About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
"I Remember You"
It was like the last gathering of the clans, the reunion of five hundred friends, cabinet secretaries, aides, staffers, clique, tong and cabal members and appointees of Ronald Wilson Reagan, fortieth president of the United States, in Williamsburg, Virginia, on March 3, 2001. It was the biggest coming together of the Reagan hands since the day he left office, in January of 1989.
The big room in the Kingsmill Resort rocked with greeting. "I don't beleeeve it," "Great to seeeee you," "Where you hangin' your hat, where you causin' trouble?"
People with young eyes, lifted eyes, crinkled eyes from being in the sun; people with strollers, with walkers ...
That guy over there—that young kid from what, OMB? I used to see him in the tall cool halls of the Old Executive Office Building. Now he's married, with a baby who, from the look of things, is teething, in full red-gummed wail. I get some ice chips for the baby to suck on, return and say hello to the parents. Yes, it was OMB, the young father says, yes, down the hall and up a flight. "Those were great days." He smiles.
Across the room I see a once-young advance man who now walks with a cane. And Tom Dawson, one of the famous Mice, the young aides to Don Regan whom we always saw as nibbling away at good work. He looked exactly like Tom Dawson, with all of his hair, only now what was black is gray. He looks like a photo negative of Tom Dawson.
I turn and see Don Regan himself, the Chief, the controversial former chief of staff. He still looks like George Raft, he is still in a sharp gray suit, and at the sight of him I laugh. He sees me and does the same.
"I'm an artist!" he booms as we hug.
"Did you know I paint?" he demands. "I have pictures in museums! Started after I left. They didn't teach me to paint in the marines or at Merrill Lynch or in the White House, I can tell you that!"
There's Ed Meese, with his soft pink face and soft white hair. George Shultz once said he reminded him of a jolly St. Patrick, and that is how Meese looks to me now, chuckling and patting people's arms. He was under bad pressure once, the focus of charges, but now it's almost twenty years since those days and he looks like he's found what everyone wants: happiness. He looks happy.
I stand and survey the room. Carl Anderson, who worked on domestic policy, now head of the Knights of Columbus of America, is talking to Becky Norton Dunlop, formerly of presidential personnel. I used to hide from her. I had come into the White House without having been politically vetted, was not a registered Republican, had no party background—only conservative beliefs. They snuck me in and hid me from her. By the time we met I'd been there awhile. We became colleagues, then allies, then friends.
There's Kathy Osborne, Ronald Reagan's personal secretary, and Elaine Crispin, who worked for Nancy. She's slim, bubbly, unchanged save in one respect—"Elaine Crispin Sawyer," she says. "He changed my name!" The gray-haired man beside her beams.
Over there Judge William Clark is nodding at someone who's looking up at him and making a point. And Peter Robinson of the speechwriting staff, who was there to fight for the words "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." The State Department had scorned the demand as provocative, and Peter had waged a battle. Ronald Reagan fired the final shot: Of course I will say it, I mean to provoke.
"This is the inaugural party," someone in a cluster says. The gathering of the clans we would have had a few weeks ago if we'd all been in Washington when the eldest son of the man Ronald Reagan picked as his vice president was sworn in as the forty-third president of the United States. We forget how crucial that decision was, not only for immediate political prospects in 1980 but also for the generation that would follow. The new Bush would not be here if it had not been for the old one, who would not have been there if he hadn't been chosen in 1980 when the nominee was tired and the talks with Gerald Ford had collapsed and there was no other obvious choice. Reagan had not held Bush in the highest regard in those days, thought him weak from the famous "I'm paying for this microphone!" fracas in New Hampshire. But Reagan came to like him, to respect him. Now Bush's son was president and acting in a way that suggested that for a dozen years he'd watched both Reagan and his father up close in that old house, and had learned from the former what to do and from the latter what not. Well, not exactly, but close. At any rate, the old Reaganites viewed the new Bush with hopeful regard: good man, seems tough enough, but let's watch him on tax rates. In public they are respectful of Dubya, in private merrily irreverent. They send each other e-mails. "What was Bush's answer to the question How do you feel about Roe v. Wade?' Ah think it was the most important decision George Washington made when he crossed the Delaware.'"
