Fifty years ago today—June 13, 1973—California Governor Ronald Reagan gave to me the most meaningful item of political memorabilia in my collection. It not only traveled far and then returned, but it changed my life—and maybe a bit of history, as you will see.
On that long-ago afternoon, Governor Reagan headlined a luncheon in the Plaza Ballroom of the Boundary Oak clubhouse in Walnut Creek, California. Hosted by the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association, the invitation promised that Reagan would "present his bold initiative proposal entitled 'A Reasonable Program for Revenue Control and Tax Reduction' [which calls for] an effective lid on state government spending."
Unbelievable by today's standards, attending this private reception with Ronald Reagan, enjoying a country club sit-down lunch with him, and hearing him unveil a major administration initiative cost "$6 per lunch including tax and tip" (per the invitation). Back then, six bucks was a lot of money to a young teenager, and I didn't have it, but the deficiency didn't discourage me. By the way, to the hostess who left the Boundary Oak's entrance door unattended momentarily that day, I send my deepest thanks across the years.
Reagan arrived at noon and admirers besieged him. While others ate, he enjoyed little of the lunch served him. Instead, he spent most of his time shaking hands, posing for photographs, and signing autographs for admirers.
Shortly before the program began, Reagan sat at the head table reviewing his stack of four-by-six cards bearing his handwritten speech notes. I decided to wait around after the luncheon and ask him if I could have them for my political collection.
After Reagan finished his speech, his security detail whisked him to the nearby La Velada room for a radio broadcast, and then for a hastily arranged meeting with Republican state legislators bussed down from Sacramento so that Reagan could brief them on his new initiative. Scores of luncheon guests lingered outside the room waiting for him to exit, but as the hours passed only three people remained: a ten year-old boy holding a vintage Brownie camera, his mother, and me.
Three hours later, a Reagan aide told us that the governor was about to leave, but not from the entrance where we waited. His security detail had brought his car around to the rear. The aide suggested that we wait by his car if we wanted to see him when he departed. The boy and his mother were in front of me as we made for the exit, but they moved too slowly. As we stepped through the door, Reagan had just settled into the rear of his limousine. His motorcade started pulling away.
For some reason, Reagan glanced back over his shoulder. He saw the boy holding the old camera dropping his head in disappointment. Reagan leaned forward and said something to his driver. The limousine stopped, and then it backed up to where we stood. Rolling down his window, Reagan called to the boy, "Hi, son! Were you waiting to take a picture of me?" The speechless boy nodded his head. With no reporters (or anyone else) around to witness his kindness, Reagan climbed out of the car, greeted the boy and his mother, and posed for a picture with them. He then turned to me and smiled.
Here was my chance. I praised his luncheon speech and then I said to him, "Governor, while you were reviewing your notes, I saw that they were all handwritten. Did you write them out yourself?"
"Why, yes, I did," he replied. When I asked if I could see them, he pulled them from his coat pocket and handed them to me. As I leafed through the cards, he told me he had written them the night before in his hotel room. He explained that with this speech he had formally kicked off his statewide ballot initiative campaign to reduce state taxes and curb spending. Calling this the "signature initiative of my administration," he told me he had spent three hours last night working on it because of its significance.
It was now or never: "Governor, may I have them for my political memorabilia collection?"
He grimaced. "Uh, well," he said, "you see, I'll need to give this speech more than once and I don't have another copy of it. My staff will kill me if I don't come back with it."
Sensing my opportunity slipping away, and remembering how the sad-faced boy with the Brownie camera had touched Reagan's sympathy nerve, I tried the same ploy. I dropped my chin to my chest and wiped away a nonexistent tear. "I understand, governor. It took you three hours to write it. Three hours—that's how long I've been waiting for you."
He sighed. "Okay, you win. You may not be able to make heads or tails out of my writing, but you can have them."
Brazenly, I handed back the last note card to him: "They're no good if you don't autograph them," I said. Smiling and shaking his head, he penned his name on the last card and returned it to me. Reagan then took back the cards to show me that on each one his handwritten notes were on one side for today's speech, and on the other side were speech notes typed in large black font. He explained that the typed side was his reading copy of a speech he had delivered earlier to a California Highway Patrol audience. Not one to waste paper, he said he used the back of the CHP speech to handwrite his speech notes for today's event. "So you see," he said, "you're really getting two speeches for the price of one."
