A DAY IN THE LIFE OF...

Almost nine o'clock inauguration morning, and the president-elect was nowhere in sight. Where could he be? A worried aide pressed the incoming president's wife for his whereabouts. "I guess he's still in bed," she replied.

Startled, the aide ventured into the darkened bedroom at Blair House, the government's official guest quarters across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. It was a quiet room--no lights, curtains drawn.

"Governor?"

"Yeah?" came a voice.

"It's nine o'clock."

"Yeah?"

"You're going to be inaugurated in two hours."

"Does that mean I have to get up?"

Of course he did get up, dress and go on to the inaugural ceremonies, but ... still asleep the morning of his own inauguration? Actually, that was his way, his style.

A day or so later, now the official occupant of the White House, he was told the presidential day customarily began with meetings at 7:30 a.m.

Oh, no! Not for this president, it wouldn't! The meetings could darn well go on without him. Because he wouldn't be there until nine o'clock in the morning, thank you.

A lazy-bones president? Was Calvin Coolidge to be his role model for working the new job? Coolidge, after all, knocked off and took a nap most afternoons--not just a a few winks on the nearest couch, but a real, full-fledged nap, pajamas and all. This new president, in fact, announced plans to hang a portrait of Coolidge in the cabinet room in place of Harry Truman's portrait.

Coolidge, in fact, was a favorite presidential predecessor, so far as this White House newcomer was concerned. Well remembered was the taciturn New Englander's refusal to tamper with the nation's well-being by being overactive and meddlesome as president. Awakening from his famous nap, the sometimes-mischievous Coolidge would pose a rhetorical question: "Is the country still here?"

That was a view that had appeal to the newcomer, but the latest president to take office would prove no lazybones, no taciturn, nap-taking Coolidge. Far from that model, he would be noted for a tough, demanding schedule that belied his age; for his communication with the public; and for his determination to do things his own way, whether in policy decisions or personal attitude.

For instance, he revered the office and traditions of the office of president. From Day One, he never appeared in the Oval Office without jacket and tie. An aide one time noticed he was hot, was perspiring, and suggested he discard the jacket. "Oh, no," said this president, "I could never take my coat off in this office."

From the very beginning of his presidency, this latest successor to Calvin Coolidge began his day by meeting his vice president and White House chief of staff at nine in the morning. Ronald Reagan, Republican, former movie actor, former governor of California, and now the nation's oldest president ever, then plowed through a day of work and other activity that went on and on ... and on.

His typical workaday began with a wake-up call by the White House operator at 7:30 a.m. He then browsed through the newspapers, caught up on his favorite comics and looked over the "daily packet of press clips, a compilation of important news items prepared by the White House staff," recalled former Reagan domestic policy adviser Dinesh D'Souza in his book Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader. Added D'Souza: "Then the Reagans [Ronald and wife Nancy], together with their cocker spaniel Rex, a gift from William F. Buckley Jr. and his wife, Pat, would have their standard breakfast of juice, toast, and decaffeinated coffee and watch the morning news shows. Occasionally the staff taped a particular segment that they thought Reagan should see."

Arriving at the Oval Office exactly at 9 a.m., Reagan "never returned to the residence until the end of the day," wrote D'Souza also. "His critics said he was 'prone to nodding off' during the afternoon, but contrary to the popular rumor, there is no evidence that he took naps in his office. ... All those who worked with Reagan confirm that he worked a full day without interruption."

While he sometimes did nod off during the day to offset jet lag caused by a strenuous trip, he normally worked while traveling. "Others on Air Force One might be chatting or having a drink, but Reagan would sit by himself, reading or putting finishing touches on his next speech. Larry Speaks, his press secretary, writes that Reagan had enormous stamina and could keep working when his much younger staff was thoroughly exhausted."

Those daytime meetings, incidentally, like those of any president, primarily were with "cabinet members, staff, congressmen, representatives of various groups, and foreign visitors." Reagan would take an hour or so in the late morning to "catch up on his reading or answer correspondence."

He lunched at his desk, usually light fare such as soup and fruit--"once a week he dined with [Vice President] George Bush."

Then came an afternoon of more meetings. A methodical man, Reagan kept close track of his appointments. The day's schedule was printed on green stationery, and he checked off each meeting with a pencil once it was over. "He would conclude each meeting a few minutes before time was up, clear off his desk, and prepare for the next one. He did everything on time; he hated to keep people waiting. Aides observed that the president took evident satisfaction in the regularity of his regimen and the brisk thoroughness with which he discharged his responsibilities."

