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Clear vision: Reagan’s spirituality impressed his Utah aide

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Salt Lake native Richard B. Wirthlin had urgent news for Ronald Reagan early on Election Day in 1980.

A New York Times reporter tracked him down at a California barbershop about 9 a.m. Pacific time to tell him that exit polls already projected a landslide victory for his candidate. As Reagan's political pollster, Wirthlin was confident the survey samples would hold up across the nation. He immediately dialed the Reagan home. Nancy Reagan answered.

"He's in the shower," she said. "He's all soapy."

"Nancy," Wirthlin replied, "let me assure you this news is important enough for him to get out of the shower."

Reagan came to the phone.

" 'Governor,' I said, 'how would like to change your title?' He said, 'What do you mean?'

" 'Your new title is going to be not governor. Your new title is going to be president of the United States.' "

After a long pause, Reagan said, "Dick, let's wait until all the votes are counted before we celebrate."

Wirthlin, essentially, was the first person to inform Reagan he had won the election political pundits insisted he couldn't win. It's something he says that the actor-turned-politician always knew would happen.

"He believed in destiny," Wirthlin said. "He believed it was his destiny to be president of the United States."

Wirthlin's association with Reagan goes back to the 1968 California gubernatorial election when he was hired as a pollster on Barry Goldwater's recommendation. He last visited Reagan three months ago.

"Even though his Alzheimer's was very much advanced, I saw the spark of the man I knew before," he said. Still, "it was obvious that his days were limited." Wirthlin plans to attend the former president's funeral Friday in Washington, D.C.

Wirthlin also worked as Reagan's political strategist and adviser. (He developed Reagan's 1980 campaign strategy document known among the press as the "Black Book" in a Provo motel room.) As such, he had the president's ear, especially during his two terms in the White House.

"Dick is the best in the business," Reagan once said. "When he speaks, I listen."

His business during the Reagan years was to take the pulse of America and relay it to the commander-in-chief. He directed Reagan's opinion surveys, analyzed trends and briefed the president and his Cabinet on everything from education, jobs and taxes to matters of war and peace.

Wirthlin recalls Reagan only once losing his temper with him over some advice he didn't like.

Reagan wanted to kick off his 1980 presidential campaign in the South, but Wirthlin urged him to start in the Midwest. They discussed it in the candidate's bedroom as he worked on his campaign speech.

"He got so angry with me that he threw the speech at me and said, 'I'm going to the South.' And he went to the South."

Reagan, Wirthlin said, always had a clear vision of what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it. The Great Communicator won over voters, even Democrats, with logical and rational arguments laced with emotional stories.

"He was a master in terms of tying a position with a story," he said. "That's the secret to his communication."

Reagan also had a spiritual side. Wirthlin said he always bowed his head in prayer before taking off in an airplane.

Wirthlin remembers a campaign speech in which Reagan said he never feared for the country as long it stayed close to principles of religion and a government that endows freedom. Wirthlin, a former general authority for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said the words of the speech were close to a passage in the Book of Mormon. He showed the passage to Reagan.

"That was one of the unique experiences I had with the president," he said. "He was a very spiritual man."

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com