Reagan always preferred to make light of his courage. In late 1981, I visited the White House to present to the president an updated version of my 1967 biography. In order to promote sales and with a fine disregard for good taste, the publisher (over my objections) had put a bright yellow banner across the cover proclaiming, “Complete Through the Assassination Attempt.”
As President Reagan and I stood chatting in the Oval Office while a photographer snapped pictures, he looked down at the cover and then up at me. “Well, Lee,” he said with that familiar smile, “I’m sorry I messed up your ending.”
How can you not love a guy like that?
Naturally, this week has reminded me of my own personal experience with President Reagan's kindness and strength, which I wrote about in 2006:
I vividly recall the day I met President Reagan almost exactly 20 years ago. It was one of the saddest days of my life. I was at the Johnson Space Center memorial service for the Challenger astronauts on the Friday after the Challenger accident. The President had come to JSC to honor the fallen crew and to heal the nation.
As the crew surgeon for that mission, I accompanied the families of the crew to a private meeting with President and Mrs. Reagan before he spoke to the large crowd of employees and officials. I felt a little out of place at this private meeting, so I tried to stay off to the side as, one by one, Reagan greeted all the immediate family members and talked with them.
Much to my surprise, after he visited with them for a while, he walked over to where I was standing. Apparently he had asked who I was, because he addressed me as "Doctor" and held out his hand, saying, "It must be especially hard for you today to have lost those who looked up to you as their doctor and who put their trust in you." He said it very quietly and his sincerity and genuine concern for what I was experiencing resulted in bringing tears to my eyes. Until that moment, I had managed to keep it all together and not show my feelings in public.
The next thing I knew, the President of the United States had put his hand on my shoulder and was comforting me; telling me that he understood my loss and that he knew I had been trying to be strong and take care of all the family members of the crew; but that he could see I was suffering too.
I had voted for Reagan in both the '79 and '84 elections (it was the first time I had voted Republican instead of Libertarian), but it wasn't until that moment that I truly understood the personal power of the man; his genuine warmth and the depth of his concern for someone he didn't even know. He instinctively seemed to understand that I had deliberately put aside my personal feelings about the tragedy because I had the awesome responsibility of taking care of all the crew family members (who were also my patients).
It crossed my mind even then, that he was telling me how much he identified with my situation and the responsibilities of my job. He had an entire nation to take care of, but it didn't mean he didn't personlly mourn for those who had died. It could be that I read too much into what he said, but I don't think so. He could have ignored me since I was standing off to the side from all the family members. But he went out of his way to find out who I was and then chose to come over to me.
I remember telling him in a choked voice how much his understanding meant to me and he looked at me with those clear, direct eyes of his and said, "You will be able to handle it. I know you will."
It seemed that I stared into those eyes for a long time (but it was probably only seconds) and then he turned away and signaled to the others that it was time to start the memorial service.
I actually got to stand on the platform while he spoke. This had been the spot prearranged for me to be so I would be able to observe the families in the front row and be ready to respond if they needed me. I couldn't have been more than ten feet or so away from the President during his remarks.
I never spoke to President Reagan again, but at the end of the ceremony; after the missing man formation of T-38's had flown overhead, I accidently caught his eye, and he winked at me.
I will always remember his kindness and strength.
Happy Birthday, Mr. President....