When Peggy Grande was growing up in Brea, a medium-sized town in Orange County, California, her father had an oft-repeated adage about job hunting: “Somebody’s got to have the job you want,” he repeatedly told his children, “and it might as well be you.”
A senior at Pepperdine University, Grande was acting on her father’s optimism when she “took a chance” and wrote a letter to the office of retired President Ronald Reagan. She wanted an opportunity to volunteer during her final semester. She was thrilled when she managed to get an interview.
After being interviewed, Peggy recalls, “I was waiting in the lobby for them to validate my parking and trying to exhale after the interview, and in through the lobby doors comes this gaggle of people. Secret Service and they have holstered guns under their coats, and walkie-talkies, and radios in their ears, and all these things, and walking right toward me is Ronald Reagan. And I panic. I had never prepared myself for what I would do if I met him. I knew I was going to the office of Ronald Reagan and why it didn’t dawn on me that Ronald Reagan might actually work in Ronald Reagan’s office, I don’t know.
“Should I run? Would the Secret Service shoot me if I did? Should I hide? What should I do? And so, I thought about well, what would I do if the flag were passing by? So, I stand up and I put my hand over my heart and just don’t even look at him, just kind of stare non-threateningly off into the distance, looking completely ridiculous. But Ronald Reagan walked right toward me, extended his hand, and said hello to me. It was a magical moment I will never forget.”
Grande was hired as a permanent staff member after her internship ended and quickly was promoted to the position of Ronald Reagan’s executive secretary. She was fresh from college when she began working for Reagan. She felt that people who rode the elevator in Los Angeles’s Fox Plaza with her wondered, “What is that kid doing with a keycard to the top floor—the president’s floor?” Sometimes she felt that way herself. She remained with Reagan until 1999, and it is obvious that, despite daily contact and Reagan’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, her admiration for Reagan only increased. “I especially loved the old-fashioned aspects of his personality, his adherence to protocols, his humble nature,” she wrote in her book, The President Will See You Now: My Stories and Lessons from Ronald Reagan’s Final Years. “He didn’t like to use the phone to ‘buzz’ me from his office. If he needed something, he got up and walked to my desk to ask.”
Grande was fresh from college when she began working for Reagan. She felt that people who rode the elevator in Los Angeles’s Fox Plaza with her wondered, “What is that kid doing with a keycard to the top floor—the president’s floor?”
Peggy must have been the kind of executive secretary that even many Fortune 500 CEOs can only dream about employing. When, for example, the custom-designed medal for the first Freedom Award, made by Tiffany, looked like it would not arrive in time for the ceremony (there were riots in Los Angeles), Peggy did something better than talking to the president of FedEx—she talked to his executive assistant. “It was an unwritten code among executive assistants that you help each other out, make each other look good,” Peggy wrote. The FedEx executive assistant found a warehouse person who retrieved the package and gave Peggy a two-hour time frame to fetch it. The ceremony went off without a hitch.
Like a great executive secretary, Peggy knew her boss and had an abundance of tact. She remembers the amateur artist who painted a picture of a beloved spot from Reagan’s boyhood and who came to the President’s office to bestow the gift. “The painting, while lovingly done,” she wrote, “was definitely not a Michelangelo. That I knew. I also knew that the president would love it.” The president loved it so much that he wanted to return a borrowed masterpiece to a museum and hang it in that place. It would be in all photos with dignitaries. Peggy simply led the president to the idea that it would be better to hang the new painting somewhere else—where he could see it without turning around from his desk.
Another time, Peggy had to conduct a world-wide search to get Mikhail Gorbachev’s hat size to buy a Stetson for President Reagan to give him as a gift. The operation involved staying late in the office to speak to knowledgeable people in Moscow, who may, or may not, have known Gorbachev’s hat size but did not know English. Peggy eventually found the perfect Stetson. It fit perfectly. Gorbachev and Reagan were delighted. A representative from Stetson called a few days later to say he’d seen the photos, and Gorbachev had put on the hard-won hat backwards.
She also collaborated with Mrs. Reagan. There was that orange sherbet-colored sweater. When the president wore the sweater, Peggy exercised tact—and craftiness. “Hi, Mrs. Reagan, it’s Peggy. Did you see your husband this morning before he left the house?” she asked on the phone. “No. Why?” Nancy Reagan replied. “You will know as soon as he gets home,” Peggy responded.
That was the end of the orange sherbet-colored sweater.
Grande, who witnessed the initial stages of Ronald Reagan’s Alzheimer’s disease, has provided a valuable and affectionate portrait of Ronald Reagan in the years after his presidency. Grande also served as a staff photographer during those years, and her book includes pictures Peggy snapped of Ronald Reagan and Mother Teresa, and another of Lady Margaret Thatcher and Nancy Reagan, high heels kicked off, deep in conversation—as the president stretches on the sofa and looks ready to call it a night and go home. There are also pictures of Peggy’s children playing with a clearly delighted Ronald Reagan. Dana Perino calls the book “a fresh look at a wonderful man who continues to inspire long after he served our country,” adding that we are “lucky to have [Peggy’s] stories.”
