My Lunch With Reagan; He remembered. I forgot. Makes me...

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JULY 2, 2007

My Lunch With Reagan; He remembered. I forgot. Makes me think.

The literary editor of The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier, broughtthe joyous news. "Guess what, Mike. You're mentioned in Reagan'sdiaries." The diaries were published recently by HarperCollins andwere generally well- received. Edited by America'shistorian-on-steroids, Douglas Brinkley, The Reagan Diariesapparently reveal Reagan to be more thoughtful than he is normallygiven credit for. Of course, our standards in the area ofpresidential thoughtfulness have plummeted in recent years. Still,the fact that Reagan was writing it all down was news, and aninteresting departure from presidential tradition. Traditionally,presidents use a hidden tape recorder.

But I was more interested in the me angle, frankly. And it was apuzzle. What on earth could Reagan have written? I indulged myimagination, and my ego: "January 22, 1983. Mommie [Nancy] saysthat Kinsley's column this week in The New Republic undermines theentire philosophical basis of my administration. O dear O dear, Ihad better not read it."

Or: "October 6, 1987. Why does Kinsley keep picking on me? He is theonly thing standing between me and the total destruction of thewelfare state. But, ha: I will destroy him--destroy him utterly--or my name's not ... not ... not . .. . Say, they had 'State Fair'on TV last night. What a wholesome, clean-cut young man that PatBoone is."

Or: "May 17, 1986. A moment I've been dreading. George brought hisne'er-do- well son around this morning and asked me to find the kida job. Not the political one who lives in Florida. The one whohangs around here all the time looking shiftless. This so-calledkid is already almost 40 and has never had a real job. Maybe I'llcall Kinsley over at The New Republic and see if they'll hire himas a contributing editor or something. That looks like easy work."

Excited, I borrowed a copy of the book and gave it a "Washingtonread." That means looking yourself up in the index. It's best tofind a copy you can peruse in private. You can do your Washingtonread in a bookstore, but it's tricky. People can see youpathetically scanning for your name and, even more pathetically,not finding it. And OK, fair enough, why on earth would you be inthe index of a history of medieval France? Answer: for the samereason you might be in any book--i.e., no reason at all. Unless, ofcourse, you are Henry Kissinger, in which case virtually every bookpublished in the past few decades, if it contains an index at all,devotes several lines of it to references to you. The contrastbetween Kissinger and everyone else in this regard is a specialburden on those of us who share Kissinger's neighborhood inalphabetical order. At least Zbigniew Brzezinski is spared this. Butremind me to bomb Hanoi in my next life.

In the case of The Reagan Diaries, however, I'd been tipped off.And, sure enough, there I was in the index and on page 400, whichdescribes the events of Friday, March 21, 1986, a busy day forReagan. He learns that Panama will not take in the unwanteddictator of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos. He meets with ourambassador to Russia to talk about Gorbachev. Javier Perez deCuellar, secretary-general of the United Nations, drops by in theafternoon, and Billy Graham comes over for dinner. Reagan finisheswriting his speech for the annual Gridiron dinner. He has aninterview with New York Times reporters. And at midday: "hadoff-the-record lunch with Meg Greenfield, David Brinkley, andeditor of New Republic (Michael Kinsley)."

Picture the scene. David Brinkley, the famously sardonic NBC, thenABC, news anchor--no relation to Doug the Historian--says somethingsardonic. Meg Greenfield, the editor of The Washington Post'seditorial page, laughs her throaty cigarette laugh in appreciation.The president, uncomprehending but amiably eager to share in thefun, offers a hearty ho-ho. And me? And me? Well, here is theproblem: This whole thing never happened. Or, if it did happen, Iwas not there. Or, if I was there, it had slipped my mind. I had nomemory of having lunch with President Reagan in the White House oranywhere else. And it's not the kind of thing you forget, is it? Ormaybe it is. Is Alzheimer's contagious?

Was it possible that Reagan remembered having lunch with me, but Ididn't remember having lunch with him? A friend of mine has a storyabout how Bill Clinton, shortly after being elected president ofthe United States, came up to him at a large social gathering andsaid, "You don't remember me, but--" they had met once, two decadesearlier. And my friend realized that it was true: They had met, andhe hadn't remembered. But Clinton is famous for this sort of thing,and he wasn't president when my friend met him the first time. Bycontrast, phenomenal feats of memory were never Reagan's forte.

Phenomenal feats of making stuff up and convincing himself that theywere true, on the other hand, were a bit of a Reagan specialty. Heliberated the death camps, to name but one example. But surelyPresident Reagan had better things to make up than having lunchwith me. And, anyway, who am I to question the president of theUnited States? Even one who is deceased. In fact, everyone at thisalleged lunch is now deceased, except me. So I can basically makeup any story I wish. And my story is that, on March 21, 1986, I hadlunch with the president and two far more distinguished journaliststhan myself. With Reagan to back me up, who is going to challengeme? (And, for that matter, who is going to question him?)

Of course, those parentheses are troublesome. I don't mindimmortality in parentheses, if that's the only model on offer, but"(Michael Kinsley)" does look like something the editor dropped in.Furthermore, the reference to this lunch was not in the main textof the diaries, as edited, but in a sort of junior varsity sectionBrinkley included at the end of each day, summarizing material heapparently found too boring to reproduce in full. But surely whatmatters is that Reagan himself recorded this lunch, not that DouglasBrinkley failed to be fascinated. And Brinkley confirmed that theactual diaries actually did contain my name and do state that I wasat this lunch.

And, once I had decided I was there, the memories started floodingback. March 21, 1986: What a day! Retrieving my best suit from thefreezer (what I couldn't remember was how it had gotten there);making sure that I had the exact bus fare; thinking up a toughquestion to prove that I couldn't be bought for a lunch at theWhite House ("How are you today, Mr. President?").

So it was irritating in the extreme when Douglas Brinkley e-mailedagain a couple of days later to report his own bit of recoveredmemory. He said that, upon further investigation, an editor atHarperCollins (a company owned by Rupert Murdoch, I'd like to pointout, for no particular reason) had slipped in my name. He orshe--and Reagan, too--apparently were unaware of tnr's all-chiefs-andno-Indians tradition of ladling out titles instead ofmoney. Almost everyone at tnr is an "editor" of some kind. Reagan,it seems, actually had lunch with Charles Krauthammer.

Brinkley was terribly apologetic and said he would correct the errorin the next edition. I said that wouldn't be necessary as far as Iwas concerned. Please don't bother.

By Michael Kinsley

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