The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
A State Dinner with President Reagan
Cory Ser Vaas, Saturday Evening Post, 274/5, Sep/Oct 2002
Did you ever wonder how President Reagan kept looking so hale and hearty after bullets and brickbats? Did you ever wonder whether his vigorous good looks come as a result of lights and make-up for the television cameras? Did you wonder what this man ate to remain so healthy and how he lived to keep his exuberant energy and optimistic regard for people? Did you ever wonder if his rapier wit was all his or the product of gifted ghostwriters?
I did. And then, quite unexpectedly, I had an opportunity to find out the answers firsthand. The invitation came in an unstamped envelope with a return address that said simply, "The White House." It was a state dinner to be given for the Sultan of Oman.
When the day of the dinner arrived, my husband and I went to Washington and checked in at the Madison Hotel. We soon discovered that the guest of honor, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos, the Sultan of Oman, and his enormous Arab entourage were also staying there. We left the hotel simultaneously and our limousines arrived together at the White House.
The sultan's men were wearing ceremonial robes called "beshets" and lethal-looking curved knives called "khangers." We overheard a White House aide tell one of the sultan's Omanis, "Security will never let you in with those knives." He was referring to the daggers peeking from under their robes. The Omani replied, "We are security."
Nancy and the President stood inside with the sultan to greet their guests in a reception line. The sultan's attire was so magnificent that it nearly overshadowed Nancy Reagan's understated but elegantly draped Galanos gown. Her attire couldn't have been more tastefully chosen to complement the sultan's.
In the receiving line, my husband and I enjoyed some short small talk with the President, but judging from the size of the dinner party, I expected that these would be our last words of the evening with the President and Mrs. Reagan. We proceeded to the dining room, where husbands and wives were assigned to separate tables. Nancy was seated with the sultan. I was assigned to table No. 10, which I was told was under the portrait of Abraham Lincoln and in front of the fireplace. Upon arriving at my seat, I found that the place card next to mine said simply, "Mr. President." So I had dinner with Nancy's husband.
As we ate and talked, I learned that the President in private was as humorous, as optimistic, as generous in his view of America as ever he seemed in public. The "President" you saw in the media was not the creation of ghostwriters, make-up artists and lighting technicians in the White House studio.
He was a vigorous man who worked out daily in his White House gym as often as the affairs of the world permitted. And he looked forward to his vacations at the ranch in California where he chopped wood and rode his horses.
He told us that horseback riding is marvelous exercise for body and soul. You move every muscle in your body when you get on a horse, he said.
"When a man sits on the outside of a horse, it does good things for the insides of the man," he said with a laugh.
President Reagan gave close attention to his diet. The famous jellybeans, for example, were not often eaten. It all began, he said, when he was giving up pipe smoking. For a time, the jellybeans helped. But by this time he rarely ate them.
The demands of his office for ceremonial lunches and dinners might have made it impossible for the President to keep a sensible diet. But there was good dietary sense beneath the elegance of this night's state dinner--Columbia River salmon with a light sauce verte, a supreme of chicken with mushrooms and an herbed sauce were the main dishes served on Nancy Reagan's beautiful White House china.
The President's vigorous fitness served him and the nation well when John Hinckley, Jr., shot him outside the Washington Hilton. The President told me that at first he did not know he had been shot, that he thought the pain he felt was from a rib that cracked when the Secret Service agents first threw themselves on the President to protect him from the shots and then threw him in the White House limousine, literally, for the fast trip to George Washington University Hospital.
He felt God was with him when he arrived at the hospital, he told me, because the physicians should have been gone by that hour and the operating room shut down for the day at three in the afternoon. But, instead, all the specialists that the President needed were still at the hospital. They fortunately had just finished a staff meeting and treatment could begin immediately--but not until the President made his famous joke: "I hope all you fellows are Republicans."
The President confided that his Christian faith began with his mother's teaching--and that he could not serve his office without that faith. Our seats at this dinner were almost directly beneath the G.P.A. Healy portrait of Lincoln done in 1869. Reagan said he took his inspiration from Lincoln, who also knew that sometimes the President of the United States stands wholly alone with the responsibilities of the nation and that only prayer and an unbending faith in God can give the President the strength and courage to stand so alone. He couldn't imagine anyone running the country without God's help, he told me. The need for guidance is enough to bring a man to his knees every day, he added.
Because the Omanis are Moslems, there were no champagne toasts at this White House dinner. Instead, the representatives of the two cultures traded formal compliments about each other's leadership qualities. They pledged mutual support, and a relaxed, happy feeling prevailed.
Did President Reagan take vitamins? Yes. He explained that when he and Nancy were first married, Nancy's father, the late Dr. Loyal Davis, a prominent Chicago neurosurgeon, had told them they should take a multivitamin every day just in case they might have some vitamin or mineral deficiency. So every morning they each took a Multicebrin®.
