In "What I Saw at the Revolution," speechwriter Peggy Noonan's chronicle of her time in the Reagan administration, she includes a story about sitting in the Oval Office with President Reagan when his hearing aid starts to beep. As she relates the scene, none of the President's super-serious, gray-looking aides bothered to tell the President about the device's malfunction. Noonan looks on, perhaps a little embarrassed, as the President finally figures it out for himself and pulls the thing out of his ear and fixes it. It's a brief little moment in Reagan's presidency, but something about it stuck with me. Maybe it was because I could picture it in my mind. I could see Reagan there, charmingly non-plussed about the problem, while his aides shifted around uncomfortably in their chairs. Or maybe it was the simple humanness of it all -- a man, a great man, in his seventies coping with old age. Like many young conservatives, I admired Ronald Reagan. I wanted to know everything about him.
There are many stories about great men that, while not always flattering, offer a special glimpse into who they were as people. We know about Lyndon Johnson’s famous dictation sessions from his toilet. We’ve learned about his wily machinations with political figures. We know about Richard Nixon asking Henry Kissinger to pray with him during Watergate and we know about his wild rants directed against his political enemies. These are stories that these prominent men never wanted us to know, but they add a rich texture to who they were as human beings.
Recently, my book SPEECH-LESS was subjected to the usual tut-tutting from over-serious Washingtonians about some of the behind-the-scenes glimpses I offered of well-known figures I worked with during my time on Capitol Hill, at the Pentagon and in the White House. The glimpses of President Bush in particular raised ire.
None of the comments I attributed to the President were all that shocking. He didn't think much of the McCain campaign. Who did? He questioned Barack Obama's qualifications and thought Joe Biden was a big mouth. Not exactly a newsflash. He used salty language about Hillary Clinton. This shouldn’t be a surprise: many Presidents have said equally bracing things and with similarly colorful words. We don't think differently of Harry Truman because he cussed from time to time. (Some people may think more of him for it.)
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