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Jewish World Review March 14, 2003 / 7 Adar II, 5763

Tom Purcell

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Consumer Reports

Ronald Reagan's St. Patrick's Day | It was St. Patrick's Day, 1988, when an unexpected visitor arrived at Pat Troy's Irish pub: President Ronald Reagan.

For more than 20 years, Pat Troy's Old Town, Alexandria, pub has been a favorite watering hole for some Washington insiders seeking a respite from their hectic lives. Some of Mr. Reagan's advance men were regulars. They arranged the president's visit.

The pub was half-packed when Mr. Reagan and his entourage arrived just before noon. As news spread that Mr. Reagan was there, the pub quickly filled to capacity. While Mr. Reagan enjoyed a pint of Harp and some corned beef and cabbage, Mr. Troy was so busy tending to his pub, he didn't have time to react to his famous patron.

"He had an energy about him that put you instantly at ease," Mr. Troy told me. "He made it easy to carry on as though he was just another patron, so that is what I did."

Mr. Troy took the stage and led the audience in the "Wild Rover." He had sections of the audience compete with each other to see which would sing and clap the loudest. "You have to clap louder, Mr. President," he said to Mr. Reagan, prompting the president, not used to being given orders of any kind, to laugh.

Next, Mr. Troy led the audience in the "Unicorn Song." While Mr. Troy sang the words, the audience mimicked the animals referenced in the song ("There were green alligators and long-necked geese, humpty backed camels and some chimpanzees, some cats and rats and elephants, but sure as you're born, the loveliest of all was the unicorn.")

Mr. Reagan turned to watch a group of young women behind him act out the song. His face showed curiosity and delight - he never saw this song performed before. But that was how he was: At the same time he was the world's most powerful man, the man who felled communism and restored American optimism, he was also a man of youthful innocence who found immense pleasure in the simplest things.

When Mr. Troy was finished, he handed Mr. Reagan the mike. The normally raucous crowd - remember, this was St. Patrick's Day - became extraordinarily quiet. "They were spellbound," said Mr. Troy. "I've never seen a large crowd that attentive in more than 20 years."

Mr. Reagan spoke off the top of his head. He graciously thanked Mr. Troy for having him for lunch. He said it was his great surprise - that his advance men set it up, and he was thankful. He talked about his father, an Irishman.

"When I was a little boy, my father proudly told me that the Irish built the jails in this country," he said, pausing expertly, "then proceeded to fill them."

The crowd laughed heartily.

"You have to understand that for a man in my position, I'm a little leery about ethnic jokes," he said. The crowd roared. "The only ones I can tell are Irish."

He told a story about his visit to Ireland. He went to Castle Rock, the place where St. Patrick erected the first cross in Ireland.

"A young Irish guide took me to the cemetery and showed me an ancient tombstone there," he said.

"The inscription read: 'Remember me as you pass by, for as are you are so once was I, and as I am you too will be, so be content to follow me."

As Mr. Reagan paused, the crowd eagerly awaited his follow up.

"Then I looked below the inscription," he said, "where someone scratched in these words: 'To follow you I am content, I wish I knew which way you went.' "

The crowd roared loud and long, causing Mr. Reagan to deadpan to his advance men: "Why didn't I find this place seven years ago?"

Mr. Reagan's visit to the pub was videotaped by the government and wasn't released to Mr. Troy until a few years ago. It offers a snapshot of pure, unscripted Ronald Reagan, and it shows how powerfully and eloquently the man was able to engage any audience, large or small, just by being his witty, genuine, unimposing self.

Mr. Reagan turned 92 in February, and it is a great tragedy that a man of such achievement should suffer as he now does. He won't be able to enjoy St. Patrick's Day this year. But I'll be celebrating it at Pat Troy's pub. I'll order up a pint of Harp, and, in his honor, I'll offer up a small toast to the Great Communicator:

"To follow you we were intent, and damn thankful for the way we went."

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© 2002, Tom Purcell