White House Christmas with the Reagans: Aide looks back
A quarter century after they left Ronald W. Reagan and Nancy decorated the White House Christmas tree for the last time, one of the president’s closest aides shared with Human Events his wonderful and sometimes awkward behind the scenes memories of Christmas with the Reagans.
For more than 15 years, James F. Kuhn was the unseen indispensable aide to Ronald W. Reagan, first as an advance man, and then at his “body man” always at his side. Today, Kuhn oversees outreach to the federal government for companies and organizations for the Washington-based Consilio Group.
Kuhn met the then-future president when Reagan was campaigning in Ohio, Kuhn’s home state and where he worked as sales executive for Peter E. Voss, an Ohio businessman who was one of Reagan’s biggest supporters in the Buckeye State.
As the 1976 presidential campaign got closer and closer, it Kuhn was spending more time helping Reagan and less time as his real job, and eventually, the switch became permanent in 1978. It was a relationship that continued through Reagan’s last exit from the White House ground and his retirement from public life.
“One of the things I remember most about Christmas was with Reagan himself as president when a present would arrive,” Kuhn said. “Somebody was always bringing a gift by the Oval Office. It was either some staff person or some friend or somebody from way back when would send a gift in and it always made it through security and was cleared and we knew it was safe and x-rayed and everything.”
Even when a present came from someone close to Reagan, it was still checked out because he was the president and everything was checked before they would be brought in to the president by Kuhn or his secretary Kathleen Osborne, he said.
“It’ll be like 10 days before Christmas and Reagan would look at it and he would have this glow about him and I could tell what he was going to do and this happened over and over again and he would start–he was ready to open up the gifts and I’d say: ‘You know, Mr. President,’ I said, ‘Christmas is like 10 days away. You might think about putting that under the tree upstairs. We’ll just take it up at the end of the day or tonight. What do you think?”
There was a boy-like quality about Reagan that was part of his charm, and never was it more evident than when he held a wrapped Christmas gift, he said.
“He’d say: ‘No, I want to see what it is.’ He would just tear that thing open. He couldn’t wait. He just couldn’t wait to see what somebody gave him,” he said.
“It was like he never changed. There was always that specialness about him, that youthfulness, that charm, that he grew up with when Christmas is so special when you’re young, it never left him. It was like he was a boy again. It really was,” said the Tiffin, Ohio native.
Besides presents and gifts, the Reagans would receive sweet treats from all over the country, he said.
“They just always liked their sweets,” he said.
“They loved chocolates and friends would send chocolates in that we would get cleared through the Secret Service and everything and through resident staff,” he said. “They loved cookies and they had all those kinds of things and they loved getting them. It was amazing. The Reagans love getting that stuff. They just did.”
Kuhn said the Reagan’s took their role in the White House very seriously, especially at Christmas with the whole country was watching and sharing the holiday.
Volunteers would come in every year to decorate the White House and turn it into the most enchanted place to work, he said.
“Just the fact that it’s just so unbelievable to see what they do, what the White House resident staff does and they have this group of volunteers that they bring in to do the decorations and some state whether it’s North Carolina or whether it’s Oregon or California gets selected to however they do it.”
For the public celebration, they would host parties, sing Christmas Carols and light the National Christmas Tree, he said, but there was also a private side.
Kuhn said although Reagan was personally a religious man, he did not attend services because of he was concerned the security hassles would inconvenience the worshipers and disrupt the solemnity of the service.
Reagan expressed his sentiments in a conversation during the second term, he said.
“He told me: ‘I’m not going to go church. I’m not going to do this. Nancy and I are not going to go because we know that everybody will have to go, they will be subjected to unbelievable security. It would take them longer to get in. it’s not fair. It’s not right. We’re just not going to do it. We’re going to stay away because the security and the inconvenience that it cause would cause for everyone,’” he said.
Across Pennsylvania Avenue, which in the 1980s was still an open the street in front of the north face of the White House, along Lafayette Park is St. John Episcopal Church, where every president since Washington has attended a service. It is a streak nearly broken by John F. Kennedy, who as a Roman Catholic left after the sermon, so as not to participate in the Anglican rite of the Eucharist.
One Sunday early in his presidency, Kuhn said Reagan and the First Lady went to St. John’s and he thought it might be a trend.
“The day before Reagan was shot by John Hinckley, the president and Mrs. Reagan walked from the White House across Lafayette Park to go to St. John’s Church and I was actually in Springfield, Ill., because I was supposed to get him two days later,” he said.
“That day when they went I thought, ‘My god. This is great.’ They’re walking to church. They’re going to church. This is going to be great,” he said. “I knew that he was religious but he never really talked much about it. Didn’t wear it at all on his sleeve and other than closing speeches and saying, ‘God bless the US, the United States.’ That was about it.”
On a personal level, Reagan believed in the power of prayer, he said.
“It could be a meeting. It could have been a photo. It could have been a presentation whatever, when some men, some women said to Reagan: ‘I’m praying for you,’ that got his attention. That really stopped him and he would say, ‘I cannot tell you how much that means to me.’ That really, really touched him when somebody came in and said they were praying for him.”
Crossing the street to attend the lighting of the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse by the South Lawn was a challenge because East Street was also still an open street, he said. Shutting down the streets would have created too much havoc for Reagan’s temperament, so the White House staff relied on a show business device.
The president would be at the White House 300 yards away from the tree, the crowd at the tree and the television crews covering the event live, he said.
