Covering Ronald Reagan: Up Close, but Not Personal

bruce-drake

Bruce Drake

Contributing Editor
Posted:
02/4/11
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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