Here is Jim Brady, in a wheelchair with an assistant, a nurse, a young Filipino woman who stands behind his chair holding the handles.
He is surrounded by well-wishers and poses for pictures. I say hello, introduce myself when he doesn't know me. He says, "Of course," and tells me ever since he was shot he suffers from CRS.
"What is that, Jim?"
"Can't Remember Shit."
We laugh, and I tell him there's a lot of that going around.
People kneel in front of him and look up at his face, or bend down to pat his arm. They feel an awkward tenderness. The thick lines of scar tissue are visible on his head and will be for the rest of his life, as they have been since the day twenty years before when the young man with the gun left him lying on the pavement, a thick scarlet stain pooling under his head.
"How is Sarah?" I ask.
"Not well," he says, and his eyes fill with tears. He began to weep and I stood there with my hand on his arm, his attendant staring straight ahead, as if she has seen this scene before. A few weeks later I was watching TV when Sarah Brady came on Larry King to tell of her struggle with lung cancer.
Nancy Reagan moves through the room, the center of a dense moving cluster. She's smiling the public smile that has become her private smile, shaking hands, kissing, greeting children, saying, "Of course I remember you." Still so small, size two, five feet two inches. In a pretty bright dress and black pumps. She is the same but older, of course, eighty now and frail, delicate as bird bones.
She has not always enjoyed big gatherings of her husband's supporters but she does this night. Later she would tell me, with the excitement of a girl, "I saw Rex Scouten! He's such a lovely man."
Rex Scouten, the head usher of the White House in the days of Reagan, whom she hadn't seen since the day she left, and who had been standing with her in the solarium in the residence the day the head of her Secret Service detail came and told her shots had been fired at the president.
She saw Don Regan too. He, of course, had bitterly left his chief-of-staff position in the White House after Nancy, and others, had moved against him in the wake of Iran-contra. He took revenge in a best-seller that charged she'd driven him mad with her belief in astrology and her insistence on delaying presidential trips until the moon was in the seventh house and Jupiter aligned with Mars. I'd never known of any of that back then, when I was a speechwriter for the president, but I believed it when I read it. The assassination attempt had turned a fretful nature fearful; she'd worried constantly about her husband's safety, and if the advice of astrologers offered solace she would have listened.
But you know what Nancy Reagan did when she saw Don Regan? She laughed and hugged him, and he laughed and hugged her back. "I'm an artist!" he told her too, and she asked him what he painted.
"I paint oils, landscapes!" (He's eighty-two years old and he still talks like Willy Loman's brother in Death of a Salesman: Africa! Diamonds big as stars!)
Nancy said she'd love to see them, spoke to Ann, his wife, wheelchair bound, observing life now from the middle of people and always looking up.
Later Nancy would muse to a friend, "I never would have associated Don with painting!" They laughed, but with pleasure. Isn't life full of surprises?
It was all so warm, and everyone seemed generous and kind. It was just like the old days, except that's not how the old days were.
* * *
The new captain of the Ronald Reagan, Captain Bill Goodwin, stands at a little stage on the side of the room and speaks of the reason for our coming together. We are gathered to go, en masse, tomorrow, to the Newport News Shipyards to witness and celebrate the christening of the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan, CVN 76, Nimitz class. Nancy Reagan will swing the bottle to the bow.
The skipper tells us it is the honor of his twenty-five-year career to be the first commanding officer of the Reagan, that the ship is coming to life, 60 percent finished. "A ship with a crew is a living, breathing thing," he says. "Tomorrow if you see our sailors, they are the lifeblood. The average age of a sailor on our flight deck is nineteen years old.... If you see them tomorrow, shake their hands."
Nineteen years old. If the old Reagan was here, the one who isn't sick, he'd think: "They were born in 1982, when we were trying to rebuild the national defense, when we were going for the six-hundredship navy. They were babies, and now look. Isn't that something?"
The ship's logo, the captain tells us, has four stars for the "four pillars of freedom—liberty, opportunity, global democracy and national pride." Below the stars the ship will bear a motto. "It's one some of you will recognize...