My exclusive interview with President Ronald Reagan in 1983 is among the many facets of his presidency that historians and nostalgic hagiographers may overlook this week as the nation remembers the Late Communicator. Indeed, it is entirely possible that no one would ever know about it but for this column. Thus, for the sake of posterity, I will press on.
On an autumn night in 1982, my sophomore year at George Washington University, I went about my busy rounds at the job I worked after school and weekends – as a news clerk at The New York Times Washington bureau. My duties revolved around the coffee machine, the incessantly ticking wire printers and the phones. But that night, as would happen on a half dozen or so occasions during my three years there, I got a lead on a story.
Mr. Reagan (we called him that at The Times) had appointed a new ambassador to Austria, Helene van Damme, and one of the hard-working Times reporters had a bead on where she might be reached by phone that evening – only he couldn’t be bothered to make the call himself because he had a dinner date.
“Here kid,” he told me as he handed me the number, “knock yourself out.”
So I dialed the number and asked for Ambassador van Damme. She came to the phone and told me how honored she felt at being named to such an important post.
At this point, it might bear mentioning that only three outlets on the planet could possibly have been interested in the name of the new U.S. Ambassador to Austria – the Vienna media, the KGB and The New York Times -- which found such increments useful to fill in postage-stamp sized spaces left at the bottom of page A-27. But I was determined in my 20-year-old zeal to get the entire story, and I pressed the ambassador-designate for details of her career, her family life, her familiarity with Austria’s neutrality policy and her proficiency in German.
Finally, exhausting that line of questioning, along with the ambassador, I asked why she thought the president had chosen here.
“Well, he’s right here. Why don’t you ask him?”
And so he was. “MaMaMister President?” I stammered.
And then he spoke.
“Look, young man, we are having a private affair for ambassador van Damme and I think you’ve taken enough of her time. Good night, now.”
To add insult to injury, try as I might, I could not contort the conversation with the president – my exclusive interview – enough to make it relevant to the story. I tried to document it by noting that “President Reagan, in a telephone interview with The New York Times, said the ambassador was being feted with 'a private affair' to celebrate her appointment. But a copy editor called a half hour after I filed the piece and said, “If that’s the best you could get out of the President of the United States, we’re certainly not going to brag about it.” He cut all mention of the conversation from the story.