- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 8, 2004

My personal encounters with Ronald Reagan were few. But he once shook my small world in ways of which he was doubtless unaware.

In 1976, he almost snatched the Republican nomination from Gerald Ford, and the theme that propelled his sagging campaign was that, by George, we were going to keep the Panama Canal, lock, stock and barrel. We had built it and paid for it, and if he were president there would be no “giveaway.” It was not the only Reagan campaign theme that struck me and many others as reckless. A contemporary secretary of the Army told me that by Pentagon estimates it would take several divisions to police the canal against sabotage.

One day, Joe Allbritton, the publisher of my newspaper, The Washington Star, saw a Reagan speech that persuaded him that Mr. Reagan’s nomination would be a calamity for the Republican Party rivaling the Goldwater debacle of 1964. Secretly, for he had promised me editorial autonomy and wished, he later explained, to stay out of my “bailiwick.” Joe planned a front-page Star editorial endorsing Mr. Ford’s nomination. Jim Bellows, the editor, and I knew nothing of the editorial before Mr. Bellows was called by the night editor. A harrowing crisis ensued at the paper, but eventually we made peace and ran the editorial, somewhat revised, on the editorial page.

Everyone knows the sequel, and it reminds us of the fallibility of editors. But for me, the story had a more personal resonance. In mid-July 1981, our new owners (Mr. Allbritton had sold The Star to Time Inc. under FCC pressure three years earlier) announced that the venerable paper had lost its battle for survival after a century and a quarter and would close unless a responsible buyer (meaning someone prepared to stare down monumental losses) could be found.

Immediately, none other than Ronald Reagan, The Star’s designated party-wrecker of four years earlier, invited himself to a farewell luncheon — a gracious gesture that was all the more appreciated since Mr. Reagan was still recovering from John Hinckley’s gunshot. Whether or not he recalled our heated warning against him I have no idea. My photos of the luncheon show a jolly Ronald Reagan laughing a head-back laugh, and others at the luncheon tables — Murray Gart, Sid Epstein, our White House correspondent Jerry O’Leary, Mary McGrory, Ed Meese, Woody West, Mary Lou Forbes and yours truly — laughing with him.

What I haven’t forgotten is the merry and impressive authority with which Mr. Reagan discussed spaghetti Westerns, a not improbable topic given his professional past. We were speaking of misfired subtitles, and I asked him if he had read James Thurber’s hilarious piece about French subtitles on American Westerns, the one that has a sheriff, buckling on his six-shooters to pursue the usual outlaws, saying, “Alors, je vais demander ses cartes d’identites (“OK, I am going to see their driver’s licenses.”)

The president shook his head, and then out of the blue asked an unforgettable question: “Where did we get the English language? Where did it come from?”

An awkward silence fell over the table — in part, I suspect, because some didn’t know and others wondered, in the eternal Washington way, “Now why is he asking that?” The silence grew heavier, and, taking the question at face value (I descend from a long line of Germanic schoolmasters and the urge to explain runs deep in my genes), I murmured a few forgettable words about Norman French and Anglo-Saxon after 1066 and Chaucer’s middle English.

The president nodded and thanked me, as if I had merely told him who painted one of the pictures on the wall.

I told the tale more than once in public, and it found its way into Lou Cannon’s definitive Reagan biography, “The Role of a Lifetime,” along with Reagan’s comparable question of George Will: “What makes the Blue Ridge blue?”

We of the self-appointed cognoscenti tended, sometimes, to think that Mr. Reagan was underinformed about certain essential things, but that snooty theory hardly fits this case. Among the presidents of my lifetime, perhaps two — Harry Truman and Bill Clinton — would almost certainly know where English came from. Others, including Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower, might know. Others, notably Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, might know, but if they didn’t could hardly be imagined asking a question that might be thought to reveal essential ignorance. The present incumbent at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. would probably scold me for knowing and saying.

Only Ronald Reagan was serene enough, in all that great company, not to care who thought what about what he might or might not know, and to ask the question because he simply wanted to know. Pure curiosity, one might say.

When I was teaching college students, I always interrupted when they began, “This may be a stupid question, but …” There are no stupid questions, I said; what is stupid is to want to know but not to ask for fear that someone else might consider the question stupid. Ronald Reagan understood, with the truly educated, that at some level we all are deeply ignorant and need to ask a lot of questions. It is a legacy I shall forever associate with our graceful luncheon companion on that memorable day.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. was editorial page editor of The Washington Star from 1975 to 1981. He writes of The Star years among other subjects in his forthcoming memoir, “Telling Others What to Think: Recollections of a Pundit.”

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