Reagan Tribute ExclusiveCox: Remembering Ronald Reagan

From Rep. Christopher Cox:

The first time I met Ronald Reagan was on my first day at work in the White House–in the Oval Office, where I shook hands with him and exchanged pleasantries. Of course it’s difficult to forget one’s first meeting with the President of the United States, but what I remember most is how quickly he put me at ease.

Naturally, he told a joke. Knowing that I was a Harvard graduate, he reeled off a story about a friend of his who’d graduated from Harvard Law School and had recently sought his advice. Once a partner in a large firm, this fellow had lost his job to drinking, which led in succession to divorce, drugs, and even jail time for shoplifting. Now, however, he was out of jail and had cleaned up his act. Most importantly, he’d recently met a wonderful woman to whom he wished to propose marriage. But he hadn’t told her anything of his background for fear of losing her. It was on this point that he sought the President’s advice: Should I tell her, the friend asked, that–I went to Harvard?

It’s hard for me to think of Ronald Reagan without smiling. Hanging on my office wall is a photograph taken two years later of me sitting opposite the President at his desk in the Oval Office. He’s got a big smile on his face, and I’m about to burst out laughing. I remember the occasion well–as the camera was flashing, he’d just finished telling yet another joke.

It was a special privilege to travel with the President aboard Air Force One. I’ll never forget how President Reagan seemed to think it was his job responsibility to keep the staff cheerful. Throughout the flight, he entertained us with stories and jokes. I especially enjoyed his amazingly authentic Irish brogue.

Nor will I ever forget our last meeting while he was still President–on a chilly day in January 1988, when he came to the floor of the House of Representatives a few days before the inauguration of President Bush to deliver a private valediction to the Republican members. There was no TV or press or public. He began his speech from the rostrum on the Democratic side of the aisle–a mistake I attributed to his lack of familiarity with House procedure. It was no mistake. Midway through his remarks about his political career, he described how “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me”–and strode purposefully from the left to the right-hand side of the aisle. The assembled Republican members loved it.

A few moments later, during a private conversation in Statuary Hall just a few feet from where his casket would later lie in state beneath the Capitol Rotunda, President Reagan again congratulated me on my first-time election to the Congress. We’d had an exuberant celebration together in the Oval Office the preceding June, following my victory in the primary. But this time he didn’t tell a joke. Rather, he offered this fatherly advice: “Never forget to trust the people who sent you here. And keep on fighting for the principles that you and I share.”

That day, even more than now, marked a sad ending. But now, just as then, I take heart in knowing that the Reagan legacy, and the inspiration of his example, will remain alive in our memories forever.

–Rep. Cox, Republican U.S. representative
from California, was Senior Associate
White House Counsel under Reagan.