Reagan was just the same behind the mask
A veteran reporter recalls
Reagan's political start
By CHUCK McFADDEN
To reporters covering him when he was governor of California in the 1970's, Ronald Reagan was an enigma. He always said the right thing. He was so amiable.
We state Capitol reporters thought: He really couldn't be that much of a Boy Scout. Down there underneath, somewhere, there's a nasty little aristocrat sneering at us. Someday, somehow, the true Reagan will emerge.
No;w that he's gone, it's hard to make the case that Reagan at heart was something other than what you saw. He spent more than 25 years of his life on motion picture and television sound stages. He was governor of the most populous state in the union for eight years and president of the United States for another eight years. He had monogrammed luggage, wore jodhpurs when he went horseback riding and was buddies with Maggie Thatcher.
But he was a true democrat. Democrat with a small "d," that is.
After years of watching him closely while he was governor, it was plain that Reagan's attitude toward a janitor was the same as his attitude toward an ambassador. He drew no distinctions of status.
I was a young radio reporter in 1964 when movie star Reagan came to Santa Cruz, Calif., to make a campaign luncheon speech for Barry Goldwater. I wanted to tape an interview before his speech. The trouble was, the ambient background noise in the restaurant was too much. So Reagan and I--just the two of us--wandered through all parts of the establishment looking for a quiet place to do the interview.
I finally spotted a very dark (but very quiet) potato storage area. We stumbled around in the dark for a while until Reagan finally found the light switch. He seemed right at home in that potato storage area.
He just never seemed to be uncomfortable. Everyone, at least initially, was his friend. My wife, Barbara, who couldn't stand Reagan's politics, met him at a barbecue he threw for the Capitol Press Corps and has spent all the years since trying to reconcile the twinkly-eyed, friendly man she met with the conservative policies she regarded as misguided and mean.
And that was Reagan. He could meet a handicapped child for a photo op in his outer office and get real tears in his eyes, then go back into his inner office and slash the budget for services to handicapped children.
Despite his "let's be friends" approach, Reagan had presence. When he held his weekly news conferences in room 1190 of the state Capitol, we reporters would frantically scribble down everything he said, thinking to ourselves that this was great stuff. Then we would dash back to our offices, look at our notes, and realize we had nothing. Zip. Great gobs of pap. There were exceptions, but most of the time we never got anything out of Reagan that Reagan didn't want us to get out of Reagan.
When, as governor, he attended meetings of the University of California Regents, Reagan and then-UC President Charles Hitch, at the end of the meeting, would routinely walk together down the corridor to a classroom at the UC Extension Center in San Francisco and hold a news conference.
That's our man McFadden on the right, making what looks like a rude gesture to then Gov. Reagan. McFadden says he was just adjusting his glasses.
Reagan and Hitch would wrestle with the knottiest questions we reporters could throw at them. No matter who it was--the biggest paper in the state or an 18-year old from a student newspaper, Reagan would treat them identically. If a reporter or anyone else walked up to Reagan with a question, anywhere, he would stop and try to answer it, driving his press secretaries nuts. It was only later, in the White House, that Reagan perfected his hand-to-the-ear, I-can't-hear-you technique when the White House press corps shouted questions to him. And I think the first time he did it, he really was signaling that he couldn't hear the question.
The Library of Congress probably should have declared Reagan a national repository of show business stories from the 1940's. There was the one about the comedian whose trademark, in the pre-political correctness era, was his stutter. The comedian got into trouble with the Internal Revenue Service and was told he owed the government $5,000. As he was being escorted out, the comedian spotted a fellow funnyman in the waiting room.
"W-W-W-What's he here f-f-f-for?" the comedian asked.
"He owes the government $3,000," the IRS agent replied.
"P-P-P-Put it on my t-t-t-tab," said the comedian.
Was it unshakeable self-confidence, the discipline of years of public exposure, or a remarkably sunny, simple approach to people that made Reagan so resolutely pleasant? Was it all three?
I don't know. I suspect no one knows. My own theory is that Reagan designed himself. We all design ourselves to a degree, but Reagan, I suspect, was more deliberate about it and worked 16 hours a day to become the type of person he thought a male movie star should be: friendly, non-temperamental, approachable.
He made it into a lifetime role.
Chuck McFadden was the Associated Press correspondent covering the Reagan state house during Reagan's term as governor of California.
©2000 by Charles M. McFadden. Drawing ©2000 by Jim Hummel.
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