Of Ronnie, Rambo, and California Republicans

Reporter's Notebook

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 23--The way a man vacations says a lot about him. Recent presidential vacations have been particularly revealing.

When Washington got too hot, John F. Kennedy '40 huddled with aides, advisers and various family retainers at the clan's Hyannisport compound. Lyndon Baines Johnson left the civilized world for the Texas back country. Richard M. Nixon preferred more reclusive and comfortable respites, usually in San Clemente. Gerald R. Ford adjourned to the ski slopes of Vail, where ample snow softens falls. Jimmy Carter didn't seem to take many vacations.

Ronald Reagan goes to Hollywood.

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While Americans tended the last barbecues and soothed the final sunburns of the summer, their leader retired to California for a few weeks of rest and recuperation. Television projected the familiar--if not blurry--image of a vigorous Reagan reposing at his mountaintop ranch. Patient camera crews perched on a neighboring peak even captured the man on horseback, defying the cancer removed from his bowel a month earlier.

This was vintage Reagan--the cowboy, a man of indomitable body and spirit, the personification of the American West--just like the hero on the silver screen. The pictures were uncannily reminiscent of a role Reagan had played once before.

Indeed, before ascending the mountain, Reagan spent four days getting reacquainted with his roots. It was not a "working vacation," and most of it took place out of view of the public and the press.

Reagan arrived at the Century Plaza Hotel on a Tuesday. Traffic was stalled for several blocks as his 20-vehicle motorcade pulled up the Avenue of the Stars and into the hotel driveway, just opposite the ABC Entertainment Complex.

The Century Plaza sits at the heart of Century City, in the show business capital of the world. The entire area was once a sprawling back lot belonging to 20th Century Fox; a large section of it remains the studio's home. On a clear day, by Los Angeles standards, the Hollywood Hills can be seen peeking through the smog to the north. A few blocks east, Century City becomes Beverly Hills, where many of the President's former film colleagues reside.

Although less famous than the celebrated Rancho del Cielo, the Century Plaza holds almost equal claim to the title "Western White House." It is the President's home away from home when he visits Los Angeles, and its staff is trained to accommodate the hordes of Secret Service agents and reporters who accompany him. It was here that the President slept soundly, undisturbed by his aides, when U.S. fighter planes returned hostile fire and shot down two Libyan jets several years ago.

Seldom one to let business impinge on pleasure, Reagan's agenda for the week included no affairs of state.

White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes ran interference for his boss, fending off media flak as conditions deteriorated in South Africa. It was Speakes, along with State Department Spokesman Charles Redman, who spearheaded the major development of the month, a new offensive against the Soviet Union. In a makeshift press room, the Administration's mouthpiece announced U.S. plans to test an anti-satellite weapon and charged that Soviet agents have used a toxic dust to track American diplomats in Moscow.

At the same time, other Administration sources fed the press reports that another "fall offensive" was in the works on the domestic front, with tax reform and Star Wars its primary objectives. (Some reporters questioned the Administration's terminology, noting that last-ditch efforts to salvage imperiled initiatives would be more defensive than offensive in nature.)

Meanwhile, the one-time president of the Screen Actor's Guild and former California governor privately socialized with old friends, among them, Jimmy Stewart and Betsy Bloomingdale.

Reagan's only public appearance of the week occurred at center stage in the Century Plaza Ballroom, amid a special combination of pomp, circumstance, and glitter befitting both his present and his past. Thursday night, the President was the main attraction at a fundraiser for the California State Republican Party.

That's not to say he was the only attraction. Before Reagan's arrival, the master of ceremonies introduced the other guests of honor, all box office draws in their own right.

Thundrous applause greeted Sylester "Rambo/Rocky" Stallone and his svelte fiance Brigitte Nielsen, both staunch Reagan supportors, it appears. Then came Don DeFore, and Esther Williams, and Juanita Booker, and Roy Rogers, and Chad Everett, and Ephraim "FBI" Zimbalist, and Fred MacMurray, and Charlton Heston...and the list goes on. Reagan's Ambassador to Mexico was there, too, but he was upstaged by his actress wife.

Then, to the grand strains of Ruffles and Furls, the biggest celebrity of them all--and one of the few recognizable politicians present--made his entrance.

When the audience finally overcame its ecstasy, the President spoke. There were the obligatory thank yous and acknowledgments, the trademark jokes and anecdotes. Then Reagan delivered his message.

"Today the Republican Party is the party of the open door. Here in California, as in other states, we're reaching out to Asians, Hispanics, blacks, and it's making a difference," he declared.

The audience of 1100-plus Republicans applauded enthusiastically, despite the fact that few of them fell into any of the categories mentioned.

"This fall, we're going to campaign for the most extensive tax overhaul this country has had since the 1920s," Reagan said, moving on to one of his favorite topics. "It's a choice between the special interest and the general interest. This is a big one, and with your help, we're going to win it for America."

The applause heightened. The audience, which had some very special interests, clearly empathized nonetheless.

They had paid $1,000 a plate to attend the dinner (some of the less desirable seats went for $500), and they were enjoying every minute of it. They had come to see the President; Stallone and the rest of the supporting cast were gravy. The gold-embossed programs, Veal Medaillons Montecito, and "Fresh Berries Sarah Bernhardt" were immaterial.

Reagan was their favorite son, even if he was old enough to be their grandfather. This was his town, and these were his people.

Precisely on cue, the President concluded his performance. "I want to thank all of you for what you're doing to keep it the good and decent land that God intended it to be. Just seeing you here like this makes me sure we'll preserve this last best hope of man on Earth."

Exit, stage right. Standing ovation. No encore, however--the motorcade was already halfway across town. The instant reviews in the hotel ballroom were uniformly favorable, and the 12-minute performance netted more than $1,000,000 for the G.O.P. cause.

That's a heck of a lot better than most of Reagan's feature films.