Head Strong: Coming of age politically, clicking with Reagan

Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan in 1980 with an 18-year-old Michael Smerconish. "Many have written of the sparkle in his eye - I saw it."

I followed my parents into the Republican Party as soon as I turned 18 in the spring of 1980.

My father was running for the Pennsylvania legislature, and it was an exciting time to be coming of age politically. Pennsylvania's Republican primary was on April 22, and there was still a competitive race between George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, both of whom I met before I cast my first ballot.

"Ambassador" Bush came to the Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in my hometown, Doylestown, and I drove my 1965 Mustang to the event to greet him. I remember well his slogan "A president we won't have to train," reflective of a resumé that included stints as U.S. representative, U.S. envoy to China, director of the CIA, chairman of the Republican National Committee, and ambassador at the United Nations.

I shook his hand and was elated to make his acquaintance. I then went home and told my parents that I would vote for Bush for president.

Through the Bucks County Republican Committee, I'd met the man running the Reagan campaign in eastern Pennsylvania. He was a young law student named Charlie Gerow, and he lived in my hometown. Not long after my encounter with Bush, Gerow told me that Reagan was coming to Philadelphia and that if I followed his instructions, I could meet him. He handed me his business card, which I still have, on the back of which he'd written:

"Esposito's Meat Market, 2:50 p.m., ask for Lou Esposito, await Gov. Reagan."

There was only one problem - Reagan was visiting on a school day. My parents supported my desire to meet a presidential candidate instead, so with a buddy named Mike Stachel Jr. I rode the train into Center City via the old Reading shed on Market Street, and we made our way to the Italian Market. In my hoodie I carried a Kodak pocket Instamatic camera, which was all the rage. I'd decided that the flash attachment with replaceable bulbs was too much trouble.

We found Esposito's, which was open for business but showing no signs of the arrival of a potential world leader.

Outside, there was a whirlwind of activity. Reagan had gotten out of a Town Car a few blocks south on Ninth Street, making Giordano's Market his first stop. But inside at Esposito's, my friend and I were getting nervous.

"Are you sure you have the right place?" he asked.

For the umpteenth time that day, I studied Gerow's business card and its hand-scrawled instruction.

Looking around the butcher shop, I spied the men at Esposito's, wearing white butcher's coats, as they went about their business. The store was close to empty. I wondered whether we should go outside and give up what could be the equivalent of a front-row seat.

And then I saw it. A long string of sausage that spelled out Reagan.

"We're in," I said. We stayed put.

Soon thereafter the door opened. In walked Reagan surrounded by what seemed like a phalanx of Secret Service, although it was quite a thin protective detail when viewed through a post-9/11 lens.

The Gipper now stood before us, two punks from Doylestown who'd skipped school on a whim to shake his hand.

I remember being overwhelmed by Reagan's presence. He was bigger than I'd imagined, broad shouldered, immaculate, and exuding warmth. Many have written of the sparkle in his eye - I saw it.

Out came the Instamatic, sans flash.

"Hold on, fellows, I need to blow my nose," is the only thing I remember him saying before he patiently stood while we swapped places and took our pictures.

Off to the side, Gerow smiled, seeming to take great pleasure in my excitement.

We then boarded the train back to Doylestown, where I walked into our house and told my parents I'd changed my mind.

"I'm voting for Reagan," I said. (Lucky for me that Bush did not return!)

Three days later, I was crestfallen when I opened the picture envelope at Thrift Drug. I'd made a mistake by not carrying the flash attachment. The pictures were a blur, with our outlines set against a backdrop of neon from a sign at Esposito's.

A few months later, at the end of summer, I was packing my bags to start at Lehigh University, when Gerow called.

"The governor is coming back."

On Aug. 19, 1980, wearing my only navy sport coat, and sporting a purloined name tag, I stood in a receiving line at a $250-per-person fund-raiser for Senate candidate Arlen Specter in the Rose Garden at the old Bellevue Stratford, which was then billed as the Fairmont.

This time I had the flash.

When the now Republican nominee for president came in my direction, I handed the Instamatic to a stranger and asked that he take a quick picture. Reagan stopped. The camera clicked. Three days later I had a keepsake.


Contact Michael Smerconish via www.smerconish.com.