There’s a new book on Ronald Reagan that’s among the most unique and touching ever done on the man. It’s called The President Will See You Now, and it’s an account of his final years by Peggy Grande, a young woman who right out of college in 1989 unexpectedly landed herself a dream job. She was hired to Reagan’s post-presidential staff at his Century City office, where she was daily at his side and would come to know him unlike anyone else. Grande’s account of that time is a fascinating and at times even beautiful portrait by someone clearly called to do what she did.
I’ve met Peggy Grande twice. I recall asking her what I now realize was a stunningly stupid question: Did she have much direct interaction with the president? She humbly nodded her head. I now see that few people spent so much time with him, especially in those final years, a 10-year period from 1989-99. In fact, I’m sure Peggy Grande wouldn’t want me to say this, but she was clearly almost a caretaker to Reagan for some of that time — no, not at the level of Mrs. Reagan, or in the way others cared for him in his worst Alzheimer’s years, but in a motherly, or maybe even daughterly or grand-daughterly, way.
Yes, she knew him. She really knew him.
This review cannot do justice to that relationship. You need to get the book yourself and start reading. There are, however, a handful of anecdotes that stick with me, and that capture the breadth of what Reagan meant to many and to Peggy in his final years.
One is the story of an elderly Romanian immigrant who visited Reagan in late 1993. This account comes in a section of the book where Grande writes about her role arranging and shepherding meetings between President Reagan and various fans, admirers, friends, and prominent people. It’s funny to hear how some celebrities (whom Grande graciously leaves unnamed) became embarrassingly frozen and downright speechless in the presence of Reagan, and how he recognized their sudden shyness and made them feel at ease.
To that end, very much at ease with one another were Reagan and Mother Teresa, the visit of which Grande details movingly. But just after the Mother Teresa account is the story of the elderly Romanian woman who entered the office looking like the classic Russian babushka, dressed in a traditional wool suit and carrying a handbag. As Grande puts it, the woman was “severely stooped not only with age but from carrying the burdens of a life marked by oppression,” with a “pain and sadness etched in her face.” To her, like so many Eastern Europeans, Ronald Reagan was the great liberator, and she expressed her gratitude by hobbling into the former president’s office and instantly dropping to her knees and bowing at his feet, literally kissing them, with tears falling on his shoes.
Of course, Reagan was overwhelmed by this display. He reached down and helped her up. As she pulled herself together, she thanked Reagan for freeing her, her family, and her people.
That moment was not captured on video for posterity, but Peggy Grande was there to witness it and has captured it for us.
Another memorable example is a visit from 1994 by a gentleman from Dixon, Illinois, the hometown of Reagan. The man had brought a picture he painted of the Rock River, where a young Reagan lifeguarded for seven summers and saved the lives of 77 people. Reagan often called that job his favorite and said the statistic in his life that he was most proud of was “the number 77.”
Reagan stood there with his guest admiring the painting, reminiscing about the good old days. The short 10-minute appointment went longer, until Peggy stepped in to remind Reagan that others were waiting. Reagan obliged and Peggy escorted out the painter from Dixon.
She returned to the office, already planning the usual next steps of having the painting packaged, catalogued, and shipped off to the “permanent collection” at the Reagan Library. Instead, when she got there, she discovered Reagan casually carrying a priceless Southern California landscape by artist Charles Reiffel, on loan from the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. Reagan had taken down the Reiffel piece to replace it with the Rock River.
“I won’t be needing this anymore,” he told Peggy. “You can call the people at the museum and have them pick it up.” (For the record, Peggy diplomatically and creatively devised an on-the-spot plan to accommodate both paintings in the office.)
There are many moments of levity in the book, thanks to Reagan’s famous wit. He loved jokes, always looking to insert laughter into situations. Peggy speaks of her husband, Greg, golfing with Reagan one day. The two were searching for the president’s ball in the rough somewhere. “You know, Greg, just last week I hit a ball that rolled right behind this very tree,” Reagan began with a straight face, “and as I went to hit it I noticed right behind it was a frog. I didn’t know whether I should move the frog or leave it, when all of a sudden the frog started talking to me.”
Just as Greg must have shot a look wondering if the ex-president was losing his marbles, Reagan added: “The frog said to me, ‘If you kiss me I will turn into a beautiful woman and will love you forever.’ So I picked up the frog, put it in my pocket, and hit my ball. Because at my age I think I’d rather have a talking frog.”
Aside from these amusing moments, there are also serious and sad ones. Those, predictably, come nearer the end of Reagan’s long life, beginning around mid-1999, when, five years into his November 1994 announcement to his fellow Americans that he had Alzheimer’s, Reagan finally was forced to quit coming to his office. He had been doing so consistently well into the middle stages of the disease. Indeed, Ronald Reagan did impressively well with Alzheimer’s much longer than most people saddled with the disease.
Once Reagan stopped coming into the office, Peggy knew it was time for her, too, to change course. She was a young mom, with her fourth child on the way. She and her family longed for her to be home, and now was the time to make the break: “It was time to go home. For good.” All of that service to Reagan throughout her 20s was, she believed — in quintessentially Reaganesque thinking and even language — had been part of “God’s plan, not mine.”
She really did see her mission as a divine one, and it’s hard to imagine that it was anything but that. (Her chapter on Reagan’s faith, “A Faithful Life,” is filled with material I wish I would’ve had for my 2004 book on the faith of Ronald Reagan.)
She did, however, stay in touch with President Reagan and with Mrs. Reagan — who, significantly, is an important part of this story, as Peggy had a very good relationship with Nancy Reagan (this book likewise stands as a nice tribute to the former first lady).
Grande chronicles her final visits with Ronald Reagan in the book’s most moving chapter, “Saying Goodbye.” That’s a chapter that will bring tears to the eyes of Reagan fan and foe alike. Her final visit was in February 2004, around the time of his 93rd and final birthday.
“I went to his bedside that day, held his hand, and just sat with him,” writes Grande. “I had few words to offer up. There was nothing left to be said. I had no unfinished business with this beloved man.”
At one point, he briefly awoke, his blue eyes opening for an instant, looking vaguely around the room and then at Peggy. “They stared intently,” she remembers, “looking at me vacantly as just another part of his room and his view. I started talking to him, telling him how good he looked and how wonderful it was to see him again. As I spoke, the fogginess of his eyes seemed to dissipate momentarily…. There was a hint of a sparkle or maybe even a twinkle in his eyes, and with that one look, it was as if he was saying that even though he was unsure of exactly who I was, he thought he might know me, and thought I was someone he was fond of.”
Peggy told him through her tears: “I’m fond of you, too, Mr. President. And always will be.”
With that, he drifted back to sleep. She made her final goodbye and thanked him “for everything.”
Ronald Reagan died a few months later — June 5, 2004. And that, too, is another stirring chapter in Grande’s book — the final chapter. Alas, I’ll leave the details of that one to those of you who need to order this book.
Kudos to Peggy Grande. She has given us a wonderful work on the final years of Ronald Reagan that she alone could have delivered. Her published account of her life with Ronald Reagan seems the fitting capstone in God’s plan.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. His forthcoming book is A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century (May 2017).