Reagan and Joe

This February 6 [marked] the 99th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth. In a telling development, Republicans around the country have begun holding “Reagan Day” dinners, as they’ve traditionally done every February for Abraham Lincoln. This is another of those unique, spontaneous displays of affection for Reagan.

Having written so much on the man, I get questions about Reagan this time of year, running the gamut from his domestic achievements to his historic foreign-policy triumph: peacefully ending the Cold War. Sometimes I get asked for unreported anecdotes reflecting on his personality and character. I have a bunch of those, eagerly shared with me by people who met Reagan-Reagan talked to anyone-or dug up from thousands of letters Reagan wrote to everyday Americans over a long lifetime. (See my NRO article on Reagan and Ruth Smith of Idaho.)

Reagan was plainly likable. Of all the subjects I’ve studied, few were as universally liked. Sure, Reagan, as president, was demonized by the left; still, most liberals muster nice words about Reagan personally.

Central to that likability was Reagan’s humility. The word “I” didn’t dominate his lexicon, unless he was poking fun at himself. Ronald Reagan was not full of pride; thoroughly un-possessed of self-love.

And so, with that background, I’d like to take the opportunity of Reagan’s time of year-not to mention the month of Presidents’ Day-to share an anecdote, told to me by Bill Clark, Reagan’s close friend and most significant adviser:

Clark had served President Reagan as deputy secretary of state, national security adviser, and secretary of interior. As a senior official, he was required to have a driver to get him to appointments. Clark’s driver was a man named Joe Bullock, a Georgia native who moved to Washington during the Great Depression. Joe was a victim of the cruel Jim Crow laws that plagued the South. He went to Washington for a better life.

Joe first found employment as a mule driver. He eventually traded in the animal for various senior people in the federal government, some of whom, including a high-level figure in the previous (Carter) administration, didn’t treat him well; in fact, that previous figure didn’t speak a word to Joe in three years.

Thus, Joe was taken aback when Bill Clark not only talked to him, asking questions about his life and family, but also whether he could sit up front. Clark rode shotgun with Joe, creating not only a few stares but security concerns, as Clark, given his influence in national security, was a target of America’s enemies.

One morning, Clark’s father visited Washington. He hit it off with Joe. Clark’s father was a rancher, a man of the West. He gave Joe a gift: a Western-style belt, with a kind of “John Wayne belt buckle,” as Clark described it. Joe loved it, proudly displaying it by always leaving his blue suit-jacket unbuttoned.

That belt and buckle soon assumed a life of its own. There was an upcoming state visit by England’s Prince Philip. It was customary that the White House provide a gift. Clark and Reagan and a few others brainstormed following a morning briefing. Clark suggested a “Western belt.” He had one in mind, made by Si Jenkins, a Santa Barbara friend of both Clark and the president. (Reagan, too, was a California rancher.)

“Well, what does it look like?” asked Reagan. Clark noted he had a model in the car: Joe, who was wearing the belt. “Send him up,” ordered the president. They called for Joe, who entered via the door of Reagan’s personal secretary.

Joe had worked for the federal government for 50 years, but had never been within 50 yards of a president or the Oval Office. He walked in. He saw Clark, Vice President Bush, the senior aides, and the president of the United States. He was in awe, overcome. Suddenly, this tough 6’4″ man began weeping: He had come so far since Jim Crow and the Great Depression. He was choked up.

No one in the room was prepared for that reaction. They were dead silent, uncomfortable, clueless to respond; except for Ronald Reagan. The president rose, walked over to the driver, extended his hand, breathed in, and said matter-of-factly, “Mr. Bullock, I understand you have a belt to show me?”

It was an “everyman” touch. And it put old Joe immediately at ease. Business-like, Joe showed the belt, and then he and Reagan swapped stories, chatting away like old friends.

“The rest of us just faded away,” said Bill Clark, “as the two got along famously.” President and driver, remembering the old days.

Bullock left with a story to tell his fellow drivers, and his grandchildren. He died a few years later.

No, this anecdote is nothing dramatic. It’s not like challenging Gorbachev to tear down the wall. It’s simply another of many small stories I hear constantly about Ronald Reagan. This was a good president and a good man. The White House needs more of them. That’s a thought worth bearing in mind this February, a month that marks not only Reagan’s birthday but Presidents’ Day.

(This article first appeared at National Review, February 6, 2010.)

Dr. Paul Kengor


Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values. His books include “The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism” and “Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.”

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  • hsmarc

    Men of character,integrity and faith show their true self away from the bright lights because they know that He who sees all will know. Another story I heard on TV one time was about John Paul II. A secret service agent recounted how he was to accompany the Pope during his visit on a helicopter ride I believe in California. It had been a long day and the Holy Father had a schedule beginning early in the morning and it was now evening. After greeting everyone he was amazed as John Paul kneeled a prayed the rosary during the flight. The agent could not get over that a man, in his sixties at the time, would kneel in prayer after such an exhaustive day. He remarked that it is behind the scenes, out of the glow of publicity that you see the true character of those entrusted with power.

  • This story reminds me of one of my favorite jokes. It’s one I tell when I teach RCIA classes about spiritual blindness and the need to see things as they truly are. It goes like this:

    The Pope flew to New York to give a speech at the U.N., but his plane was late arriving. He got off the plane and, seeing his limo waiting, realized it would never get him to the speech on time. So he hopped into the back of a New York taxicab and told the driver, “To the U.N., and step on it!”

    It wasn’t long before the cab was stuck in traffic and going nowhere. So the Pope leaned forward and said to the cabbie, “Mister, why don’t you let me drive. I can get us there fast.” To which the cabbie replied, “Sure, Holy Father, whatever you say!”

    Next thing you know the cab is going 70 and is running stop lights and sideswiping other cars. Then a police car came up behind and flashed his lights for the Pope to pull over. The policeman was Catholic, and as he walked to the front of the taxicab he saw who was driving. “Oh my goodness, Holy Father!” the policeman exclaimed, “Here, let me escort you to wherever you’re going.”

    So the Pope got to his speech on time and everything was OK. Later that day the cop was boasting to his buddy about who he had seen in the taxicab. He said, “I just saw the most important man in the whole world!” And his buddy said, “Who’d you see, the mayor?”

    “Oh no, much bigger than the mayor.” “Did you see the governor?” “Oh no, bigger than the governor.” His buddy, astonished, asked “You saw the President?” “Nope, it was bigger than the president,” said the policeman.

    “Well, who’d you see then?” asked the buddy, mystified.

    The policeman scratched his head and thought a moment. “I’m not exactly sure, but the Pope was his driver!”

    The point of the story is, of course, that the policeman recognized that the man behind the wheel was the servant of whoever was sitting in back. He saw the truth of the situation and wasn’t blinded by his human perspective that, perhaps, the Pope is the most important man in the world. The joke always gets a laugh. My daydream is to one day tell it to the Pope himself and see if he laughs. Maybe CE could arrange an audience?

  • LarryW2LJ

    There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever, that despite all the valiant attempts by the Left, that Ronald Reagan will go down in history as one of the greatest American Presidents, ever.

    I, for one, in my younger and foolish days, did not appreciate him as much as I do now. Oh, that we would have such humility and greatness in office now! I can only pray that President Reagan’s personality traits will be brought back to the West Wing by someone else, soon.

    Ronald Reagan was truly a man who “got it” as the saying goes.