Good morning. It's Monday, Sept. 21, 2020, the last day of a very difficult summer in American history. In case you were camping over the weekend and didn't take your mobile phone, the already contentious 2020 presidential race was thrown into further turmoil by the death of widely admired feminist legal pioneer and Supreme Court superstar Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her dying wish was that her seat not become a pawn in the current election, a wish that has not been granted.
Over the weekend, the United States also passed a grim milestone (by some tallies): COVID-19 has now claimed more than 200,000 American lives. And during a rally in Minnesota, President Trump mocked a journalist who is frequently critical of him, not for the quality of his commentary but for getting shot in the knee with a rubber bullet while covering a May demonstration.
Needless to say (but I'll say it anyway), things were not always this way -- even in an election year -- as an event on this date in 1984 illustrates. The event in question was an informal dinner party for a president and first lady at a private home in Washington, D.C.
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On March 12, 1984, Ronald Reagan introduced himself to a first-grader at Congress Heights Elementary School in Southeast Washington, D.C. The president was visiting the school, which three months later would be renamed after Martin Luther King Jr., as part of his Partnership in Education initiative. Launched in 1983, the idea was for senior members of the White House staff and officials in Reagan's Cabinet to volunteer at a local school as a way of encouraging private sector involvement in public education. Reagan himself took the lead.
Ronald Reagan had enjoyed the benefits of pen pals in his life and decided to try and exchange letters with a pupil at the elementary school. The kid chosen was 6-year-old Rudolph Lee-Hines. Rudy, as he was known, although he sometimes signed his name "Ruddy," was chosen by school officials because he'd shown a proficiency in reading and the school's principal thought he'd be able to write letters with only minimal help from his teachers and parents.
That is not to say that Rudy Hines lacked for caring adults in his life. Brenda Williams, the boy's teacher at the time Reagan visited the school, was a diligent and respected educator. His mother, Stephanie Lee, was a registered nurse who encouraged her son's reading. The same was true of his father, a freelance photographer named Chett Hines. Stephanie and Chett didn't live together, but each was an attentive parent.
In any event, the pen pal business came as a surprise to Rudy when Reagan announced it during his visit. Reagan wrote the first letter, including a picture of himself and Nancy Reagan and the first couple's dog. The boy responded with an April 3 letter of his own, thanking the president for the photo and sending one of himself. "My hobbies are painting and watching golf," he wrote. "I like to read and write too. At recreational reading time, the children pull out the rugs and read the newspaper."
What then ensued was a five-year friendship that lasted until the Reagans left Washington. The president visited the school a couple more times as well, always seeking Rudy out. That summer, the president wrote the boy as he prepared to go on presidential trips to China and Ireland and reminisced about summer camps he'd attended as a kid. In one reply, Rudy invited the Reagans to dinner. White House aides followed up with Rudy's parents, who were delighted by the idea.
And so, on this date in 1984, the president -- accompanied by a first lady known (not always fondly) for her elegance -- went to dinner at a modest home in Southeast D.C., where they ate on a living room couch using TV trays. The menu was fried chicken and wild rice. Rudy, then a 7-year-old second-grader, didn't know his invitation had been accepted until the motorcade arrived in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, sirens blaring, and the president of the United States and first lady stepped out of the famous black limousine. In California, dinner party guests usually show up with a bottle of wine. This 73-year-old Californian arrived with a gift-wrapped jar of jelly beans.
The dinner "went extremely well," Rudy's father told local reporters. "The president is a very personable person," said his mother, adding that Reagan "was really very amusing, very funny." Nancy Reagan, she added, "was really nice."
The letters between Rudy Hines and Ronald Reagan would continue until 1989. Reagan was lost soon after that to the mists of Alzheimer's disease, but one young man was left with a trove of letters. Included in them was this bit of advice, which is sage counsel for all of us.
"You also mentioned reading and that is good," Reagan wrote. "Rudolph, if you get in the habit of reading stories for pleasure you'll never be lonely.
"Sometimes, I worry that TV is going to rob people of the great pleasure there is in a good book," the old movie star and television personality continued, without a trace of irony. "To this day when I have to take a trip, I make sure to have a book along."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.