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Archive for Sunday, January 29, 2006

Recalling a kinder, gentler political time

January 29, 2006

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— The stench of partisanship is so strong in Washington these days that it is difficult to remember that it was not always the case that Republicans and Democrats were at each other's throats. But, in truth, there was a time when friendship and simple human compassion were far more powerful than any political differences.

A wonderful reminder of that fact can be found among the oral histories compiled by two dozen of Ronald Reagan's main associates that are being released today by the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. The transcripts are available at www.millercenter.org.

One of the tapes was furnished by Max Friedersdorf, who ran the White House congressional liaison staff for Reagan. Friedersdorf recounts in the interview what happened while the president was recovering at George Washington University Hospital, after the unsuccessful assassination attempt outside the Washington Hilton Hotel on March 30, 1981.

Reagan was seriously wounded by John Hinckley, and the day after the shooting, Friedersdorf got a call in the White House from James Baker, Reagan's chief of staff, who was at the hospital. "Get over here," Baker commanded.

"I went over to GW Hospital and went up to the president's room," Friedersdorf said, "and Jim was outside the room with Mrs. Reagan and her Secret Service agent. Baker said, `I want you to stay here until I tell you to leave."'

What had happened, Friedersdorf learned, was that Nancy Reagan "was all upset," because Sen. Strom Thurmond had come over to the hospital a few hours earlier and somehow had talked his way through the lobby, up the elevator and into Reagan's room, where he attempted to chat with the gravely wounded president.

"Mrs. Reagan was outraged, distraught," Friedersdorf said. So Baker directed him to take up the watch, and "if any congressman or senator comes around here, make sure the Secret Service doesn't let anybody up, even on this floor."

Friedersdorf said he remained on duty during daylight hours for the next three or four days, and then word came from Baker that the president had recovered enough to start to see people.

The first person to be admitted, Friedersdorf said, was Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, the speaker of the House.

When the Massachusetts Democrat arrived, Nancy Reagan slipped out of the room and Friedersdorf retreated to a corner of the suite where he could remain unobtrusive. "Tip got down on his knees next to the bed, and said a prayer for the president, and he held his hand and kissed him and they said a prayer together ... the 23rd Psalm.

"The speaker stayed there quite a while. They never talked too much. I just heard him say the prayer, then I heard him say, `God bless you, Mr. President, we're all praying for you.'

"The Speaker was crying. The president still, I think was a little, he was obviously sedated, but I think he knew it was the speaker because he said, 'I appreciate your coming down, Tip.' He held his hand, sat there by the bed, and held his hand for a long (time)."

When I reached Friedersdorf last week at his retirement home in Florida, I asked him how it happened that Reagan's first guest was the leading Democrat on Capitol Hill. "Well," he said, "Tip was third in line of succession (after the vice president) and the fact he was a Democrat didn't bother anybody. We didn't even think about it. Tip had been calling constantly to see how the president was doing. And there was a bond there.

"I remember," Friedersdorf continued, "the first dinner the Reagans had in the private residence was for Tip and his wife, and my wife and I were there. Tip and the president had a drink or two and started swapping Irish stories.

"Often, after that, Tip would say pretty harsh things about some of our legislative proposals, and the staff would want Reagan to answer him. But they trusted each other, and the president would say, 'That's just Tip,' and let it go."

I asked Friedersdorf if he could imagine that sort of relationship flourishing now between the Republican president and the top Democrats in Congress.

"Absolutely not," he said. Sadly, I think he is right.

David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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