At a recent book signing, a friend asked, “Who’s the most famous person you have met?”
I replied that it was a tie. Although I have seen several presidents in person, the only two I actually exchanged words with were Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
I have shared my experience of interrupting Carter’s 1991 Chattanooga Choo Choo vacation before (you can Google it at ChattanoogaRadioTV.com), and later chatted with him again.
In 1988, Reagan hosted a White House Dining Room luncheon with local news reporters from around the nation. I applied to attend, and somehow I was chosen.
My employer at the time didn’t want to pay my expenses, but I figured this might be my only White House invitation. So I sprung for the airfare and hotel, and I’m glad I did.
It was an overwhelming experience for a kid from Bryant, Alabama, to be seated among the world’s movers and shakers. The President’s staff had arranged for his Cabinet members and other top officials to be seated at each table so that all of us local yokels could rub elbows with somebody important.
I was assigned to sit next to a well known member of Reagan’s inner circle, and he proved to be rather loose-lipped. He was surprisingly honest, and if I was one of those “gotcha” reporters, I could have gotten him into trouble. But I was not there to rock the boat, and since I was there on my own dime, I felt I was under no obligation to give my employer a free scoop.
When the luncheon began, I got up to snap a picture of the proceedings in an effort to prove to my family and friends that I was actually there. As I was aiming my trusty Kodak Instamatic, a couple of Secret Service agents hustled over to inform me that photos were not permitted. I sheepishly sat down, and the Reagan aide seated next to me said, “They don’t want anyone to know that the servers are all Black.”
The chatty insider had more one-liners as the lunch went on. “Is First Lady Nancy Reagan here?” I asked. Another attendee replied, “I already asked someone. They told me she is visiting Disneyland.” The White House official said, “That figures. Everybody knows she is (expletive) Goofy!” My fellow reporters laughed nervously, and we all nodded in agreement that this fellow should probably not be quoted. Of course, in today’s social media cesspool, his joke would have sparked a national scandal, but that was a different time. Some things were better left unsaid.
Near the end of the meal, the president himself stood at the podium, spoke for a few minutes, and asked for questions. This part was on the record, with no restrictions. Again, even though I wasn’t really on the clock, I figured this was my only chance to play Sam Donaldson. I waited for reporters older and wiser than me to break the ice, and then I raised my hand. President Reagan called on me. This wasn’t televised or recorded, so you’ll have to take my word for it.
The 1988 presidential campaign was underway, and Reagan was prohibited from running for a third term. He was 78 (around the same age as the current front runners for the 2024 election). I asked, “Mr. President, would you run for a third term if you were allowed to do so by the Constitution?” He tilted his head, smiled, and said, “Well...I guess we will never know, will we?”
While reminiscing about that day, I remembered he was an outstanding communicator. In his farewell address from the Oval Office, he said, “We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is about freedom: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs protection.”
I thought about his friendship with Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill, and their willingness to work together, despite their ideological differences. I longed for the days when Supreme Court Justices weren’t best known for their political affiliations.
What would Reagan think about politics in 2022? It’s just a hunch, but my guess is, he would not be pleased.
David Carroll is a Chattanooga news anchor and author. You may contact him at RadioTV2020@yahoo.com.