Thursday, June 4, 2009
Coda for the Gipper
There is a coda to my story on meeting President Reagan, and coincidentally, it brings me back to the story of my own father ...
By 1992, I had left Washington to take a job anchoring the news at WESH-TV in Orlando, Florida. Most of the time, I worked behind the anchor desk. But, because of my Washington experience, I was sent out to cover political stories from time to time. In 1992, that meant the Republican National Convention in Houston, Texas, where former President Ronald Reagan was scheduled to speak.
George W. Bush, a man who had served Reagan faithfully as his Vice President ("Bush 41," as he is now known) was being nominated to run for a second term. Since that was a foregone conclusion, for most of the rest of that humid week in Houston, things were a little slow, newswise.
In fact, until the day Ronald Reagan addressed the convention, the most interesting thing that happened to me and my crew is that we lost our car. Well, we didn't actually lose it, but we did misplace it for the better part of an hour. How? Well, about 10,000 people came to Houston for that convention and the rental car companies shipped thousands of white General Motors sedans into Houston for the event. We rented one and so did everybody else.
We went to work at dawn each day and finished up late in the evening, doing live reports for the morning shows, the noon news, the evening news, and the eleven o'clock news. One morning we parked our car in an almost empty lot. That night, when we came out of the Astrodome, we walked out toward what we thought was our white Chevrolet sedan and, when we went to put the key in the lock, discovered it was not our car. We looked around.
In the lot, in all the parking places surrounding us, were thousands upon thousands of white Chevy sedans. We walked around for almost an hour until we found the one we'd come in with that morning.
But I digress. On the day Ronald Reagan was scheduled to speak, all sorts of rumors were circulating. He hadn't made many public appearances in the year or two before the convention and people were speculating that the 81-year-old former Commander in Chief was losing it, if you know what I mean, and that the Reagan handlers had thus been keeping him under wraps.
I ran into reporter Morton Kondracke, whom I knew a little from Washington, and he told me, yes, he had heard that maybe the former president had lost a step or two and yes, he was curious to see how he performed that night. If you think about it, we were just looking for a story at that miserable convention, and the only story we could think of was that the old Gipper might be ga ga.
That night, I was in the Astrodome when Reagan entered to thunderous applause. I don't know how many minutes it took to calm the crowd, but it took quite a while. All the time I was sitting there, wondering just how the old guy was really doing.
When the crowd grew quiet, Ronald Reagan looked down at his notes, and as he looked up into the crowd, and into his teleprompter, there, for just a tiny fraction of a second, I thought I saw something odd--a hint of a look that said; "Where am I?"
Then he looked at the 'prompter, read his first word and he was off, giving his usual, rousing speech. It was peppered with the familiar Reagan anecdotes, humorous stories, and his articulate and heartfelt message about the greatness of the American people. There were tears in a lot of eyes when he finished speaking.
I wondered about that moment at the beginning of his speech when something looked slightly wrong for a second: for ...not even a second. But I dismissed it and filed my story.
Two years later, in November of 1994, Reagan's family released his final letter, in which he told the nation he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. He wrote:
"I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead. Thank you, my friends. May God always bless you."
At the time, I looked back to that brief moment at the convention and realized that the rumors had, in fact, been true. Alzheimer's type dementia doesn't hit a person like a hammer one day. It comes on gradually and I'm certain Reagan had it when I saw him in Houston. Alzheimer's patients can get that look, especially in the early stages of the disease, and then, when they are reminded by something familiar, as Reagan was by the teleprompter, can click into what needs to be done and appear to be just as they once were, at least for a time.
For many years, until President Reagan died in 2004, I thought how odd it was that someone who had accomplished so much would have a disease that made him forget his incredible life.
And then my Dad got it too. Reading about Alzheimer's Disease and Alzheimer's type dementia, I realized how much Ronald Reagan had in common with the citizens he loved. At least five million Americans, most of them older Americans, have this terrible disease.
Reagan, who had accomplished so much, was a man of many blessings. But time is the Great Leveler. It made even the Great Communicator as fragile as the next man.
He died as he lived--doing the best he could. And he left the rest to the angels.
"I know in my heart that man is good, that what is right will always eventually triumph and there is purpose and worth to each and every life.”
—Ronald Wilson Reagan
Ronald Reagan Library