Ronald Reagan at 103: A reporter recalls face time with the president


By Patrick B. McGuigan |

OKLAHOMA CITY — In memory yet green, my mind lingers on the time I had a couple of minutes of one-on-one face time with Ronald Reagan.

REAGAN AND A YOUNG JOURNALIST: After an interview during President Reagan’s second term, he discussed policy ideas with a young journalist. But that encounter is not Pat McGuigan’s most vivid memory of Ronald Reagan. White House Photo

I had interviewed him in the Oval Office with a group of journalists. When we finished our half-hour, I seized the opportunity to give him a copy of my edited compilation of essays on criminal justice, “Crime and Punishment in Modern America.” His friends Jack Kemp and Ed Meese were among the authors.

We chatted about the book’s somewhat unorthodox premises, including articles encouraging alternatives to incarceration for non-violent criminals, drawn from ideas about restitution and restorative justice and rooted in scripture.

According to members of his legal staff, Reagan later directed the White House working group on federal sentencing guidelines to review the sentencing framework with the book’s principles in mind.

In the course of his eight years in office, I sat through many meetings with Reagan. Usually, the sessions were large gatherings of a few dozen people. In a few instances, I was able to observe him closely in smaller group settings. He was graceful, kind and thoughtful, yet you always knew he was in charge of the meeting, and of himself.

Still, those political or policy encounters are not my fondest personal memories.

Rather, I remember how Reagan treated my daughter, Erin. I kept her home from school one day, to go with me to a farewell party (a couple of dozen people attending), honoring a friend when he left Reagan’s White House in the mid-1980s.

After the president arrived but before the program began, there was some “dead time” as they used to say in radio. In a characteristic gesture, the old radio guy didn’t turn to one of the powerful people in the room. Rather, he turned to Erin. For a couple of minutes she was the center of his universe. He complimented her dress, her shoes, her Irish name and just about everything else.

The last memory was not in-person, as such. I wrote a book in the late 1980s about the failed attempt to confirm Judge Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court. I made pointed criticisms of my favorite modern American politician — Reagan — concluding he had fumbled the ball by not advocating more aggressively for his nominee. I even criticized Meese, the best friend I had in a high-ranking post in the Reagan administration.

When I left Washington, D.C., in 1990, none of the criticisms mattered to Reagan, who had left the year before. He wrote a letter encouraging fellow conservatives to study my book and the lessons I drew on how the next such nominee could fare better in the rough-and-tumble U.S. Senate confirmation.

That was classic Reagan. He never held a grudge. It served him well in a profession where grudge-holding has defined too many.

Reagan’s best friends were great ideas. An intensely private man, truly known only to his wife and a few others, he was the gentlest of souls after political conflicts, disagreements he usually won.

Perhaps it was that special grace that enabled him to restore American confidence, reach accords with the “Evil Empire” that ended the Cold War, and much more.

In 2011, at the Libertas Award dinner in Oklahoma City, Michael Reagan delivered a noble speech remembering his father as the 100th anniversary of his birth (Feb. 6, 1910) neared.

Michael reminded the crowd that before they ever met, both Reagan and Pope John Paul II had been the object of nearly-successful assassination attempts. On the days they were released from hospitals after assassins’ bullets nearly took their lives, both men had knelt quietly at their bedsides, forgave their attackers and prayed for them.

Later, they did meet, and their behind-the-scenes collaboration would seal the fate of Soviet communism.

In great things, so Reagan was in little things like the ups-and-downs of politics. He was forgiving of critics as diverse as Ted Kennedy, George H.W. Bush and Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill.

What a privilege and a blessing to have known him. His greatest lessons were learned from his parents, Nelle and Jack, both of whom had learned from the Great Teacher: Love one another. Forgive, that you might be forgiven. The greatest gift is charity — love.

From his example I have discerned that, in the end, those are the greatest lessons of all.

This essay is adapted from McGuigan’s February 2011 commentary, on the occasion of Reagan’s 100th birthday. You may contact Pat at .

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