Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader
The aides gave us the details, retold now like runes. Promptly at nine o’clock on most mornings of the eight years he spent as President of the United States, Ronald Reagan arrived in the Oval Office to find on his desk his personal schedule, printed on green stationery and embossed in gold with the presidential seal. Between nine and ten he was briefed, first by his chief of staff and the vice president and then by his national security adviser. At ten, in the absence of a pressing conflict, he was scheduled for downtime, an hour in which he answered selected letters from citizens and clipped items that caught his eye in Human Events and National Review. Other meetings followed, for example with the congressional leadership. “I soon learned that those meetings lasted just one hour, no more, no less,” Tony Coelho, at the time majority whip in the House, tells us in Recollections of Reagan: A Portrait of Ronald Reagan.1 “If the agenda—which he had written out on cards—wasn’t completed at the end of the hour, he would excuse himself and leave. If it was finished short of an hour, he would fill the rest of the time with jokes (and he tells a good one).” During some meetings, according to his press secretary, Larry Speakes, the President filled the time by reciting Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”
When the entry on the schedule was not a meeting but an appearance or photo opportunity, the President was rehearsed. “You’ll go out the door and down the steps,” Michael Deaver or someone else would say, we were told by Donald Regan, secretary of the treasury from 1981 until 1985 and White House chief of staff from 1985 until 1987. “The podium is ten steps to the right and the audience will be in a semi-circle with the cameras at the right-hand end of the half-moon; when you finish speaking take two steps back, but don’t leave the podium, because they’re going to present you with a patchwork quilt….” It was Larry Speakes, in his 1988 Speaking Out: The Reagan Presidency from Inside the White House,2 who told us how, at the conclusion of each meeting or appearance, the President would draw on his schedule a vertical line downward and an arrow pointing to the next event. “It gives me a feeling that I am accomplishing something,” the President told Speakes. It was Donald Regan, in his 1988 For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington,3 who told us how the schedule reminded the President when it was time to give a birthday present (“a funny hat or a tee shirt bearing a jocular message”) to one or another staff member: “These gifts were chosen by others, and sometimes Reagan barely knew the person to whom he was giving them, but his pleasure in these contacts was genuine…. On one occasion, when he was somehow given the wrong date for one man’s birthday and called to…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.