Politics & Policy

Little Memories

Remembering Ronald Reagan.

Q: You knew him well, right? Even back when he was still a Democrat?

A: Yes. It happened one night. It was his job to introduce me, as the evening’s speaker, to a group of California doctors. He acted like a gymnast out of Barnum and Bailey. The control room for the loudspeakers had been left locked. Nobody could find the janitor. So he cat-walked above the traffic to the window of the control room and smashed it open with his elbow, turning on the juice, the show must go on. Nice preview of Reagan, policymaker.

Q: You became friends and stayed friends, right?

A: Right again. He befriended people, as his volume of letters attests, all the time, and kept up with his friends through letters and other communications. Last week I heard from Mrs. Alistair Cooke, the widow of the British Mr. America, that she really “hated” Reagan until she read those letters. And that volume came out only a couple of years ago.

Q: How was it when there was disagreement?

A: It was sometimes vigorous, but never sundering. For instance, he was opposed to ratifying the Panama Canal Treaty, and we debated the subject for two hours on television, each of us with illustrious assistants. We punched each other pretty hard. A couple of months later I was scheduled for dinner at his home in Bel Air. He got me on the telephone: “Drive slowly up the drive, real slow.” I did–and came upon, every twenty yards, huge hand-drawn signs: “WE BUILT IT.” “WE PAID FOR IT.” “IT’S OURS!”

Q: Did he offer you a job when he became president?

A: Yes/No. I had written him during the campaign that I didn’t want a job. He answered back that he was disappointed: “I’ve had it in mind to appoint you ambassador to Afghanistan.” Big joke, the Soviet Union having just taken over there. But in correspondence thereafter he always referred to me as “Mr. Ambassador,” and the week before leaving the White House he wrote to commend me on the Soviet withdrawal–”and you did it,” he wrote, “without leaving Kabul for a minute.” Good-humored fantasies played long with Ronald Reagan.

Q: Did he ever call you to express any special frustration?

A: Yes. One day, half way through his term of office, he called and said he had seen criticism all his life and understood it, but what he had read just now, printed in the National Catholic Reporter, was a bit much, an article by Alden Whitman which said that “President Reagan is bringing fascism to America as certainly as Mussolini did to Italy.”

I told him the Catholic bishop in Kansas City was suing the National Catholic Reporter to make it remove the word “Catholic” from its logo, since the weekly had no connection with the Church. And I told him that Whitman, who wrote obituaries for the New York Times, had taken the Fifth Amendment when asked if he was a member of the Communist Party.

He said that information made him feel a whole lot better.

Q: When did you know he was sick? When he announced the Alzheimer’s in his public letter?

A: No, I suspected it six months earlier. What happened was that Brent Bozell, my nephew and head of the Media Research Center, came to see me. He said that the public in Washington hadn’t really had an opportunity to express their thanks to Reagan for what he had done over eight years as president. He had an idea: to conduct a huge Reagan Rally in RFK Stadium and have it teeming with people. But only Rush Limbaugh could bring that size crowd together.

I called Rush. He came over, thought about it, and said “It will be great, and I can guarantee you sold-out attendance!”

Though it was to be a surprise event, I needed the okay of Mrs. Reagan, and I called her. I was astonished to hear her say, “Ronnie is simply not up to it.” That meant to me that he was truly ailing. In the good old days that would have been simply one more evening’s event.

Q: Did you see him when he was sick?

A: No, I never even suggested it. The last time we met was when he did two Firing Line programs back-to-back promoting his autobiography, after which we lunched at his house in Bel Air with Nancy and Ron.

Q: Was he absolutely normal?

A: No. His wit and incisiveness were a little less than par. I attributed this to a little deafness, to which he was gradually accommodating.

Q: Did you have the sense of being in touch?

A: Yes. That was 14 years ago, but he has always been a part of my life and of my political faith.


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