How Wrong We Were On Ronald Reagan

These days when Americans are doffing their hats and expressing their affection for an ailing Ronald Reagan, I am thinking back on how much fun it was for us reporters to cover him.

He was always pleasant. He so often had a quip or a good story to liven up our days along the campaign trail. At least, that's the Reagan I remember.

Once, a few hours before he embarked on his 1980 presidential campaign, I asked him at a press conference if he took a nap each day. Reagan laughed and said, "No," that if the thought of napping came to him he simply got to work. A few hours later he and the press were aboard a plane bound for New Hampshire. After an hour or so I saw a note being passed back to me and when I opened it, I read:

"Godfrey, have you had your nap yet?

Ronald Reagan."

I once spent some time with Reagan as he, along with wife Nancy, drove around California in the early days of his quest to become governor. There were just the three of us in a rather beat-up Chevy.

He told story after story about his days in Hollywood and in the Army. I asked him why he would want to be governor. He had a simple answer: He would provide better government by cutting back on government and its hold on the populace.

He said that, first, he would lean heavily for advice on those with what he called "business brains." Then, he said, he was sure as governor it would be "easy" to reduce the size of government. On that latter expectation, Reagan very soon found he was wrong - once he became governor and ran up against an uncooperative legislature.

My own conclusion from this interview: The voters couldn't possibly take this genial fellow seriously as a candidate. How wrong I was!

During his eight years as governor I dropped by for several interviews. By this time there were the jelly beans on his desk, which Reagan always offered to his guests. Even when involved in a crisis - as when he was taking on the anti-Vietnam War activists - he never seemed perturbed. Here was a man who stood up to adversity with aplomb.

Early in his governorship in the 70s, Reagan came to Washington and met with the Monitor breakfast group - it was Reagan's first-ever meeting with the Washington press.

Reagan told us how he was transforming the governmental map in Sacramento. He even admitted to giving some thought to the idea of running for president. He had some quips; we laughed a lot. It was a thoroughly enjoyable session.

But the 12 journalists that day were unimpressed. They all thought it ridiculous to believe that this actor-turned-politician could make it to the presidency. The verdict: He was an unelectable lightweight. Sadly, I must admit: I concurred.

So now we come to that rather detached but friendly fellow who these days sits on a bench in the sun and greets passersby.

How will he be rated by history?

Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., pulled together a group of his colleagues to provide their verdict on all of the presidents. They put Reagan in the bottom half of the "average" category.

But could this be another "wrong" assessment, coming mainly from Washington "insiders?"

Now a book has just come out by Dinesh D'Souza, who sees Reagan as "an ordinary man who became an exceptional leader."

He contends that "Margaret Thatcher came close to composing Reagan's epitaph when she said, "Ronald Reagan won the cold war without firing a shot."

Will later historians revise their assessment of Reagan and prove us inside-the-Beltway experts once again to be dead wrong?

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