The President sits in the Oval Office, that egg of light, as Author John Hersey once described it. He is all wired up to microphones that will transmit his words to the typists. A clutch of aides hover at the fringe, but otherwise Ronald Reagan and his guest are alone, as they have been a dozen times in the past 4½ years.
There is at once a sense of power, of so many of mankind's aspirations coming to rest on this one person, and a new sense of fragility. The President is a convalescent. The conversation this Thursday morning is about cancer. It is his first press interview since being operated on twelve days earlier.
Reagan may be thinner, but it would take a practiced medical eye to judge the few pounds he has dropped during his illness. The news stories suggested a loss of color from his face, but here again the evaluation of fading hues would require the eye of a Michelangelo. He is still ruddy, but perhaps not as ruddy as he would have been had he gone to his ranch in California to chop wood. Hoarseness from the tube in his throat? He certainly sounded hoarse when he appeared on TV with the President of China, but now, at ease in his office, it would take an ear with perfect pitch to detect a problem. If anything, he seems more alert than he normally is. His eyes are concerned and clear. His answers are less rambling and nostalgic than usual. He obviously wants to dispel any suspicion of weakness or disability.
But physical vigor is the least part of the morning's display. A visitor is struck more by his determined spirit. Ronald Reagan is marching on. Cancer has been found and excised, and he believes in mind and heart that he has been cleansed of the disease. There is no crack in the armor. At no time in 34 minutes of conversation does a shadow cross his eyes. The words mortality and cancer come quietly and without theatrics.
His sense of humor is intact. He loved the cartoon that showed a nurse looking out of a hospital window, saying, "Somebody get down there and stop that clown from chopping wood before he disturbs the President!" The man beside her looks down and says, "Good heavens ... that is the President!" Reagan showed the cartoon around Bethesda Naval Hospital, only to have some of the nurses lift their eyebrows over the ample proportions of the nurse in the drawing. "So when I left the hospital," Reagan said, "I told all of [the nurses] I was going to do my utmost to see that the image as portrayed was corrected in the cartoon industry."
Not once but several times from his hospital room the President had talked wistfully about "going home." Over the years, Presidents have had any number of unkind observations about the rigid environs of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, about how it was like living over the store. But home it is now to Reagan. He credits most of this feeling to the nesting instinct of his wife Nancy.
Reagan's study beside his bedroom is the focus of his healing. With fresh flowers and family pictures, it is the nest that the President taiks about. "I'm a picture freak," says the First Lady. She brought some of the photographs to the hospital, then took them back home. She updates them frequently. "But the pictures taken at the hospital--I think I'll just put them away."