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Ronald Reagan Centennial

Covering Ronald Reagan: Up Close, but Not Personal

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Scenes from eight years of trying to figure out the most elusive personality I ever covered in politics:

November 1979, aboard a maiden flight of Ronald Reagan's chartered campaign plane sometime after his announcement in New York that he was running for president.

Reporters from several prestigious national publications are on board, in addition to the "regulars" who had been assigned to the campaign for the duration. Several have scored interviews with the candidate and, one by one, each is ushered to the front of the plane for a strictly timed 20-minute visit.

As the first Titan of Journalism returns to his seat after his séance with Reagan, other reporters ask him if he got good stuff.

The Titan of Journalism nods with a Cheshire Cat grin, "Oh, we didn't talk about politics," leaving the tantalizing impression that Reagan, in their allotted time together, had opened up to him with stories that trumped the presidential horse race or any mundane issues of the day.

I read the article the next day. It was filled with anecdotes, including Reagan's account of how he became hard of hearing when a fellow actor, during the filming of one of the movies in which he played Secret Service agent Brass Bancroft, discharged a .38-caliber pistol too close to his right ear.

As a student of everything written about Reagan by his incomparable biographer, Lou Cannon, I knew that this, plus other stories in the piece, were ones Reagan had told innumerable times.

April 1980, a butcher shop in Philadelphia's "Little Italy" during the Republican primary campaign in Pennsylvania, a state Reagan would subsequently lose to George H.W. Bush.

Enter Ronald Reagan, with the press pool and coterie of news photographers. The butcher, a short, animated man, is overwhelmed with excitement about his visitor. In his enthusiasm, he had tacked up links of sausages on a board to spell the name "Reagan." Reagan goes to pose with the butcher and sausage placard, a smile on his face, with his head characteristically cocked to the right.

Silence as everyone waits for the candidate to say something to his eager host.

Seconds pass . . . a minute? Hard to remember, but whichever it was, it seemed like a long time. Finally, a photographer, kneeling in front of Reagan, the sausage board and the butcher, says, "Well, Governor, I guess this is the meat of the campaign."

[Pause].

Reagan (with a bob of the head): "Well, as this fellow over here said, I guess this is the meat of the campaign."

July 1980, Rancho del Cielo, the Reagans' ranch north of Santa Barbara, Calif.

I was desperate. As a reporter assigned to cover the Reagan campaign for the New York Daily News, I was expected to do a major piece on Reagan as the Republican National Convention approached. I wracked my brain for something I could find -- the littlest scrap or descriptive detail -- that had not been written about innumerable times.

Reagan was up at his beloved ranch (beloved by him, not by Nancy) where reporters were rarely allowed. But I heard that the campaign had arranged for news photographers to go there for a photo op before the Republican convention in Detroit. I got aboard one of the vans with them, and no one stopped me, and we arrived at the ranch after some stomach-wrenching turns on the narrow road high up the mountain.

Reagan and Nancy give the pack of photographers (and this intruder) a tour of the modest ranch house. We're in the living room, and I am still scrambling for some detail -- any fresh detail -- I could find. I started scribbling down the names of the books that were on the shelves of the living room wall. Bound copies of "Arizona Highways," (kind of a National Geographic of Arizona). Political novels by Allen Drury.

I felt someone looking at me. It was Nancy. She was staring at me with that clenched-teeth smile which, I'm guessing, indicated that my curiosity did not please her.

"Governor, I notice you have a lot of Allen Drury books," I asked. "Which one is your favorite?"

Reagan smiles, bobs his head.

[Pause]

Nancy: "We like them all."

[Pause]

Reagan: "We like them all."

* * * *

These scenes might look like an effort to diminish the man Ronald Reagan was, but that's not the purpose. I remember them because, as someone who covered Reagan during all but his last year in the Oval Office, I was always struck by the difference between his public persona – projecting a warm and friendly, outgoing, almost grandfatherly figure to many Americans – and how remote he seemed to be up close, a man to whom small talk -- those passing conversations that have some spontaneity or unpredictability -- did not come easily, or at all.

