100 years of Reagan

Posted: Feb 02, 2011 12:01 AM

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.

I would always ask him if he had other interviews scheduled while he was in Washington, and, surprisingly, he would have none. The dominant national news media dismissed him as someone who was too conservative to be elect-able. Notably, the Washington Post was just across the street from his hotel.

But the national news media establishment began to grudgingly gain new respect for Reagan's popular appeal when he suddenly began gaining on Ford in the race for delegates in the GOP's 1976 presidential primaries.

Reagan had stuck to his 11th commandment against "speaking ill" of fellow Republicans. But when Ford began attacking him as a warmonger, Reagan exploded in anger during an interview with me on his campaign plane that June, calling the president "a crybaby" whose attacks threatened his "spirit of unity," warning Ford that he was "playing with fire" if he continued the "phony war ads" against him that he said threatened to divide the party.

Ford won the nomination in a squeaker, but lost to Jimmy Carter, and Reagan began at once to prepare for the 1980 election that he won with ease.

Flash forward to the Oval Office Nov. 16, 1981 when Reagan had fully recovered from an assassination attempt and was grappling with the worst recession since the 1930s. On the day of my interview with him, both his economic and fiscal programs were in pieces, and his own budget director David Stockman said the budget numbers didn't add up, the deficits were worse than expected, and his tax cut plan wasn't working.

But Reagan, who took Stockman to the proverbial "wood shed" for criticizing his policies in a series of meetings with a Washington Post reporter, still stuck by his brilliant budget chief and his recovery plan. Instead, he blamed the reporter for taking quotes "out of context" and inserting his own views as if they were Stockman's.

"I think the real cynicism and the doubts in the plan were written by the author and his interpretation," Reagan told me. The Post played my exclusive story across the top of the front page the next day.

When I walked into the Oval Office again on Oct. 6, 1983, Reagan was getting ready to run for a second term, despite a steady wave of pleas from critics and assorted talking heads that he was too old to serve another term. But he dismissed such suggestions out of hand.

"I haven't found that it is deleterious to my health so far," he said, despite his brush with death. "As a matter of fact," he added, "I've gained an inch and three quarters around my chest in the exercise that I'm doing."

Pressing him further about his health, I asked if it was his "intention to fill out the entire four-year term." Reagan replied with characteristic wit, "Considering the alternative, yes."

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