The Ronald Reagan I knew

Because it’s the moment, and it won’t ever come back.  Because everyone is remembering one thing or another about Ronald Reagan in this week of commemoration following his death.  One more anecdote can’t hurt.  Like so many Americans, I personally was touched by the news of President Reagan’s passing. It wasn’t because I’m an ardent Republican, far from it. It was because I was called away from my post as a foreign-service officer in London to work with him and for him in the White House on two special three-month-long assignments during 1985.  What I remember most was how human, simple, polite and considerate he was in his relationships with all who surrounded him be they  high-level officials, office clerks, chauffeurs, housemaids or temporary extra staff like me.  On my first White House assignment I helped with the press arrangements for the President’s trips to what at the time was still a G-7 summit in Bonn and then on to more ceremonial stops in Madrid, Lisbon and Strasbourg to speak to the European Parliament.  On the second, I was called back, because of my background as a one-time Moscow correspondent, to coordinate the White House communications campaign for Reagan’s first meeting with then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva.  To keep all this in perspective, it should be noted that I had extremely little direct personal contact with the President during that time; I helped with small parts of some of his speeches, but at levels far down the hierarchical line. I participated in the briefings and mock press conferences his staff put him through before facing the genuine press corps. And I often was in the same room with him helping to keep photographers and reporters in line and on a tight schedule for photo opportunities and other encounters with the press.  But he didn’t really know me at all.  However, when we returned from Geneva, my assignment finished and I was about to go back to London, one of my superiors, as a sort of informal thanks for my services, asked me if I would like to have my picture taken with the President.   Of course my answer was yes and the meeting was set up for the next day, a Saturday morning in the White House. The President would be there to do his ritual weekly radio broadcast and his usually crowded schedule would be a bit relaxed.  I showed up on time, was ushered into his oval office where the President, dressed casually in slacks and a baseball-style jacket, shook my hand and a White House photographer got the picture.  I then was ready to say thank you and leave.  I hadn’t prepared for or expected more than that.   The President was in no rush, however and asked me where I was from, where I had gone to school and what I had studied.  When I said I had studied journalism at Northwestern and had been, among other things, a baseball sports reporter for the university newspaper, his eyes lit up and he asked me to sit down.  For the next 10 or 15 minutes–which seemed like two hours to me–he told me stories about his own career as a baseball broadcaster before he became an actor and we exchanged a few reflections about sports in general and baseball in particular.  When finally, he let me go, I stumbled out in a bit of a daze.  I had expected a two-minute meeting and a handshake. What I got was roughly a quarter of an hour alone with the President of the United States in the oval office swapping stories about our love of baseball and our respective reporting careers.  It is not an experience that you forget.  And I doubt that it is one that I would have had with any other president.  I am sure he had only the foggiest notion at best of who I was. But it didn’t matter to him. I was another human being with a common interest. That was good enough for him.  For me it was better than good. It was memorable.   Ronald Reagan is gone now. But he certainly merited his image as a genuine “people person,” and I, for one, never will forget him. An accredited member of the foreign press corps, Minnesota native Robert (Bud) Korengold first came to Europe in 1955 after serving in the Korean war. A Chevalier in the order of Tastevin in Burgundy, the recipient of a Presidential Award for Sustained Superior Accomplishment in the conduct of foreign policy, and a member of the order of Palmes Academiques and the order of Arts et Lettres, he lives in Normandy doing a bit of gardening and a bit of writing and a lot of amused reflection about life in France and with the French.
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