During my time in Washington, during the Reagan years, in addition to a state dinner and White House social events, there were two very memorable occasions during which I got to interact with Nancy Reagan and see her warmth, charm, and dedication to the President.
The first was in the summer of 1980, when I was working as an advance man for candidate Ronald Reagan shortly after he won the nomination in Detroit.
It was during his visit to New York to address the National Urban League Convention.
My immediate supervisor was veteran advance man, Rick Ahearn, well known for being the person kneeling over Reagan Press Secretary Jim Brady after the assassination attempt at the Washington Hilton Hotel several months later.
I did the advance for the Reagan’s arrival at the Pierre Hotel, his “Green Room” meetings with New York area black Republicans after his speech, and, his hospital visit with former Urban League President Vernon Jordan who was recuperating from an assassination attempt.
After New York, we went to Chicago to meet with John H. Johnson, publisher of Ebony and Jet Magazine, and his editors.
A last minute addition to the schedule was a meeting with Reverend Jesse Jackson, to which I was opposed, since I knew that it most likely would result in Jackson grandstanding. I made my case to Reagan assistants Michael Deaver and Lyn Nofziger but lost the argument.
The flight to Chicago started by what I discovered was a tradition. As the plane ascended on take-off, Mrs. Reagan would role an orange down the aisle of the plane to see if it would go all the way to the end without rolling off under seats!
She did it — a perfect roll! I am not sure if there is a picture of her doing that on any of the campaign planes. It would be a treasure and capture a great moment.
In Chicago, the meeting at Johnson Publishing went very well. Reagan surprised many of the editors with his grasp of foreign affairs, especially African issues.
After leaving the Johnson offices, we went to visit Reverend Jackson. As I had predicted, it started out as a disaster!
The meeting was held in Jackson’s very small, and as I recall, unairconditioned office.
Jackson sat behind his desk and immediately began showing disrespect for Reagan by arrogantly lecturing him on a variety of issues. Reagan, being the gentleman he was, nodded and did not engage Jackson on some of his more outlandish comments and suggestions.
After several minutes, I left the meeting fuming and went into a holding room where Mrs. Reagan was sitting with one of her staff.
“How is it going” she asked? “The good Reverend is lecturing your husband,” I replied.
She immediately jumped up and we went into the office and interrupted the meeting.
I will never forget her words: “I thought I would come in and join you” she announced to the room looking directly at Jackson.
Reagan broke into a big smile and looked very relieved. Her presence had a calming effect. Jackson’s tone and that of the meeting totally changed.
My second memorable event with Mrs. Reagan occurred four years later. I was serving as Chairman of the "District of Columbia Reagan-Bush ’84" campaign.
It was a state affiliate of the national “Reagan- Bush ’84” headed by campaign Chairman Ed Rollins, now a Fox Political analyst.
The national campaign had arranged a major campaign fundraiser at the old Ritz Carlton Hotel on Massachusetts Avenue, featuring Nancy Reagan and Frank Sinatra.
After a brief discussion with Sinatra about Sammy Davis Jr., my local D.C. campaign office manager — Wanda Banks, a native Californian — and I, asked Mrs. Reagan if she would be willing to dedicate our local D.C. Reagan-Bush ’84 Office across from the White House.
“I would love to” she said. What a coup!
A few days later, some of Mrs. Reagan’s staff came over to see the office and make arrangements for the visit
It was with excited anticipation that I awaited her arrival at the curb in front of our 17th and Pennsylvania Avenue office. She greeted me with a warm smile and we walked into the headquarters.
She gave a great speech, and the event was a great success.
As I was walking her back to her limousine, she asked me if I had seen an article in that morning’s Washington Post regarding Walter Mondale which she found to be humorous.
I replied that I had and we shared a laugh.
Although I did not get to know Mrs. Reagan well, I have always admired her strength and her loyalty — and commitment to her husband.
Just as she had jumped up from that little room in Chicago and went into the meeting with Reagan and Jackson in Chicago in 1980, she was always quick to defend and protect her husband.
Her “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign directed at our nation’s youth was a successful model in the anti-drug war, notwithstanding its being attacked and discounted by Democrats and liberals.
She was and remains a model for all first ladies.
Clarence V. McKee is president of McKee Communications, Inc., a government, political, and media relations consulting firm in Florida. He held several positions in the Reagan administration as well as in the Reagan presidential campaigns and has appeared on many national and local media outlets. Read more reports from Clarence V. McKee — Click Here Now.
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