- The Washington Times - Monday, June 7, 2004

The sun sets

With my 6-year-old daughter, Kerry, in tow, I found Ronald Reagan happy, healthy (or so I wrote) and ever charming during our 1994 visit to his 34th floor suite in Century City, Calif.

Wearing a hearing aid, the 83-year-old former president winked when saying he didn’t long for the politics of Washington. Still, he was curious to hear my opinion of then-President Clinton and any other unusual arrivals in the nation’s capital since he gave a farewell address to the city on Jan. 11, 1989, less than 10 days before leaving office.

“We made a difference,” Mr. Reagan had said the day he left office. “All in all, not bad, not bad at all.”

After I tried to explain Mr. Clinton, the nation’s 40th president recalled a few highlights of his own two terms in the Oval Office, captured in photographs lining the walls and bookshelves surrounding his desk. The old cowboy’s favorite was of him and Queen Elizabeth II on horseback.

He walked to a wall of windows, affording a view west along Avenue of the Stars toward the Pacific Ocean. He wanted to point out the seascape a little girl like Kerry doesn’t see in Washington’s swamplands. But this day, it wasn’t there.

“This is usually a beautiful view, but we haven’t seen the ocean for two months,” said Mr. Reagan, suddenly sounding like the environmentalist (Los Angeles so far that year had seen more air-pollution advisories than during the previous two years combined).

Another of his favorite vistas, he said, was looking out from the rear veranda of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, an hour’s drive north in Simi Valley. But his favorite view of all, he commented, was from the solitude of his California ranch.

He was taken with my daughter’s bright red dress, which didn’t surprise me. Women of the White House press corps liked to wear red dresses to Mr. Reagan’s press conferences, knowing the color caught his eye and increased the chances they’d be recognized for a question.

Several days later, I was happy to receive several photographs from our visit.

“To a beautiful young lady with a bright future,” he wrote to Kerry. By the time I could get the picture framed, he revealed he had Alzheimer’s disease.

I had no clue, I told CNBC the same day as Mr. Reagan’s announcement.

In an incredibly worded statement I read over and over, Mr. Reagan thanked “the American people for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your president. … I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life.”

Despite what pundits had to say, Mr. Reagan’s biographer Edmund Morris told me during an interview in 1999 that the former president showed no signs of Alzheimer’s during his tenure in the White House. The first symptoms, he said, became apparent in 1993, four years after his second term ended.

Two years after disclosing his illness, Mr. Reagan was catching up on some unfinished business with his eldest son. The occasion was the Gipper’s 85th birthday.

“It will be a private lunch, just dad and I,” Michael Reagan told me by telephone from Los Angeles. “There will be a big birthday dinner out here, but I didn’t want to celebrate my dad’s birthday with a thousand other people.”

It took many years, but Michael, the adopted son of Mr. Reagan and his first wife, actress Jane Wyman, and his father were finally close.

“You know,” Michael said, “I used to wonder about my relationship with my dad. It was so often easy just to sit back and say to myself, ‘You know, Dad has never once hugged me,’ or ‘Dad has never told me before that he loves me.’

“And all of a sudden one day, I woke up and asked myself, ‘When was the last time I hugged my dad, told him that I loved him?’ I had never hugged my dad, yet here I was mad because he had never hugged me. So when dad got out of office in 1989, I made a promise to myself that every time I saw him, I was going to give him a hug hello, or a hug goodbye, or a hug on both ends — just do that and show him how much I care.

“And so I did, the first time when dad came down to San Diego to do my radio show in 1989, just after his book came out. And the first time he was a little startled by it. He obviously wasn’t used to it. His generation was not used to men hugging one another. Frankly, he was a little taken aback by it.

“But what’s happened over the years is that dad actually now looks forward to these moments. He’s always standing at the door, waiting for a hug, when I arrive or when I leave. And especially at this point of his life with Alzheimer’s. While he can’t carry on normal conversations, and while he may not have the memory to recall certain things about my life … what’s interesting is that when I get up and get ready to leave the house, he’s at that door, with his arms open, waiting for that hug.”

He was quiet for a moment.

“Other things he might not be able to remember,” Michael said, “but he remembers that.”

Editor’s note: The above excerpts on Ronald Reagan appear in John McCaslin’s soon-to-be-published Thomas Nelson/WND book, “Inside the Beltway: Offbeat Stories, Scoops and Shenanigans From Around the Nation’s Capital,” which arrives in bookstores in early August.

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