At 100, why Ronald Reagan still matters

Published: Saturday, Feb. 5 2011 9:00 p.m. MST

Harmer: One day we were talking about welfare reform, and I said, "Have you ever been to an LDS Bishop's storehouse?" He said, "What is that?" I told him and he said, "I'd like to go." So a few days later we went out to the LDS Bishop's Storehouse in Sacramento. He had scheduled 30 minutes to be there. We went inside, and there were people that were doing tomatoes. And he went down the line and shook hands with everybody and asked what they were doing, who they were. And then we sat down and the 30 minutes was over and his driver came in and said "Governor, we need to leave." And he said, "Call Helene (that was his secretary) and tell her to cancel my appointments this afternoon." He stayed for two and a half hours, listening, learning. At staff meetings after that, he didn't want to say "the Mormons" and so he would say, "in Utah, they do it this way." And he always equated that experience with Utah. But repeatedly, many times, when the issue of welfare came up, he would go back to that experience and would talk about it and would say, "That's what we've got to do for the people of California."

Edwards: It is unusual for Republican presidential candidates to pay much attention to Utah because it's such a safe state for them. So I think the number of trips is indicative of some special relationship that's stronger than just wanting to get votes because often times we're taken for granted.

De Groote: What is something that we might not know about Reagan?

Garn: On one of his trips here, he said, "Jake is there anything else I can do for you while I'm here?" We'd finished all of the public meetings. And I said, "Well, there's something that's very important to me and that is a children's hospital, Primary Childrens Hospital." And he said, "Would you like to take me up to see it?" And all of his staff, and the president's plane was waiting and so on, and he said, "Would you take me up there?" And I said, "Yes." And he went up to Primary, went through the wards, shook hands with little kids, patted babies on the head and so on, and he spent about 45 minutes up there going through Primary Children's Hospital.

Harmer: I can share with you two stories that are not widely known, that can tell you about his depth of feeling about the American military. We had a meeting one day scheduled in his office, and we were all there except Governor Reagan. And I said to Helene Von Damm, his secretary, "Where's the governor?" She said, "He's delivering flowers." I said, "What?" She said, "He's delivering flowers." And then she showed us this letter. It was a letter from a serviceman in Vietnam who had sent five dollars addressed to the governor. And it said, "Dear Governor, a year ago my wife and I were married. And this day is our anniversary, it happened to be the day of our meeting. Would you please arrange for some flowers to be sent to my wife?" So he took the five dollars and bought a fifty dollar bundle of roses and went out to the house in this very modest neighborhood. When the woman answered the door, there stood the governor of California with an armful of roses. "Happy Anniversary, from the Governor, and your husband," he said and left.

The other story is the other end of the spectrum. In 1971 there was a major earthquake in the San Fernando Valley. In the north end of the valley there was a veterans facility made of wood, four stories high, and it had collapsed. He and I arrived there at the same time, and we were taken around the veterans facility by the director there. There was no media there, it was just the two of us. As we were standing by the hospital they were bringing out the bodies. Twenty-one veterans died in that hospital when it collapsed on that day. We were standing alone looking down on these body bags of about eight or nine veterans, and he began to talk very quietly, just to himself, about how wrong it was. We had asked the director when one of the bodies was brought out, "Who is this?" The director explained who it was and Reagan said, "What do you know about his family?" And the director said, "We don't know anything about his family, he never had a visitor in the years that he was here." Reagan talked about how wrong it was, that a man who had sacrificed for his country shouldn't be left alone. And then as the time came for us to go, again there were no cameras, nobody else just the two of us, he brought his arm up into a full military salute. He stood there for maybe 30 seconds standing over these dead veterans, and then walked back to the limousine and left. He had this intense feelings about the veterans. Much more emotional and much more real than I think most people realize.

Garn: Well just to follow up on that, I was down at the White House for a meeting with (Sen.) Paul Laxalt, a friend of his before they were both governors. And, I walked in and (Reagan) stood up and saluted me. And I said, "Mr. President, what's that all about," and he said, "Well, I didn't know you'd been a military pilot. I have a great deal more respect for you now that I know you're more than just a senator." [everyone laughs]

De Groote: President Reagan was often called "The Great Communicator." How important is it for a leader to be a great communicator?

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