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At first, Reagan was very reluctant to get into a tit-for-tat with Ford, until I read the full ad copy to him. That’s when his Irish temper exploded.

Calling Ford “a crybaby,” Reagan accused him of using “divisive” and “arm-twisting tactics.” His “spirit of unity” was strained, he said, and he warned Ford that he was “playing with fire” that threatened to destroy their party.

“And those phony war ads. This angered me,” he said, adding, “Sometimes I think he’d rather win a convention than win the election.”

Reagan came within an eyelash of the nomination, but on the long flight back to California, he shrugged off his loss and told his dispirited top aides to prepare for the next campaign.

Reagan decisively defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980, with the support of “Reagan Democrats,” and then went on to stun the Washington establishment and the national news media with one policy-making success after another.

He got his tax cuts through Congress with Democratic support, and much of the rest of his agenda, too. In foreign policy, he didn’t mince words about the dire Soviet threat, making it clear that the Kremlin’s communist bosses faced a determined foe. “They cheat and they lie,” he bluntly told a White House news conference.

By 1983, the battered economy soared out of its deep recession, and Reagan was at the peak of his popularity. In 1984, he carried 49 states.

I had two lengthy Oval Office interviews with him during his presidency, the first shortly after his recovery from a nearly-fatal assassination attempt that lifted his presidency to heroic proportions.

When I asked how he was doing, he replied, “Not bad, considering the alternative.” He told me how he had been doing weight exercises to rebuild his chest measurement.

A low point came when budget director David Stockman, in a series of interviews with a Washington reporter, raised doubts about Reagan’s budget policies.

Reagan stuck with his budget chief, though, telling me that “the real cynicism and the doubts in the plan were written by the author and [were] his interpretation.”

Still, getting his proposed budget cuts always remained a tough challenge over the course of his presidency. It wasn’t for lack of trying, though.

Mr. Stockman sought budget cuts across the landscape of the government, but, in a moment of deep frustration, told me he was persistently blocked on Capitol Hill, not only by the Democrats “but by Republicans when it comes down to parochial interests.” And he named names.

When one of our interviews was over, Reagan drew me to the side of the Oval Office and confided, “You know, just between us, one of the hardest things in a government this size no matter what our people way on top are trying to do … is to know that down there underneath is that permanent structure that is resisting everything you’re doing.”

Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and contributor to The Washington Times.