We talked about drugs and marijuana. He was obviously proud of the work Nancy was doing in fighting drug abuse. He spoke about the harm of marijuana and pointed out that we were finding emphysema in young marijuana smokers. He said that the Russians could have wiped out our country if they could have gotten a single generation of young people addicted to drugs and marijuana.
Reagan spoke for a time about the success of the efforts to eliminate marijuana use in the military services. Peer pressure was at work, he said, and our service men and women no longer wanted to entrust their own safety and their own lives to someone who might be stoned. So drug use was becoming unpopular for the young men and women in our armed forces--and, we hoped, to their contemporaries in the civilian world.
It was apparent that President Reagan hated smoking of all kinds. He told about his brother, who had been a two- or a three-pack-a-day smoker. One of his vocal cords had been surgically removed and he had also had triple-bypass heart surgery. The President felt this was a case where lifestyle made the difference between health and illness. Their genes were similar, but their lifestyles were quite different. The President himself never smoked anything but a pipe and he gave that up.
He assured me that he ate fiber and gained all the benefits therefrom promptly. I told him about potatoes and my theory that more upper-respiratory illnesses occurred in the spring when people were eating potatoes that have only one-fourth of their original vitamin C content left in them. Potatoes are such an important source of vitamin C in the diet that vitamin-deficient spring potatoes could cause susceptibility to respiratory viruses.
I was amazed by the President's knowledge of nutrition and health. While we were on the subject of potatoes, the President told a story of a famous medical study of 550 pairs of Irish brothers. The brothers who came to America tended to develop cardiovascular disease, but the brothers who stayed in Ireland kept their health--probably because of the potatoes they ate and the exercise they got from growing them. The President told this story with great wit and with a better memory for the facts than most physicians would display. A full account of the study appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine.
I asked the President why he thought Jane Fonda had done the things she did in Vietnam.
When he was governor of California, he said, he had been visited in his home by a veteran who had been a prisoner of war in one of the North Vietnamese prison camps that Jane Fonda had visited. She had taken her fellow American before the international press that accompanied her on the North Vietnamese tour and had used him as an example of the "humane treatment" that she said the Communists were giving their American prisoners. But the truth of the treatment was that the prison guards had hanged this young man by his injured arm and had beaten him four or five times. He had been forced by his captors to cooperate with Jane Fonda and stand before the press with her.
But the President said that he could understand how Jane Fonda and others could have been so easily duped by the Communists. Their propagandists were masters at generating publicity and the adulation of the press for articulate but naive public figures who were willing to stand as critics of America and as friends of our enemies. They gave our critics starring roles in the theater of the press.
The tables around us were filled with well-known people. We saw the heart specialist Michael DeBakey and the fashion designer Calvin Klein, who exchanged kisses with Nancy Reagan. Maria Janis, Gary Cooper's daughter, was there and so was Fred Astaire's daughter, Ava. Leonard Silverstein, president of the National Symphony Orchestra, the artist Andrew Wyeth, and the philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife were all enjoying the delightful food and company. The splendid violinists played romantic dinner music without stopping.
The President had great fun telling us a story about his visit with Queen Elizabeth of England. They were sitting on the podium, and her aide, who could never turn his back on the queen, was required to walk backward. As he was doing so, she thoughtfully motioned right or left to keep him in a straight line. Noticing that the President had caught her guiding him, the queen laughed and said, "A man could get killed falling off this thing."
After dinner we walked into the drawing room, where coffee was being served. The President said, "Sanka, please." He got an A+ on matters of health maintenance.
Nancy couldn't wait to join the President to share her good news. "The sultan has just given us a $300,000 check for the National Symphony Orchestra," she exclaimed. She was elated. Modestly, she didn't mention to the President that it was to be used for the Nancy Reagan chair for narrative music in the National Symphony under the baton of Mstislav Rostropovich, one of the world's finest conductors. Nancy's joy knew no bounds. Since often the President was honoring a country without resources, one that had sent its representatives to the White House in an effort to receive dollars, a gift of this magnitude was understandably a happy surprise. It was a most appropriate gesture and thanks were given in the best of taste.
After-dinner music in the East Room was gay and light. Later, in the foyer, the band struck up "Shall We Dance." Nancy, still beaming about the gift to the National Symphony, danced with the President. A little later, to everyone's delight, the band played "Second Hand Rose," and Nancy Reagan went into a dance routine, kicking up her heels and flipping the skirt of her svelte red gown. Guests cheered as the President and the first lady went upstairs to their private quarters. As we left, Helen Thomas chided me because I wouldn't tell her what the President had told me at dinner. She knew I wanted to save it for Post readers.
Copyright 2002 Saturday Evening Post