Reagan, Honor, and Leadership

Many years ago, Ronald Reagan – then two years older than Donald Trump is now – sat with a former staffer. More by accident than by plan, and I was invited to stop in, having served in his first-term White House. What he displayed is what we need now – honesty, humility, faith, and humor.

As we approached half an hour of cheerful, cogent, uninterrupted conversation, my eyes turned to an artist’s rendition on one wall of a young man, a silhouette, standing on a dock along a river. I asked the former president what the picture was and if it had a special meaning. Of course, it did.

He was lucid and humble. He said that not long before, his old hometown – Dixon, Illinois – had given it to him at the opening of a public pool since the local river was now deemed dangerous.

The silhouette represented him – in his younger days. For seven summers, he had lifeguarded on that river, earning money needed for college, Eureka College. He graduated in 1932.

In his whimsical, wondering, guileless way, Reagan then added something. He said when they gave it to him, they showed him a piece of the dock on which that artwork had him standing.

I listened intently, waiting for the former president to explain. He said that the current often ran fast during his summers as a lifeguard and could unexpectedly grab a young swimmer.

This put him at constant attention, calm but focused. No swimmer died during those summers, but he did have to rescue swimmers during his time as a lifeguard. As a matter of habit, just for himself, he would put a small notch on the dock after each rescue.

He looked at me. “Well, that day, they showed me that piece of the dock with notches. There were…77 notches.” This was the piece they kept, and why he had the artwork – a gift. In the retelling, he seemed surprised. He said they “just said some nice things” but did not elaborate.

Behind the former president, on a side table, were photos of his family and one of Dwight D. Eisenhower signed to Reagan, ink fading. Asked, he thoughtfully noted they were the same ones he had in the White House, then brightened – telling me replicas were at the Reagan Library.

Had I been to the library? At that time, I had not said so. He encouraged me to go, saying it was paid for by friends, no public money, a thought that washed over him with wonder and gratitude.

Honest and humble, we shifted topics. I talked about how grateful I was and my family was that he had brought down the Soviet Union – with undying faith in freedom. He listened without interruptions, then reflected and glanced at his shoes. “Well, thank you…”

He knew, I knew, all of America knew – that had been a life purpose, a Herculean task, one that involved suffering critics, unblinking resolve, faith, fortitude, and converting Gorbachev. He did.

We moved on. I asked about another photo, one with Margaret Thatcher. President Reagan paused. He said he and Nancy loved the Queen and Queen Mother, and would ride with them, he and the Queen on horses, Prince Phillip and Nancy in a carriage behind.

Then he told an affectionate story about his friend, Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of Great Britain, the Iron Lady, to many second only to Churchill for courage and inspiration.

New to the “G-7,” then in London, Reagan described entering a large room to see “Maggie” sitting in a corner chair, being berated by Canada’s liberal Pierre Trudeau.

As Reagan approached, Trudeau was leaning over the British Prime Minister, berating her. He was saying her conservative policies were all wrong. Thatcher – by contrast – was sitting quietly and listening. She said nothing.

Trudeau finally wandered off, and Reagan caught up with her and said, “Maggie, he had no right to treat you that way. Why did you let him get away with that?”

Reagan now looked at me and smiled. “She turned to me and said, ‘Ron, a woman must know when a man is being simply childish…” Reagan loved that and laughed in retelling the story.

Even as I type, I miss the man. He was such a good heart, such a gem, such an example of what an America-loving, uncomplicated, uncompromised leader looks like. We need those men and women again – people of honesty, humility, faith, self-deprecating good humor in leadership.

One last story. Many years after Reagan saved his 77th swimmer from the Rock River’s fast currents in Dixon, Illinois, he was hosting an elegant event at his home, dressed to the nines, as Governor of California. Behind his home was a pool. 

Out of one eye, Reagan saw a child fall into the pool. Seven years old, little Alicia Berry could not swim. Fully dressed, Reagan dived in, pulled her up, and saved his 78th soul, making nothing of it.  Then, of course, he and Thatcher would dive into another pool and save 300 million souls; we need the daring, decency, dignity, and can-do of such men and women now.   

Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.

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