The Reagan I knew

After many years of uninterrupted access to Ronald Reagan, authorized biographer Edmund Morris still makes him out to be a man of mystery. Who was he? Was he an "airhead" or "great" (the two incompatible concepts of President Reagan that the author leaves us with in his puzzling book)? How much is factual, how much fiction? One can never be sure because Morris has inserted himself as a character in the book.

There really is no mystery about Mr. Reagan. He knew where he was going and where he wanted to take this country. And the American people knew where Reagan was taking us with unabated tenaciousness, and they followed him. That's my idea of leadership.

And did Reagan lead the country in a desirable direction? Mr. Morris applauds his ending of the cold war and igniting - after a bad start - the extended economic boom that still is going on. That's a record that I contend will, in time, raise Reagan to being rated among our better presidents.

Just the other night I saw on TV a test in which a US missile destroyed a simulation of an incoming missile. That looked to me like a rejuvenation of Reagan's much-criticized Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which his adversaries ridiculed with the name "star wars." Actually, the Soviet leaders took Reagan seriously about his bringing SDI into our defense arsenal and further convinced them that it was time to throw in the towel.

Now SDI looks like something we might need for protection against terrorism. So add SDI to Reagan's credits as a president.

I am well acquainted with Morris's problem of getting to know who Reagan, the man, really was. As a newsman covering Reagan, I was up close to him probably hundreds of times. Aside from the events I covered, including traveling with Reagan on campaign trips, I attended a great many of his press conferences.

Further - starting when I rode around the state with the Reagans in their old Chevrolet, while Reagan tried to make up his mind whether to run for governor of California - I had at least a dozen interviews with governor and, later, President Reagan. Indeed, I was startled when Reagan gave his first interview as president to James (Scotty) Reston and myself. Oh, yes, Reagan also hosted the Monitor breakfast group three times in the State Dining Room of the White House.

I am making a point of citing how much access I had to Reagan to underscore that, even then, I still couldn't get inside the man. He was always so friendly and gracious as he ushered me in for an interview, touching my shoulder in a warm way as he guided me to where he wanted me to sit. In his governor's office he would offer a visitor some jellybeans from a glass container on his desk.

Once, in giving me an interview, then-Governor Reagan took my wife and me on a little drive to a place where he was to make a speech. My wife has often spoken since of how chivalrous Reagan was, opening doors for her, helping her in and out of the car. Yes, he was a charmer.

Yet my interviews never revealed much about Reagan. And I never saw anything of the innovative or deep thinker in the man.

But I am unwilling to put Reagan down for an alleged lack of intelligence. He certainly never showed any brilliance: He was an average student at Eureka College. But researchers are unable to define intelligence any more than they can explain motivation. And I've read that it is the B, not the A, students who turn out to be the achievers. But then we have another problem: What is an achiever?

Reagan had two qualities in abundance that might be called "intellectual": He was highly intuitive and he could quickly grasp complexities. Morris, in his frustrated search for Reagan's identity, forgot he still could write an insightful biography of the Reagan presidency. He had an open door to documents and to people around Reagan. He clearly muffed his great opportunity.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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