“There is a plaque that has a light switch on just a like a light switch on the wall that you throw to light the Christmas tree and on the plaque are all the presidents engraved that lighted the Christmas three on that particular day and then this goes way, way back,” Kuhn said.
“We got to surround Reagan with people that you surround him with: Santa Claus with elves, then, you surround them with kids and he would give a little speech and then he would throw the switch and it would look like he was lighting the tree,” he said.
The old show business adage that says never to work with children sometimes rings true.
“We always seem to have an issue,” he said.
“One year, we had so many kids,” he said. “They were to his left and they were to his right. He’s standing at a podium giving his speech out on the south grounds there on the driveway the diplomatic entrance facing out towards the tree, towards the Ellipse and we got all these kids, I don’t know, 50 kids, maybe more and trying to make it look good, photo wise, footage wise and he’s so stuck up in kids that when he finished his speech to go throw the switch, he could not find the table where the switch was.”
Kuhn said the president was suddenly at a loss about losing sight of the switch is a sea of children.
“His arms are up in the air like, ‘Oh my god. What do I do? I can’t find the switch because of the kids,’” he said.
“I’m there, and I in a way gently walked into those kids and to get the president and cleared the path and told him: ‘Here’s the switch, now throw it.’ It’s like the simplest thing about Christmas and we could never get it right,” he said.
Behind the scenes, there were phone lines, radios and cameras to make sure the hidden man next to the tree turned on the lights as the precise moment Reagan hit the switch, he said.
“In fact, the White House press office always had questions: ‘Is the president lighting the tree or not? Is he really lighting the tree?’ The standard answer was: ‘The president will throw the switch and the tree will be lighted.’
For the record, Kuhn said there was no physical connection between the National Christmas Tree and the switch Reagan threw, he said.
Hidden from the crowds and the camera, the president and Nancy kept their own Christmas routine simple, he said.
“Basically, their Christmas was alone upstairs, generally with Charlie and Mary Jane Wick, their close friends and Charlie Wick was the head of the Voice of America all those years but just generally,” Kuhn said.
“It was just the four of them at the White House and then the next day, out to LA and then they’d go to dinner parties a couple of nights in LA with their friends that they’ve been doing dinners with for decades,” he said.
Each of the eight years in the White House, after making the rounds in Los Angeles, the Reagans and those in their social circle would move to Palm Springs for New Year’s Eve with their friends Walter and Leonore Annenberg at Sunnylands, the couple’s massive compound and estate grounds.
One of the new jobs created during the Reagan Recovery of the 1980s was the one Jane Wyman was hired in 1981 for starring role in the TV show “Falcon Crest,” as matriarch Angela Channing.
For his entire presidency, Reagan’s ex-wife was on a weekly television show and although Wyman never fed into the turmoil the press tried to draw her into, Maureen and Michael, her children with Reagan, presented a minefield to navigate.
For a time Maureen, who was very close to the president and was active politically in the Republican Party, lived in the White House on the third floor, he said.
“Mike was not around much and we actually had a problem,” he said. It was a problem that came to a head at Christmas.
“It was something that was kind of unusual but families are families–they just are,” he said. “The Reagans always had that split. They always had that split because of Reagan and Jane Wyman and Reagan and Nancy. It just never went away.”
After the 1984 campaign, there was a public falling out between Nancy and the son Wyman adopted with the president during their 1941 to 1948 marriage, he said.
“I can’t remember what was going on but after the ’84 campaign and going into the inaugural, there was this public sparring that was going on,” he said.
The feud was a hot topic in The Washington Post’s Style Section, which in the 1980s and 1990s was a very popular nexus of news, gossip and commentary that was the paper’s most powerful and popular property.
“You’d pick up the style section and he would this, she would say,” he said “It’s going back and forth and I remember Mike saying: ‘Maybe we need to sit down and have a couple of beers together whatever but lo and behold you talk about Christmas,’” he said.
Hearing that Michael wanted to make peace, Kuhn said Nancy asked him to arrange a meeting at the Century Plaza Hotel, where the First Couple stayed in Los Angeles after they sold their Pacific Palisades home following the 1980 election.
“She called me and said: ‘Mike and his wife Colleen are coming here and we’re going to meet,” he said. “I said, ‘Oh, my god.’”
Nancy did not want a media circus, he said.
“She said: ‘I want to them to get in here and I don’t want a good spectacle out of it,’” he said. “OK, we can figure that out.”
Kuhn said the assignment spoke to his becoming more important to the First Family and his position as a true intimate—but, it always meant he had to rely on all his experience as a security and advance man. “Just to get Mike and his wife down here.”
An hour later, the secret was out, he said. Both California and national media were reporting that Nancy and Michael would hold a summit.
“Even the LA local media were reporting that they were making up and that Mike and his wife were coming in for a meeting,” he said. “Mike had put it out.”
Nancy was livid.
Kuhn said the First Lady peppered him: “’How you going to get them in? I don’t want this, I don’t want photos. I don’t want footage.’”
When he got to the Century Plaza, he said he saw reporters and photographers everywhere, even the loading docks and worker entrances.
Despite the stakeouts, Kuhn brought Michael and his wife in through one of the side entrances and the summit took place, he said. “They had a nice meeting and I took them upstairs and they got together and they made their amends.”
When it came time for their last Christmas at the White House, Kuhn said the Reagans did not change their public or private routines, everything was as before.
“The last Christmas was like the first Christmas. There was no difference. Absolutely no difference,” he said.
“Reagans were always comfortable and never uncomfortable about anything,” he said. “That was just their way. It was their way of life. They just were very confident and very comfortable about everything that they did.”