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updated 6/17/2004 4:44:15 PM ET 2004-06-17T20:44:15
COMMENTARY

I had a unique vantage point on Ronald Reagan. For six years, I was top aide to Speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, otherwise known as Ronald Reagan’s No. 1 rival.  Before that I was a presidential speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, the man he beat to win the White House.

I first met President Reagan himself in the speaker’s ceremonial office.  It was the president’s “holding room” for the 1982 State of the Union.

“Welcome, Mr. President, to the room where we plot against you!” I said.

“Not after six,” he answered without a second’s hesitation.  “The speaker says that here in Washington we’re all friends after six!”

Yes, it really happened that way.  As the speaker’s aide, I was that a wise guy and Ronald Reagan was that masterful in taking command.

Reagan was a tougher, more on-guard character than the guy you’d figure from his breezy public personality— more Jimmy Cagney than Jimmy Stewart.

The Ronald Reagan I met in the speaker’s room was the guy who had survived his divorce from Jane Wyman, the decline of his movie career, the cancellation of his TV show, and the cruel social downgrading that rides shotgun on such defeats.

People forget: Reagan defeated Bobby Kennedy in debate before the Oxford Union. 

He was the political street fighter who got up off the dirt to win the 1976 North Carolina primary when nearly everybody counted him for dead.

He was the cold-blooded gladiator who strode to the podium of that year’s Republican convention and delivered such a barn-burner it made people wonder what Gerald Ford, the party nominee, was doing on the stage.

He was the no-nonsense boss who fired thirteen thousand striking U.S. air traffic controllers.

Like millions who watched television in the 1950s, I had gotten to know and like Reagan during his eight years hosting the old "General Electric Theater." To me back then, Ronald Reagan was simply the guy I shared my Sunday evenings with.

And talk about an audience: In its third year on the air, the 1955-1956 season, "G.E. Theater" was the No. 3-rated show on television.  For many years, it was the No. 1 show in its time slot.     

This is where the professionals blew it. To Pat Brown, the California governor Reagan unseated in 1966, Ronald Reagan was just a “B-movie actor.” Looking back on his defeat years later, Pat Brown, that first professional he knocked off in an election, realized that thanks to television, Reagan was always one of us while his Democratic rivals were always a part of “them.”

There was another thing his critics never got about the man even they came to admit was a great communicator: from the beginning, Reagan was a man with a cause.  I remember the time he opened "G.E. Theater" by saying that the story he was about to introduce mattered to him “personally.”  It concerned a woman who had been hoodwinked into joining a Communist front group.

Let’s face it. Every cab driver knew that Reagan wanted to beat the Communists abroad and to cut government and taxes at home.

Ronald Reagan liked to call himself a “citizen-politician,” but he started running for president, I figure, practically from the day he left "GE Theater" in 1962.  His speech for Barry Goldwater in 1964 was really the kick-off to his own run.  His campaign for California governor in 1966 was a career arrow aimed directly at the White House.

By 1980, he was ready to hit the target.

“Can anyone look at the record of this administration and say, ‘Well done?’” he asked the Republican National Convention which had just nominated him for President.  “Or at the state of our economy when the Carter administration took office with where we are today and say, ‘Keep up the good work!’?”

“Can anyone look at our reduced standing in the world today and say, ‘Let’s have four more years of this’?”

As an aide to President Carter, I smelled trouble.  We weren’t running against a Republican: we were running against the republic!

What were the secrets to Reagan’s success?  I can think of three strengths he carried with him into the political arena: 

(1) Ronald Reagan knew why he wanted to be president.
(2) He knew how to talk to real people.
(3) He could describe his feelings about our country invoking the spirit most Americans share but have trouble expressing.

Video: Reagan: The nation's comforter When Reagan spoke about “the boys” who stormed Normandy, or the astronauts lost in the Challenger, he tapped into the deepest sentiments of his hero-worshipping compatriots. While he may never have fought in World War II, he evoked its aura with greater success than anyone who had ever lived on K-rations. 

The only times he got into trouble as president were occasions when neither Communism nor big government came into play. The decision to deploy the Marines in Lebanon in 1983 and the arms-for-hostages deal of three years later were two situations when his worldview failed him.

The troubling truth— and it’s true of the best politicians—is that he was just as compelling when he was fudging the facts. Reagan could recount a scene from a movie as it actually happened. He told Israeli prime-minister Yitzhak Shamir and Nazi-chaser Simon Wiesenthal that he had photographed the death camps for the Army Signal Corps when he’d merely screened and perhaps helped to edit, the film footage of the liberation.

It was a stunning experience to hear Ronald Reagan say so confidently, in his TV debate with Carter—what I knew to be untrue—that he had been advocate of Medicare in its early days. But all most people remember from that evening was Reagan’s put-away line: “There you go again, Mr. President.”  With those six withering words, the challenger reduced the incumbent to a desperate, sweating hack clinging to a great office he was no longer strong enough to fill.

Reagan entered the pantheon of mythical American heroes with the grace and humor he exhibited after the assassination attempt on him in March of his inaugural year.  “Honey, I forgot to duck,” he told wife Nancy.  And, “I hope you’re all Republicans,” he kidded the doctors as he was wheeled into the operating room.  An actor who had spent decades playing heroes suddenly had transcended the back lot and its illusions.

Where presidents since Kennedy were willing to co-exist with the USSR, Reagan demanded that Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall. 

I think that the man who played George Gipp in “Knute Rockne: All American” never stopped trying to reinvent the forward pass.  Why couldn’t the bold play that won on the cinematic football fieldwork on the U.S. economy?  Instead of endless trench warfare over budget cuts, Reagan would surprise his rivals with some razzle-dazzle: a big tax cut.  Instead of competing with the Soviets on how many missiles we could deploy at each other, he’d commission a missile shield that would render their missiles irrelevant.

Ronald Reagan did not “win” the Cold War but he belongs in the roster of those who did.  That list began with President Harry Truman, who drew the line on Soviet expansion in Europe with the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine.  It includes all the other Cold War presidents of both parties who contained Communism until it could destroy itself.  What set Reagan apart in the Cold War was his insistence that there be a winner and a loser.

Chris Matthews is the host of 'Hardball,' which airs weeknights, 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC. All week, 'Hardball' will continue to interview public figures on Reagan's politics and legacy.

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