Ronald Reagan and the day the Challenger exploded:

A Presidents' Day memoir

By Trude B. Feldman

Monday, February 17, 2003

Ronald Wilson Reagan this month reached the age of 92. His birthday came eight years after the former president, in a handwritten letter beginning with "My Fellow Americans," disclosed that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

"When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be," he wrote in closing, "I will face it with the greatest love for this country of ours, and eternal optimism for the future ... I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead."

The time will come to explore the scope of Reagan's legacy and the multiple dimensions of his long and remarkable life.

To me, however, his 92nd birthday awakens remembrances of many bygone birthdays, and my personal encounters with the man who became one of America's most beloved presidents.

I first met him in my native Los Angeles, where I had a part-time job handling photographs and fan mail for Ronald Reagan, the actor. Later, as president of the Screen Actors Guild, he signed my SAG card, giving me the opportunity to play bit parts in movies.

By the time Reagan came to the White House as our 40th president; I had been a correspondent there for 18 years. Within days I was at work on a feature for his 70th birthday, his first as president, and it would be the first of many birthday and human- interest features I would write.

"We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and `slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.' "
Five years later, as his 75th birthday approached, Reagan scheduled an interview with me on the afternoon of Jan. 28, 1986. At 11:38 that morning, however, the space shuttle Challenger exploded after liftoff, killing its crew of seven. While the president postponed his State of the Union speech, which had been scheduled for that evening, he didn't postpone our interview, realizing that I was on deadline. That was characteristically kind and considerate.

When we sat down in the Oval Office, Reagan had just finished paying tribute to the fallen astronauts, quoting the poet John Gillespie Magee Jr. and saying: "We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and `slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.'"

The president was still visibly saddened as we met to talk about his upcoming birthday.

"First I'd rather talk about the astronauts," he said in a hushed voice, with tears in his eyes. "Now they won't reach their 75th birthdays as I soon will ... I'm heartsick about the loss of their lives."

Reagan at 75
President Ronald Reagan being interviewed by Trude Feldman on his 75th birthday, the same day that the space shuttle Challenger exploded after liftoff. Photo courtesy of Trude B. Feldman.

Knowing that I was the daughter and sister of clergymen, the president continued in his spiritual mood, revealing his inner self to a degree that he seldom did.

"I draw strength from my belief in God and his teachings," he told me. "That belief and faith in the Almighty helps me to cope with a tragedy like this.

"I wish I could ask my mother Nelle the meaning of this morning's disaster... ," he added. "With her goodness and her compassion, she would know just how to give comfort to the families of the astronauts and, well, even to all of us."

However moved he was by the Challenger tragedy, Reagan was less sentimental about himself. His spirit then was the same as he displayed 10 years later, during our interview for his 85th birthday.

"This is the 46th anniversary of my 39th birthday," he quipped then. "I like to think of it this way, ever since Jack Benny cleared the way for all of us fortunate enough to live beyond 39 ....

"Actually," he added, "the anniversaries of my birth aren't important. What is important is that I have tried to lead a meaningful life, and I think I have."

"I wish I could ask my mother Nelle the meaning of this morning's disaster ... With her goodness and her compassion, she would know just how to give comfort to the families of the astronauts."
His vice president and successor, George H.W. Bush, described Reagan as "a true American hero and a prophet in his time, a man whose life embodied freedom and who nurtured freedom."

Reagan was indeed a hero and a prophet to many. In the course of our numerous interviews during his eight-year tenure in the Oval Office, however, he impressed me most as a straightforward and genuine human being. His decency, humanity and simple dedication to the philosophy of the Golden Rule inspired him to treat everyone he met with an evenhanded respect seldom seen in today's Washington.

It was on March 30, 1981, Reagan's 70th day as president and a few weeks after his 70th birthday, that from about l3 feet away I saw him shot by a would-be assassin. He was leaving the Washington Hilton after addressing a luncheon audience when the gunman opened fire with a .22-caliber revolver.

The president was struck by a ricocheting bullet as he entered the armor-plated presidential limousine. Despite feeling severe pain, he did not realize that he had been hit. Secret Service agent Jerry Parr had shoved him into the limousine and fallen on top of him, so the president complained that his ribs might be broken.

