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The Strange Case of the Mythical Kinsley/Reagan Meeting

Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The literary editor of The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier, brought the joyous news. "Guess what, Mike. You're mentioned in Reagan's diaries." The diaries were published recently by HarperCollins and were generally well-received. Edited by America's historian-on-steroids, Douglas Brinkley, The Reagan Diaries apparently reveal Reagan to be more thoughtful than he is normally given credit for. Of course, our standards in the area of presidential thoughtfulness have plummeted in recent years. Still, the fact that Reagan was writing it all down was news, and an interesting departure from presidential tradition. Traditionally, presidents use a hidden tape recorder.

But I was more interested in the me angle, frankly. And it was a puzzle. What on earth could Reagan have written? I indulged my imagination, and my ego: "January 22, 1983. Mommie [Nancy] says that Kinsley's column this week in The New Republic undermines the entire philosophical basis of my administration. O dear O dear, I had better not read it."

Or: "October 6, 1987. Why does Kinsley keep picking on me? He is the only thing standing between me and the total destruction of the welfare state. But, ha: I will destroy him—destroy him utterly—or my name's not … not … not …. Say, they had 'State Fair' on TV last night. What a wholesome, clean-cut young man that Pat Boone is."

Or: "May 17, 1986. A moment I've been dreading. George brought his ne'er-do-well son around this morning and asked me to find the kid a job. Not the political one who lives in Florida. The one who hangs around here all the time looking shiftless. This so-called kid is already almost 40 and has never had a real job. Maybe I'll call Kinsley over at The New Republic and see if they'll hire him as a contributing editor or something. That looks like easy work."

Excited, I borrowed a copy of the book and gave it a "Washington read." That means looking yourself up in the index. It's best to find a copy you can peruse in private. You can do your Washington read in a bookstore, but it's tricky. People can see you pathetically scanning for your name and, even more pathetically, not finding it. And OK, fair enough, why on earth would you be in the index of a history of medieval France? Answer: for the same reason you might be in any book—i.e., no reason at all. Unless, of course, you are Henry Kissinger, in which case virtually every book published in the past few decades, if it contains an index at all, devotes several lines of it to references to you. The contrast between Kissinger and everyone else in this regard is a special burden on those of us who share Kissinger's neighborhood in alphabetical order. At least Zbigniew Brzezinski is spared this. But remind me to bomb Hanoi in my next life.

In the case of The Reagan Diaries, however, I'd been tipped off. And, sure enough, there I was in the index and on page 400, which describes the events of Friday, March 21, 1986, a busy day for Reagan. He learns that Panama will not take in the unwanted dictator of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos. He meets with our ambassador to Russia to talk about Gorbachev. Javier Perez de Cuellar, secretary-general of the United Nations, drops by in the afternoon, and Billy Graham comes over for dinner. Reagan finishes writing his speech for the annual Gridiron dinner. He has an interview with New York Times reporters. And at midday: "had off-the-record lunch with Meg Greenfield, David Brinkley, and editor of New Republic (Michael Kinsley)."

Picture the scene. David Brinkley, the famously sardonic NBC, then ABC, news anchor—no relation to Doug the Historian—says something sardonic. Meg Greenfield, the editor of The Washington Post's editorial page, laughs her throaty cigarette laugh in appreciation. The president, uncomprehending but amiably eager to share in the fun, offers a hearty ho-ho. And me? And me? Well, here is the problem: This whole thing never happened. Or, if it did happen, I was not there. Or, if I was there, it had slipped my mind. I had no memory of having lunch with President Reagan in the White House or anywhere else. And it's not the kind of thing you forget, is it? Or maybe it is. Is Alzheimer's contagious?

Was it possible that Reagan remembered having lunch with me, but I didn't remember having lunch with him? A friend of mine has a story about how Bill Clinton, shortly after being elected president of the United States, came up to him at a large social gathering and said, "You don't remember me, but—" they had met once, two decades earlier. And my friend realized that it was true: They had met, and he hadn't remembered. But Clinton is famous for this sort of thing, and he wasn't president when my friend met him the first time. By contrast, phenomenal feats of memory were never Reagan's forte.

Phenomenal feats of making stuff up and convincing himself that they were true, on the other hand, were a bit of a Reagan specialty. He liberated the death camps, to name but one example. But surely President Reagan had better things to make up than having lunch with me. And, anyway, who am I to question the president of the United States? Even one who is deceased. In fact, everyone at this alleged lunch is now deceased, except me. So I can basically make up any story I wish. And my story is that, on March 21, 1986, I had lunch with the president and two far more distinguished journalists than myself. With Reagan to back me up, who is going to challenge me? (And, for that matter, who is going to question him?)

Of course, those parentheses are troublesome. I don't mind immortality in parentheses, if that's the only model on offer, but "(Michael Kinsley)" does look like something the editor dropped in. Furthermore, the reference to this lunch was not in the main text of the diaries, as edited, but in a sort of junior varsity section Brinkley included at the end of each day, summarizing material he apparently found too boring to reproduce in full. But surely what matters is that Reagan himself recorded this lunch, not that Douglas Brinkley failed to be fascinated. And Brinkley confirmed that the actual diaries actually did contain my name and do state that I was at this lunch.

And, once I had decided I was there, the memories started flooding back. March 21, 1986: What a day! Retrieving my best suit from the freezer (what I couldn't remember was how it had gotten there); making sure that I had the exact bus fare; thinking up a tough question to prove that I couldn't be bought for a lunch at the White House ("How are you today, Mr. President?").

So it was irritating in the extreme when Douglas Brinkley e-mailed again a couple of days later to report his own bit of recovered memory. He said that, upon further investigation, an editor at HarperCollins (a company owned by Rupert Murdoch, I'd like to point out, for no particular reason) had slipped in my name. He or she—and Reagan, too—apparently were unaware of TNR's all-chiefs-and-no-Indians tradition of ladling out titles instead of money. Almost everyone at TNR is an "editor" of some kind. Reagan, it seems, actually had lunch with Charles Krauthammer.

Brinkley was terribly apologetic and said he would correct the error in the next edition. I said that wouldn't be necessary as far as I was concerned. Please don't bother.