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Gipper's goodness always shone

THERE WERE four of us in the motel room that night in Manchester, N.H. It was the windup of the New Hampshire presidential primary, and downstairs, where Ronald Reagan's supporters had gathered, hope was tempered by the reality of an uphill climb. George Bush had defeated Reagan in Iowa, and if he won here, too, there seemed little chance Reagan could recover.

Up in the governor's suite, however, the mood was different -- as it always was with Ronald Reagan. I paced nervously. Nancy Reagan moved back and forth between the bedroom and the sitting room. Reagan sat on the sofa, watched the returns, joked, and seemed as relaxed and jovial as if he were watching clips from one of his old movies.

I knew, of course, that this perpetually sunny side of Ronald Reagan did not preclude the ability to show steel when necessary. After it was clear that he had won in New Hampshire, we went downstairs and joined in the general celebration. And soon afterward, he dismissed the campaign manager who had presided over the Iowa defeat and an uncomfortably close call in this first real primary.

That was 24 years ago. Though I knew Reagan, I was slow to get involved in the presidential race. But on the night he lost in Iowa, I called him at his home in California, signed up, soon found myself on my first trip to New England, speaking at college campuses and standing outside restaurants and stores, so cold that I could not speak. After the New Hampshire primary, Reagan asked me to set up and direct a group of advisory task forces, each cochaired by one House member and one senator, to serve as part of a small congressional steering committee for the presidential campaign. Reagan met personally with the task force chairs, and whether his campaign staff actually used our work or not, Reagan listened carefully.

The same was true after the nomination had been won. Rather than merely taking his own counsel or that of a small handful of close friends, Reagan called in members of his steering committee and met with us in his suite at the Renaissance Hotel in Detroit to ask our opinions about the selection of a running mate. In the end, most, myself included, argued that the man who had almost beaten Reagan and who had belittled Reagan's economic proposals, was nonetheless important to putting forth a balanced ticket. Perhaps Reagan might have chosen to run with George Bush even if his advisers had argued otherwise, but when he tapped Bush for the ticket, everybody was on board.

It was this man, with his incredible openness, who appealed to those of us who had originally signed up with his campaign because of his ability to articulate American political conservatism as the upbeat, optimistic philosophy we believed it to be. Immediately following his death last weekend, many commentators, including those who could not resist subtle, and not so subtle, attacks on Reagan-era policies, were inclined to cite his personal "goodness." I saw that personal side firsthand, not only in our own many exchanges over the years but in all those things Reagan as a president of the United States did not need to do. As soon as word of his death reached my sister, she wrote to marvel again at how, when my mother was undergoing cancer surgery in a California hospital, Reagan had called her.

This was a president who, after coming to Oklahoma to help in my reelection campaign, diverted Air Force One so I could point out areas of storm damage in the state.

When Reagan felt he had no choice but to go along with Democrats' insistence on a tax increase, he called Republican House members to the White House to make a personal appeal for our votes. In the end, most of us did not go along with the deal, but so much was he cared for personally that the room was filled with veteran congressmen with tears in their eyes as they heard his plea.

Historians will have ample opportunity to reflect on the successes and failures of the Reagan presidency, but when news of Reagan's death came, it was not taxes or the Soviet Union that came to mind; it was how good a man America, and Ronald Reagan's friends, had lost.

Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma, teaches at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. His column appears regularly in the Globe. 

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