Rob Christensen

'A beautiful decline' – Ronald Reagan's last years

President Reagan shares a laugh with first lady Nancy Reagan and Vice President and Mrs. George Bush at night on August 22, 1984 in Dallas after the Republican National Convention nominated him for a second term.
President Reagan shares a laugh with first lady Nancy Reagan and Vice President and Mrs. George Bush at night on August 22, 1984 in Dallas after the Republican National Convention nominated him for a second term. ASSOCIATED PRESS file

There was no particular reason why Peggy Grande should have ended up as gatekeeper to former President Ronald Reagan.

A recent graduate of Pepperdine College, the Los Angeles native had no Republican Party connections or personal ties to Reagan. But her father had urged her to think big: Somebody has to fill your dream job.

When she applied for an internship in Reagan’s office in 1989, she got the position. For the next 10 years, Grande was at Reagan’s side, moving up to be his executive assistant at his office in Century City in West L.A.

It was both an extraordinary opportunity and a bittersweet journey, as Reagan began his decline from Alzheimer’s.

But Grande, now 50 and a great admirer of Reagan, has written a book to let people know that his post-presidential years were far richer than his battle with illness.

She divides his post presidential years into three periods — the first five years of productivity, the second five years after he announced to the public that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s, and the final five years of decline before he died in June 2004 at age 93.

“That was one of the reasons I wanted to write the book,” said Grande, who was in Raleigh this past week to promote her memoir, “The President Will See You Now.”

“When he left office a lot of people think: He left office — Alzheimer’s— he died,” Grande said in an interview. “There were 15 years in there and the first five years especially before he made the announcement of Alzheimer’s were busy. He did a lot of traveling, he saw a lot of visitors, he gave a ton of speeches.”

The Reagan she describes was a man of grace, humility, civility and old school manners.

Thirty years ago, President Ronald Reagan scrapped his State of the Union address to talk about the space shuttle Challenger explosion. Seven people, including a teacher, died on board on Jan. 28, 1986. "The crew of the space shuttle Challenger ho

One of her surprises, she said, was that a strong, successful man can also be kind and considerate.

“As a young person, I guess I thought you had to choose,’’ she said. “You had to be either strong and successful or you could be a nice person. Ronald Reagan showed me that you could be both.”

Reagan was considerate not only to the stream of high profile visitors to his office, such as Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Mother Teresa, she said, but he would treat the janitor would the same consideration.

On a personal level, Reagan was an old-school gentleman.

As a 21-year old, Grande remembers Reagan, then in his 80s, holding her elbow as she went up and down the stairs. On another occasion, when she was lifting big, heavy chairs out of his office, she looked behind her to see Reagan carrying a chair to help her.

“I said, ‘It’s okay, Mr. President, I’ll come back and get that.’

He said: ‘What makes you think you can carry a chair any better than I can?’”

Reagan and former First Lady Nancy Reagan had Grande and her children to their home in Bel Air to swim in their pool, or for holiday visits, or to take them to the zoo, treating staff more like family than hired hands.

Reagan’s style was to extend loyalty to his staff first, and they would respond by trying to please the boss, she said.

Reagan traveled all over the country and made several foreign trips during the first five years when he had his “A game,” Grande said. People might be surprised, Grande said, about how disciplined Reagan was about doing his reading and crafting his own remarks.

“He made everything look effortless,” she said. “But behind the scenes there was a lot of thought, and effort and intentions behind everything he did.”

In November 1994, Reagan announced to the world by a hand-written letter that he had Alzheimer’s, and that he and Nancy wanted to make it public to bring attention to the disease.

“I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life,” Reagan wrote. “I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.”

Grande said she had not suspected that he was ill, although she realized something was not quite right. When Reagan could not remember a punch line to a frequently told joke, for example, she chalked it up to normal aging.

Following his announcement, Reagan was flooded with letters from across the country from admirers and those who just wanted to offer their condolences.

“The world is saying good-bye to him, and I am pretty much saying good-morning to him for the next five years,” Grande said.

Reagan continued to go into the office until the fall of 1999. As anyone who has battled with Alzheimer’s knows, she said, there were good and bad days, and the decline was not a straight line. She said he never discussed the illness — it was the elephant in the room.

He calmly accepted his fate, which Grande, an active Christian, attributes to Reagan’s strong religious convictions.

“He was such a man of faith he believed everything in his life had happened for a reason,” she said. “God had taken care of him every step of the way. If this was going to be his next step, God would take care of him in that too.”

“As beautiful as that was, part of me was saying, ‘fight it, be angry, and be frustrated,’’’ she said.

“He did not resign himself to it in a victim way, but in a trusting way,’’ she said. “There really was a peacefulness about those final years.”

Reagan’s approach to Alzheimer’s, Grande said, reflected his basic optimism about life, living as best as he could for as long as he could.

During Reagan’s final five years, as his memory faded, he largely lived at home, no longer maintaining an office or staff. Grande would visit him from time to time.

For those who worry about Reagan’s ending, Grande said he was always surrounded by family, by love, and by people who attended to his needs and who preserved his dignity.

“That’s another thing I wanted to show in the book,” Grande said. “After he left the public eye, people wondered: Is he OK? Is he being loved and cared for? Is he frustrated or angry or upset?”

“I wanted to show in the book that there was, if you can call it, a beautiful decline,” Grande said. “There was this surrounding of love and care and comfort. Every time I visited him at home he was so well groomed and so well taken care of and surrounded by people who loved him. He was not suffering. The people around him suffered more than he did.”

Grande recalls on one visit, Nancy was out of the house, and Grande was told that Reagan was sitting on the back patio. There she saw a Secret Service agent, usually posted by the door, sitting in a chair beside the former president, holding his hand, to keep him company. There is a hitch in her voice when she tells the story.

The last time she saw Reagan, about two months before his death, she was not sure he recognized her, although his eyes lit up when he saw her.

“I was saying good-bye not only for me, but I was saying good-bye to everybody who would have wanted to say: ‘Thank you Mr. President.’”

Rob Christensen: 919-829-4532; @oldpolhack

Book club

"Political Tribes" by Amy Chua will be discussed Wednesday at 7 p.m. when the Bridging the Divide Book Club meets at Quail Ridge Books. Rob Christensen will moderate. All are welcome.