I’m in Los Angeles this weekend to participate in the Reagan Centennial Celebration. A few months ago, I told you how I accepted an appointment to become the Executive Director of the Reagan Centennial Commission, an organization created by Congress and appointed by President Obama. It’s my “side job” through the next several months. And I have enjoyed working with the Senators and Congressmen and their staffs, and the members of the private sector who are on the Commission. It’s really been a great reminder of the skills I have and haven’t been using.
While in California this weekend, I’m thinking about President Reagan, who would have turned 100 years old on Sunday, February 6th.
In the world of governing and politics, work generally falls into two camps. Either you’re a policy person – vision, concepts, theories, ideas – or you’re a process person – logistics, operations, making things happen.
I fell firmly into the latter camp.
When I worked for President Reagan at the White House, I served as a Press Advance. I was sent ahead of the Presidential party – sometimes five or six weeks ahead for a foreign trip – or sometimes just days ahead, if it was campaign season.
I worked within a small team of skilled people who had very specific, discrete duties. I, for instance, was responsible for designing how the event would look, how the White House Press would cover it, how the local press would cover it, and nail down every aspect of the media flow. Others worked on the public access to the event, the transportation, the security, the movements of the President.
We were a well-oiled machine.At the time, the Advance Office was fairly striated, with men doing the glamorous field work and women serving as “trip coordinators” (putting together the logistics and managing the nitty-gritty details). I, of course, busted the striation and went out in the field. I traveled six or seven days a week and saw some amazing things and met some incredible people.
I loved that job.
Which is part of the reason I said “yes” when asked to run the Reagan Commission. I had so many incredible opportunities because I served President Reagan. Why wouldn’t I want to serve in return?
If we were sitting together, You’d ask me my favorite memory of President Reagan. So, I’ll go ahead and tell you. Now, I won’t tell you that I talked to him every day – I didn’t. Or even every week – no, that wasn’t me. But from time to time I’d be in the position to brief The President on what he needed to do at event. Every time I ever spoke with him, though, I had the amazing experience of feeling as though he and I were the only two people in the world. He was just that present. That attentive. That connected.
On his first “overseas” trip after leaving office, I was asked to advance his appearance at a conference in Penticton, British Columbia. Hardly “overseas”, but it was out of the US. Anyway, the traveling party was very small, and I found myself walking with the President and two staff people into his hotel suite. At that moment, the phone rang and the two staff were soon engaged in speaking with The White House. Turns out George H.W. Bush’s nominee to the Defense Department, Senator John Tower, had removed his name from consideration, and Dick Cheney had been nominated in his stead.
President Reagan turned to me and said, “Dick Cheney. Well, what do you think of Dick Cheney?”
What did I think? I thought perhaps my tongue had frozen to the roof of my mouth. I thought maybe I would throw up. I thought my knees might not support me. Dick Cheney, Dick Cheney – who was he again?
President Reagan had asked the process gal what she thought of a policy matter. And he expected a response.
“Well, Mr. President,” I ventured. “I imagine Mr. Cheney had a lot of exposure to defense issues when he was President Ford’s Chief of Staff (how I remembered that is beyond me) and I think he served on Armed Services in the House, so he should be OK.”
President Reagan’s eyes twinkled at me. I swear, they twinkled. And then he said, “You know, you’re right. He’ll be fine.”
And I excused myself and went into the hallway to put my head between my knees. And breathe deeply.
I did not agree with President Reagan on all of his policy initiatives. Which is probably why I ended up on the process side of the equation. But I admire to this day his vision, his passion and his tenacity.
Today – on the 100th anniversary of his birth, it’s those qualities, and my personal recollections of the many experiences I had because of the man’s service – that I honor. And feel immense gratitude for.