Who was Ronald Reagan, not just as a president, but a person? It's not something by which to measure the success or failure of a presidency, but given the small, elite group who have held that office, it's hard to resist wanting to find some grip on the man, and there was hardly a day during the time I covered him that this question did not come to mind. I never found the answer.

I occasionally covered Jimmy Carter when he was the Democratic nominee, and I saw how a tough question in an informal setting could goad him into an extemporaneous and, in one instance that I remember, an impromptu, heartfelt monologue about what it was like to make a career as a politician with progressive beliefs in the segregated South. (He also got visibly angry during a pickup softball game in his hometown of Plains, Ga. when I was on his team and choked on a throw to first base. He gathered himself on the mound for a moment, then turned to me with a flash of icy blue eyes and said, "Should have thrown it, third baseman.")

During his run for president, George H.W. Bush would amble back to the reporter section of the press charter, and plop himself down in a seat and chew the fat (something that, on one occasion, alarmed me when I was sitting next to the window, feeling queasy after something I ate, and he blocked me in by taking the aisle seat). When he was Reagan's vice president, he would come down to the upper press office and chat. Bill Clinton may have not been fond of reporters, but there was no mistaking his drives (intellectual and otherwise) or his quickness to hold forth at the slightest invitation. The younger George Bush not only knew reporters' names; he had nicknames for them.

But Reagan was a different case, except probably for his small circle of intimate friends. This is where his trove of stories and memories served him well (or not so well in some instances). I was reminded of the books I read about Homer, and the story-tellers of his age, who were able to recite "Iliad"-length narratives because they had in their memory a reservoir of set pieces that could be stitched together. Whatever the encounter, there was always a story to plug into the occasion.

When Reagan's close aide, Michael Deaver, left the White House in 1985, there was a farewell party for him in the Rose Garden to which some reporters who had covered Reagan for a long time were invited. A few of us had gathered around Reagan and although I no longer remember what we were talking about, I almost felt we were at the cusp of a real conversation.

Unfortunately, a then well-known political columnist cheerily asked Reagan, "Mr. President, wasn't there a time when you were announcing baseball games on the radio . . . "

I managed not to groan aloud. Not missing a beat, Reagan animatedly launched into the story that he must have told hundreds of times about his stint as a Chicago Cubs announcer for an Iowa radio station when he had to re-create road trip games by following the action via ticker tape. During one game, the wire went dead just as Reagan said the pitch was coming to the plate. The rest of the conversation was his account of buying time by having the batter fouling off pitches. "I did set a world record for successive fouls," Reagan would say in recounting the tale. (The punch line to the story was that when the wire came back to life, it turned out the batter had popped out on the first pitch.)

Sometimes these set pieces could land Reagan in trouble, when they became ingrained in his memory. My bureau chief at the time, the late Lars-Erik Nelson, was struck by a story that Reagan told in a speech to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society -- a story that he had used on more than one occasion -- about the captain of a B-17 during World War II whose plane had been hit and, unable to free a trapped ball-turret gunner from his seat, told him, "Never mind son, we'll ride it down together."

"Congressional Medal of Honor, posthumously awarded," Reagan would say dramatically.

Except that Lars could not find any account matching that after checking the 434 citations for Congressional Medals of Honor issued up to that time. A reader wrote to Lars, saying that the story resembled a scene in the 1944 movie "A Wing and a Prayer," starring Dana Andrews, in which the pilot of a Navy torpedo bomber rode the stricken plane down with his wounded radioman and said, "We'll take this ride together." Lars also followed a lead that the story came from a Reader's Digest article that recounted another, similar incident, but which the author was not able to verify. (Reagan was an avid reader of The Digest, but Lou Cannon noted that the disclaimer about the story's accuracy had been omitted in the magazine's abridged version).

I interviewed Reagan several times as a candidate and during his presidency. But those were not settings conducive to producing revelations or great insights, and as a young reporter, I made the mistake of asking grand policy questions in hopes of procuring a major headline, even though those were the very kinds of questions for which any president (or candidate) usually has an arsenal of stock answers.

