A very good monarch

Observations on Ronald Reagan

Not long after Ronald Reagan recovered from the attempt on his life, the Ku Klux Klan attacked a wood-frame home in suburban Washington. Half a dozen hooded figures arrived at night and lit burning crosses on the front lawn. The reason was that the house belonged to a black middle-class family, the first to move into this previously all-white neighbourhood.

By mid-morning, President Reagan was on the doorstep, his arms around the bewildered victims. No big deal was made of his gesture, but I wondered at the time how a British prime minister (or monarch) would respond to a similar event. Although Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were constantly described as political soulmates, I could not see Thatcher dashing to (say) Enfield or Purley to console victims of a racist attack. The US president has a dual role. He is head of state - the US equivalent of a monarch - as well as head of government, and Reagan, who died on 5 June at 93, was a very good monarch.

I was in the US as correspondent for the Observer, whose readers saw Reagan as a dim, jumped-up B-movie actor and a fundamentalist right-winger. They thought he must be hated by Americans who did not share his political philosophy as Thatcher was hated here. But I had watched Jimmy Carter as president. He would arrive at a press briefing on some dense and difficult subject, his face lined from lack of sleep and a vast report, which he had clearly been up half the night reading, tucked under his arm. He knew every sub-paragraph, and no journalist could trip him up. But one left unconvinced. The man was a bureaucrat in office.

Reagan would breeze in, wisecrack with reporters in the front row, brush over his ignorance of the detail with honeyed words of general good intention, and breeze out again, probably to spend his afternoon watching television. While serious specialists lamented that he lacked mastery of his brief, the evening news carried pictures of a smiling, relaxed president commending the subject at hand as if it were motherhood and apple pie.

Then, the White House was guarded not so much from the president's enemies as from his friends. The man in the Oval Office is the focal point of the American dream. If only, people imagine, we could reach him, our wrongs will be righted - our son released from jail, our brother saved from cancer. Most people caught scaling the White House perimeter fence (then at least) were seeking that arm round their shoulders that Reagan offered to the beleaguered black family.

Visiting Erie, Pennsylvania, a rust-bucket town of high unemployment, I met a redundant shipyard worker, his employed life over at 50. I expected bitterness at the gooey Reagan rhetoric about it being "morning in America" and asked what he would do if Reagan came to town. "Why, ask him in, of course." And the man's eyes lit up at the prospect of Hollywood gossip and baseball reminiscence.

I tried to imagine a similar conversation with an unemployed steelworker in Middlesbrough. Thatcher's coming; what will you do? "Lock the door and turn off the lights" would, I suspect, have summed up his answer. No relaxed chat here. Just the promise of a hectoring session, when the steel man would be told to get on his bike and stop whingeing. When I did return to Britain, I found people in our rust-bucket towns who hated Thatcher so much that they said (and meant it) that, given the opportunity, they would shoot her.

I have often wondered whether the Reagan style could work here. Tony Blair tries it with his "I'm a pretty straight sort of guy" line, but somehow it doesn't come out right, despite the open-necked shirts and neatly pressed jeans. He simply looks patronising and ingratiating. Reagan was one of a kind. Much though I disliked his core politics, I felt a pang when I learned he had died. In the US in the 1980s it was hard not to be touched - as were the black family in the suburbs and the worker in Erie - with something of the Reagan magic.