The oldest person ever elected to the presidency, Ronald Reagan was 70 years young upon his ascendancy. It’s often been said that in our media-crazed nation, it was only a matter of time before an actor became President. But, without a doubt, Reagan did a wonderful job of making Americans proud again, often to the dismay of his adversaries who thought Bonzo truly went to Washington.
Reagan earned the name “The Great Communicator” for his skilled and effective use of television. He was a gifted orator and raconteur with an endless supply of anecdotes from his days in Hollywood. He has been described as aloof, intensely private, and reluctant to reveal much about himself to those outside his family. Several books have been written about Reagan’s time in office by former administration officials.
One man, Secretary of State Alexander Haig, said, “The President was portrayed as a remarkably passive figure, disengaged from day-to-day operations, timid about asserting his authority, inept at personal confrontation and lacking, at times, even a basic understanding of major issues.”
Other people in the know say he was by all accounts affable, cheerful, even-tempered, and forever optimistic. According to Hedrick Smith of The New York Times, “His ‘aw shucks’ manner and charming good looks disarm those who, from a distance, thought of him as a far right fanatic.”
On the other hand, Nancy Reagan really staged the show. She wrote the script and Ronny, as she called him, followed it like a Hollywood movie. She called the shots. I once heard, but never verified, that Reagan wanted my old friend, Congressman Jack Kemp, as his vice presidential running mate. Nancy put her foot down and said absolutely not because he was too good looking and much younger than Reagan. She thought Kemp would detract from Reagan’s image.
Without a doubt, Ronald Reagan has had a charmed life. His high school yearbook caption reads, “Life is just one grand sweet song, so start the music.” I just loved that attitude. A great American, President Reagan believed intensely in free will.
He once said, “We are given a certain control of our destiny because we have a chance to choose.”
He also said, “We are given a set of rules or guidelines in the Bible by which to live and it is up to us to decide whether we will abide by them or not.”
When Reagan took office, the country was a mess. Inflation had reached double digits, apathy was at an all-time high, but to all Americans, young and old alike, President Reagan returned a confidence and sense of hope.
Early on, before his presidency, coached by Congressman Jack Kemp, Reagan became a supply-sider—an economic philosophy designed to reduce the plague of double-digit inflation, and therefore prompt businesses to reinvest profits and create jobs.
A right-wing conservative, Reagan was endorsed by the voting Americans and in 1984 won a second term by the largest electoral vote in history. He ran against Walter Mondale and won 525 electoral votes to Mondale’s 13.
But at least one person wasn’t pleased with Reagan’s economics. In March 1981, barely two months into Reagan’s first term, a 25-year-old drifter from a wealthy family fired six rounds from his revolver as the President emerged from the Washington, D.C., Hilton. One bullet ricocheted off the presidential limousine and entered Reagan’s left side, bounced off the seventh rib, punctured and collapsed a lung, and lodged one inch from his heart.
Fortunately, an ever-present and alert Secret Service agent, Jerry Parr, shoved the President into the limousine and threw himself over the president as a shield. Neither Parr nor Reagan realized that Reagan had been shot. When Reagan started coughing up blood, Agent Parr ordered the limousine to George Washington Hospital, where an emergency team, already alerted, awaited the President’s arrival. Mr. Reagan walked into the hospital under his own power, but rapidly grew weak and complained about difficulty breathing. Doctors reported later that his blood pressure had dropped so rapidly that had treatment been delayed 5 minutes more, he probably would have died.
“I forgot to duck,” the President joked, and then said to the doctors and surgical team before he went into surgery, “I hope you’re all Republicans!” When he awoke after surgery, he borrowed a line from W.C. Fields, “I’d rather be in Philadelphia!”
Although Ronald Reagan escaped the assassination attempt, press secretary James Brady and a D.C. police officer were not so lucky. Brady suffered severe brain damage and has been struggling through rehabilitation ever since. He and his wife Sarah have spearheaded much of the anti-firearms legislation that has been presented to Congress since that incident.
Reagan’s tenure in office was not without controversy. Critics believed his ultra-conservative views sometimes interfered with his common sense. Reagan knew how to use the presidency as a tool to run the government. Agree or disagree with him, the president hired some good men as cabinet secretaries. For the most part, they were leaders and captains of industry and knew their job well. The problem was, Reagan gave them too much rope. Take, for example, the Iran-Contra scandal or the fact that the Reaganomics program left America the largest creditor nation in the world after being the largest debtor nation in the world.
There were many people, however, who, through the private and public sector, swore by Reagan. One of my favorite people is Jeane Kirkpatrick, the former ambassador to the United Nations. She once said, “Ronald Reagan brought to the presidency, confidence in the American experience.”
A friend of mine, a former congressman from Rochester, New York, and former president of the World Bank, Barber Conable, said, “He may not be strong on some details, but he knows how to sketch out broad outlines for his objectives and to provide a sense of direction.”
Quoting Secretary of State Alexander Haig, “He has contributed greatly to the revival of America’s confidence and pride.”
Ronald Reagan’s own wish as President was, “What I really would like to do is to go down in history as the President who made Americans believe in themselves again.” Personally, I think he did just that.