Noticing that Reagan was coughing up frothy blood, Agent Parr ordered the driver to rush to George Washington University Hospital instead of returning to the White House.

"Any delay would have been precarious," Parr told me later. "He came within several minutes of death."

At the emergency room, now known as the Ronald Reagan Institute of Emergency Medicine, the president collapsed and had to be resuscitated by Dr. Joseph M. Giordano, the hospital's chief of trauma services.

"Despite a difficult situation," Dr. Giordano told me, "the President was cool and relaxed."

He was even able to tease the doctors that he hoped that they were Republicans. A staunch Democrat, Dr. Giordano nonetheless replied, "Sir, today we are all Republicans."

A flattened bullet had penetrated the president's left chest and lung. Dr. Benjamin L. Aaron, chief of the hospital's cardiothoracic division, performed the lifesaving surgery, and Reagan's postoperative recovery was rapid.

"He did not pull rank," Dr. Aaron told me. "He cooperated and responded well. He put himself in my care and let me make the decisions. In his setting, that takes a special kind of person."

Dr. Daniel Ruge, Reagan's White House physician, told me that Reagan was always a very healthy man and, until he was shot, had needed little care.

"His secret is that he is a man who always has known how to take care of himself," Dr. Ruge said, "and his attitude has always been a healthful one."

Given the seriousness of his condition, Reagan's mind was surprisingly clear during his l2 days at the hospital. He bantered frequently with his attendants after the breathing tube was removed from his throat, but even before then he maintained a constant dialogue through a series of notes:

"Can we rewrite this scene beginning at the time I left the hotel?"

"What happened to the guy with the gun?"

"If I had this much attention in Hollywood, I'd have stayed there."

"Will I still be able to work on the ranch?"

"What does my future hold for me?"

"Getting shot hurts a lot worse than it did in the movies," he wrote to an actor friend. "And bouncing off the side of the limousine didn't soften it any ... "

In addition, he wrote an eight-page personal letter to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

Reagan received more than l00,000 cards, letters and telegrams, as well as numerous gifts. He was particularly touched by a letter from Cpl. Ishmael V. Franco of Fremont, Calif., who had earned three purple hearts in Vietnam. Accompanying the letter was one of Franco's Purple Hearts.

Edwin Meese, then Reagan's White House counselor and later his attorney general, was impressed with his boss's stamina and his ability to bounce back. He attributed the president's swift recovery to his general cheerfulness, his positive attitude and his sense of humor.

During one working session at the hospital, Meese recalled, he gave the president a pile of papers to read.

"Ed, are you giving me all this paperwork to read," Reagan asked with a sheepish smile, "or is it supposed to induce sleep?"

Six weeks after he had been shot, President Reagan was fully recovered and actively performing his duties in the White House. He became the only sitting president to survive a gunshot wound.

His brush with death brought a special focus to Reagan's spiritual life.

"In the hospital," he told me during a Mother's Day interview, "when it began to sink in as to what had happened, I found myself remembering that my mother's strongest belief was that all things happen for a reason. But if we accept them and go forward, we find, down the road a ways, that there was a reason and that everything happens for the best."

He believed that the traumatic experience had given him a greater appreciation of life, which he previously had taken for granted.

"At first I didn't even know I had been shot," he recalled in our 1986 interview.

"Afterward, when I read some of the doctors' reports about how close I came to not having any more birthdays, I felt I had been blessed with a miracle and that I owed to someone else any more time given me."

When an anxious Nancy Reagan arrived at the hospital, 15 minutes after her beloved husband, the president was on his way into surgery.

"Honey," he quipped, "I forgot to duck."

Weeks later my 9-year-old nephew was injured when a wayward plastic spoon hit him under the eye. At the close of an interview I happened to mention the incident to Reagan, and shortly thereafter the boy received an inscribed photograph of the president.

"Daniel," he wrote, "I hear you too forgot to duck."

In his farewell letter, Reagan twice referred to life as a journey. To him, however, that journey was always about helping people and even as the leader of the free world, he was able to find time to send good cheer to a child. That says something about the president, but it says everything about the man.

My heartfelt best wishes, Mr. President, on the 53rd anniversary of your 39th birthday.

Trude B. Feldman, a veteran White House and State Department correspondent, is internationally syndicated and a contributing editor for World

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