06 February 2011

Legends of the Gipper: Late Reading

Ronald Wilson Reagan,
40th President of the United States of America

Regardless of what you think of President Ronald Reagan and his policies, there's no denying that there is a plethora of colorful anecdotes surrounding "The Gipper."  In celebration of his centennial, I'll periodically post some of my favorites.  This first anecdote comes to us by way of David Gergen's Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership, Nixon to Clinton, pages 151-152:

Midway through the [G-7] summit, Reagan had a particularly rugged day ahead...For each meeting, the staff of the National Security Council, the scheduling office, and others prepared lengthy background papers for the President to study the night before. Because there were such a large number of meetings, the briefing book looked like a telephone directory.
Here was the dilemma: when he was in Hollywood, Reagan made a practice of committing what he read to memory--he had a steel-trap mind for such things--but as a result, he also read very slowly. We had learned, just as his aides did when he was governor of California, not to give him too much to read at night because he would stay up late. The next morning he would be exhausted--and worse, Nancy would be on the warpath. On the other hand, this summit would put him on display before the world. Surely, he had to walk into every single meeting stuffed to the gills with details. How could we not give him this monstrous briefing book?
With some trepidation, as I recall, chief of staff Jim Baker gave him the book: "Mr. President, try to go over this material quickly. Please, please don't stay up late reading it."
At our 7:30 A.M. staff breakfast the next day, Reagan walked in late and looked as if he had been run over by a Mack truck. His eyes were puffy, his gait slow. "My God," I thought to myself, "he stayed up half the night with that damn briefing book. Where is Nancy? This is going to be a horrible day."
About twenty minutes into his eggs, Reagan gave us that aw-shucks look and said, "Fellas, I've got a confession to make. Last night, I sat down with your briefing book, which was good. But around nine o'clock I turned on the TV, and The Sound of Music was playing. Well, that's one of my favorite movies, so I watched. It went on pretty late, and I'm sorry I never got through the briefing papers."
Julie Andrews is a clear and present danger.
Of course, Mr. Reagan breezed through the meetings with aplomb and was no worse for having foregone his requisite reading.  Still, it's amusing in retrospect to think that the tenuous nature of our international relations may well have once been jeopardized because the President loved The Sound of Music.  I would wholeheartedly recommend Gergen's Eyewitness to Power, in which the former speech writer walks us through the four presidencies (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Clinton) in which he served, taking from each significant lessons about leadership that can be applied to all manner of professions and relationships.