Ronald Reagan thoroughly enjoyed being President. He loved the pomp and circumstance that went with the position, presiding over ceremonial functions, hosting dinner parties with Mrs. Reagan, elaborate receptions and dinners at the White House, and executing snappy salutes as commander in chief of the Armed Forces, even though he was a civilian and not in uniform.
The official White House receptions were star-studded events and people clambered for invitations. You will see by the recipes in this chapter that the food was at least part of the attraction.
Reagan did like to joke and could dish it out as well as take it. He once said, “It’s true that hard work never killed anybody, but I figure why should I take a chance. I’ll see you after my nap.”
Reagan loved his naps and at the White House Correspondent’s Association Dinner he said he had been working very hard burning the midday oil. Toward the end of his second term, he teased about his plans for retirement. “As soon as I get home to California, I plan to lean back, kick up my feet, and take a long nap.” Then he added, “Ah, come to think of it, things won’t be all that different after all.”
Reagan also loved to joke about his age. After taking over the White House in January 1981, he turned 70 years old—the oldest man ever to occupy the Oval Office. He thanked people for celebrating his thirty-first anniversary of his thirty-ninth birthday. Three years later, when he turned seventy-three and was planning to run again, he told some senior citizens that he was still so active that he planned to “campaign in all thirteen states.”
In another speech about the trade deficit, he pointed out that the United States has had a trade deficit almost every year between 1790 and 1875 and then added, with a deadpan expression, “I remember them well.” He added, “Of course, I was only a boy at the time.”
President Reagan never tired of poking fun at himself. In a speech to a business group, he said, “George Washington gave an inaugural address of just 135 words and became a President. Of course, there was William Henry Harrison. He spoke at his inauguration for nearly 2 hours, caught pneumonia, and died within a month.” Then came the zinger: “I told him to keep it short!”
When the Reagans moved into the White House, jelly beans were immediately elevated to the esteemed position of America’s First Candy. Ronald Reagan said, “We can hardly start a meeting or make a decision without passing around the jar of jelly beans. You can tell a lot about a fella’s character by whether he picks out all of one color, or just grabs a handful.”
President Reagan was called many names while in office in addition to “The Great Communicator”; “The Teflon President” and “Dr. Feel Good” among them, but he was also known as the “Chief of the One Liners.”
“When you go to bed with the federal government, you get more than a good night’s sleep.”
Criticizing the Salt II Conference, he cracked, “Too much salt isn’t good for you.”
He also commenced a speech in Moscow in 1986 by saying, “As Henry VIII said to each of his six wives, ‘I won’t keep you long.’”
President Reagan made a hobby of collecting jokes from his cabinet secretaries. George Schultz, his secretary of state, sometimes inserted a joke in his cables and communications when he was overseas. This was Secretary Schultz’s way of making sure that Reagan read the cable. When he was stateside, if the President said, “George, that was a great joke you inserted,” then Schultz knew that his message had gotten through.
Mr. Reagan’s favorite jokes were about the Soviet Union, and he liked to kid their officials about the shortcomings of their system. “What are the four things wrong with Soviet agriculture?” The answer: “Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring.”
When Reagan extolled the benefits of free speech in the United States to Mikhail Gorbachev at their first meeting in Geneva, he said, “Why, people can even stand in front of the White House and yell ‘To hell with Ronald Reagan.’”
Gorbachev, who had a great sense of humor replied, “That’s nothing, Mr. President. Russians can stand at the Kremlin wall and yell ‘To Hell with Ronald Reagan,’ too!” The President and the Soviet leader both broke up laughing and became great personal friends—much to the advantage of the United States.
Once, when he was talking about economic recovery during his 1980 campaign, Reagan said, “I publicly declare that there is a depression in this country.”
President Carter answered by saying, “There is no depression in the country; it is a recession.”
Reagan said, “That shows how little Mr. Carter knows. If the President wants a definition, I’ll give him one. Recession is when your neighbor has lost his job; a depression is when you have lost yours.” Then he paused, laughed, and said, “A recovery is when President Carter loses his!”
President Reagan suffered his share of gaffes while living in the White House. He called Liberia’s President Samuel Doe, Chairman Mo and addressed Oklahoma Senator Don Nichols as Don Rickles. But the best was at a dinner in honor of the Prince and Princess of Wales. Reagan introduced them as the Prince of Wales and his lovely lady, Princess David.
The ballerina sitting next to actor Peter Ustinov gasped. “What?” she whispered, “Did he really say Princess David?”
“Don’t worry,” replied Ustinov. “He’s just thinking of next weekend at Camp Diana.”
After surgery following the assassination attempt, Reagan quoted Sir Winston Churchill in a note to aides, “There is no more exhilarating feeling than being shot at without result.”
Years later, when asked about his health, President Reagan said, “Since I came to the White House, I got two hearing aids, a colon operation, skin cancer, a prostate operation, and I was shot. The damn thing is, I never felt better in my life!”
In November 1994, when the annual Ronald Reagan Freedom Award Dinner was held in Beverly Hills, California, plans had been made for the former president to confer the medal on Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. But Mr. Reagan was unable to attend. A few days before, he had announced to the country that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and would not be making any more public appearances.
“When the Lord calls me home,” he said in his final, open letter to the American people, “whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future.”
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