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Memories of Ronald Reagan

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - The passing of Ronald Reagan at 93 brings with it a rush of personal memories, none of which tell what kind of president he was but illustrate why he so effectively plucked the heartstrings of his fellow Americans.

I first met him in 1966 when he was running for governor of California, occasionally flying around the state with him in a beat-up old propeller plane previously used by a turkey farmer to cart his birds to market. It was nicknamed "The Turkey," and on each landing we reporters - and the candidate - would make loud gobbling sounds in appreciation, and relief, for the safe touchdown.

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Mr. Reagan would sit by a window and regale a seatmate with old Hollywood stories and jokes and political fables that he insisted were true. Once he explained to me in great earnestness how the armed forces were integrated. It happened, he said, in 1941, at Pearl Harbor, when a black ship's steward came up from the galley, grabbed a machine gun and shot down an attacking Japanese plane. And that, Mr. Reagan said, was when segregation was ended in the Navy.

It made a great story, but the fact was that the armed forces were not integrated until after World War II, by order of President Harry S. Truman in 1948. My gentle reminder to Mr. Reagan went unheeded - and it never stopped him from continuing to tell that tale.

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Another time, he informed me that government welfare was not needed because the goodness of the American people would always take care of the needy. If somebody's house were to burn down, he assured me, the victim's neighbors would show up the next day and rebuild it on the spot.

During his 1980 presidential campaign, he was always willing to chat with reporters despite the protective buffer of his political handlers. At the Republican national convention in Detroit, amid wild speculation - denied by his handlers - that he might ask former President Gerald Ford to be his running mate, I ran into him in a hotel corridor and asked him about it. "Oh, sure," he replied with no hesitation, "that would be best." Eventually, though, his advisers thought better of any such arrangement.

Ronald Reagan was above all an old-fashioned gentleman. Once, aboard his campaign plane, I was up front speaking with his chief political adviser, Stuart Spencer, when the candidate came out of his private compartment, headed for the restroom and stopped for a word with Mr. Spencer. The alert stewardess raced in ahead of him to make sure all was in order. Not seeing her, he walked into the restroom, then quickly returned, red-faced. "She's in there," he whispered in obvious distress, "and she left the door unlocked!"

When Mr. Reagan entered the Oval Office, he was a lot less accessible, but always good-humored and cordial. Once early in his tenure, when a group of political reporters were called to the White House for a lunchtime briefing, he dropped by to say hello. Beseeched to stay and eat with us, the new president begged off, saying "they've got me meeting with some folks down the hall." It was always like that - he'd love to stay, but "they" wouldn't let him.

Like John F. Kennedy before him, Mr. Reagan made his fellow Americans feel good about themselves again, as much or more with his ever cheerful disposition and optimism as with any of his policies. What came to be called Reaganomics - promising to balance the budget while cutting taxes and sharply increasing defense spending - was nonsense, leading to huge federal deficits. But he was a strong political leader, giving ideological backbone to a drifting Republican Party and installing conservatism as the governing principle of the country to this day.

While some admirers may revive an earlier effort to put his likeness on Mount Rushmore, to me he was always more like Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, getting by on a smile and a shoeshine. The products he sold best were his steadfastness, sincerity, amiability and good will - a combination that won him a special place in the hearts of his fellow Americans.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.


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