Insight's Editor Remembers Ronald Reagan
June 9, 2004
Paul M. Rodriguez
As news spread about the death of Ronald Reagan, I turned off the television and went outside to sit quietly and remember what he has meant to this nation. The 60th anniversary of D-Day somehow felt right for the passing of this giant in American politics. A great deal suddenly made sense in a very sad way and I am not ashamed to say that, like many of you, I wept. It seemed Reagan once again was reaching out in his comforting way to help restore the nation in what had become a time of bitterly partisan discord over the war in Iraq and the struggle with terrorism.
It has been all but astonishing how the memory of this man's sunny optimism and kindly outreach, even during the darkest moments of the Cold War, has overwhelmed the petty whine and ugliness of MoveOn.org and other electoral hyperbole. When the former Sandinista foreign minister was dredged up bitterly to attack the newly deceased Reagan by declaring that he was "demon possessed," it made this month's rants against President George W. Bush by Al Gore, Nancy Pelosi and their ilk seem almost as laughable.
Death of a loved one is like that -- it helps to clear the mind and refocus on what is important. Once again, Reagan's luck of timing and our collective memory of his deep understanding of America's authentic values seem to have awakened our better angels to remind us why this still is the land of hope and a shining city upon a hill.
Say what you will about the 40th president of the United States, his values and humor and warmth came as close to reflecting the American character as anyone has in a very long time. Ronald Reagan restored respect and hope in all of us. Despite the often bitter and sometimes dishonest criticisms aimed at him in his long political career, you always knew where he stood -- upright, foursquare, and determined to give voice to what he saw as the highest vision of our people. And his always was a beautiful and resonant voice speaking with clarity and unashamed to provide moral uplift as needed.
I was in the hospital after a car wreck in the mid-1980s recovering from back surgery. It was a hard time for me and my children. I was a White House correspondent and had covered Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and then the Reagan presidency. One day, as I lay abed feeling sorry for myself, the phone rang and a female voice said: "This is the White House operator. Please stand by for the president." Sure enough, a soft-spoken male voice then said, "This is Ron Reagan and I'm just checking in to see how you're doing Paul." I thought it was jokester pals, and cranky from painkillers I demanded the name of the culprit on the phone. Reagan laughed indulgently and kept saying that it was indeed he. Even as I hung up the receiver on the man who claimed to be president of the United States.
About five minutes later the telephone rang again. This time it was the hospital operator. "Are you expecting a call from the White House?" she asked, her voice breaking with excitement as she patched through the call.
"This is the White House operator calling, please stand by for the president." In a minute, I heard the same voice -- but this time with much humor. "Do you believe me now Paul?" the president said, laughing. We spoke on the telephone for a good 10 minutes and he asked how I was doing and how my children were doing. He asked if there was anything he could do for me and said, "Oh by the way, I'm sending you some jelly beans and some for the nurses."
Reagan telephoned several more times both at the hospital and at home during my recovery. And when I was well enough to return to work, wearing braces, the president arranged for the Secret Service to pick me up at East Executive Drive and take me in a wheelchair through the lower level of the White House normally reserved for staff and then up in a private elevator to the main floor where I'd be taken to the West Wing press area.
Though I had walked through these same corridors hundreds of times I never considered the significance of the ramps and of the absence of stairs and doorsills. All of this had been installed during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which I knew, but suddenly I had a better appreciation for those with physical constraints and appreciated President Reagan's quiet edict to have his folks help me.
That's what the White House was like under Reagan -- a reflection really of his character and kindness. For example, as a single parent of two small children in the early 1980s, I sometimes brought my youngsters with me to work after school or on weekends and days off from school. It wasn't something of which my fellow newsmen completely approved, though certainly many newsies brought family into the West Wing press center for tours and on the very occasional afternoon.
But sometimes I couldn't do anything else but bring my children with me -- I had two little ones to watch over and a job to keep. Thankfully, the White House press staff was tolerant so long as the kids were fairly quiet, and the press corps often would help me with baby-sitting chores. The same for the White House press staff, and truth be told the uniformed Secret Service guards were heroes to my children and got to know them on a first-name basis.
