Remembering Reagan

Steve Skinner watched as Ronald Reagan roused audiences into near-hysteria with his very presence. He saw Reagan work crowds with hand shakes and gentle humor. He stood nearby as the Great Communicator gave hundreds of speeches all over the nation.

But many of Skinner’s best memories of the late president are smaller, personal moments that revealed the man’s genuine warmth. Skinner, an Oak Harbor resident and retired TV producer, got to know Ronald and Nancy Reagan when he covered the former California governor’s campaign for president in 1979 and 1980.

“You had the feeling that when you were with Ronald Reagan that he was accessible,” Skinner said. “He wouldn’t look through you, but at you. He was just a pleasure to be around.”

Like all the other folks who were lucky enough to meet Reagan, Skinner has been dredging up and sharing his memories of the ex-president during the week of national mourning. Reagan died at his ranch in Santa Barbara Saturday at age 93.

Skinner was an ABC News producer assigned to cover Reagan on the campaign trail, which meant that he would spend countless hours — on the same plane, at the same hotel and at the same events — with Reagan and his staff. While he was supposed to be an unbiased observer, Skinner admits being awed by the Gipper.

“There was an aura, a kindness,” he said, “a genuine humanity about Ronald Reagan.”

Memories of the man

Skinner recalls many little moments, like when he found himself in a hotel bathroom alone with Reagan (and the Secret Service) during a campaign stop. He told Reagan, “Governor, we just have to stop meeting like this.”

“He laughed as only Ronald Reagan can laugh,” Skinner said.

The newsman also benefited from the Reagans’ kindness. Ronald and Nancy knew that Skinner had a family he was missing while on the road with the campaign. One time, Ronald and Nancy stalled before getting on a plane, endlessly waving and waving to TV cameras, so that Skinner could have a few extra minutes with his kids.

Finally Dennis Finch, a staffer who closed the back door of the plane, ran over to Skinner. “Come on Steve,” he said, “get on the damn plane so the Reagans will go on.”

Skinner was able to bring his wife, Babbs, and three children to meet the Reagans both in the White House and at their ranch. The kids got jelly beans, which were famously the president’s favorite treat.

Skinner and his wife chatted with the Leader of the Free World and “Mommy” during a White House Christmas party in December of 1981.

Skinner last saw Reagan in 1985. He went to the White House to cover Reagan tossing the coin, via satellite, for the start of the Super Bowl. Skinner has a signed photograph that captures the scene: Reagan in good humor, chatting about football.

Memories of Nancy

Skinner also has fond memories of Nancy Reagan. In August of 1980, Skinner was able to bring his family to the Reagans’ ranch when he went to cover a story. The kids scurried amongst the cameras and reporters. Everything was going as planned until his 9-year-old daughter, Krissy, decided to invite the Reagans to her home for Christmas.

Nancy answered, “Well Krissy, if you send me an invitation, we’ll see what we can do.”

At his daughter’s insistence, Skinner had an invitation delivered to the Reagans. On a November night after the election, he received a surprise phone call from Nancy. She called to say she was going to be in Washington, D.C., for the holidays, so she couldn’t make the party.

Krissy’s reaction? “Well if you can’t come, can Mr. Reagan come?”

Beyond the personal, Skinner witnessed Reagan’s incredible rise to prominence first hand. He was there when Governor Reagan announced his candidacy in November of 1979. Skinner said one of his “defining moments in his scrapbook of many Reagan memories” was his famous New Hampshire debate with George Bush during the primary.

Reagan’s campaign triumphs

As Skinner tells it, Bush was reluctant to debate and refused to debate anyone but Reagan. The governor even had to pay the rent for the gymnasium to even have a debate. But when Reagan tried to “resolve the situation” by explaining why the other candidates should be included, the moderator called for Reagan’s microphone to be turned off.

According to Skinner, Reagan shocked everyone when he proclaimed angrily and passionately: “I paid for this microphone.”

The audience erupted into thunderous applause for the man who stood up for himself. Three days later, Reagan, who was trailing Bush until that night, won the vote by 55 percent.

Skinner said he realized the power of Reagan’s popularity and personality at an Amway convention in North Carolina. A crowd of about 20,000 became frenzied when Reagan took the stage.

“It was damn near hysteria,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Reagan, with his legendary sense of humor, looked around in confused silence and asked, “Was it something I said?” The audience erupted in laughter and cheers.

A leader remembered

Before retiring to Whidbey in 1998, Skinner covered stories all over the world during a 30-year career as a news, sports and entertainment producer. He’s covered the Olympic games five times and the Academy Awards 10 times. He’s won nine Emmys and the George Foster Peabody Award.

Yet even with all these experiences, Skinner said his most memorable stories were of Reagan’s presidential campaign of 1980. He will remember the so-called “Teflon” president as a great leader, a quality that Skinner feels is in somewhat short supply today. In contrast to the current President Bush and his quagmire, Skinner said Reagan was able to help win the Cold War “without a shot being fired.”

While Reagan knew it was important to have the public trust, Skinner said, “the present administration is saddled with secrecy.” As a member of the media, Skinner felt that Reagan was always open and forthcoming with him.

So, like the rest of the country, Skinner will mourn the passing of a leader this week. “I am profoundly glad,” he said,”that I had the good fortune to spend as much time as I did with this extraordinary man and American citizen.”

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