The following is the flat-out truth. I’ve been waiting for years to tell the story because it reveals how difficult it is being a politician, and how good President Reagan was in handling that part of his job.
(The story also blows my mind, which may be even more of a reason to tell it. In fact it is more of a reason to tell it. And the interesting thing is, I never really did buy into Reagan’s brand of politics.)
In the late 1950s Ronald Reagan was still hosting a TV cowboy series — “Death Valley Days” — and now and then he even appeared in one of the episodes (looking tall, tan and handsome).
More often than not, however, he was traveling the country, making inspirational speeches to corporate executives on the general theme that prosperity results if government stays out of the hair of big business.
His sponsor, for the TV show and the speeches, was a little old company called General Electric.
In the spring of 1958 (or it could have been 1959 — I don’t remember exactly) I was on a college committee in charge of organizing speakers for the annual school blast on campus. (The school blast involved parades, song, dance, wine and cultural events such as mud wrestling and creative mooning.)
There were also a couple of serious things, and a speech by someone like Reagan was one of them. I went to the airport in Des Moines to pick him up and drive him to the Iowa State campus. He was easy to spot as he got off the plane. No one was as tall, tan or handsome all at once. Amazing.
It went very well. We had dinner that night — Nancy Reagan was there spending a great deal of time picking lint off her husband’s shoulders — and we talked about lifestyles, professions, people we had met, hobbies, sports, hopes and fears about the future.
At the end of the visit, Ron and I were about as close as I could imagine being to an adult not related to me, and we promised to get together again.
Well, we never actually got together again in such ideal circumstances. But, and this is the rest of the story, we did get together.
Some time in the mid-’80s President Reagan visited Japan. (You’ll notice I don’t keep track of things on the Roman calendar. I use the Babylonian calendar.)
The American Chamber of Commerce in Japan hosted a breakfast for him. I was invited, and I squirreled my way to the front row of the reception line. And here he came — tall, tan and handsome.
Keep in mind Reagan had done a lot since we last met — being Governor of California and now the President of the United States, to name just two. But I had done a lot in the meantime also, so, what the hell.
“Hi, I’m Bob Collins,” I said, sticking out my hand. “We met before when you came and spoke at my University in Iowa. We had dinner.”
There is a glaze that seems to cover the eyes in these circumstances, almost as if the organism is protecting itself from revealing the least twitch of emotion or recognition which may lead to vulnerability.
“Yes,” the tall, tan and handsome man said after a slight hesitation. “We’ll have to get together again,” he said as he moved down the reception line, glaze firmly in place.
Ronald Reagan didn’t know me from Adam, but as I say, he had been busy.
And then it happened. And this is wild.
In 1989 (September of 1989 — some dates I do remember) we returned from Santa Barbara where we had helped our daughter get settled at the University of California. Ronald Reagan’s ranch was up the hill from the campus, but I decided not to drop in on him.
Three or four days later, we were at a reception hosted by Ambassador Mike Armacost at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, and who do you suppose was there? You guessed it. And he was still tall, tan and handsome.
Ex-president Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy were in Japan. Reagan made a series of speeches here for more money than he earned in eight years at the White House. Good for him.
We approached each other in the reception line. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake as before — assuming too much of the man — and instead I would start over.
“Hello,” I said. ‘We just returned from your neighborhood. We helped my daughter enroll at UCSB.”
Reagan stopped, surprising his wife who was attacking the lint issue on his shoulders.
“Well,” he said, after a pause. He had a soft, throaty way of chuckling and talking at the same time.
“At least you had the good sense to send your daughter to school in California instead of Iowa.”
Blew me away.