The death of Ronald Reagan Saturday got me to thinking about how many presidents I had actually seen in person. Jaded journalists will tell you they don't pay any attention to famous people, they are just news stories to cover. Me, I am different. I like meeting famous people, seeing them close up.
In my lifetime there have been 11 presidents. I have seen five close up, including President Reagan.
I was working for the Dominion-Post newspaper in Morgantown, W.Va., covering the Legislature, and it was a year and a half before the 1980 presidential election cycle was to begin. I was told to cover a breakfast for a Republican congressional candidate in the capital of Charleston. Then citizen Reagan, who was testing the waters and doing favors for a possible run, was the keynote speaker. He hit all the hot-button issues, championed the congressional candidate and then got a standing ovation.
What I remember most is that I was asking him some questions after the event as his lone aide stood by. Every reporter is always looking for that big scoop. I was trying to get him to say he was off and running for president and he was very nice but coy about his plans. I looked up and all the people had left, except for a worker or two cleaning away the breakfast remnants in the deserted hotel meeting room. It's funny how you remember these snippets of events.
I remember Reagan being very charming, grandfatherly, but not bombastic and yakky like some politicians, almost shy.
His aide asked where the Charleston paper was because he had an interview with the editorial board there. I started to tell them, go out the hotel and turn left, go ? and then I said I had some extra time. I would just walk them over to the front of the newspaper office to make sure they found it all right. And so there was this aide and Ronald Reagan and me walking down the street. I walked them right to the door and they thanked me and went inside.
In an editorial earlier this week I mentioned that Edmund Morris, who wrote the controversial and not very well done biography on Reagan, told about the president pausing at the door to the Oval Office so he could make an entrance like an actor coming into the scene of a movie.
Reagan was a B actor, never making anything that would stand out. But landing the role of president was the biggest part he ever played. I don't say that critically. But from my one encounter I believe there was the public Reagan, the actor, the great communicator, and then the private, quiet, grandfatherly man when he was offstage.
I quit that job eventually without another one and was in South Carolina, moping about and cleaning up stacks of papers I had brought back from West Virginia. I came across a payroll check I had never cashed. Don't ask me about these things. They just happen in my life. So I took the check and decided to go to New York City on vacation in the winter. Forget I didn't have a job or prospects of one or much savings. It was Jan. 20 and I was walking along the streets of New York and the announcement came that the hostages were being released by Iran on the day President Reagan was being sworn in. Tickertape was raining from the buildings. People were actually sharing news with each other in New York City.
By about April of that year I had landed another newspaper job, and never thought I would write about Reagan again. But as luck would have it, I did. I was in a bureau and the capital reporter couldn't cover a nuclear program at the Savannah River Site, the nuclear plant, and so I was asked to cover it on a Saturday. On the way back from the protest, radio news had a bulletin that someone had tried to rush President Reagan at Augusta National while he was playing golf there. My colleague, Paul Brown, who had shot pictures of the nuclear protest and tape for a local television station, and I headed over to the airport.
When we arrived, Air Force One was revved up and Secret Service and others were running all around it, getting it ready for the imminent departure of the president. Reagan had been safely skirted to the clubhouse and was not in any danger. The gunman had been wrestled to the ground and taken into custody.
Because of the assassination attempt on Gerald Ford and the wounding of the president that came close to ending his life, everyone took these attempts very seriously.
When I got to the media command post, this was my first encounter with how the White House press corps worked. A long press briefing on the incident had just occurred. I bemoaned this bad luck. Hold on, one reporter said, the transcript is being typed, and will be distributed in a few minutes. I got what I needed and with some more reporting, ended up writing the front-page story for that Sunday's paper.
The one thing I remember from the press briefing is that one reporter asked what the president's score was when his game was abruptly ended.
"That's a state secret," the White House press secretary replied.
Bob Paslay is assistant managing editor for the News Daily and Daily Herald. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753 Extension 257, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.