EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an excerpt from Miles Gone By–A Literary Autobiography.
The first time? My speech in Beverly Hills was scheduled for 7:30, and I ate in a the restaurant across from the high-school auditorium with my sister-in-law Bill Finucane. When the time came, two other diners also rose. They had been at the far end of the room, and their faces hadn’t been visible in the dim light. “I’m Ronald Reagan. This is Nancy. I just finished your book [Up from Liberalism]. The passage on Eleanor Roosevelt is very funny.” He quoted it and laughed.
His assignment was to introduce me to the assembly (mostly doctors). But entering the hall we came up in a huge bump in the road: not only was the sound system not on, the room where you turned it on was locked! They couldn’t find the kid who was supposed to have turned it on, or the janitor who had the keys. And even Ronald Reagan, using his golden repertoire and tranquilizing voice to placate the large hall, was running short of diversions.
That’s when I espied True Grit in the future president. He ascertained that the window at the end of the stage overlooked a parapet about a foot wide, which extended, at the far end of the building, to the window of the control room. So he climbed out the window, arms outstretched for balance, and edged his way above the roaring traffic to the critical window, broke it open with his elbow, climbed into the room, found the switch, and flipped it–and the show was on.
That was a dramatic first meeting, and a friendship was kindled. He was, in those days (1961), edging his way out from political company he had grown up with as a young Democrat. He had been fighting the Communists in the Screen Actors’ Guild and was now looking for company on what we would call the Barry Goldwater of the political world. He gave a famous speech urging the support of Goldwater. Goldwater didn’t win, but Reagan soon found himself with a political career shaping up. A coterie of Republicans grouped about him, seeking a figure large enough to hang their shattered hopes on. During that period I visited often, and when he confided that he was deliberating a bid for governor of California, I took him to referring to him sotto voce as “Guv”–”How’s the Guv doing?” I’d jest with Nancy over the phone. But I was way behind in apprehending his potential. Governor Nelson Rockefeller, at our first private meeting (at his apartment in 1967), asked me how to account for the sounds beginning to come out of California–Why not Reagan for president? “There’s no way,” I found myself opining on politics to a four-term governor of New York, “a former actor could go for president.”
“Anybody who wins the California election with one million votes is presidential material” was Rockefeller’s answer.
We stayed good friends but quarreled openly–in a two-hour televised debate (see pp. 367-388)–on whether to ratify the Panama Canal Treaty. And then in 1980 it turned out that Rockefeller had been right: Reagan proved invincible. But nothing got in the way of a friendship maintained via phone calls and correspondence and visits to successive residences in California.
Yes, there was the legendary aloofness, but this was forgivingly accepted, in the context of his overwhelmingly emphasized priorities. Nancy came first, but Reagan was zestfully concerned for the company of others. He was with my wife and me in Connecticut over one Thanksgiving weekend, and the first night we consumed a dinner of leftovers in the kitchen. He sat at one end of the table with sandwiches and a glass of wine telling stories, one after another, making Thanksgiving especially credible for his friends at hand. It’s hard to imagine him alive yet out of action, and best not to dwell on it.