The varied ways of knowing Reagan

So really, what kind of a fellow is Ronald Reagan? That's what people are asking after the release of Edmund Morris's widely panned, but wildly bestselling, biography.

Unlike Mr. Morris, I never had the opportunity to look over Mr. Reagan's shoulder for 13 years. I never read the man's diaries. I never even went horseback riding with him. But for three years I did serve in his administration, most of the time as an assistant secretary of State, and the administration's foreign policy spokesman. This was fascinating, but much less grand, and much more exhausting, than it perhaps sounds.

My boss was George Shultz, secretary of State. His boss was Ronald Reagan, president. There is a difference. My familiarity with the president, such as it was, came through Mr. Shultz's familiarity with the president, which was substantial.

This meant that I did once see Reagan doing flips into the swimming pool for Nancy, that I did go to some state dinners, that I did go to lots of White House meetings, and that when the president did go to China, and Japan, and Brazil, and Ireland, I went along.

Traveling with the president wasn't all that glamorous. There were perks: match books and note pads bearing the White House seal; attentive Air Force stewards bringing drinks, and nuts, and candy. But if you were on Air Force One, the president would be up front in his cabin and you would be in the back with the rest of the entourage reading cables and clearing speeches and press statements and trying to catch a little sleep.

If, as was more often the case, you were on Air Force Two, the identically equipped backup plane, you were generally trying to calm a bunch of nervous correspondents, grouchy because they weren't on Air Force One.

Sometimes on Air Force Two, two or three of us would be assigned to the unused presidential cabin. Even this had its downside. Once, flying back from Latin America, the president made a quick, evening visit to Honduras. We were ordered to circle above, while the president landed and met with the Honduran president at the airport. Time passed and those of us on Air Force Two grew increasingly hungry for the steaks we knew were on the menu. The usually cooperative stewards were unusually uncooperative. Finally, one whispered: "We're not allowed to serve you until Air Force One has taken off. Should anything go wrong, and the president had to transfer to this backup plane, you'd have eaten the president's dinner."

Anyway, this kind of activity provided the opportunity for me to have some fairly extensive observation of Reagan, and some close contact.

I've read the Newsweek excerpts from Morris's book, but I prefer fact to the fiction he has injected through imaginary interlocutors. The Ronald Reagan I knew, albeit briefly, was far from aloof and unfeeling. When you engaged in one-on-one conversation with him, he was focused on you completely. He was interested in whomever he met.

Did he ramble? I never thought so, though he did like to tell stories that were amusing, but never gossipy, about colleagues or political opponents. He was friendly, not afflicted by the pomp and ego of lesser inhabitants of the White House. He was perpetually courteous; I remember that after a group of us had given him one briefing, he asked almost apologetically if we could stay while he told a story he'd just remembered. I thought it touching the president of the United States would ask whether we could spare him a few minutes.

Was he, as Morris seems to suggest, vapid and empty-headed?

I didn't think so when he stared down the striking air traffic controllers because he thought what they were doing was wrong. I didn't think so when he matched the Soviet "evil empire," as he called it, with US nuclear missilery. Nor did I think so when, after he'd won that face-off, he advanced his vision of the Strategic Defense Initiative that he believed could make the world nuclear-free, and offered it to the Soviets as well. I didn't think so when, alone at principals-only meetings of the G-7, he held his own with other heads of state on complex economic matters.

I never found him mysterious, as did Morris. I do find it odd Morris found mysterious this capacity of a decent man, with a confident view of his country's strengths, and a clear conviction of what the world should be, to fulfill extraordinary accomplishments.

*John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, in Salt Lake City.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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