Nation: Meet the Real Ronald Reagan

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Shaped by his roots, he views the world with his own special optimism

TIME Senior Correspondent Laurence I. Barrett, who began reporting on national politics during the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign, started covering Ronald Reagan in January, and has been able to study him at close hand as he wages his fight for the White House. Here, as the campaign begins its final phase, is Barrett's assessment of the Republican candidate for President:

The Boeing 727 jet called Leadership 80 is rattling through a cobblestoned stretch of sky, descending toward its third landing of the day. In the first cabin a stewardess is picking up crockery and leftovers; a reporter steals some conversation with a campaign official; Aides Mike Deaver and Stu Spencer gab about the next stop.

In the midst of this confusion, Ronald Reagan seems to be sealed in a private bubble. The man who once disliked flight so much that advisers had to badger him into the air prior to the 1966 California gubernatorial campaign is now totally at home in a plane and absorbed in preparing his message. He has forgotten to remove the linen napkin tucked between the buttons of his white shirt (he always wears white shirts, usually adorned with a wide, solid-color tie; the color of the little RR monogram stitched under the left breast varies). His glasses—rarely seen in public, where he tends to use contact lenses—are partway down his nose, and his lips are pursed as he silently sounds out phrases from the speech before him. Something does not ring right to his acute ear. He pauses, changes a few words with a fine-tipped felt pen, mouths the passage again, goes on to the next half-sheet of paper.

Finally he is done. Concentration had congealed his face into a map of worry lines and wrinkles proclaiming his 69 years, but now as he looks up and displays that broad, lopsided, life-is-wonderful smile, ten years disappear as if by magic. Soon he will be on the ground disseminating the message, and he knows he does it well. For more than half a century, since his first try at high school theater, he has been delivering lines onstage, over radio, in movies, on television, through newspaper columns, in speeches at formal banquets and chats in factory lunchrooms—in fact, by just about every medium available except skywriting and smoke signals. "Nature was trying to tell me something," he wrote in his autobiography, Where's the Rest of Me? "Namely, my heart is a hamloaf."

But despite all this, the talks and the speeches and the barnstorming across the nation, the real Ronald Reagan remains elusive. The question is not just where does the actor leave off and the man begin, but how could a figure who started politics so late come so far so fast that he now must be favored to win the race for the White House.

Reagan's associates never tire of telling reporters that his opponents make the same mistake over and over again: they underestimate him. When they do, it is not surprising, because he comes from outside their experience. Presidential candidates normally spend decades in politics, or at least in some form of public service, before winning the nomination. Reagan is different: from modest beginnings, mostly by the force of his personality, he rose rapidly in two highly competitive fields, radio and movies, and turned to politics only after his show business

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