The closest I came to a real conversation with Reagan was in 1982, when I was recovering at home from surgery. White House Press Secretary Larry Speakes had Reagan call me. (After the White House operator asked me to hold, I had a brief crisis as I tried to decide whether this was a prank by my fellow reporters in the press room, who would be standing around the speakerphone of the young Reagan aide who did a spot-on imitation, while I made an obsequious fool of myself. I prepared a somewhat risqué one-liner for when "the president" came on the line, but in the end, decided I couldn't chance it.)

The scene needs setting: At the time, Reagan was being peppered with criticism about his work habits and number of vacation trips, so his aides girded for another round when it was announced he was planning a trip to Barbados, where he was going to stay at an oceanfront cottage and drop in on his old Hollywood friend, actress Claudette Colbert. After the trip was announced, aides invited leaders of five Caribbean nations to meet Reagan there to give it the gloss of a working trip. (It actually turned out to be one. Steven Weisman, then the New York Times White House correspondent wrote, "The White House staff outdid itself. Mr. Reagan was so visibly exhausted after the first two grueling days of meetings in Jamaica and Barbados that he seemed to need desperately the relaxation that had been the reason for coming here in the first place.")

So Reagan came on the telephone line. He asked me how I was, and I said I was still sore but getting better. Then he asked me how I was again. A pause. I tried a joke that fell flat. I had no idea what to say next, and I don't think he did either.

My memory of the way the call ended -- and, hopefully, this is not my own version of a tale that has morphed in my mind over time -- was that it did produce one small moment of surprise.

"Are you coming to Barbados with us next week?" Reagan asked.

"I don't think so, Mr. President," I said. "I still don't feel up to working."

"Oh, no," said Reagan, seemingly unmindful of the best efforts of his staff. "It's not work. It's a vacation."

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102 Comments

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rbergstrom

During the 8 yrs of the Reagan Presidency the national debt went up an average of about 150 billion a year due to the vast expanse of the military to offset the Soviet buildup. This is one of the reasons that the Soviet Empire collapsed. Obama has run up the debt more then this in less then two years. Obama will eventually bankrupt the country if his socialistic tendencies are not opposed.

February 06 2011 at 2:04 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
davidv825

Bottom line Reagan, Bush jr broke the country taking care of the rich and using religion to stay in office for 8 years they both shoud have went to jail. Clinton was the greatest president of all time if you look at everyones pay poor , middle class, rich made more money than anytime in the years he was in office. Reagan more people lost jobs and pay the same with Bush Jr. With this trickle down cut tax for the rich system never trickle down to the middle and poor people. Disgrace to use religion the way they ran there presidency

February 06 2011 at 4:51 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
James

Reagan was the quintessential American.

February 06 2011 at 3:38 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
good mourning

regan was a good president . he believed that people were inheartly good . and we are . some of us do make some bad mistakes . but most of us do the best we can . this he knew . this is what i miss . most politicians now waunt us to be at eachouther all the time . clinton started this in his admisistration to segrigate and secure votes based on what he would do for them to get elected , more than any president . now mr. oboma is tring the same thing . lets just get back to regans view , that we are all good and try to get along as such . and not let the goverment try to run our lives . we have 635 reps and senators that cant balance a budget , quit spending money on projects that are not of national security . which in his time that was not the case to the extent like now . he was a great leader in so many ways .

February 06 2011 at 12:37 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
ghawk55

reagan is the perfect conservative pitch man. He was strictly hollywood "B" movie. He was a democrat, president of a union. that changed his image which ever way the wind blew. His whole legacy is like a hollywood prop, there's a store front to a town but nothing behind it. He ended the cold war? Yet there are still thousands of russian missles pointed at the USA. He was a caring grandfatherly type? That said "Well, Heh Heh I guess some folks like to sleep on heating vents." He freed the hostages in Iran? But then sold the same people advanced weapons. Then took the money and financed a secret war the American people didn't want. He's known as a tax cutter. But he actually added more taxes than any president since. The only reason I can figure he wasn't impeached for lying about Iran contra. Is everyone felt sorry for a bumbling old man that couldn't remember if he tied his shoes.

