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updated 6/15/2004 2:22:27 PM ET 2004-06-15T18:22:27

A long time ago - 24 years, to be precise - I asked Ronald Reagan about something he'd said in a debate with a bunch of other Republicans who wanted to be President. It was during the 1980 New Hampshire primary, and Reagan had just lost the Iowa caucuses to George H.W. Bush, who claimed that win gave him the "Big Mo."

Reagan was in a high school auditorium insisting that all the candidates— not just he and Bush— be allowed to participate. The moderator ordered his microphone shut off.

Reagan looked mad. He grabbed the microphone, held it to his mouth and said: "I paid for this microphone."

The spectators loved it. Poor Bush sat there hat in hand, candidacy doomed, unaware that the vice presidency loomed later that same year.

After the debate, a friend of mine mentioned that Reagan's remark was similar to something Spencer Tracy said in "State of the Union."

The next morning, Reagan was at a political breakfast and I managed to get between him and his security to ask if the line was from an old movie. He smiled and said something about the movie not being that old.

I thought about that as I watched thousands wait in the streets to say goodbye. The display of emotion and memory says something about how Americans view Reagan. Think about it: Our culture has a preposterously short attention span and even less patience. We sit with a clicker to change channels in a single second. Celebrities come and go faster than Britney Spears gets married. Our sense of history as well as institutional memory are constantly deleted by easy access to what is happening this instant. Stop to think about something for a moment, and the next event is already happening.

So how come so many spent so much time watching, listening to or reading about Reagan? Was it because he was one of our greatest Presidents, like FDR, or a courageous world leader such as Woodrow Wilson?

Maybe. But for all that he accomplished, he wasn't a workaholic, and sometimes gave the impression that he thought the White House was another sound stage and the presidency was the best leading role he'd ever had.

He was a rich guy surrounded by even wealthier friends. Yet most of those who came to pay their respects were ordinary Americans. They were there because he meant something to them.

It may have been that he never ran a negative campaign. It may have been his natural instinct to smile and realize that his success stood as a symbol of what a great country this is and that it was possible to be partisan without being personal.

He was happy and humble whenever we saw him. Unlike too many in politics today, he wasn't angry, mean or unwilling to bend. He was a fellow who was secure enough to wink after using a line from an old movie because he instinctively realized he was more comfortable appearing with a genuine sense of humor rather than a contrived sense of outrage.

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