- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 9, 2004

Ronald Reagan’s death brings back a flood of warm memories of our conversations together in the Oval Office, on campaign planes and in hotel rooms during his meteoric political career.

Most of these personal, one-on-one interviews made headlines, including two during his presidency in the White House. One of them took place shortly after his recovery from the assassination attempt on his life when he stoutly defended his embattled budget director David Stockman, who had told a Washington Post reporter that Mr. Reagan’s budget numbers did not add up.

Mr. Reagan appeared fully recovered from his brush with death, his cheeks as ruddy as before, his movie star physique ramrod straight and muscular as ever, and his mischievous Irish humor always ready with a quip or two.

When I asked how he was feeling, he replied without hesitation, “Well, compared to the alternative, not bad.”

Typically, after taking Mr. Stockman “to the woodshed” for what he saw as a betrayal of trust, Mr. Reagan insisted in the interview that he continued to have confidence in his budget chief and actually blamed The Post writer for lifting Mr. Stockman’s remarks “out of context.”

Certainly a number of reporters interviewed him, but few had as many one-on-one interviews with him as I did. And few, if any, were given the kind of personal and public endorsement of their work that Mr. Reagan gave me.

During his 1980 presidential campaign, he quoted approvingly in his speeches, and in interviews with other journalists, from a book I had just written about wasteful federal spending. At his first White House Cabinet meeting, Mr. Reagan passed out copies of “Fat City: How Washington Wastes Your Taxes” to all of his Cabinet officers, directing them to root out and destroy waste, fraud and abuse. “If Don Lambro can find this much waste, we can, too,” he told them.

At the end of our first Oval Office interview, he asked me, “You haven’t any other suggestions, have you, of more places that we can find to cut the budget?” I did and ticked off a few ideas. But as I was getting ready to leave, Mr. Reagan took me aside and in an almost conspiratorial whisper privately confided his frustrations about bring spending under control.

“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 are doing,” he told me.

The budget certainly grew under Mr. Reagan — from $600 billion under President Carter to nearly $1 trillion at the end of Mr. Reagan’s presidency. Much of it was for his defense buildup to defeat the “evil empire,” which has paid us rich dividends ever since. Still, his inspector generals, described by press secretary James Brady as “meaner than junkyard dogs,” uncovered and ended billions in wasteful spending.

There are two myths about Mr. Reagan that persist to this day. One of them was that he never broke his 11th Commandment — “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.”

He did not just break that rule in his campaign against President Ford in the 1976 Republican primaries, he shredded it. When Mr. Reagan had begun winning primaries, Mr. Ford began harshly attacking Mr. Reagan in TV ads as a warmonger.

We were flying into Los Angeles in June 1976 after a weekend campaign swing, and I was seated next to Mr. Reagan for the last half hour of the flight. Until that time he had refused to strike back at Mr. Ford, but as I began to read the text of the attack ads to him, his Irish temper exploded. He called Ford “a crybaby,” accused him of using “divisive” and “arm-twisting tactics,” and warned that the president was “playing with fire” that threatened to destroy the party.

“And those phony war ads,” he went on to say. “This angered me. Because again, it seemed to be… pushing beyond a point in which you’d have to say…. Well, sometimes I think he’d rather win a convention than win an election.”

The other myth, created during the Clinton White House sex scandal, was that Mr. Reagan never removed his suit jacket in the Oval Office because he had so much respect for the presidency. But on the day I walked into his office in 1981 to interview him, he was at his desk in his shirt sleeves, writing copiously on a legal pad. Notably, his desk was covered in papers, a few open books and other documents. Contrary to another myth, this was a man who was hard at work, writing his own stuff.

We first got to know each other in the 1970s after he left the California governorship. I was a reporter for UPI, and whenever he would come into Washington for a speech we would get together at the Madison Hotel.

He was warm, friendly and disarmingly unassuming. “I’ll be with you in a minute,” he said cheerfully when he emerged from the bathroom in his crisp white shirt with French cuffs. He ran a comb through his tousled, shiny hair, which fell magically into place, leaned toward the dresser mirror to put in his contacts and the interview began.

The Washington news media tended to ignore him at that time, but on that day he began to shape the themes of his 1976 presidential campaign against Mr. Ford that would lay the groundwork for his 1980 election.

The United States was in need of “bold leadership,” not “the pale pastels” of the Ford administration, he told me. And in the end, that is what he gave his country.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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