Guns & Patriots

Happy Birthday, Mr. President

Happy Birthday, Mr. President
President Ronald W. Reagan during a press conference at the White House

If President Ronald W. Reagan were here, he would  thank us for remembering him on the 63rd anniversary of his 39th birthday. Like many who were young adults when Reagan ran for office in 1980, we wish he were in the oval office today.

For my wife and me, President Reagan has an even more special meaning. Even more than just being a great president.  He was a connection in our lives that later would bring us back together years later.

We both were influenced by the power of his words and inspired by a voice that just made you feel good about things.  I can’t help but think what a difference in presidential rhetoric from 1980 and what we heard recently. Reagan explained that government was the problem in 1980.

In 2013, President Barack Obama said government is the answer.

Reagan inspired us to remember the founding documents of the country were a sacred trust to be passed from generation to generation.  Compare that to what we heard recently from President Obama during his second inauguration speech. Obama said rights from our creator are rights only if government is there to administer them. He proposed that collective rights were more important than what we apply to individuals.

Reagan said “there are no easy answers but there are simple answers.  We must have the courage to do what is morally right.”

Reagan applauded that the Constitution limited what government had the right to do.  Obama complains about what the Constitution will not allow him to do.

While noting the stark contrasts, my thoughts drifted back to the days when Reagan was in office. How grateful I was to have him in charge as was my future wife. She was among those who had the privilege to be a White House intern in 1988.  Yes, when it was a respected position to have.

Margaret Kellett with President Ronald W. Reagan during her 1988 White House internship.

Margaret Kellett with President Ronald W. Reagan during her 1988 White House internship. (Courtesy)

My wife–then Margaret Moore–got the opportunity to see the giant of a man up close.  I spoke with her the other day about some of what she remembered:

I remember it started in my political science class and discussions about President Reagan. I was thankful my professor was a Republican as I thoroughly enjoyed that class. I had a friend in class who had interned for Reagan and told me I’d be a wonderful candidate. I remember thinking that would be the dream of a lifetime, so, I set out to conquer the mounds of paperwork, and wrote an essay on why I should be a White House intern. 

Once selected, I packed up my belongings and headed to Washington my senior semester at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton Va. I rented an apartment only a few Metro stops from The White House. I had my picture made for my security badge and went to work in the OEOB. (THE EXECUTIVE OFFICE BUILDING) It was located right next to The White House.

My first encounter in the White House was to be greeted by a stern woman who would make my assignments during my internship. I was assigned to the Presidential Advance Office. The  advance team work closely with secret service, to ensure that as well as being protected, President Reagan would also be visible to the public and available to the media. 

We were required to copy and highlight the President’s schedule for each person who would be in the morning briefing.

Highlighting only the part that person was involved in and then to make certain each schedule was given to the proper delivery person.

 For some reason,  I  was more exhausted than usual. We worked many long hours and at times like that you wonder why be a White House intern?  Then, an opportunity would provide itself to see the President.

Such was it when, as a member of the advance team, I joined the president on the way to a press conference. 

I always thought they just knew that if you could be around him for a few minutes, you were good for several more long hour days. Being in proximity to President Reagan for those few moments was just what I needed.  Plus, when the President knew we were up late working on an important White House advance trip, he would send a case of ice-cold Sam Adams beer and peanuts to us. 

I always wondered why not jelly beans?

Then came my time to lead the staff to their seats for the annual State of the Union.  As you know, the annual address by the President is the pinnacle of Washington political theatre. Surprised and honored, I remember being a little nervous and even though that was 25 years ago,  I remember like it was yesterday.

This would be President Reagan’s last State of the Union speech. Just as President Reagan would rehearse a scene from his previous acting days, we, too,  preformed a dry run  with the Secret Service. This gave me confidence for the real event a few hours later.

Then it was time. 

President and Mrs. Nancy Reagan arrived and I was to escort them to their private elevator. I was also instructed to be on watch for the President’s daughter Maureen, who liked to ride the elevator with them but was not supposed to do so.

All of a senior in college preparing for one of the nation’s most important events and like a watchman on the wall, I was prepared to stand in the way should Maureen dash for the elevator as instructed.  The President and Mrs. Reagan were in the process of getting in the elevator when Maureen ran in front of me before I could even mutter a word of protest and entered the elevator. I was mortified.  Visions of White House intern reassigned to some less prestigious location ran through my head. 

What had I just let happen?

For some reason, the staff decided to let me worry about this all through President Reagan’s speech and through the night. It was not until the next morning I was informed by one advance team member that Maureen always does that and they enjoy seeing how the intern handles it. In other words, it was a little game they enjoyed knowing that Maureen was going to get past any intern.

