On the last day of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, as he was walking out of the White House to his limousine for the ride to the Capitol, a White House aide looked at the President, and with tears in his eyes quietly said: “There will never be another one like him.”
Every president is unique, of course, but there was just something special about the man. Yet even people who knew Ronald Reagan well often had difficulty describing him. Optimistic but not naïve. Articulate but not glib. Intelligent yet guided by common sense. Well mannered but never pretentious. Friendly but not a pushover. Charismatic but real. Principled but not intransigent.
He was all of that and so much more. Perhaps the key to understanding Ronald Reagan is to realize his two defining characteristics – he genuinely liked people, and he was comfortable with who he was. That may not sound like much, but when you’re President, it makes all the difference.
President Reagan never tired of meeting people. He genuinely enjoyed campaigning, not just because he could advocate for his political positions on key issues, but mostly because he enjoyed being with people. You could see it in his eyes. There was a certain sparkle when he shook hands and exchanged a few words. He was not just “going through the motions.” He listened to what people had to say, and thought about what he could do to help. Often when he was back in his car or on Air Force One, he would turn to an aide and say: “There was a man back there who…” describing the person’s plight and asking what could be done about it.
It did not matter to Ronald Reagan whether you were the CEO of a Fortune 50 corporation, or the janitor who cleaned the CEO’s office at night. Station in life, gender, race, physical appearance, age – he did not care about any of those. What he cared about was people’s feelings. One time he made a speech that was not his best. The next day, after reading critical newspaper articles, he told his staff: “They’re right. It wasn’t a very good speech, but the poor fella who wrote it worked his heart out, and I was worried he would feel bad if I changed it too much.”
As great a speaker as he was, and as inspiring as his spoken visions could be, Ronald Reagan was equally happy telling a joke to a small group in a social situation. He would be quite animated, and always laughed heartily at the punch line – eyebrows raised, eyes crinkled, head back -- his wide smile lighting up the room. Maybe it was the Hollywood part of him that made him feel good about having made his audience laugh. And he was not afraid to laugh at himself. At the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinners, no one enjoyed the comedians more when they poked fun at the President than the President himself.
He even found ways to be friends with political adversaries. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, an old-time Democratic pol from Massachusetts, would say all kinds of mean things about President Reagan. But rather than get angry or carry a grudge, the President invented a rule that Tip could say whatever he wanted during the day, but at 6 PM, the politics would stop and they would be friends. Nothing told the story of Ronald Reagan’s magnanimity more than pictures of those two old Irishmen swapping stories and laughing uproariously in the evening after a day of pretty intense verbal assaults.
Some would say that it was President Reagan’s affection for people that made him comfortable with who he was. It was why he never viewed life as a burden. On the contrary, he enjoyed it. He smiled easily and often. He took his responsibilities, but not himself, seriously. Sometimes he winked at aides during ceremonies as if to say “it’s just me.” He stood tall and walked purposefully, frequently with a little bounce in his step. He rarely raised his voice or gave in to anger. Oh, he could get annoyed from time to time, but it was almost always because he was behind schedule and people were kept waiting for him. He never thought of himself as better or more important than anyone else. One day he was running late for a haircut appointment and grumbled about it to a nearby aide. The aide told the President not to worry because the barber did not mind waiting. In a very firm voice, the President told the aide that was not the point. The point was all of the people back at the barber’s shop who were kept waiting because the schedule was overcrowded. From then on, the Appointments Secretary made certain there were no meetings scheduled immediately prior to haircuts.
Other than when Mrs. Reagan faced breast cancer, he was not a worrier. Ronald Reagan did not need the Presidency to feel good about himself or to vanquish some deep-seeded doubts. He never pretended to be someone other than who he was. He did not adopt a persona to fit the job. In fact, he made a point of saying that he didn’t “become” President, but rather that he had been trusted with temporary custody of an Office that belonged to the people.
He knew who he was and he was happy.
That’s why he never let ego get in the way. It was not always about him. On his desk in the Oval Office, President Reagan kept a small plaque with the words: “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he does not mind who gets the credit.” He lived that in everything he did. Next to it was a sign that said: “It CAN Be Done.” The President kept it there to remind himself and visitors that in America, anything was possible – that we were limited only by our dreams.
It was Ronald Reagan’s happiness, his optimism, his enjoyment of life and his undying belief in the inherent goodness and spirit of the American people that got us to believe in ourselves again and put our country back on track. That, more than anything else, is the enduring legacy of the Presidency of Ronald Reagan.