One day, much to my complete shock and chagrin, my little boy wandered off inside the White House. I didn't know about this until, to my utter embarrassment and disbelief -- and with much commotion amongst the (clearly irritated) White House press staff -- down comes President Reagan into the lower press office with my son in tow. I was dumbfounded, but the leader of the free world was smiling. "I found this little fellow lost down by my office, we had a nice chat, and I thought it would be best if I brought him back to you myself," Reagan said with a wonderful grin.
Needless to say, I caught immense hell that day from the Secret Service and the White House press staff -- and considerable ribbing from my colleagues.
I saw Ronald Reagan many times both before and after that time, most often in press pools entering the Oval Office or the Roosevelt Room or in formal (and informal) press conferences, not to mention on the many road trips. Now and again he'd ask quietly about my health and the children, and often would make sure we got a jar of his favorite jelly beans. Whenever he could, and the spirit moved him, he'd just call to say hello.
Once, as usually was the case with me, I was standing in the wrong place during a White House function. We were in the East Room and I was over in a corner normally reserved for White House staff when Reagan quietly came up beside me and put a finger to his lips to say be quiet. Everyone in the room apparently was distracted for the moment and looking the other way when Reagan whispered with that famous twinkle in his eyes, "Watch this. You'll get a kick out of this." He just stood there silently for a few seconds until suddenly the whole room became quiet and turned toward him. "It works every time," he chuckled, and walked strongly into the center of the room. His magnetism was that of an authentic star which never dimmed.
That's how I remember Reagan -- a president who brought hope and energy and radiance to a hospital bedside or a famously elegant room and to a whole country in need of a star. Sure, great and weighty policy and political issues were many in those days. Much has and will be written about them. Not so much will be written about his countless personal kindnesses. I remember, for instance, when my mother suffered a heart attack in far-off Paris. The White House staff quietly moved the whole bureaucratic system to get me to France quickly, including renewing my passport and having staff from the American Embassy there to greet me with the latest details about my mother's health before I arrived.
The character of Ronald Reagan influenced those around him from his staff to the Secret Service and everyone who had the opportunity to meet him -- from elevator operators and cleaning crews at the White House to members of Congress who often held opposing views ... and, yes, to leaders around the world. Reagan did more than charm people -- he conveyed a deep spiritual goodness that cast positive energy over all who met him, bitter opponents of his ideas as well as admirers.
This is not to say that Reagan didn't have faults. But he had a deep sense of the American heartland from his youth and through his formative years that carried over onto the sliver screen, to his time as president of the actors guild, as governor of California and then president of the United States. He loved to tell a good joke and used humor to soften sharp issues. Contrary to what detractors in the press claimed at the time, he understood the large issues and spent considerable time fine-tuning details. I know this because of friendships with some who worked for Reagan, including some who later repeated falsehoods about him, having in private told me the opposite.
There will be many eulogies and learned commentaries and much hand-wringing about the life and times of Ronald Wilson Reagan. There will be discussion about how his death may or may not help President George W. Bush in the election season, or whether it will cool interest in Bill Clinton's book, and all the rest. The chattering classes will continue to chat as usual. But something has changed.
At a time when a great underlying sadness and sense of foreboding had returned to our country, and outrageously contrived conflicts again were straining the civility of our people as they had at the end of the Vietnam War, we have been reminded by his death of the personality and character and triumphant optimism of Ronald Reagan. This comes as a refreshing reminder of what's important in life -- and of what's important for America. We're still, after all, the shining city on a hill. We're still the last, best hope for free peoples everywhere. That matters.
God bless Ronald Reagan for reviving such memories and showing us on a day of great remembrances such as D-Day that gallantry need not be a lesson learned only on the battlefield. Reagan taught us all that gallantry is the complement that deeds pay to character. It involves making the most of God's gifts, one on one, and one day at a time. It involves doing so with gracious humor, compassion and determined resolve to defend and protect the authentic American values.
God bless him, God bless his family, God bless us and God bless America.
Paul M. Rodriguez is the managing editor of Insight.