IN THE SPRING of 1980, not long after I had been named The Houston Post’s political writer, I got a call from the Ronald Reagan campaign. The former governor was going to make a swing through Houston and would be amenable to sit down with me for a few minutes if I wanted to interview him.
Reagan was seeking the Republican Party’s nomination to take on President Jimmy Carter. The interview would have to be at the lounge of a private aviation firm at Hobby Airport. Reagan was to fly in to Hobby and then get on a motorcade to Almeda Mall, south of Houston, where he was to do a walkthrough.
I was told that Reagan would have a few minutes for the interview before getting in his limo to head to the mall but when I got to the airport, I learned that Reagan’s flight was a bit late and that the interview might be a bit shorter than planned. Then I was told that there would be no time for a sit-down interview but that I was welcome to join the candidate and his wife in the limo and I could interview him during the short trip.
More than 35 years later, I do not remember a single question I asked Reagan, nor do I remember any of his responses. What a I do remember was that when we got to the mall’s parking lot and we exited the limo, I became part of the Reagan entourage as we were escorted into the mall where throngs of crazed fans were waiting to greet him and the future first lady.
OVER MY MANY years as a reporter, I had learned that the best way to cover an event is not to be part of that event, but rather to be apart from it, to get a better perspective. And so, as soon as we entered the mall, I tried to make my way away from the Reagans and their Secret Service guards and aides. I wanted to follow them closely, but at a distance, to be able to get a better view and sense of the crowd.
However, the enthusiastic crowd was too thick; it was like a wall that prevented me from escaping, and so I was forced make my way through the mall close to the candidate, his wife, a few campaign staffers, Secret Service agents and local police officers. Most of the time I was walking close to Mrs. Reagan.
It was pure bedlam as wave after wave of adoring Reagan fans rushed in to try to shake his hand, or to touch him or – failing that – settling for touching Mrs. Reagan. Some seemed content to touch the campaign aides, or even me.
Despite the large number of people, we slowly made our way through the mall. As we did, I took turns observing Ronald Reagan, his wife and the Secret Service agents. The look on the candidate’s face was shear joy. The agents’ faces showed pure business. On Mrs. Reagan’s face, I saw a smile that matched her husband’s but her eyes were apprehensive, matching those of the agents.
“We love you, Ronnie,” “Attaboy,” and “Give ‘em hell, Ronnie” were heard over and over again.
Mrs. Reagan, too, got some comments.
“Stand by him,” one woman yelled.
“I will, always,” she replied as she walked patiently alongside the candidate.
SOON AFTER WE started walking, I heard one of the local police officers say something to a Secret Service agent about “a local crazy” and point to a woman in the crowd, a few yards ahead. The agent nodded and turned to talk to another agent. Soon I saw another agent whisper into Mrs. Reagan’s ear as he too pointed toward the woman. Mrs. Reagan looked at the woman and nodded.
The woman was white and appeared to be in her 60s. She had a wide grin on her face but there was nothing unusual about her as far as I could tell. But for some reason, she was evidently on a list of potential threats to politicians such as Reagan.
What followed was an intriguing game of defense designed to keep the woman from getting anywhere near Mr. Reagan. Each time the woman came near the entourage, the police and Secret Service officers would form a solid wall between her and Reagan, much like a football defense team keeps opposing players from getting near their quarterback. The woman would fall back into the crowd but she would quickly circle around and eventually end up back in our path, only to be met by the same solid wall of officers.
Several times she protested, “I used to know him when he was 5 years old,” to anyone who would listen. Few would.
THIS HAPPENED AT least three times and on each attempt she was successfully repelled. Until, on about the fourth attempt, just when it appeared as if she had given up and gone away, there she was again. She had managed to sneak in close without being noticed by the officers, and the only person between her and Reagan was Nancy Reagan. As the woman lunged towards the candidates with an outstretched arm, one of the agents yelled, “Watch out, there she goes.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, Mrs. Reagan, who had been walking slightly ahead of her husband, moved quickly to block her. The woman’s hand had made it to within inches of Mrs. Reagan’s shoulder before the agents grabbed her and hustled her away.
“That’s enough for today,” he told her. She protested that all she wanted to do was to shake his hand.
Apparently, that was all she did want because there was no knife or gun in her hand. Had she been carrying a knife or other weapon, however, I am certain that Nancy Reagan would surely have been injured, if not killed.
That was the last I saw of that woman. Eventually, we made it through the mall and to the waiting motorcade to take us back to the airport. Nobody mentioned the incident with “the crazy” woman.
I told my editor about, though, and offered to write about it but he declined. He didn’t think it was important. I went ahead and wrote it up anyway and put it in my files. Less than a year later, on the day of Reagan’s attempted assassination outside a Washington DC hotel, I mentioned the story again, and this time it was printed the Sunday after the shooting, under the headline, “Secret Service’s best-kept secret is Nancy Reagan.”
I WAS NEVER a fan of either of the Reagans, but I came away from that incident convinced that there was nothing fake about the legendary “love affair” that was the Reagans’ marriage. I don’t know if Ronald Reagan would have stepped in front of a potential killer to save his wife’s life, but I know Mrs. Reagan would have – and did – on that one spring day in Texas in 1980.