Peggy Grande remembers vividly the first time she met President Ronald Reagan.
She was a senior at Pepperdine University, a believer in her father’s adage that “somebody’s gotta have the job you want, and it might as well be you.” So she sent a letter asking if there might be any internship opportunities in Reagan’s office immediately following the end of his second presidential term. There might be, she learned, because she was called to the office for an interview.
“It went really well,” wrote Grande, a La Cañada Flintridge resident, in her soon-to-be-released memoir, “The President Will See You Now: My Stories and Lessons From Ronald Reagan’s Final Years.”
Following the internship interview, Grande was left waiting in the lobby for parking validation when a door nearby swung open and a quartet of Secret Service agents emerged, moving hurriedly.
“Did they know who I was?” she said recently, reading from a draft of the book. “Did they know what I was doing there? Were they going to shoot me? Arrest me? And then, behind the lead agent, I saw two older gentlemen in golf attire. Wait, was it? Could it possibly be? It was the president and his golf buddy, Walter Annenberg.
“… It never occurred to me that I might actually meet President Reagan. I didn’t know what to do. And then I thought about what I would do if the flag were passing by, so I stood, placing my hand over my heart, not even looking at him, staring nobly off into the distance. I’m certain that I looked completely ridiculous.”
The president stopped, extended his hand and introduced himself. Grande — the only little girl she knew fascinated by politics as she was growing up in conservative Brea — wouldn’t have dreamed that the greeting would be the beginning of a beautiful working relationship.
She had no inkling that decades later she’d travel the country speaking about doing her job as Reagan’s assistant, or that she’d ever write a book about it all.
But on Feb. 21, that book, her first, will be released by Hachette Books. It’s timed, she hopes, to be a palate-cleansing read for anyone feeling disillusioned with the political climate of 2016.
“They wanted it to drop right after the inauguration, in that space where regardless of the next occupant of the White House, 75% of America is probably going to be upset,” Grande said. “Half of whichever party won and then all of the other people. I anticipate this election won’t resolve that.”
Grande describes the book as being rich with optimism inspired by her former boss, from whom she learned so much, starting in 1989, right after he had left office. That three-month internship had her answering phones, clipping newspaper articles and lending fresh eyes to the copy editing of Reagan’s speeches.
She was invited to join the team more permanently as an assistant to Reagan’s chief of staff. When he retired, she was asked, in 1993, to serve as Reagan’s executive assistant. She traveled with the former president, serving as his photographer, arranging his schedule, writing letters on his behalf and representing him as best as she possibly could.
“You don’t say no to that,” she said, “even though I was six months pregnant with my first baby.”
She would lose her father to cancer and have three of her four children while working for Reagan. “Going back and writing about it,” Grande said, “I’m like, ‘This was really insane.’”
“She was the original Hannah Montana,” said daughter Courtney Grande, now a 20-year-old junior at Pepperdine. “She had very separate lives, one of important people in important places, and then with us at home. And she was always really good about making sure we knew we were just as important as all the important people she dealt with.”
Peggy Grande said Reagan, whom she describes as ever-gracious with those around him, made sure that her family felt that way, too. Her kids swam in his pool and attended polo matches with him; Courtney can remember thinking the fish tank at Reagan’s offices was so cool.
The goal of writing the book was to chronicle those intimate moments, but also the pinch-me, fly-on-the-wall moments in meetings in the presence of world leaders.
Grande realized how valuable sharing all of those experiences might be only about five years ago, when someone asked, “If there was a woman who sat outside Abraham Lincoln’s office door every day for 10 years, don’t you think we would want to know what she saw? Don’t you think she would owe it to us to tell us?”
The idea of collecting all those experiences in a book began to solidify after she read “Fairy Tale Interrupted,” by Rosemarie Terenzio, John F. Kennedy Jr.’s former executive assistant.
Grande told Terenzio, “I felt like I knew him better and I didn’t feel like I knew things I wasn’t supposed to know. I just admire so much the story you told, which only you could have told about him. And you did it in such a way that was revealing and yet respectful.”
After some planning, Grande spent two months this summer writing intensely in 12-to-15-hour shifts at her desk. She put her business on hold, put family functions on hold and wondered how in the world she was going to close the book, which ends, yes, with Reagan’s death in 2004.
“The challenge was, ‘How do I pivot into some sort of upward trajectory like Ronald Reagan would’ve wanted?’” said Grande, who worked on the book with a collaborator who encouraged her to surrender to the writing process.
“So, three chapters from the end, I didn’t know how my book was ending,” Grande said. “Two chapters from the end, I didn’t know how my own book was ending. It sounds crazy, but I’m in the middle of my last chapter and I’m writing and I’m midway through and I’m starting to cry because it’s just all of a sudden, a lightbulb comes on!
“I think I found a way to not only pivot into something positive, but to pivot in a way that’s collective, and it makes it all of our experiences, not just mine, ’cause this book really isn’t about me.
“This is definitely his story, but my story parallels that, too. People may not be able to relate to the president of the United States, but everybody will be able to relate to a piece of my story, whether it’s walking into an office for the first time that first day feeling so overwhelmed and intimidated and learning to find my place or whether it’s as a mom trying to pack diaper bags and get crying babies out the door with spit-up dripping down them and the juggle of that.”
Courtney Grande feels she was part of the writing process because her mom would read from what she was writing to her family
“We all cried the whole time,” Courtney said. “She couldn’t read us a chapter without us thinking, ‘This is so incredible.’ And regardless of what political party you’re affiliated with, there are a lot of good stories and morals and lessons to be learned in this book.”