When the news broke on Saturday afternoon, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) had just sat down in the Los Angeles studios of Fox News to discuss the handover of power in Iraq: Ronald Reagan, the man who had brought the surfing Congressman from the beaches of Southern California to the corridors of power in Washington, was dead.
“My first thought was, I’m not going to cry,” Rohrabacher recalled Monday. “There was no other person other than my father who had more influence on me than Ronald Reagan.”
Three thousand miles away, fellow California Republican Rep. Christopher Cox — who had been monitoring Reagan’s health for several days — was on a camping trip with his 10-year-old daughter Katie and her Indian Princesses group when the call came through on his cellphone.
“I was out in the middle of the forest in Virginia,” said Cox. “For all of the preparation for it, it was still overwhelming.”
Of all the men and women serving in the House, few have had political trajectories linked more intimately with that of the 40th president than Rohrabacher and Cox. Along with Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), they are the only current Members of Congress to have served in the Reagan White House.
Of these three Members, Rohrabacher’s relationship with the president goes back the furthest. As a college student, an “idealistic” Rohrabacher camped out in the backyard of Reagan’s Pacific Palisades home one night in 1966, during Reagan’s first Golden State gubernatorial bid. Rohrabacher was angry that Youth for Reagan, of which he was a member, was to be incorporated into Reagan’s regular campaign apparatus.
“Mrs. Reagan shooed me away the next morning,” Rohrabacher said. “I was walking down his driveway when [Reagan] literally came running after me, with his shirt half off and shaving cream on his face and said, ‘If you can camp out in my backyard, I can spend a couple of minutes with you.’”
Rohrabacher must have been persuasive: The youth campaign wasn’t dissolved. And Reagan would go on to win two terms as California’s governor.
Soon after his college graduation, Rohrabacher — by then working as a local radio and news service reporter in Los Angeles — would tangle with Reagan as a reporter, covering the final two years of his governorship. “I asked Reagan a lot of tough questions,” he said.
In 1976, Rohrabacher would exchange his press pass for a job as a traveling assistant press secretary during Reagan’s first run for the White House.
“I was the only Republican journalist they could find,” said Rohrabacher, laughing. After Reagan lost to then-President Gerald Ford in the primaries, he and Rohrabacher remained in touch.
After reprising his role as a traveling press secretary during Reagan’s successful 1980 campaign for president, Rohrabacher, then 33, landed a post as a special assistant to the president. During seven years as a senior speechwriter to Reagan, he would earn a reputation as the Great Communicator’s most prolific scribe.
“I was not the best, but I was the fastest,” he said, declining, like some political speechwriters, to discuss specific addresses he had written.
Reagan even drew on his earlier career experiences as a B-movie Hollywood actor to help Rohrabacher out from time to time, the Congressman recalled.
Once in the late 1970s, Rohrabacher sent Reagan a screenplay he had written, hoping for some advice. Reagan read the script — which traces the adventures of a conservative war veteran and a liberal as they journey through Baja, California, on an archeological dig — and returned it with his handwritten analysis.
The story didn’t end there. In 1988, when Rohrabacher was running for Congress, the candidate — then “broke” — hawked the original script with Reagan’s notations for $10,000, hoping to refill his campaign coffers.
“I offered to buy it back,” after the campaign, Rohrabacher noted, but the buyer refused to sell. (In a happier ending, the script was finally optioned by an independent film company about six months ago.)
Cox’s relationship with Reagan evolved more slowly, but also grew from an involvement in student politics.
“On a personal level, my story is like [that of] so many Americans who got involved in politics because of his influence,” Cox said.
While at Harvard Law School, a place not known for its politically conservative leanings, Cox organized Harvard Law Students for Reagan. “We had six students at our high watermark,” he acknowledged. Cox would serve as a volunteer for Reagan’s 1976 and 1980 campaigns.
Cox was initially asked to join the White House Counsel’s Office during Reagan’s first term, but he went into private practice instead when the official who had asked him to join was shuttled to a different job in the administration.
It wasn’t until his first day on the job in 1986 that Cox met his hero. “The very first time I met him, I went into the Oval Office, he shook my hand and he knew without my having to tell him that I was from Harvard Law School, and he immediately told a very funny joke at Harvard’s expense,” Cox said. (The joke had to do with a fictitious alcoholic Harvard Law grad with a criminal record whose primary concern in asking advice about proposing marriage to the woman he loved was whether he should mention his Ivy League degree.)
From his perch as senior associate counsel to the president, Cox was often at the center of thorny issues, ranging from the bombing of Libya to the hard-fought nomination of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court. Through it all, Cox remembers a chief executive devoted to maintaining a positive outlook.
Reagan “was always interested in cheering you up,” said Cox. “He thought it was his job to keep his staff happy.”
Reagan inadvertently contributed to Cox’s happiness in more ways than one.
“Without Ronald Reagan I would not have met my wife,” said Cox. He met his wife Rebecca at the White House; she was serving as assistant to the president for public liaison.
For Elizabeth Dole, Reagan’s influence was no less profound. She was already an alumna of the Nixon administration by the time she first met Reagan during the 1976 campaign. Her husband, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), was serving as Ford’s running mate.
After the 1980 election, Elizabeth Dole served as a member of Reagan’s transition staff for Health and Human Services, and then was named Reagan’s assistant for public liaison. In 1983, Reagan elevated her to his Cabinet, as the first female secretary of Transportation.
“He broadened my horizons, no question,” Dole said Monday.
As Reagan’s presidency was nearing its end in 1988, Rohrabacher and Cox saw their own futures in elective politics taking off.
The two men — who became good friends during their tenure in the executive branch — hatched their initial plans to run for Congress over lunch at the White House.
“By the time we finished lunch, we were both on our ways to running in the primaries,” said Cox.
That June, the two men celebrated their respective GOP primary victories in overwhelmingly Republican districts with Reagan in a private Oval Office celebration.
“No one would have voted for me” were it not for Reagan, Rohrabacher says. “I had a beard and nobody knew who I was. The fact that I had about 50 great pictures of me working with Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office — that made all difference in world.”
Already, both men are crafting legislation to honor their political mentor.
Possibly as early as today, Rohrabacher will introduce legislation to take Andrew Jackson off the $20 bill and put Ronald Reagan in his place.
Similarly, Cox — who sponsored legislation naming the federal courthouse in Orange County after Reagan and who was also involved in the effort to re-label the Washington-area facility then known as National Airport — said he will introduce a resolution in the House honoring Reagan today.
Ultimately, these three former aides said, Reagan was a man of decency who exhibited infectious humor and warmth.
“When the doors closed, he never became some mean, nasty guy like a lot of other guys,” Rohrabacher recalled.
“He was always a gentleman,” Dole said, adding that Oval Office visitors who had intended to give Reagan a piece of their mind often left in a very different mood.
“They’d get in his presence and any anger would just melt away,” said Dole. “He’d tell a humorous tale or two and maybe pass around the jellybeans and they’d come out ready to climb any hill for Ronald Reagan.”