Wednesday, June 3, 2009

On Meeting the Gipper

They unveiled a statue this week of our 40th President, Ronald Reagan, in the rotunda of the Capitol. I covered Ronald Reagan (and President George H.W. Bush) during my years in Washington, and covering stories involving the President always helped keep things interesting. And, in those fascinating years, some days stand out. The day I was summoned to the White House, for a briefing, for example ....

President Ronald Wilson Reagan at the White House.

It was a February morning, the day President Reagan was scheduled to deliver his State of the Union Message to Congress. I was reporting for the 11 p.m. news at the ABC-TV affiliate in Washington D.C. that year, and I knew I would be going live from the Capitol's "swamp site," as it was known. The "swamp site" is on the East Front of the Capitol and it was there we could count on all the ambulatory members of Congress appearing after a big speech like that, moving from camera to camera in that symbiosis that is an essential feature of Washington life.

That's me with Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) getting ready to go live from the East Front ("swamp site") of the U.S. Capitol.

It was about 10 a.m. when the telephone rang at my home. It was the assignment desk at the station, telling me I needed to get cracking and get down to the White House for a noon briefing on the speech. I'd covered these briefings before and they weren't any big deal. The president wasn't usually there, and it was all done in the Press Room, that small area for reporters erected over the White House pool.

"David was supposed to go," said the assignment manager who called me. "But he doesn't want to. He suggested you go." David was our 11 p.m. anchor, a former CBS correspondent and he had, apparently, sat through enough briefings to last him a lifetime.

I got cracking.

I had no trouble getting into the White House as I had been in Washington long enough to have a pass. The only odd thing about this particular day is that instead of being ushered toward the press room, a gloved steward ushered me into the main quarters of the White House where I waited in a hallway along with several other people. It was even more remarkable when I noticed who the other people were.

Dan Rather was there, and Tom Brokaw; Peter Jennings was there and Sam Donaldson; Judy Woodruff was there and a couple of other national correspondents whose names I've now forgotten; and then there was one anchor/reporter each from each of the local network affiliates. The Reagan administration was smart that way: they knew that local anchors and reporters in Washington D.C. has audience members that were among the powerful. Throwing the locals a bone was very wise. I exchanged a few pleasantries with Sam Donaldson, whom I knew a little, and nodded a hello at the others. There were about ten of us.

I realized I wouldn't have been there among this august company if our 11 p.m. anchor hadn't stepped aside and let me have this opportunity. Under my breath I said a prayer of thanks to the old grouch.

We were ushered into the Roosevelt Room, a beautiful room filled with portraits and with the Charles Russell sculptures Reagan loved. A long table in the center of the room was set for luncheon and the usher indicated we were all to take our seats. Dan Rather, whom I'd never met before because he worked in New York, was extremely gentlemanly and pulled out my chair for me. I sure wish I could remember what I was wearing, so I could tell you that I was looking especially fetching that day, but I honestly can't recall.

The President's two key advisers, Don Regan (domestic policy) and Bud McFarlane (national security) gave us embargoed copies of the speech and began to review it with us as luncheon was served. Don Regan mentioned it was the President's birthday and that the President might drop in and share some birthday cake with us. I noticed Dan Rather said absolutely nothing, and ate only half of everything that was set in front of him.

Everybody else asked lots of questions. That was part of the power game. I decided my job was to listen this time, since I had never been in on a briefing like this one. Though I had been a reporter for more than a decade and had been in Washington for half that time, I knew that anyone under forty in Washington was considered a rookie. I listened.

We were just finishing up our dessert (birthday cake: Dan Rather ate half) when the door at the far end of the room opened. President Ronald Reagan stood there for a moment, back lit by the light from the hallway.

"Mr. President," said Don Regan. "We were going to sing you Happy Birthday, but I guess we're all too scared."

"I'm not too scared," said Dan Rather. It was the first time he had spoken all morning, and he immediately launched his baritone voice into "Happy Birthday" while we all joined in.

President Reagan entered the room, beaming, as we finished the song. Then he went around the table and shook each hand, saying hello to each familiar face.

I had covered him as he stood on podiums, but I had never been up this close to him before. He was taller than I thought he would be--well over six feet, I think. He wore no make-up on his ruddy Irish face and his hair was steel gray and appeared to be unretouched. He was in his eighties and he looked fit, handsome, and at least a decade younger than his actual age.

He shook my hand and I knew he had no idea who I was. But that was okay with me. I was doing the same job as those other guys in the room. For less money, of course, but still.

The laughing and joking took only a few minutes and then the President said goodbye and walked back toward the door. As it opened for him, he paused and turned back to look at us all. Up went his hand and the President gave us his Reagan wave. The one you always saw him give on the White House lawn when he was on the way to Camp David.

Maybe it was the back light from the hallway again, but for a moment there it looked as if he had a spotlight beaming right on him, as if he traveled permanently in a warm penumbra of light. And then he turned and was gone.

Photos courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Library.

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Florida Beach Basics said...

what an interesting, well-written post! marge

Anonymous said...

Hi Robin!

I chanced upon your site via a link from Big Hollywood and just commented on your guest blogger's post on John Wayne. Anyway,
coincidentally I was at the Reagan Presidential Library the day before yesterday (June 2) with my 17 year old son. The day was perfect ~ warm weather, a cool breeze, uncrowded ~ so we spent four hours poring over every piece on display and watching clips of old motion pictures and films from his Governorship and Presidency. Walking through Air Force One, set up as though President Reagan just walked off yesterday, was especially interesting.

I will continue to check your blog, as it seems very much in line with my *life*.

Thanks for the great post, and congrats on getting your special meeting with Mr. Reagan.

Laura in California

Robin Chapman said...

Thanks Laura and Marge: Often in Washington as a reporter we tended to take things for granted. But that was one day I did not.