DES MOINES, IOWA–I wouldn’t trade my grandmother for anyone. But if I had to, I couldn’t do better than Margaret McDonald of Iowa City, Iowa. After hearing her speak at the Republican convention in Des Moines Friday evening, I approached her and extended my hand. She didn’t so much shake it as grasp it warmly, a wonderful, broad smile appearing on her face as I proposed my story idea. She is kind, glowing, and sunny, exactly the type of person you would expect to have known Ronald Reagan personally.
In the early 1940s Margaret went to business school in Iowa. After graduating she joined the civil service, working at an Army-Air Force base in Des Moines. In 1944, at the coaxing of her sister, she and a friend emigrated to Santa Monica, Calif., where she renewed her civil-service standing and went for a placement interview. The interviewer informed her that she would be working at the Culver City Army-Air Force base as secretary to Ronald Reagan. “The Ronald Reagan?” she replied incredulously. “Well, you can imagine,” Margaret now exclaims, “I was thrilled to pieces!”
At the time Reagan was the personnel officer of the Army-Air Force Motion Picture Unit. On her first day of work, she introduced herself to Reagan as “Margaret.” “Margaret,” Reagan said, “I’m going to call you Peg.” She never bothered to ask Reagan why he chose that nickname for her. “I was too nervous to ask,” she recalls.
“Reagan was so nice,” she remembers, “just so amiable and easy to talk to.” She also reminisces about the one and only time she took a phone call from Reagan’s then wife, Jane Wyman. “Is the Cahhptain in?” Wyman asked in an aristocratic tone.
Margaret worked for Reagan for a year, until he was promoted to adjutant of the base. Before he left the military, she received an autographed photo from him; she still has it today, in near-pristine condition. “He was so handsome,” she beams.
In the late 40s she moved back to Iowa, where she met her husband, Jim. Her next interaction with Ronald Reagan occurred in 1964, after the Republican convention. She wrote him a letter thanking him for his convention speech. Reagan replied with a hand-written letter. “It was wonderful to hear from you after all these years and to learn of what is obviously your very happy life,” he wrote. He told her of the difficult decision he faced as he was urged to run for Governor in 1966. “This will take a lot of thinking. Our state is torn wide open party wise and certainly something must be done to re-unite the [Republicans].” He also had little use for Nelson Rockefeller’s conventions speech: “His hatchet job on the party was a pretty selfish, petty bloodletting we’ll be a long time healing.”
Just before Reagan ran for Governor, Margaret was re-introduced to him at a GOP function in Iowa. Reagan embraced her warmly and quipped, “We fought the battle of Culver City.”
Margaret’s life is in many ways a microcosm of Republican party history since the 1950s. In 1952, while pregnant, she campaigned for her husband, who was running for county attorney. He won, and shortly thereafter she gave birth to their son, Bruce, whom they nicknamed “Little Ike.” They later had two daughters, Molly and Amy. As her children grew older, she became more active in Iowa GOP politics. In 1968 she chaired the Congressional campaign of U.S. Representative Wiley Mayne. In 1970 she was elected GOP co-chair of the Iowa Sixth Congressional District, and in 1973 she was elected co-chair of the State GOP Central Committee, a post in which she served until 1980.
During that time, Margaret faced two travails: The first was calling for the resignation of Richard Nixon in the wake of Watergate; the second came in 1976, when Ronald Reagan challenged Gerald Ford for the GOP nomination. She very much wanted to support Reagan, yet Ford had requested that she, along with co-chair Tom Stoner, head up his campaign in Iowa. “How do you say no to a sitting president?” Margaret says.
Over the years, she has met many GOP luminaries, including Presidents Nixon, Ford, Bush I and II, and Iowa Governors Bob Ray and Terry Branstad. She even cultivated a close friendship with Bob and Elizabeth Dole, resulting in her sitting in the Dole box at the 1996 Republican Convention.
Yet of all these bright figures it is Ronald Reagan who seems dearest to her heart. “I’ll miss him,” she says.