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The rest of the story:
Eight years later, when voters installed Ronald Reagan in the White House, I was a student at UCLA Law School. A financial crisis hit, and I needed $1,500 to pay for my tuition or else the school would drop me. Knowing of my dire straits, a collector offered me the needed money for Reagan's speech notes. I refused. The new president gave them to me, and I could never part with them.
As time ran out and faced with the choice of being kicked out of school or selling the notes, I had no choice but to let them go. I kept page one of Reagan's notes in my collection, and I sold pages two through eight. The money paid my tuition. I finished law school, passed the bar exam, and my career took its course.
After I served as a House Manager in the U.S. Senate impeachment trial of President Clinton, I had lunch with Clinton's White House counsel, my friend Lanny Davis. He told me that during the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment hearings, Clinton and the White House senior staff called me, "The Domino." I asked why. He explained that they had identified several GOP Judiciary Committee members wanting to vote against impeachment, but they needed cover. These congressmen said that if I voted against it, then they could use the excuse that an ex-prosecutor and an ex-judge looked at the evidence and found it lacking. "We knew if we could flip you our way, these others would follow," Lanny told me. "We could have killed impeachment in the committee." I suspected that his assessment overestimated my influence, but he insisted that they had the votes to defeat impeachment if their linchpin (me) voted no.
Not long after this lunch, I spent a rare afternoon relaxing at home and sifting through my memorabilia collection. When I came upon page one of Reagan's old speech notes, I looked at it for a long time while thinking about what Lanny had told me. If Ronald Reagan hadn't given me those notes almost 30 years earlier, I wouldn't have finished law school, which meant that I never would have become a prosecutor, a judge, a state legislator, a congressman, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, or a House Manager in the Clinton impeachment trial. Would that changed circumstance have mattered to the ultimate vote? Who knows?
As I reflected on Lanny's chain reaction theory, it caused renewed pining over the forced sale of pages two through eight, I hoped that Ronald Reagan might forgive me if he knew that I had sold them to finish my education and embark on a life of public service. Somehow, I felt he would.
A few weeks later, I was flipping through an auction catalog of political memorabilia for sale. I gasped when I saw Auction Lot #73: it was pages two through eight of my old Reagan speech note cards. The original purchaser had died, and his heirs were selling his collection. I bid on the notes and then monitored the competition by telephone on the night of the auction. When the sun rose the next morning, Ronald Reagan's 1973 Boundary Oak speech notes returned home.
Some years later, I showed the notes to Martin Anderson, a former Reagan senior adviser who wrote two Reagan books sourced from the president's holographic archives. He told me that his comprehensive research throughout Reagan's body of work showed that my Boundary Oak note cards are the only known complete set of Reagan's famous four-by-six-inch handwritten speech notes outside the possession of the Reagan Library. More importantly, they are the only autographed complete set known to exist anywhere. Apparently, nobody ever thought to ask Reagan to sign his speech cards before I came along, and nobody bothered to ask after.
Because Ronald Reagan wouldn't turn down a glib fan in a parking lot half a century ago, a unique historic treasure now rests in the archives of Michigan's Hillsdale College (where I donated them in 2018). Lining the pathway to Hillsdale's repository of my donation are life-sized bronze statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan.
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My visit to the Boundary Oak clubhouse in 1973 wasn't the last time that I waited three hours for Ronald Reagan. I did it once again 30 years later on a hot, muggy afternoon in downtown Washington, D.C. At the first sight of the American and presidential flags leading the procession, I couldn't help but smile in recalling Ronald Reagan's grimace, followed by the twinkle in his eye, when he handed over that stack of note cards 31 years earlier. On that day in 2004, as I watched the riderless horse following his flag draped casket pass by, I remembered what Ronald Reagan did for America and for the cause of freedom.
But mostly, I remembered what Ronald Reagan, so long ago, did for me.
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