Remarkable legacy for a 'B' actor
SALT LAKE CITY — His detractors said he was not a great intellectual; that he paid little attention to detail; that he hadn't been all that great an actor. Some or all of this may have been true. But what resonated with the millions who voted for him was his certainty about the strength of character of the American people, his belief in the greatness of the nation, his passionate concern that the freedoms Americans enjoy rightfully belong to all men, and his ability to communicate these ideas with heartfelt conviction. It was this Ronald Reagan that I came to know and appreciate during my stint in his administration.
I had three assignments, first as associate director of the US Information Agency (USIA), second as director of the Voice of America (VOA), and third as an assistant secretary of State. Such jobs don't mean that you weekend at Camp David or sleep in the Lincoln bedroom. But they do mean that you see quite a bit of the president over time, in small group meetings at the White House, or traveling overseas with him, or at formal dinners and state functions.
My boss in the first two assignments was Charles Wick, who'd been part of Mr. Reagan's California "kitchen cabinet." He socialized easily with Reagan and had instant White House access. This gave Mr. Wick, as director of USIA, leverage to get many things done for USIA and VOA - not a difficult task because of Reagan's knowledge of broadcasting and his enthusiasm for spreading the American story abroad. At the Department of State, my boss was George Shultz, not initially as familiar with Reagan. For a time he had problems with the White House hierarchy around the president, but eventually became Reagan's most trusted foreign policy adviser and met with him privately and regularly.
The closeness of these two men to the president gave me a window to observe Ronald Reagan. He was the same agreeable, friendly human being to everyone, whether riding horses with Queen Elizabeth, trading jokes and Irish songs with Democratic Boston pol Tip O'Neill, or bandying quips with janitors and Secret Service agents.
To each person he met, whatever their role in life, he gave the impression he was completely interested in and focused upon them. And he was.
It was no act.
His manners were charming. Once, after I had been involved in a presentation with a small group at the White House, he stopped us as we were gathering up our charts and papers. "I know you fellows are busy," he said, then asked apologetically whether we could "stay for a few minutes" while he told a few amusing anecdotes. We came out marveling that the president of the United States had asked our permission to tell a few stories.
Even on his way to surgery after being shot by a would-be assassin, his good humor came through, as when he told his surgeons, "I hope you're all Republicans."
But he had no lack of toughness when required to defend the principles he held paramount. When he thought US civil air controllers were wrong to strike, he fired them. When then Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon kept bombarding Beirut in defiance of a 1982 cease-fire agreement, an angry Reagan phoned Prime Minister Menachem Begin and demanded that the bombardment stop. It did.
His loathing for communism's "evil empire" was manifest. He built up a retaliatory nuclear arsenal against Soviet attack, but was visionary in proposing his Strategic Defense Initiative ("star wars") which, if successful, he saw as a path to world peace.
When Mr. Shultz came back from a one-on-one meeting with Reagan and told us the president believed this might lead to the abolition of nuclear weapons, the State Department's leading arms control expert expostulated: "He can't do that!" Shultz explained sharply that this president meant what he said.
Reagan's firmness in military and diplomatic fields clearly led to the greatest triumph of his presidency, namely the ending of the cold war. Not a bad achievement for a kindly man, who some thought was not a great intellectual, who perhaps didn't pay great attention to detail, who perhaps was not even a great actor.
But he was a man who had a passionate belief in America as a "shining city upon a hill," and he had the words and forcefulness to translate that vision into reality for millions at home and abroad.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.