- Historic Sites
My Years With Ronald Reagan
What a skeptical biographer discovered about a very elusive subject
February/March 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 1
The New York Times traveling with the mayor of New York, John V. Lindsay, who was then a Republican. There was a lot of talk at the time about a Republican “dream ticket” of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York for President and Governor Reagan of California for Vice President. The idea seemed to make some sense, or at least it was good copy: the energetic leader of liberal Republicans in the East and the new conservative darling from the West. Lindsay was thinking that maybe it could be Reagan-Lindsay, but he was beholden to Rockefeller, so his mission that day was to size up the actor, a self-proclaimed “citizen politician.” Reagan had been elected less than a year before, and outside California he was generally seen as an ignorant cowboy actor.I first met Ronald Reagan in November of 1967. It was a brief encounter, and I was not impressed. I was a reporter for
Lindsay and I walked down a long hallway to the presidential suite of the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. As the mayor raised his hand to knock on the double doors, they popped open, and there stood Reagan. Someone must have been looking through the peephole as we approached. “Welcome to California,” said Reagan. “I’ve always wanted to ask a real New Yorker a question: Have you ever been to the top of the Empire State Building or visited the Statue of Liberty?”
Obviously rehearsed. A little goofy. I was dismissed and only later realized that every Reagan appearance, entrance, and exit was professional, a performance. This one just happened to have a bad script. I next saw Reagan half a year later at the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach. By then he was more politician than citizen, having declared himself a candidate for President rather late in the game on the chance that the party’s front-runner, former Vice President Richard Nixon, might not get enough delegate votes to win the nomination on the first ballot. Reagan’s gamble almost paid off. In 1976 he tried the most aggressive move in American politics: challenging an incumbent President of your own party. He lost in a very, very close contest—the delegate vote was 1,187 to 1,070—to President Gerald Ford.
By then I was plenty impressed. In the fall of 1975 I traveled the country promoting a book I had written on the incumbent— A Ford, Not a Lincoln —answering what seemed like thousands of questions on radio call-in shows. Back home in early December I wrote a magazine story predicting that the next President would be Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan. All the night talk on radio had persuaded me that the real issue in 1976 would be Washington. The people who were driven to call those talk shows used their few minutes to complain about Washington and government. Carter was anti-Washington. Reagan was anti-government.
Reagan was a man of ideas. He understood that words are usually more important than deeds.
Within a week I received a letter from Reagan: “This is just a line to thank you for your article in the December issue of New York . I’m aware our viewpoints may differ, indeed you so indicated, but I appreciate your fairness. Perhaps one day our paths may cross and who knows we may discover our differences are not so terribly great. I look forward to a meeting and in the meantime thanks again.”
Our paths did cross over the next 15 years. And though he did not change my liberal mind and I did not dent his conservatism, we did agree on many things, particularly on American exceptionalism. I think Americans are different and had written quite a bit about that; Reagan thought Americans were simply better than other people and that God meant it to be that way. Reagan was a man of ideas, good ones, bad ones, and odd ones. He understood that words are usually more important than deeds. One of his forgotten assistants, James Lake, a campaign press secretary in 1980, said he saw Reagan lose his temper only once. Lake walked into the candidate’s section of a plane and said he needed to talk with him about a press release. Reagan blew up: “No, I’m busy. Can’t you see I’m working on my speech? Just go away. We will be there in 20 minutes, and I have to give this speech.”
The speech was the real work. Nobody I’ve talked with ever called Reagan an intellectual, but he did see the world in terms of ideas. He was an ideologue with a few ideas, held with unquestioning certainty. His rhetorical gift was to translate those ideas into values and emotions. He was capable of simplifying ideas to the point of dumbing down the national dialogue by deftly confusing fact and fiction. He made politics, and governing too, into a branch of his old business, entertainment. During the six years I worked on my book about him, I sometimes told friends the title would be President Reagan: Based on a True Story.
But, in truth, I had come to admire much about Reagan. I still disagreed with his politics, but as I plowed through his memos and letters and interviewed his people, it became obvious that he understood the Presidency better than the two other modern Presidents I had studied at length, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. By temperament and experience and a certain laziness, he knew the job is not about managing the government. The job is leading the nation.
Reagan and Gorbachev gambled their political futures (and their countries’ too) on their personal relationship.
In my books about those younger men, I tried to reconstruct a President’s world from his own perspective. I was interested in what he knew and when he knew it, what he actually saw and did—sometimes day by day, sometimes hour by hour, sometimes minute by minute. I wanted to show what it was like to be President.