Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Centennial events here and around the world officially begin this week to commemorate Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday that will mark the 40th president's historic legacy.

Celebrations were planned from Prague to Washington, where the National Archives will display an array of Reagan's papers, including a copy of his "Evil Empire" address, with his handwritten changes, and his correspondence with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that led to a historic U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms reduction treaty.

The theme of these centennial observances -- which will mark his role in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War - is "Ronald Reagan: Inspired Freedom, Changed the World."

These events, which will formally get underway on his Feb.-6 birthday, have rekindled a lot of fond memories of my interviews with Reagan, as well as private conversations, before his presidency, on the campaign trail and in the Oval Office soon after his remarkable recovery from an assassination attempt that nearly took his life.

They began in the '70s, after he had completed his two terms as California governor and was gearing up to challenge President Ford for the Republican nomination. I was a young Washington reporter for United Press International at the time, and whenever he came to the capital to address some group, we would meet in his room at the Madison Hotel and talk policy and politics for more than an hour.

On his bed was his well-worn leather attache case, filled with newspaper clips and legal pads on which he wrote his five-days-a-week radio commentaries on a broad range of issues, from nuclear arms policies to farm-price supports. While reporters saw him only as a little-known, right-wing former governor, Reagan was reaching millions of listeners across the American heartland on hundreds of radio stations, building an army of grassroots supporters.

I had begun writing books about wasteful federal spending at this time, a favorite topic in his speeches, so we immediately connected with one another. Because of that comfort level, he was candid and forthcoming in his views with me, but always on his guard thanks to his experiences with the liberal reporters looking only for a "gotcha" moment. Still, he understood that I was looking for a good story and he always gave me one.

Reagan believed the Republican leadership, Ford in particular, was too namby-pamby in its views, too eager to get along and go along with Democrats, rather than fight for party principles. Reagan believed the GOP needed to strike out with bolder strokes on foreign policy toward the Soviet Union, federal spending and tax policy. "No more pale pastels," was his motto.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.