Mark Shields: A public lesson in personal humility

By Mark Shields

It probably would be fair to say that in early 1981 I was more than a little self-satisfied. Having worked in four presidential campaigns before becoming an editorial writer for the Washington Post with my own column, I had, thanks to the kindness of an old friend, presidential Press Secretary Jim Brady, been given, just 12 days after the inauguration, one of the first one-on-one White House interviews with the new president Ronald Reagan.

I spent 40 minutes in the Oval Office asking the president about the influence of sports in his own life. I had thoroughly prepared for the session by interviewing friends, colleagues and even old college football teammates of the man affectionately known as the “Gipper” for his movie portrayal of Notre Dame halfback George Gipp. For example, they knew that the Little 19 Conference of which Eureka College, Reagan’s alma mater, was a member actually had 21 schools in it.

It was not my first time interviewing Reagan. But I felt this preparation had paid off, that there was rapport between us, and that, immodestly, I had even been able to slightly pierce the legendary Reagan reserve to get him to open up a little about himself. The interview was the cover story in the March issue of Inside Sports magazine with a national circulation of 500,000. The Washington Post printed the interview on its front page. Did I mention something about my level of self-satisfaction?

Fast forward five years, and Tom Brokaw, one of journalism’s good guys, was preparing to tape a White House interview with Reagan that would be shown on NBC just prior to the kickoff of the 1986 Super Bowl game on that network. Brokaw, who called beforehand to ask a couple of questions, pleased me by saying that out of all his research, he had found my interview with the president the most helpful.

Frankly curious, I had asked Reagan how he had achieved the self-confidence in the middle of the Great Depression as a new college graduate — when the U.S. economy had actually shrunk by half, and when one out of four heads of household was unemployed — to get, with no experience and no contacts, a glamorous job as a radio announcer.

Reagan had paused, appearing to wonder himself how it all had happened. A little haltingly, he recalled the audition where they “stood me in front of the first microphone I’d ever seen” and told me to broadcast “an imaginary football game.” He remembered a game from the previous season “that we won in the last 20 seconds,” and even his own descriptive language about “the chill wind blowing in through the stadium,” and then confessing to me with a grin, “We didn’t have a stadium; just a grandstand.”

At the conclusion of his 1986 Super Bowl interview, after Brokaw had thanked him for his time, Reagan asked: “Do I have a second so that I could tell you a little incident in my memories of football?” Of course, the president, with the familiar pauses he had used in my 1981 Inside Sports interview, talked about his audition when “they told me to stand in front of a microphone and imagine a football game and broadcast it on radio.”

Remarkably, he remembered “there were 20 seconds to play,” and even his language about ” the chill wind coming in through the end of the stadium” before admitting to Brokaw, “We didn’t have stadiums; we had bleachers.”

I remember sitting stunned in 1986 as I watched the president’s almost gesture-for-gesture-, word-for-word replay of the “answers” I had so cleverly elicited from a tentative Reagan five years earlier. I was forced to admit, humbly, that I had been outwitted and buffaloed by the Great Communicator.

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