Peggy Grande, in a way, grew up in what we might think of as Ronald Reagan’s America. Like the man she admired so much, she imbibed old-fashioned, patriotic values. She was the daughter of teachers, both of whom had graduated from Pepperdine. She had worked during her school years at a Nordstrom—acquiring a sense of style and a wardrobe partly built on her Nordstrom’s discount. “My family wasn’t wealthy, we weren’t a donor class or anything like that, but politics was just kind of something I always was fascinated by. As a little girl, I read books on the White House, and the First Ladies, and the Presidents, and about government, and Washington D.C., and it was just more of a hobby and a childhood fascination. So, fast forward to college, I’ve still got my eye on things, but what’s the practicality of studying political science, right? So, I studied communications, and I did a minor in business, but during that time period, who was in the White House, but Ronald Reagan the Great Communicator?
“And so, I started to study him as a communicator as much as a politician, and in him, of course, I found this beautiful convergence of everything I loved. He was a man of faith. He was a man of optimism, patriotism, and certainly a man of principle. And so, in him, I just was fascinated by all things Reagan, who he was, what he was doing.” Bolstered by her father’s optimism, Grande pursued a job in Reagan’s post-presidency office. “I feel like the luckiest woman in the world to have had a front row seat to history and to not only meet Ronald Reagan but to be able to serve him for a decade,” she says.
The President Will See You Now is an intriguing look at Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan away from the spotlight—and their love for the ranch (which was much more modest than I thought) and each other. It is also a look at the Reagan we know least—the Alzheimer’s sufferer. Grande began to notice that the President would lose track of an anecdote and look pleadingly at her for the missing thread. The Reagans were public about his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. On November 5, 1994, Ronald Reagan issued a letter to “my fellow Americans” that revealed he was “one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer’s.”
Another time, Peggy had to conduct a world-wide search to get Mikhail Gorbachev’s hat size to buy a Stetson for President Reagan to give him as a gift.
It was a courageous decision. “The Reagans saw every challenge that they faced as an opportunity to bring awareness of Alzheimer’s to the public and to have some sort of public good or benefit come from it,” Peggy recalls. “If you remember prior to Ronald Reagan announcing that he had Alzheimer’s, there really wasn’t much known about it and it was sort of this blurry space between senility, and dementia, and Alzheimer’s wasn’t even really a word. We just thought that was something that came with old age.
“And yet when Ronald Reagan announced that he had Alzheimer’s, it really shone a spotlight on this disease that so many people were dealing with, and not only was it a cruel disease, but it was one that had a lot of shame and stigma attached to it. I think the Reagans’ being willing to share their struggles personally and openly with the American public and with the world made a difference for other families struggling with Alzheimer’s. And I credit the Reagans for being very selfless in being willing to share their personal private struggle in such a public way.”
During her decade working for Ronald Reagan, Grande married and had four children. “I have this vivid memory of Ronald Reagan pushing my son’s stroller through the Los Angeles Zoo flanked by United States Secret Service and for my kids it was all very normal,” says Peggy. “That’s just how they grew up. But now, obviously, as adults they know how special that was and are so grateful for that.” Like many young mothers, Peggy had to juggle her family life and her job.
She got up at 5 am to feed the baby before going to Fox Plaza. One morning, a woman tapped her on the shoulder at the elevator. “I’m sorry to mention it,” she said, “but as a mom myself I wanted you to know that you have just a tiny bit of spit up on your shoulder that you may want to clean up before you go about the rest of your day.”
Since her years with Ronald Reagan, Grande has enjoyed a hugely successful career. As head of Grande & Associates, she consults with leading global institutions and helps them launch one-time initiatives or build long-term relationships. She served as global chairman and spokesman of World for Brexit. “After the Brexit vote had happened, we saw that the Parliament stalled out in implementing Brexit,” Grande explains. “We were a coalition of people from all over the world who wanted to shine a spotlight on the egregious breach of democracy that was occurring in one of the world’s oldest democracies. If we’d seen something similar happen in Venezuela or Cuba, there would have been this global outrage, but the people in the U.K. voted for a departure from the E.U., and yet the Parliament stonewalled it.”
Since her years with Ronald Reagan, Grande has enjoyed a hugely successful career.
Grande writes about international politics and does radio and TV commentary for outlets in Australia, the U.K., and the U.S. She was a political appointee in the last year of the Trump administration, serving as deputy director of the White House Fellows and Executive Secretariat for the Office of Personnel Management. She is a board member of Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy and on the board of GOPAC’s Center for American Ideas.
The President Will See You Now came about almost by accident. Peggy had never planned to write a book about Ronald Reagan. But one day a friend said, ‘Peggy if there was a woman who sat outside of Abraham Lincoln’s door every day for 10 years, don’t you think we’d want to know what she thought, experienced, and what she witnessed? Don’t you think that she would owe that to history?’”
Just as Ronald Reagan was fortunate to have a woman who cared so much about him sitting outside his door for ten years, we’re lucky to have Peggy’s sensitive account of those years—and any ambitious young woman should take to heart Peggy’s father’s job-hunting advice. Repeat after me: “Somebody’s got to have the job you want, and it might as well be you.”