While there many other moments such as when I lead the advance team’s planning for a presidential visit to Richmond,  the memory that I treasure the most was my selection as head White House intern for the President’s 77th birthday.

I met with other interns and we were to make posters so that as the president walked by he could read them before making his speech. Mine, I used bright green poster board and wrote in large letters “Always Our”  followed by a huge star of gold glitter with “Mr. President” written underneath.

When he saw my sign, he stopped, waved, and saluted! 

The leader of the free world and most powerful man in the world just saluted me for saluting him!  I guess that is just made President Reagan President Reagan.  A true star in what some say was his greatest role.  Just as he answered a reporter’s question before taking office in 1981 when asked what kind of President he thought he would be. President Reagan answered, “I don’t know, I haven’t played one.”  I’d say he played one very well.  

There are other things I can tell which were fun like the day he snuck to Georgetown for a green beer but I’d better not go into details.  I’ll save that for next year’s birthday article!  Needless to say my picture with President Reagan is among my most cherished.”

Once my wife left the White House, she then began a TV career and eventually had us meeting in 1992.  We met, parted and then would meet again years later with a President Reagan connection.

While Margaret was walking the halls of the White House, I was covering the events from afar.  In one of my radio stops , I worked for a conservative World War II pilot turned radio owner.

Known for being thrifty but also known for his conservative commentaries, my boss got concerned when Reagan was meeting with the Soviet leadership. I can remember him lamenting the president might be going a “bit librul” on us.   Later, he realized that Reagan’s effort to deal with the Soviet Union was according to his plan. Often I would remark on air about the two holidays celebrated at the radio station. Christmas and Reagan’s birthday and not necessarily in that order of importance!

Like many my age,  we were told the Soviet Union would always be with us and we must learn to get along.   So was the political policy of “détente.”  Reagan objected to that view and so did I.  How could an atheistic, murderous regime –dare I say Evil Empire?– outlast a nation of  God fearing believers who cherished freedom?  Impossible I thought and this man must be our President!

Later in my radio career, I got a chance to interview and talk with Caspar Weinberger who was Secretary of Defense during President Reagan’s administration.

In 2002, our radio station was able to have him as guest for a speaking engagement.  The night before the event, our morning show talk host, station promotion director, and I had dinner with the distinguish visitor.  I remember it as a great time where he told stories of President Reagan and answered our questions.  He truly thought President Reagan was, in his words, “a great man.”

I had come to the dinner with a question I had always wanted to ask but never had the opportunity to talk with someone so close to the former President.  So, our conversation went something like this:

“Sir, before we leave, I have one question that has been on my mind for years since the event took place and you are someone who might know the answer.”

I could tell I got his attention as he straightened up a bit in his seat.

“The famous radio gaffe where President Reagan said he was bombing the Russians in five minutes.”

Weinberger was giving me his full attention.

“As a radio guy who has been on the air for years, I’ve always been skeptical that this was said to be unintentional. President Reagan was in radio before acting and then President. A true radio person never says something he doesn’t want heard into an open mic. He might get caught saying something when he doesn’t know the mic is on but never when he does know, so, my question is this:  Was it a gaffe or was this said on purpose to scare the Russians?”

A few years have passed and I can’t recall the exact comment from Mr. Weinberger but I do remember he had a wide grin and said something like ” I cannot confirm or deny that conclusion.” We all laughed.

While I was left with the sense I might have been right, I guess I’ll never know for sure and others won’t care to ever ask.

I just know from a radio perspective, when the on-air light is on a broadcaster never makes that mistake. Whether on purpose or not, it may have had an effect with an already nervous Soviet leadership.

While the Soviet Union was finding itself on the “ash heap of history” as President Reagan often said it would, the path of my future wife and me would find us in diverse radio and TV markets.

Then, years later on June 5, 2004, the news came that President Reagan had passed away at age 93.

Margaret and I had both had the same idea.  We must be in Washington for the funeral of the man who had impacted our lives.  We were reunited and eventually married in 2006.

For us the President elected to two consecutive terms and once by a 49-state landslide will always be remembered. Not for just what he did but what he believed.   Readying to leave office he was asked what regrets he had from his time in office.

I remember it was something like “not campaigning harder in Minnesota.”  It was Minnesota that he narrowly lost or it would be a 50-state sweep.

All we have now are the memories and reflections for the man born on February 6, 2013, the 63rd anniversary of his 39th birthday. We say “Happy Birthday Mr. President.”

 

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