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CAPITOL JOURNAL

The Gipper Celebrates a Birthday

February 05, 1996|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — On her 85th birthday about 11 years ago, my mother was sitting alone in her tiny Ojai home when the telephone rang. A voice said, "This is the White House operator calling."

Her son was The Times' White House correspondent, but he never called through an operator. What's going on? she wondered.

"Is this Effie Skelton?"

"Yes."

"The President would like to talk with you."

Somebody's kidding around.

"Mrs. Skelton?"

"Yes."

"This is Ronald Reagan."

"It is?"

"I'm just calling to wish you a happy birthday."

"Well . . . haven't you got better things to do?"

That's my mom--and that's Ronald Reagan. Even on a Sunday evening, the President had a lot better things to do. But he enjoyed making people happy. And, of course, he also was doing a favor for a reporter who had covered him for 20 years.

Reagan always was pushing volunteerism, and I had cited that as a rationale for the birthday call. He and mom chatted briefly about her long volunteer work for the Ojai Valley Museum.

"The essence to understanding Ronald Reagan is that he genuinely likes people," says Mark Weinberg, the press aide who had set up the call. "He took great pleasure in brightening their day.

"There was nothing insincere about him. He may have been an actor, but he wasn't a fake."

*

And now, on Tuesday, it's Ronald Reagan's 85th birthday.

"He's doing real good. The disease is a bitch," says daughter Maureen Reagan. "Nearly half the people 85 and older have some kind of Alzheimer's."

Reagan and his wife Nancy have lent their names to an Alzheimer's research institute. They're trying "to raise the level of awareness of this cruel disease and make people realize they shouldn't be self-conscious or embarrassed," the former first lady says in a fund-raising brochure.

Reagan is "coping with it very well," reports Maureen Reagan. "He's a very spiritual person. He has a real sense of accepting things you can't change."

It has been 15 months since the former president disclosed in a poignant, hand-penned letter that he had Alzheimer's. In quintessential Reagan, he wrote: "I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead."

Friends say they and Reagan first began noticing significant short-term memory loss the previous year. Things like forgetting what he was planning to do or what he was talking about. His lifelong inability to remember names is the stuff of legend, but they discount that.

"He had good memory for facts, but when he was introduced to somebody he never gave any thought to the name," recalls Lyn Nofziger, one of Reagan's earliest advisors. "I always tried to stand next to him so I could say, 'Hey, Ron, you remember. . . .' "

Once, when I and a handful of other reporters were interviewing Reagan in the Oval Office, he looked into my eyes from four feet and said, "Well, Lou. . . ." The joke soon became that the president's generic name for any newspaper reporter was "Lou," after the Washington Post's Lou Cannon, a Reagan biographer.

*

You didn't have to agree with Reagan to like him. Americans often disagreed with the president but trusted him. They knew he was genuine--somebody bent on beating the commies, cutting taxes and reducing government. He succeeded in the first two.

He was not Machiavellian or vengeful. A good example is Gov. Pete Wilson. The then-mayor campaigned for President Gerald Ford over Reagan in 1976, and afterward went to make his peace. "He said, 'Listen, don't worry about it. That's behind us,' " recalls the governor. Later, Reagan helped raise money for Wilson's Senate and gubernatorial races.

Wilson--along with Ford, retired Gen. Colin Powell and Speaker Newt Gingrich--will speak Tuesday night at a $1,000-per-plate birthday benefit for the Reagan library. There'll be 450 people at Chasen's, an old Reagan hangout, which is reopening for the event.

Reagan will be home in Bel-Air. "He doesn't do crowds anymore," says daughter Maureen.

Neither does he ride horses, his passion. The attention span is too short. The horses have been donated to charity for children to ride. His ranch work has tapered off; he hasn't been there since early November.

But he attends church and works out regularly at a gym. He plays golf three times a week. "His game is getting better," says Maureen. He enjoys going each day to his Century City office to sift through mail and greet visitors.

He also reads newspaper columns.

Mom, going on 96, says happy birthday, Mr. President.

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