Ronald Reagan walked into the hotel room in Belleville, Illinois, in 1976 and stuck out his hand.
“I’m Dutch Reagan,” he said. “Let’s talk.”
Reagan, on a campaign swing through Southern Illinois in what would be a close challenge to incumbent President Gerald Ford for the GOP nomination, seemed far younger than a man in his sixties. A twinkle softened the piercing eyes beneath a shock of coal black hair.
“Ask me anything,” he told me. “If I don’t know the answer, I’ll make something up.”
Just why a candidate for President agreed to sit down for a one-on-one interview with a reporter from a medium-sized daily newspaper wasn’t clear when Reagan’s advance guy set up the meeting but the future President cleared it up right away.
“Read your stuff,” he said. “Like it. Don’t always agree with what you have to say but you say it well.”
I never knew if Reagan really read anything I wrote or if the line came from a briefing from an advance man but he had a way of making your believe him anyway. I went into the interview a cynical newspaper columnist ready to pick apart a former actor running for President and came away a believer in a political phenomenon named Ronald Wilson Reagan.
Over the next 47 minutes, we talked about a variety of issues – why Ford’s decision to give up the Panama Canal was a “colossal mistake;” why states, not the federal government, should make key decisions that affect people’s lives and why Communism had to be stopped.
Disarming and unpretentious, Reagan used self-depreciating humor and a sharp wit to charm even his severest critics. Unlike too many politicians, he didn’t try to fake it when he didn’t know the answer. “I don’t know,” he said more than once, “but I’ll find out.” The next day, a campaign staff member was on the phone.
“The governor asked me to get information to you on this,” she said and, sure enough, she had all the information Reagan had promised.
He came up 117 delegates short in the bid to replace Ford on the ballot, but roared back four years later to capture the nomination with ease and send Jimmy Carter into one-term obscurity. Following his election, I took a sabbatical from journalism and went to Washington to join the Reagan Revolution.
No politician in modern times could match Ronald Reagan as a motivator. He used the “bully pulpit” of the Presidency to sell the American people on his programs and they, in turn, responded by flooding Congressional offices with mail, phone calls and telegrams demanding support of his programs.
His tax cut sailed through a skeptical Democratic Congress. His budgets encouraged spending to create economic momentum and that meant higher deficits but, somehow, it all worked out. By the end of his first term, the economy boomed.
We held our breath when, during his first year in office, a disturbed young man named John Hinkley fired into the crowd outside the Washington Hilton, wounding Press Secretary Jim Brady, a Washington cop and a Secret Service agent. At first, we thought Reagan escaped unharmed then discovered he was shot. Only years later would we discover just how close to death he had come.
A lot of people underestimated Reagan and even those who opposed him fell victim to his charm and easygoing manner. Yet his toughness helped force an end to the Communist bloc and brought down the Berlin Wall. Ronald Reagan believed what he said and said what he believed. Those who tried to stare him down usually blinked.
At a White House Christmas party in 1983, Reagan saw me in a corner and came over.
“Heard you crossed over to the dark side,” he said, smiling. “Remember, I was a radio man myself. Always figured I could go back if this gig didn’t pan out.” My cynical side said a staff member briefed him but with Reagan you never knew. His quirky memory gave him recall of the smallest details even when he forgot other things.
I worked Reagan’s re-election campaign in 1984 and saw him at the White House Christmas party later that year. As always, he stuck out his hand and had a comment or two.
“Guess we both have a job for another four years,” he said.
I left halfway through his second term and went downtown for a fat cat job running a political action committee. Shortly afterwards, a messenger from the White House delivered a package. Inside was an autographed photo of Reagan with the inscription: “Doug, thanks for the memories.”
In 1992, we crossed paths at the GOP convention in Houston. When we were introduced at the reception before his speech to the convention, I could tell in his eyes that he didn’t remember any of our previous meetings. But, I thought at the time, why should a former President remember a reporter who interviewed him once or a political staffer in two other chance encounters? He left the reception and delivered a rousing speech to the convention.
The following year, rumors circulated that Reagan’s memory was failing. In 1994, doctors diagnosed Alzheimer’s Disease. Reagan withdrew from public life and contact would be limited to close friends for a while and, later, to his wife and family.
Ronald Wilson Reagan died Saturday at 93 with family at his bedside.
“When the Lord calls me home … I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future,” he wrote on Nov. 5, 1994 in a letter to the American public announcing his disease. “I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.”
Ronald Reagan believed in the greatness of America.. His greatest gift was an ability to make others share that belief.
Thank you, Dutch, for the memories.