The Sun Sets

John McCaslin
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Posted: Jun 08, 2004 12:00 AM

(The following timely excerpts on Ronald Reagan will appear in John McCaslin's soon-to-be-published Thomas Nelson/WND book, "Inside the Beltway: Offbeat Stories, Scoops and Shenanigans from Around the Nation's Capital," which arrives in bookstores in early August.)

With my 6-year-old daughter, Kerry, in tow, I found Ronald Reagan happy, healthy (or so I wrote) and ever charming during our 1994 visit to his 34th-floor suite in Century City, California.

Wearing a hearing-aide, the 83-year-old former president winked when saying he didn't long for the politics of Washington. Still, he was curious to hear my opinion of then-President Bill Clinton and any other unusual arrivals in the nation's capital since he bid farewell to the city on Jan. 11, 1989.

"We made a difference," Mr. Reagan had said the day he left office. "All in all, not bad, not bad at all."

After I tried to explain Mr. Clinton, the nation's 40th president recalled a few highlights of his own two terms in the Oval Office, captured in photographs lining the walls and bookshelves surrounding his desk. The old cowboy's favorite was of him and Queen Elizabeth II on horseback.

He walked to a wall of windows, affording a view west along Avenue of the Stars towards the Pacific Ocean. He wanted to point out the seascape a little girl like Kerry doesn't see in Washington's swamplands. But this day it wasn't there.

"This is usually a beautiful view, but we haven't seen the ocean for two months," said Reagan, suddenly sounding the environmentalist (Los Angeles so far that year had seen more air-pollution advisories than during the previous two years combined).

Another of his favorite vistas, he said, was looking out from the rear veranda of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, an hour's drive north in Simi Valley. But his favorite view of all, he commented, was from the solitude of his California ranch.

He was taken with my daughter's bright red dress, which didn't surprise me. Women of the White House press corps liked to wear red dresses to Mr. Reagan's news conferences, knowing the color caught his eye and increased the chances they'd be recognized for a question.

Several days later, I was happy to receive several photographs from our visit. "To a beautiful young lady with a bright future," he wrote to Kerry. By the time I could get the picture framed, he revealed he had Alzheimer's disease. I had no clue, I told MSNBC the same day as Reagan's announcement.

In an incredibly worded statement I read over and over, Mr. Reagan thanked "the American people for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your president. . . . I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life."

Despite what pundits had to say, Mr. Reagan's biographer Edmund Morris told me during an interview in 1999 that the former president showed no signs of Alzheimer's during his tenure in the White House. The first symptoms, he said, became apparent in 1993, four years after his second term ended.

Two years after disclosing his illness, Mr. Reagan was catching up on some unfinished business with his eldest son. The occasion was the Gipper's 85th birthday.

"It will be a private lunch, just dad and I," Michael Reagan told me by telephone from Los Angeles. "There will be a big birthday dinner out here, but I didn't want to celebrate my dad's birthday with a thousand other people."

It took many years, but Michael, the adopted son of Mr. Reagan and his first wife, actress Jane Wyman, and his father were finally close.

"You know," Michael said, "I used to wonder about my relationship with my dad. It was so often easy just to sit back and say to myself, 'You know, dad has never once hugged me,' or 'dad has never told me before that he loves me.'

"And all of a sudden one day I woke up and asked myself, 'When was the last time I hugged my dad, told him that I loved him?' I had never hugged my dad, yet here I was mad because he had never hugged me. So when dad got out of office in 1989, I made a promise to myself that every time I saw him I was going to give him a hug hello, or a hug goodbye, or a hug on both ends-just do that and show him how much I care.

"And so I did, the first time when dad came down to San Diego to do my radio show in 1989, just after his book came out. And the first time he was a little startled by it. He obviously wasn't used to it. His generation was not used to men hugging one another. Frankly, he was a little taken aback by it.

"But what's happened over the years is that dad actually now looks forward to these moments. He's always standing at the door, waiting for a hug, when I arrive or when I leave. And especially at this point of his life with Alzheimer's. While he can't carry on normal conversations, and while he may not have the memory to recall certain things about my life . . . what's interesting is that when I get up and get ready to leave the house, he's at that door, with his arms open, waiting for that hug."

He was quiet for a moment.

"Other things he might not be able to remember," Michael said, "but he remembers that."

HOLLYWOOD HENRY

Imagine the world listening in on every single word you utter over the telephone for six years. The National Archives has just released 20,000 pages of transcripts of phone calls made by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger from 1969 to 1974, including when he was a White House national security adviser in the Nixon administration.

The pages contain "candid" comments on a variety of topics, from the Vietnam War to social events. In fact, Kissinger shared gossip over the phone with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye and Warren Beatty.

REWRITING HISTORY

Bob McEwan paid a visit to the new World War II Memorial in Washington recently and "got an unexpected history lesson."

"Since I'm a baby boomer, I was one of the youngest in the crowd," McEwan tells this column. "Most were the age of my parents, veterans of 'the greatest war.' It was a beautiful day, and people were smiling and happy to be there. Hundreds of us milled around the memorial, reading the inspiring words of Ike and Truman that are engraved there."

McEwan made his way around to the memorial's "Pacific" section, where a group had gathered to read the determined words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt when he announced the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor: "Yesterday, December 7, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy - the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked."

One woman, says McEwan, read the words aloud: "With confidence in our armed forces - with the unbounding determination of our people - we will gain the inevitable triumph."

Suddenly, the woman became visibly angry: "Wait a minute," she told her husband. "They left out the end of the quote. They left out the most important part. Roosevelt said - 'so help us God.'... I know I'm right. I remember the speech."

The couple shook their heads and walked away.

As McEwan puts it, "The people who edited out that part of the speech when they engraved it on the memorial could have fooled me. I was born after the war. But they couldn't fool the people who were there. Roosevelt's words are engraved on their hearts."

Those exact words were: "With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounded determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph - so help us God."