Politics & Policy

Reagan Revisited

Reflections of a former speechwriter.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This first appeared in the November 24, 1989, issue of National Review.

The security is there but unobtrusive, the sun comes into the offices easily and from all sides, and Selina Jackson, an assistant to Reagan chief of staff Fred Ryan, is the single replacement for what were once squads of official photographers. A change in from the White House days.

A photo with the former President is de rigueur for visiting former staff members, so Selina does her thing. Then I step aside. Reagan wants a shot of himself next to a painting he has just hung in his office. It is of a horse–skillfully done. The photo will be his gift back, he explains with some delight, to the precocious nine-year-old artist, the daughter of a lady who works in his barbershop.

Which reminds me of Elizabeth. During his first term, Reagan was well down the West Wing driveway when her father, a visitor, yelled, “Mr. President, Elizabeth came to the White House today just to see you.” Reagan turned back. Ribbon in her hair, white gloves and pocketbook, holding a stuffed animal, six-year-old Elizabeth looked up. The septuagenarian President looked down. They shook hands. The photographers moved in. For a few moments, the Reagan of the evening news–the cold warrior and budget battler with Congress–faded from view.

Or the teenaged girl at the rally in Missouri. Her ninety-year-old grandfather had heard Reagan was in town and wanted to shake hands with him–couldn’t this, she asked straight-forwardedly, be arranged? It seemed simple enough to her; which was sad, because the chances were slim. But Reagan heard about her request and after his speech made his way over. He left and I followed; but before running for the motorcade I stopped for a moment to watch them. I can still see the girl’s face.

It wasn’t just kids or teenagers, though. Confronted with contending factions within the Administration, all of whom wanted their views represented exclusively, a woefully inexperienced, 33-year-old speechwriter tried in 1981 to produce a draft for Reagan’s first major foreign-policy address. He worked long nights. The draft went in. Word came back a day later: the President was writing his own draft. Failure, big time.

The next day I was called to the phone with words that are a fair piece of magic in any White House: “The President wants to speak with you.” Reagan wanted to say he appreciated my work and the “many fine things” in the draft, some of which he was keeping. It’s just that his view of the speech was different from some other people’s. He talked about the pressure of working at the White House. “I hear they had a committee helping you write this.” He chuckled.

Awfully nice of you, I said later to my bosses, having the President bolster staff morale with a phone call. One of them told me, in a way that made it clear he was not all that happy with Reagan reaching down to one of his subordinates, “Reagan’s calling was Reagan’s idea.”

The speech, to the graduating class at Notre Dame, which in fact Reagan rewrote entirely, went well. Something I would see happen over the years. When he didn’t like the drafts sent him for the “Gang of 17″ budget negotiations in 1983, he sat down the day of his nationwide broadcast and–with a visit from the Prime Minister of someplace squeezed in–rolled his own. Or after the exhausting three days with Gorbachev in Reykjavik, the yellow sheets with the distinctive handwriting came down from the residence for the speech that night. It was better than what we had come up with. This, from the President who was supposed to need imagemakers and scriptwriters to look good.

It was not just the writing. Reagan simply had different ideas from most of his resident geniuses. Particularly the celebrated pragmatists who advised him against most of what worked: Reaganomics–the tax cuts and supply-side theory responsible for the biggest economic boom in history. Not to mention high defense budgets, SDI, the zero-option formula, and, most especially, Reagan’s insistence on talking candidly about the Soviets while trying to negotiate with them–the very step that may have caused a legitimacy crisis in the Soviet Union and led to the rise of Gorbachev.

Still, the suggestion that a kind of moral force generated by Reagan’s will and words brought about the current crisis of Communism is, for adherents to the conventional wisdom, a long way to go. A thesis obviously needing book-length treatment, which, come to think of it, in something called Undoing the Evil Empire: How Reagan Won the Cold War, I am completing.

On the day I visit him, Reagan knows this. But it doesn’t come up. As ever, I am more interested in getting him to talk about Hollywood. In the old days on Air Force One, I would ask a question or two and start the stories going. In his office now he has me over by the window, showing me the old 20th Century studio lot. I mention I was at a dinner party given by a former actress, Dani Janssen, and met a fellow named Lew Wasserman, whom I guess he knows of. This amuses Reagan, since Wasserman is the Hollywood demigod who runs the behemoth MCA and was once Reagan’s agent. He is off then on Reagan and Wasserman stories and other incidents from the early years, while I am thinking that if somebody doesn’t get about thirty or forty hours of this on tape it will be a loss of artful storytelling, if not valuable history.

But there won’t be hours of it today; there are other visitors. On the way out, I am telling him again what I have already said several times: how well he looks. This is probably dumb, since one of Reagan’s jokes is: “There are three ages of mankind: youth, middle age, and ‘gee, you look terrific.’” But I say it again; and he points to the sun pouring in the window and says: “It’s California.”

Later, I am recounting this to the maitre d’ at the Beverly Hills Hotel Polo Lounge, Nino Osti, and wondering out loud why I made such a fuss about how well Reagan looked. I blurt out: “It’s just, you know, I love the guy and it’s great to see him so happy”–which, while hardly elegant, would probably also be the sentiment of not a few million other Americans, were they to see him today. It was David Broder, I think, who used to write about the unusual warmth of the crowds that came to see Reagan and the strange profusion of “We love you, Ron” signs.

Which is part of the reason why when I’m asked what I remember most about nine years with Ronald Reagan, it isn’t sitting near him and Gorbachev at the Bolshoi Ballet or the fact that he may have led us successfully through on of the epic struggles for human freedom. Mostly I find myself telling the story about Elizabeth, or the teenaged girl at the Missouri rally, or the phone call to the speechwriter who was so miserable. It’s improbable–and corny, of course–but so were Reagan and his era. Which is why when I’m asked what I remember most about him personally, the same words keep popping out: “his kindness.”

The Gipper is alive and well and living in California. Mellow out, Mr. President.

Anthony R. Dolan was chief speechwriter in the Reagan White House.

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