THIS IS THE GOOD LIFE for Ronald Reagan on what he calls the mashed-potato circuit: On a weekday morning last month, shortly before his 79th birthday, the former President arrives at Las Vegas' Mirage hotel after a dash from Los Angeles on a corporate jet. America's 40th chief executive is the featured speaker at a Prudential realty-division sales convention. Reagan is accompanied by Secret Service agents and his equally protective young press secretary, Mark Weinberg. Mirage executives have relayed to Weinberg requests by the local news media to cover the speech. He has said no.
At ease before hundreds of awe-struck real-estate agents, Reagan appears sturdy and strapping in a navy-blue suit. The audience murmurs, though, about how his hair has grown startlingly silver since he underwent surgery last September to remove fluid on the brain. These days, Reagan is laughing off the equestrian accident in Mexico that caused the skull problem by recounting a concerned admirer's advice to "never ride a borrowed horse." Restored to Great Communicator form, Reagan gives the standard speech he has crafted for business hosts. He argues--so familiarly--for a constitutional balanced-budget amendment and a presidential line-item veto, reforms he calls "the things we didn't get done."
He fields questions with what some listeners consider charming but non-responsive anecdotes. Then he offers what he says is one memory of his historic encounters with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. The junketeers perk up. This world-level inside stuff is more like it. During the 1988 Moscow summit, as Reagan relates the story with an actor's timing, the two leaders drove to a scenic waterfall. As the party stood above the cataract, Gorbachev asked one of Reagan's bodyguards if he would dive to the bottom. The agent demurred, explaining, "I've got a wife and three kids." Gorbachev made the same request of one of his own men, who complied at once. Appalled U.S. agents later asked the soaked Soviet why he had done it. "I've got a wife and three kids," he said.
What? The conventioneers glance at each other, then grasp the story's import. Free at last, Reagan is letting himself be Reagan. The tale is unreconstructed Evil Empire humor--wistful for dated Cold War certitudes perhaps, but harmless Yakov Smirnoff material. On billows of laughs, the salespeople wave Reagan off to a fast lunch with a few top Prudential executives. He is motored back to the airport, where a staked-out TV news crew manages an extreme zoom shot of two ex-presidential legs disappearing into the private jet.
In a bit more than two hours, Reagan has earned his private-sector speech price of $50,000 (no charge to charities or schools), less a commission of about 20% to his lecture agents, Washington Speakers Bureau Inc. At sunny resorts from Palm Springs to the Bahamas, where he spent his birthday Feb. 6 as a luncheon speaker for Sara Lee Corp., Reagan does "a couple or three a month" of these unpublicized Fortune 500 appearances, Weinberg says. Reagan is grossing as much as $1.8 million a year from this source alone.
The charismatic role model for an era, Ronald Wilson Reagan made it not only acceptable but almost a moral imperative for Americans to go out and get their piece of the rock in the '80s. Now he is going out and getting his in the less freebooting '90s but encountering some severe buffeting to his popularity.
Where Richard M. Nixon and Jimmy Carter began their retirement years in defeat and bitterness, painfully climbing back to a measure of approbation, Reagan and his wife, Nancy, returned to private life amid widespread good will that has been dissipating in periodic accusations of greed and selfishness. First, there was his $2-million speaking tour in Japan, followed by harsh reaction to Nancy's memoirs and to her desertion of a San Fernando Valley drug-treatment project. Then there were reports that the Internal Revenue Service was looking into Nancy's habit of "borrowing" designer dresses for White House functions. And, just when things seemed to be settling down, the embarrassing Iran-Contra mess reappeared as lawyers for the former President battled to restrict his participation in the trial of his former national security adviser, retired Rear Adm. John M. Poindexter. Only recently have the Reagans taken steps to burnish images dented by the surprisingly rocky start to their ex-First Couplehood.
For the Great Communicator, whose standing plunged when he accepted the speaking honorarium from Japan's Fujisankei communications conglomerate last October, the main impression to be overcome is that he has been inappropriately cashing in on his eight-year presidency.