No Free Rides

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I met Ronald Reagan in late October 1980, just a few days before the election that would put him in the White House. In fact, our encounter occurred under circumstances that might have caused me considerable embarrassment or more.

I was in Washington, D.C., on business and had scheduled lunch with a good friend before heading home to Texas. We had worked together in Washington several years earlier, before I moved to Houston, where I tried to ignore politics and politicians. My friend had stayed active in politics and was then working in the Reagan campaign. We had agreed to meet at the campaign headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.

After lunch I noticed four buses filled with passengers waiting in front of the headquarters building. My friend told me these would take the campaign staff to Dulles Airport to bid farewell to the candidate. Mr. Reagan was flying to Cleveland for a debate with President Carter and then directly to Houston and California, so this would be the last opportunity before the election for the staff to see him and for him to thank them.

That reminded me: I had to call a cab to take me to Dulles also. “Why not hitch a ride on one of these buses?” my friend asked. “At least it will save you cab fare.”

Reluctantly I got on the last of the four buses and sat in one of the few remaining seats. It faced sideways. To my left was a well-dressed middle-aged man with an oversize Reagan button on his lapel. Across from me was a young mother with her son, whom I took to be about five. This, I thought, was to be his introduction to history.

I felt uneasy as the buses pulled out. My uneasiness developed into a subdued panic as we drove toward Dulles Airport. What if they find out that I am not on the Reagan campaign staff? That I have not even worked in the campaign in Houston? What if they were to suspect me of being a plant by the Democrats? Worse, what if the Secret Service were to suspect me of baser motives? What had my friend gotten me into?

And then the real questions began. Observing my luggage, the young mother across from me asked whether I was flying to Cleveland with Mr. Reagan.

“No,” I responded, trying to say as little as possible.

“Where are you going?”

“Houston.”

“Oh,” she said, “you’re going to Houston in advance of Mr. Reagan.”

“You might say that.”

The gentleman to my left took up the inquisition: “What are you doing in Houston?”

“I live there.”

“No, no. I mean, what are you doing in the campaign there?”

I was trapped. Now what? Did I confess that 1 wasn’t doing anything in the campaign, merely bumming a ride to the airport? That, in effect, I was crashing their farewell party?

“I do whatever I’m asked to do,” I said.

“I see. You’re a troubleshooter?”

“You might say that.” I was becoming more nervous by the moment.

Sensing my reluctance to talk, the gentleman to my left slid closer to me and, in a barely audible voice, whispered, “It’s hush-hush, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, it is.”

There were more questions, but they were easy: “How are we doing in Texas?” “What is the weather like in Houston at this time of the year?”

I could see the terminal in the distance as the buses approached Dulles Airport. But to my horror I realized that we were heading in the opposite direction. We were being taken to a special runway far from the terminal where the plane that would carry the candidate to Cleveland was parked.

While others left the bus, 1 held back to talk with the driver. “Please let me know if you can’t take me to the main terminal on time,” I pleaded. “If not, I’ll have to start walking now.”

“No problem,” he assured me. “There is plenty of time.”

Reassured, I was the last person off the last bus. By the time I rejoined the group of well-wishers, the roped-off area where they had been assembled was full. I found a spot at the entrance to this area, closest, as it turned out, to where the candidate’s helicopter would land.

Mr. Reagan’s advisers began to arrive and board the plane. One was George Shultz, who had been my boss’s boss when we both were at the Treasury Department. Then Mr. Reagan’s helicopter approached and landed a short distance from his campaign workers. The future President and First Lady stepped to the runway and walked straight toward the nearest worker—me! Perhaps because I was first, the candidate went through his entire thank-you speech in what appeared to be a dress rehearsal for what would follow.

“I want to thank you for all you’ve done in this campaign on our behalf. Because of your hard work and tireless efforts, we’re going to win this coming Tuesday.”

The next President shook my hand for no more than ten seconds. Yet it seemed more like ten minutes. Mrs. Reagan shook my hand too and also thanked me for my efforts—though her thank-you and handshake were much briefer.

The candidate and his wife worked their way down the line, squeezing hands, or sometimes merely touching them, and repeating parts of the thank-yous they had just given me in full. As I watched down the line, I caught the eye of the man who had been sitting next to me on the bus. He was looking directly at me, and I could tell from his expression what he was thinking: “Who is that very important troubleshooter from Houston whom Mr. Reagan sought out first and with whom he talked so long?”

The campaign workers returned to the buses once Mr. and Mrs. Reagan were on board the plane. Our little party of four resumed the same seats at the front of the last bus. The caravan pulled out and headed back to campaign headquarters, but when it reached the main drive to the terminal, our bus peeled off and headed straight to the terminal. The driver opened the door and, in a voice that all could hear, boomed, “Here you are, Dr. Johnson. Have a safe trip to Houston.”

As I rose to leave the bus, the gentleman to my left stood up. He looked me in the eye, clasped my right hand in both of his, and said earnestly, “It’s been a privilege to have met you and to know that such capable and dedicated people are working on Mr. Reagan’s behalf. We’re winning because of people like you. Thank you and good luck in Texas.”

I stumbled off the bus, my brush with history—and with politics—at an end.

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