This interview was originally published at WesternJournal.com.
Peggy Grande was former President Ronald Reagan’s executive assistant from 1989 to 1999, playing a major role in Reagan’s post-Presidency in public life. In 2017, Grande wrote about her once-in-a-lifetime experience in her memoir titled “The President Will See You Now.”
Grande and I sat down to discuss her time working with the president, how to heal a divided United States and if there is hope for California.
PG: I consider myself to be probably one of the luckiest women in the world to have had the opportunity of a lifetime to work closely and know personally a great icon of history, Ronald Reagan, and to know him as a man, not just a president.
I was a little nerdy kid who loved presidents and politics and government. I actually grew up in Orange County. But when I was a kid, it might’ve well had been a million miles from Washington D.C. and my family was not political at all, but it was something I was fascinated by. So [when] Ronald Reagan came to be president when I was in junior high, he was somebody that I admired and looked up to.
During my senior year, I needed an internship and applied for an internship at the office of Ronald Reagan and was shocked to even receive a call back, let alone an interview. I was interviewed and hired for what I thought would be a very short-term internship. As I was graduating from college, I was offered a full-time staff position, served as the executive assistant to the chief of staff there in the office of Ronald Reagan for a couple of years. And then Ronald Reagan’s long-time executive assistant.
CA: You mentioned throughout the book that Ronald Reagan was the same person in public life as he was in his personal life. What was either the most memorable or even the funniest moment that you had working with him? I know that’s probably a lot to pick from ten years.
PG: I will never forget meeting him for the very first time and it was kind of embarrassing. I was there in his office, finishing my interview for the very first time. And how will you prepare for an interview? You perfectly prepare for all sorts of scenarios. And I don’t know why it never dawned on me that Ronald Reagan might actually work in the office of Ronald Reagan.
And so I never prepared myself for what I would do or how I would respond if I met him and here he comes walking toward me. And to be honest, I kind of panicked. I didn’t know exactly how to respond. So I stand up as if the flag is passing by and just put my hand over my heart and don’t even look at it cause I wanted to be very non-threatening and I’m sure I looked ridiculous, but he came over and shook my hand and introduced himself, although he needed no introduction.
Then, over the course of ten years, watching people get to meet him for the first time [was memorable] as well and seeing them have their own magical moment. Of course, meeting world leaders who would come to see President Reagan, Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher and Mother Teresa [was memorable]. I mean these are icons of history and to have met and seen them personally and watch their relationship with President Reagan was really special.
CA: Our country right now is very heavily polarized and divided. How we can use Reagan’s principles to unite us as a country?
PG: I think Reagan was such a great example. And in so many ways he was a man of principle and conviction and he did not lead by public opinion polls. And so when he was convicted, something was right and it was best for the nation. Then that was the direction that he would take us in and was very transparent and was unafraid to be the adult in the room and basically sit down and say, “Okay, America, we’re going to have a tough conversation here, but I promise if you hear me through and we do this together, we can get to a better place.”
And he was unafraid to do that, even when it wasn’t necessarily popular at the outset. Another thing that I think Reagan did so well is he believed that we could disagree without being disagreeable. He listened to everybody with opposing ideas and there might be a hundred things we disagree upon, but he bet there were two or three things we agree upon. And so why don’t we start with those as a foundational building block for a relationship and for moving forward, rather than focusing on all the things that divide us.
CA: That’s so important because I think we’ve lost a common sense of what our values are as a country. Something I wanted to touch on as well is that you and I both grew up here in Orange County. Things have looked a lot different here in California since Ronald Reagan was governor. This state was once reliably conservative and has since turned solid blue. Do you think there’s still hope for conservative leadership in California or is it a lost cause?
PG: Oh, I absolutely think there’s hope. You know, I worked for “The Great Communicator,” but he was also “The Great Optimist.” And so I do believe that the pendulum continues to swing. And we see right now some of the most liberal country companies and some of the most liberal voices here in the state are leaving, and why are they leaving?
Because the policies that they have been in favor for so long don’t work; we’re driving out our tax base. We’re putting out the welcome mat for those who will need the social services rather than contributing to the social good. And we see an unsustainable situation that’s just not able to be perpetuated. So I think California’s pathway forward is going to be finding a pathway of fiscal financial responsibility.
CA: On a national level, we’re also seeing a change in leadership with recently inaugurated President Joe Biden. It’s obviously too early to see what he’s going to do as a president right now — although he has already done some arguably consequential things. What advice would you or Reagan give to President Joe Biden in the years to come?
PG: Well, I would never put words in Ronald Reagan’s mouth, but I can tell you one of the things he always talked about that I think would be good advice for Biden or any leader on the national stage is to remember that in our government, in our constitution, we the people tell the government what to do, not the other way around.
So what we see, unfortunately, out of the first few weeks of a presidency from Joe Biden is he’s forgetting that he is acting more like a dictator or a king with all those executive orders. I actually think that a very democratic Congress is going to bristle at that and not have the patience for that variable either. And so I actually see a little in-fighting brewing within the own party, because not only are the people not controlling government right now, but there’s no balance in government either.
We’re seeing one branch of government basically calling all the shots and that’s not going to last very long. I think that Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi are going to run out of patience for that. And very quickly — even if they agree with some of the things that he’s doing. But Ronald Reagan always reminded us that we the people tell the government what to do, not the other way around. And that’s the beautiful part of America.
So as much as people get distraught, if one party comes in or their party loses and goes out, the thing we should always remember is that we the people are what is lasting and presidencies, while they can be very consequential, they can be helpful. And so we the people need to continue to work hard believing in the goodness and the greatness of this country and continue to be people that are kind and charitable, and live our lives with common sense and charity for all.
Really remember that at the end of the day, it’s all about the people, not about who sits in the oval office. So that to me always gives me comfort and confidence that we can endure the next few years. Even if some of us aren’t very happy about the current occupant of the oval office, our nation has endured presidents of all stripes before and will continue to because it’s about the people, not about the person.
CA: What’s your advice to young professionals who are looking to make an impact in their field?
PG: You know, when I was young, my dad raised me to believe that anything was possible and he used to say to me, “Someone’s got to have the job you want, and it might as well be you.” So I grew up with this feeling that the world was my oyster, that anything was possible and I looked back at that very foundational message that he gave me all along.
I’ll leave you with one quote too. And it’s my favorite Reagan quote. I think it is just so helpful to keep in mind regardless of what path you pursue. It was one of his last public speeches in 1992 and he gave it at the Houston Republican National Convention.
He said, “Whatever else history may say about me, I’m gone. I hope it will record that. I appeal to your best hopes, not to your worst fears, to your confidence rather than your doubts and so much of life.”
So much of politics right now appeal to our fear and appeals to our doubt. I would encourage you and anyone who reads this to aspire, to be people who appeal to the confidence and to the best hopes of those around them.
When we all do that, we can certainly make our party, our politics, our nation and the world a much better place, and certainly set the gold standard for that.
Please note that this interview has been lightly revised for grammar, length, and clarity.