Reagan's first term began dramatically. He later recalled that, as he stood to take the oath of office on 20 January 1981 on the West Front of the Capitol (the first president ever to do so), "the sun burst through the clouds in an explosion of warmth and light." A much more important symbol of change, however, was Iran's decision to release the fifty remaining American hostages at almost the moment of the swearing in; Reagan was able to announce the news at a luncheon just after the ceremony, as Jimmy Carter, who had negotiated the release in the last hours of his presidency, was flying home to Georgia.
Two other dramatic events punctuated Reagan's first months in office, both of them important in shaping the powerful image he quickly came to assume in the imagination of many Americans. On 30 March, as the president left a Washington hotel after delivering a speech, he was shot in the chest by John Hinckley, Jr., a deranged young man (later found not guilty by reason of insanity) who had been waiting in the crowd outside. Rushed to the hospital, Reagan joked with the surgeons as they wheeled him into the operating room. "I hope you're all Republicans," he reportedly said. He left the hospital eleven days later; and the White House staff arranged a series of carefully crafted public appearances that convinced most Americans that he had recovered from his wounds with remarkable speed. In fact, his injuries were serious, and he followed a sharply curtailed schedule for several months. Disguising that fact was the first of many successes by Reagan's skillful media advisers.
Four months later, on 3 August, thirteen thousand air traffic controllers (members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, or PATCO, a union that had supported Reagan in 1980) walked off their jobs. The controllers were federal employees and, by law, forbidden to strike; but their leader, Robert Poli, believed that their ability to shut down the nation's airports would intimidate the administration into accepting their demands. On the advice of Drew Lewis, the new secretary of transportation, Reagan refused to negotiate with the strikers. He gave the controllers forty-eight hours to return to work and then fired those who did not. The government hastily hired replacements, and the disruption of air traffic was brief. The strike was, as Reagan recalled in his memoirs, "an important juncture for our new administration. I think it convinced people who
The assassination attempt and the PATCO strike, critical as they were to shaping the new president's image, were unexpected events. Much more important to his political successes were the everyday efforts of the administration to capitalize on Reagan's engaging personality and make it, and not his sometimes harsh policies, the defining feature of his presidency. Schooled by years in Hollywood, Reagan was a master of self-presentation. He was the most gifted public speaker to occupy the presidency in a generation, and a talented staff of speechwriters ensured that his State of the Union addresses, his televised statements on important events, and ultimately his speeches during his reelection campaign in 1984 were suffused with emotional symbols and powerful, patriotic imagery; statements that would have seemed stilted and in-authentic from a less talented speaker became exhilarating oratory when Reagan spoke them.
Reagan turned seventy years old a few weeks after his inauguration. From his first day in office, he was the oldest man ever to serve as president, and his age was almost certainly an important factor in the way he governed. He worked relatively short hours, sometimes dozed off in meetings, and spent more time on vacations than any president in generations. But through most of his eight years in the White House, Reagan managed to appear energetic, resilient, even youthful—an image his outwardly rapid recovery from the 1981 shooting did much to reinforce. Later, his staff ensured that even his many vacations would seem evidence of his vigor. The most prominent images of Reagan at leisure consisted of pictures of him riding horses and chopping wood at his Santa Barbara ranch.
The principal figures on Reagan's White House staff were James A. Baker III, Edwin Meese III, and Michael K. Deaver. For the first four years of his presidency, they formed a tightly knit triumvirate that ran the daily workings of the White House. They carefully cultivated sympathetic members of Congress of both parties and thus had much to do with the president's early legislative successes. Perhaps more significant, they understood the political importance of the president's image; and they worked energetically, and often brilliantly, to craft that image. They carefully planned the president's every public appearance, chose appropriate backdrops, worked to shape media coverage of him, and tried above all to insulate him from situations where he might speak spontaneously. (Reagan's unscripted remarks were often ill-considered; and when the staff failed to prevent them, it often had to spend considerable energy limiting the political damage they caused.) They received important assistance in their efforts from Nancy Reagan. Her public role in the administration was limited, mostly traditional, and highly social; among other things, she brought a new level of opulence and ceremony to the White House. Privately, however, she was very active and very powerful in shaping public perception of her husband. At times, she played a major role in more substantive decisions as well.
Reagan's enforced absence from the daily business of the White House after his attempted assassination established a pattern that continued in many ways well beyond his convalescence. He was never very interested in, or very well informed about, the details of governance; and his public statements often revealed a startling ignorance of his own policies and the actions of his subordinates. Just as he had while governor of California, he preferred to leave specific decisions to his advisers and to ratify compromises that they forged without him. Just as in California, he reveled in the ceremonial aspects of his job. And just as in California, he rigidly adhered to the daily schedule—a copy of which was neatly typed each day and placed on his desk in a silver frame—and rarely deviated from it. He took great pleasure in checking off meetings and events as he moved through the day.
Many critics of the president, and even some of his own advisers writing later in their memoirs, considered Reagan shockingly aloof from the business of government, a figurehead who played no more than a symbolic role in his own administration. They cited his fondness for anecdotes, his self-deprecating humor, his tendency to tell irrelevant Hollywood stories, and his frequent citation of fictional episodes in his own, or the nation's, past as if they were true; and they argued that together, they revealed a basic lack of interest in, even an unfitness for, his job. But others, including Reagan himself, insisted that he was highly effective in his most important task: establishing broad themes for his administration and keeping his subordinates focused on them despite the immediate pressures of politics. "It was striking how often we on the staff would become highly agitated by the latest news bulletins," one of Reagan's aides later recalled. "Reagan saw the same events as nothing more than a bump in the road; things would get better tomorrow. His horizons were just not the same as ours."
Reagan was, he insisted, more than the Great Communicator (as he was often described)—more than simply a gifted speaker, although he knew that his oratorical skills, and even his avuncular charm as a storyteller, did much to burnish his image and insulate him from criticism. His most important achievement, he insisted, was not how he communicated, but what. He spoke, he said, of "great things," and his words and actions helped the nation move along a fundamentally new course, a course in which he deeply believed and from which he tried not to waver. His most important legacy, he believed, would transcend the particulars of policy. It would be to convince Americans "to believe in themselves again." And for a time, at least, he seemed to succeed in that goal.