February 06 2011 at 12:09 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
vnotes12

As an Independent, I just want a good president and feel open minded when someone of interst comes along. I believe Reagan was the right president for his time as was Clinton.

February 05 2011 at 11:42 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
davidv825

Bill Clinton was the best president if you played the stock market and had a 401k when he was in office. He saved the country from going broke and balanced the budget.And had money for the next president and had 100 billion reserve for social security.

February 05 2011 at 11:11 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to davidv825's comment
rbletch4

davidv825 take a civics class. The only reason "Clinton" had a balanced budget is because the Republicans in Congress sent passed on and sent it to him. He often proposed more spending on programs he wanted but the Congress kept the spending in check. So give credit where credit is due.

February 05 2011 at 11:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
good mourning

he was at the right place at a good time . i did play the market then , i got out of the market because of some of his policies . to where i did nt loose anything . most of his policices caused the crash on his leaving office . i saw it comming and bailed in time . and his policies also had the direct effect of the overinflated housing market , and the crash in 2008. i saw it comming there aswell . its like throwing gas on a fire you get a big sudden flash of power then its gone with ashes . i warned my brother in law in 2004 he sold his real estate co . in 2006 and bought rental properties . good investment now though .

February 06 2011 at 12:44 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
jgaines519

I was a teacher in Palm Spring and was picking up a friend from the local airport.
The year was 1963. The airport was very small in those days. I was shocked to see a lady named Lucille Steck, meeting Ronald Regan the actor. The two drove away together. Lucille Steck had come to my school and opened my car, which was unlocked and helped herself to flyers I had picked up at a Martin Luther King Rally in Los Angeles. She proceeded to take the papers to the next school board meeting and hold them aloft, saying they were from my automobile and that I should be fired for being a Communist. Steck and a local physician, Marion Cosgrove were at our school every day with demands that several teacher be fired because they were Communist. So I was very interested in the 'chummy' feelings that Reagan and Steck portrayed on that Palm Spring morning,1963.

February 05 2011 at 11:08 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
bruharris

I wonder why it is that, on the hundredth anniversary of Ronald Reagan's brith, you (AOL) still seem to have to publish opinions that slight him. You still are so afraid of his ideas, and his effect on the nation, that you can't even give him credit for any of his accomplishments.

Even President Obama is now telling people that he's "Reaganesque." The left is trying to say that he's REALLY like Ronald Reagan. Yet the reporting on AOL is uniformly by people who are trying to diminish him, and diminish his accomplishments.

You wonder why people no longer take the mainstream media seriously. Well, here's a case in point: you on the left are one-dimensional in your dismissiveness of anyone who is, or was, a conservative, regardless of their accomplishments. You resort to ad hominem attacks, because you know that you can't counter the arguments of those who oppose you.

Keep it up, left-wingers. The more you try to ignore the conservative side of things, the more that reasonable people will see you for what your are: people who attack the person because you are unable to debate the ideas.

As President Reagan once said about the Soviet Union, which now applies to the liberal/socialist philosophy, "The march of freedom and democracy will leave Marxism and Leninism on the ash heap of history."

You have no leg upon which to stand. Your ideas are tyrannical, and your control of the media is a thing of the past. Enjoy your vilification of one of our greatest presidents, because your disdain will be the springboard that will awaken our citizenry and allow us to regain our freedom and liberties.

February 05 2011 at 10:43 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to bruharris's comment
shecky

I was just wondering what freedom and which liberties we have lost?

February 05 2011 at 11:16 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
kingcharles2000

I don't understand how people talk of Reaganlike hew was a great president. Hewas the Wizard of Oz a projection of something that did not exist. A facade of a false Americana. He was not smart and seemed to be out of touch in intimate settings. His own Son and Biographer have said that it was difficult to find the human being in him.

February 05 2011 at 10:39 PM Report abuse -8 rate up rate down Reply

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