Last Day In Office: President Reagan Jim Kuhn, who served as President Reagan's advance man, personal assistant and, finally, executive assistant from 1976 until 1989, talks about Reagan's last 24 hours in office. He shares with NPR's Melissa Block his memories of a presidency in its final hours.
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Last Day In Office: President Reagan

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Last Day In Office: President Reagan

Last Day In Office: President Reagan

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Jump forward eight years, to the last day of Ronald Reagan's presidency. Jim Kuhn was an assistant to the president during both terms, and he joins us now. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. JIM KUHN (Former Executive Assistant, President Ronald Reagan): Good afternoon, Melissa. Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: And on that last day, you were the executive assistant to President Reagan. You were, what, at his side that whole day?

Mr. KUHN: Yes, that was the job. You were the one constant in the president's life.

BLOCK: And what was going on?

Mr. KUHN: Things were calm. Things were very upbeat. They were winding down, and Reagan was ready to leave. He had had two successful terms, and he was ready to let go and head back to his beloved California.

BLOCK: Well, walk us through that morning in January of 1989, leading up to the inauguration of his successor, George H. W. Bush.

Mr. KUHN: That final morning, Reagan came down to the Oval Office, and he came down to an office that had only his desk in it. Everything else had been taken out the night before. He came down one last time to - just to, you know, reflect a little bit, take one last look at the office, see some of his staff such as - Colin Powell came in, national security adviser then, Marlin Fitzwater, press secretary, Kathy Osborne, his secretary, myself - just to kind of say goodbye.

And one of the other things he did was - before he left, he opened the drawer of the desk to the Oval Office because the day before, he had put a special note in - as all departing presidents do, they leave a note. It's tradition that you leave a note for the incoming president. And he opened the desk to make sure it was still there, and it was.

And in that note, there were a couple of special things that he said, such as, you and Barbara will always be in my prayers, and George, I'll always miss those Thursday lunches that we had over these eight years at the White House.

BLOCK: The reports I've seen about that briefing from Colin Powell say that his message was, the world is quiet today, Mr. President.

Mr. KUHN: That is correct. And those were Colin's final words to President Reagan in the Oval Office that day. And at that time, Reagan reached in his pocket, and he pulled out the special card that all presidents carry with the nuclear codes and said, hey, Colin, what am I supposed to do with this? And I said, sir, you're still president. You need to hang on to that. We have a plan for that later this morning, which we did.

And I can tell you right before we left to go to the Capitol for the swearing-in, I took Reagan into the Blue Room at the White House, got the military aide, the Air Force aide that day, and I said, this is where you hand off the card. So that was - that was our last act as president, essentially.

BLOCK: Hmm. Mr. Kuhn, were you on the helicopter with the Reagans after the inauguration of President Bush as they left Washington?

Mr. KUHN: Yes, and that was the final ride on the presidential helicopter known as Marine One but technically, not Marine One when we lifted off because Reagan was no longer president. It had the designation of Nighthawk One.

But it was an interesting ride because the Marine pilots flew over the White House so that the Reagans could look down one last time. And Ronald Reagan said to Nancy, there's our little bungalow down there, as they flew over for the last time on the way to Andrews Air Force Base to board the presidential Air Force One, technically not Air Force One now, since Reagan was not president, for the flight to L.A.

BLOCK: Mr. Kuhn, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. KUHN: It's been a pleasure, Melissa. Thank you.

BLOCK: Jim Kuhn, longtime aide to President Ronald Reagan. We also heard from President Carter's former press secretary, Jody Powell.

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