By Donald Lambro
The sentimental celebrations of Ronald Reagan’s ninetieth birthday and the influential, eye-opening book of his radio commentaries have rekindled a lot of personal memories of our conversations over the years.
From our first meeting in the mid-1970s, Reagan was always a terrific interview. He was comfortable to be with, friendly, and unassuming. He loved to talk about policy and the new book Reagan, In His Own Hand reveals the depth of his knowledge on a wide range of issues.
We first met when he was preparing to challenge President Ford for the Republican nomination. I was a Washington political reporter for United Press International, and when he came to town for a speech, we’d meet in his room at the Madison Hotel.
At that time Reagan was largely ignored by the liberal Washington news media but not by me. “I'll be just a minute,” Reagan said cheerfully as he entered the room. He ran a comb through his hair, then, leaning toward the dresser mirror, he put in his contacts, and the interview began.
There are two myths about Reagan. One is that he never broke his rule about speaking ill of another Republican. Actually, he did not break it, he shredded it.
We were flying into Los Angeles in June 1976 after a weekend campaign swing in his chartered jet, and I was seated next to him for the last half hour of the flight. As Reagan began gaining on him, Ford was attacking Reagan as a warmonger.
He had refused to personally criticize Ford, but when I asked him about the attacks, his Irish temper exploded. Calling Ford a “crybaby,” Reagan accused him of using “divisive” and “arm-twisting tactics.” His “spirit of unity” was strained, he said, and he warned that Ford was “playing with fire” that threatened to destroy the party. “And those phony war ads. This angered me. Because again, it seemed to be . . . pushing beyond a point in which you’d have to say, don’t they realize that they could? . . . well, sometimes I think he’d rather win a convention than win an election.”
The other myth is that Reagan had so much respect for the Oval Office that he never took his suit coat off when he worked there. The morning I walked into the Oval Office to interview him in 1981, he was working at his desk in his shirtsleeves, writing away on a legal pad. He quickly got up, put on his jacket, and we shook hands as a photographer clicked away.
The interview produced front-page news. But when it ended, he confided, “Just between us, one of the hardest things in a government this size—no matter what our people way on top are trying to do—is to know that down there, underneath, is that permanent structure that is resisting everything you’re doing.”