Washington WATCHING coverage of the gala opening of Ronald Reagan's presidential library this week, my thoughts catapulted back to that day in December 1987 when the president gave me the scoop of any journalist's lifetime.
It was the week of the history-making meeting between President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Far from the coziness between American and Russian leaders today, the two leaders were circling each other like wary male pups. And 5,000 journalists from across the world were in Washington, trying to gauge the political sociology of those circles.
Then, by the luck of the ideological journalistic draw, four columnists were invited to the White House that Wednesday, Dec. 9, to meet with President Reagan. I was unashamedly ecstatic at the opportunity.
When the president came into the Oval Office at 2 p.m., he did not walk, he bounded. He was on top of the world, as the old song goes. In fact, it soon became obvious that the man who had made his very political career on the most aggressive anti-communism was having one great time with "Gorby."
One of the other columnists asked him how the two were getting along.
The man who had coined the phrase "the evil empire" averred that the Cold War was over because the Russians "no longer believe in one-world Marxian domination."
Since Reagan was known for often saying things he did not (to put it kindly) exactly mean, we journalists exchanged glances of disbelief. But he went on.
"Possibly the fundamental change is that, in the past, Soviet leaders have openly expressed their acceptance of the Marxian theory of the one-world communist state," he said thoughtfully, "that their obligation was to expand in the whole world. They no longer feel that way."
Asked whether Gorbachev had actually made the point that the Soviets were no longer seeking world domination, the president stood firmly on his newly coined position.
"No, he has never said that, but . . . he is the first and only leader that has never affirmed that, that has never stood up there before their great Soviet Congress and openly stated that goal as all the others have. Just the things that he is willing to discuss and to talk about in the relationship is evidence to me that he is looking for a situation of competing, but also of living peacefully together, in the world."
As five U.S. presidents converged on California's Simi Valley for the largest such gathering in the nation's history, cynics chimed in with the idea that the location was an appropriate spot for
good ol' Ronnie Reagan. After all, the "location" was once the home of a famous Hollywood stuntman in Western films. Others snickered at the idea that there were 47 million pages of documents already in the library of a man who was probably the most notorious president in history for never meeting a fact he liked.
Yet, there was the same Ronald Reagan I saw that historic day in the White House. For, this week, he was at his best again, as he looked around the beautiful new library at the piece of the Berlin Wall that stands in the garden, and said in that amiable way of his:
"When I said, 'Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall,' little did I dream that a piece of it would be in my backyard!"
As the fickle attention of the nation shifts from its other absorptions, I realize how little we know Ronald Reagan.
My liberal friends still go into rages at his very name, but then it turns out that they really don't know the man. My conservative friends naturally adore him, but when you get down to specifics, they don't much know him either. We moderates or centrists (there were six of us in Washington at last count and one is in a retirement home) try not so much to judge as to understand.
So, what we can see so far of this mysterious man is that he was admittedly abysmal on the details. On the other hand, he was and is a man who "knew," instinctively, several truths.
Lucky for him, and for all of us, they happened to be great truths, such as his faith in democracy and in free enterprise, plus his abhorrence of communist totalitarianism. And while he wasn't always so hot at picking honest people, he also picked out of political nowheresville one James Baker III, recently of Madrid.
So, have a good time this week, Ronnie! Maybe someday we'll understand you. And if you have any more scoops, well . . .