Editor's Note: Ahead of Sunday's centennial of Ronald Reagan's birth, National Journal brought back from its archives one journalist's reflection of Reagan's character.
The Saturday after my grandmother's death in 1985, we held a wake at my father's house. In the afternoon, the phone rang, and I answered it. This is the White House operator. The president is calling for Lou Cannon. Can he come to the phone?
President Reagan was calling to offer his condolences to the reporter who had covered him the longest, first in Sacramento for the San Jose Mercury News and then in the White House for The Washington Post, and who knew him best. Dad explained to Reagan that his mother had been ill for a long time, had been in a lot of pain, and that at the end she didn't know us anymore. In a way, he said, her death was a mercy.
"Even so, Lou," Reagan replied gently, "you're never ready to lose your mother."
The nation's 40th president was so sick for so long that his family should have been ready for his death. So should have been my father and the thousands of others who worked with him, the millions who admired him. But loss is hard to prepare for.
Especially for Nancy. Three years ago, she journeyed to Newport News, Va., for the christening of the Navy's new aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan. My dad had come from California for the christening, too, and he asked her when she was heading home. Tomorrow, she replied, grabbing my father's arm for support. "I don't like being away from Ronnie. He won't know where I am."
Reagan was lucky in his choice of wives. He was lucky, too, in his choice of biographers, although the selection wasn't his to make. Lou Cannon is often called Reagan's best biographer, but the first president my dad covered was Richard Nixon. In the early 1970s, then-Gov. Reagan visited the White House. Reagan introduced my father to Nixon.
"Mr. President, this is Lou Cannon. He's written a book about me."
This information seemed to vex Nixon, who stopped in the receiving line and looked my father -- and Reagan -- up and down.
"Well," Nixon said. "I'll scan it." The peculiar sense of resentment implicit in that word "scan" was not lost on either man.
"Lou," Reagan said, as Nixon moved on down the line, "he just took care of us both."
I was in college then, and the Nixon White House didn't seem too noble a beat. People my age were inspired by the work of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose stories had helped end the Nixon presidency. By the time I graduated from journalism school, Nixon was gone from the Oval Office, but I still wanted to be an investigative reporter. My hometown paper, the San Jose Mercury News, put me in the Washington bureau anyway. By then, Reagan was president. The office seemed bigger than I'd remembered it. I couldn't help but feel pride for the man at The Washington Post who covered the White House better than anyone else, and I gravitated toward covering the presidency myself.
The first time I was invited to the White House Christmas party for the press, I went through the receiving line with my old man, figuring I would get extra attention. It didn't happen. Reagan shook our hands in a perfunctory manner and mumbled his season's greetings. A week later, I got a call from my father, out in California traveling with Reagan. He was at Walter Annenberg's Christmas party, where Reagan had enthusiastically greeted him like a lost war buddy, calling across the room, "Hey, Lou! Merry Christmas!"
"What's the punch line?" I asked.
"Nancy wasn't with him," my dad said with a laugh.
Mrs. Reagan was peeved about a story my father had written revealing that the president was losing his hearing. It didn't bother Reagan. Months later, when he had trouble making out a question at a Republican get-together, Reagan pretended to fiddle with his ear while slyly tapping the microphone. He told the audience that he'd tried to turn up his hearing aid but that it only resulted in his picking up the Spanish-language broadcast of the Dodgers game that the guys in the kitchen were listening to.
"He liked us," my dad said, meaning the press corps. "He didn't take us too seriously, just as he didn't take himself too seriously. He understood our foibles and didn't go crazy when we wrote critical stories or when he thought we got something wrong. He had confidence that he could connect with the people better than we could. Consequently, he was rarely angry at us. I think we came to reciprocate his kindness."
This helps explain why the wall-to-wall coverage of Reagan's death has been so affectionate, even from journalists who gave Reagan hell when he was president. One thing we are mourning this week is the loss of civility and comity in our civic discourse.
John Kerry graciously suspended campaigning for a week, but the Reagan testimonials that came from the Democrats were inadvertently revealing. In lauding the Gipper as a Happy Warrior -- and FDR was Reagan's youthful idol -- Democratic leaders are praising an ideal they know they have failed to live up to -- even when running against each other. Reagan lost to George H.W. Bush in the 1980 Iowa caucuses, and you can still win a bar bet in this country by asking political junkies how many negative ads Reagan ran against Bush. It was zero.
"There is a sour edge to our politics now," my dad told me before the Reagan funeral. "The hatred and incivility directed at George W. Bush, the crap thrown at Max Cleland.... Reagan reminded us that it doesn't have to be this way. He truly embodied the Lincoln phrase, really did appeal to the better angels of our natures. We miss him. At least I do."