrange his schedule and the timing of important decisions after consulting the White House astrologer. But that was hardly more startling than Reagan's own presence in the White House.

If I cast my mind back to that time, I am seized by a sense of disbelief. I covered the 1980 presidential campaign for the Australian Women's Weekly. In this improbable role I went to Baltimore for a presidential debate to hear Reagan remark that it was interesting that "abortion is advocated only by persons who have themselves been born".

It didn't mean he was against abortion, exactly. The Los Angeles Times had revealed that a commercial purportedly showing Reagan, as governor of California, signing a bill to cut taxes in the state was actually a photograph of him signing a bill to liberalise abortion. But that was in the 1970s. It was different by 1980.

Nothing if not a will-o'-the-wisp of the Zeitgeist, Reagan had a few fixed ideas but was capable of believing almost exactly what was required of him in any given situation.

I once wrote that Reagan somehow managed to invoke the past without dragging its dead weight behind him. Not long after he was elected president, his administration further limited abortions for the welfare recipients dependent on Medicaid, declaring that not even victims of rape and incest reported in 72 hours would be eligible any longer.

In its way, this small sample of punishment inflicted on the poor was typical of Reagan's first term – a period that bears some resemblance to John Howard's time in office.

In much the way what that Reagan conjured up images of, say, welfare "cheats" using their food stamps to buy vodka (a deceptive image with a coded racial component), Howard talked about "theAaboriginal industry" and "the black armband view of history".

Both used wedge politics to convince voters who feel swamped by economic and social change to blame weaker elements in the society rather than the people making the decisions.

In and article in The National Times – now defunct – a year after Reagan was elected, I observed that the Reagan administration had tackled the perennial bogies of the Republican Right, skimping on subsidised school lunches, food stamps and the like, eliminating federally funded legal aid for the poor and abolishing the work training program for deprived youth. Years later, Howard's first government did likewise to an extent, imposing a conservative style rather than its full economic substance.

While Reagan's attack on welfare pales in the light of the "welfare reform" bill President Bill Clinton signed in 1996 as he faced an election, that bill was in many ways a legacy of the Reagan era when "greed was good" and the government was run by the president's millionaire pals from California. The ideal front man for a bunch of politicians with ties to the defence industry, Reagan was used by everybody, from the bizarre born-again interior secretary James Watt to Colonel Oliver North (who sold arms to Iran and used the money to fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua). But none of it stuck to Reagan, long before he lost his memory. Lucky, I guess.

In a prescient article in Esquire magazine about the time the Republicans nominated the 69 – year – old Reagan, Gary Wills wrote: "he brings to the Right the thing it always needed – relaxation... Reagan is so patently unmalicious as he speaks for war and divisiveness that he may, indeed kill us with kindness... The wholesome hometown sort who can drop the bomb without a second thought, your basic American Harry Truman".

It has to be said it may have been this same scary thought that helped urge Soviet President me Mikhail Gorbachev to start talking a bout perestroika, particularly after Reagan dropped a casual remark about the prospect of a small nuclear war in Europe. They said the president didn't mean it. But remembering it, almost two decades later, brings another shaft of incredulity.