In a long, tedious meeting he was known to doodle on a blank pad. If the participants became too confrontational or the meeting really dragged, he often reached into a jar to pull out a few jellybeans. "This could be an entirely casual gesture, but his aides soon learned that it sometimes conveyed Reagan's impression that the participants were getting overly heated or technical. It could also be a signal that the topic at hand was exhausted, and it was time to move on."

Some days, of course, he enjoyed the break in routine afforded by an out-of-town speech or function. Most of the time, however, Ronald Reagan, the oldest president, worked through the nine-to-five day at his desk ... and still didn't quit. "Around 5 p.m., when Reagan had concluded his appointments, he cleaned his desk and assembled a pile of reading material to take home." Before going back to work "at home"--the family quarters upstairs--however, Reagan took time for his daily workout. He changed clothing and turned to a bedroom converted into an exercise gym, added the D'Souza account. There, he "worked out with weights for thirty to forty-five minutes." Reagan was such a "believer" in daily exercise, he took portable workout equipment with him when traveling.

By now on a routine day at the Reagan White House it was time to consider dinner. If the first couple had no obligations such as a state dinner, wrote D'Souza, "the Reagans were just as happy to eat an early dinner from portable tables--meat loaf or chopped steak and mashed potatoes, and macaroni and cheese were Reagan's favorites--while watching the evening news simultaneously on all three networks."

About once a week, they would watch an old movie--they didn't care for "the vulgarity and sexual explicitness of contemporary films."

More often in the evenings, Ronald Reagan simply went back to work ... this time in an upstairs study. "He trusted his subordinates to include everything that he needed to read and never stopped until he had gone through it all. During this time, he could not be disturbed. When he finished his briefing papers, Reagan did some casual reading in bed--a magazine about horses or a novel by Tom Clancy or Louis L'Amour--before falling asleep around 11 p.m." End of day in the Reagan White House, a full day even if he did refuse to start his daily schedule with a 7:30 a.m. meeting.

Additional note: Not only was Ronald Reagan the oldest president, he was the first president to survive wounding by a would-be assassin. (True, Teddy Roosevelt was also shot and--in his case slightly wounded--but only while campaigning as a former president for a return stay in the White House.)

It happened early in Reagan's first term as president. A mentally disturbed young man, John Hinckley, shot him outside the Washington Hilton Hotel on March 30, 1981, also wounding Press Secretary James Brady, Secret Service Agent Timothy McCarthy and Washington police officer Thomas Delahanty.

Reagan would have died within minutes if Secret Service Agent Jerry Parr hadn't ordered the presidential limousine to rush Reagan straight to George Washington University Hospital. The president at first didn't realize he actually had been wounded, but he felt pain in his chest and Parr saw blood in his mouth.

As events turned out, a remarkably resilient Reagan would recover from his wound with hardly a pause in his presidential career. Not only recover fully, but inspire his countrymen by the indefatigable spirit and good humor he displayed in the face of his temporary adversity. As usual, too, recalled D'Souza, Reagan spontaneously came up with one quip and memorable one-liner after another.

Among his best known:

 

  • Arriving at the hospital, he told the doctors greeting him: "Please tell me you're Republicans."
  • After emergency surgery, he recalled the famous W. C. Fields line: "All in all, I'd rather be in Philadelphia."
  • Telling his wife Nancy about the unexpected shooting, an old Jack Dempsey line: "Honey, I forgot to duck."
  • When a nurse held his hand: "Does Nancy know about us?"
  • When three aides came to visit: "I should have known I wasn't going to avoid a staff meeting."
  • To aide Michael Deaver (the same who awoke Reagan the morning of Inauguration Day and who suggested doffing his jacket one hot day): "Who's minding the store?"
  • To the doctors and nurses as he left the hospital: "If I had this much attention in Hollywood, I'd have stayed there."
  • And finally, a year later, returning to speak before the same group that he had addressed the day of the shooting, was he afraid? "No, but I'm wearing my oldest suit today." And to the audience: "I know you all understand how happy I am to be back, but if it's all the same to you, when I finish speaking, I think I'll slip out the back door this time."

 

C. Brian Kelly