When Ronald Reagan was President, it was no secret that he was of Irish heritage. And proudly so, but how in the world did he get the unlikely appellation of “Dutch”?

Every year about this time as St. Patrick’s Day draws nearer, my thoughts go back to a number of interviews I’ve had with Presidents in the White House. And one in particular with Ronald Reagan stands out. In all I have five interviews with him.

As editor and publisher of a number of Midwestern daily newspapers owned by Lee Enterprises, I was perplexed by this “Dutch” business. Of course, I wanted to know.

Of the more than 40 interviews I’ve had with the last 12 Presidents, my question to Reagan produced the longest I’ve had with a chief executive of the United States.

So in March 1979, with an engraved invitation from the White House in my hand, I found the opportunity to ask Reagan THE questions.

I’ve had the hobby of interviewing and photographing Presidents since my years as state editor with the La Crosse (Wis.) Tribune. There my interviews started with Harry Truman on his presidential campaign train excursion through Minnesota and Wisconsin.

On two different occasions I spent St. Patrick’s Day in the White House. The first time as guest of Richard Nixon, wobbling, but still hopeful, under the weight of Watergate. And I have the memory of dancing with our daughter, Kathleen, in that same White House just a year later when Gerald Ford assumed that office.

Our Reagan visit came when I flew to Washington, D.C .to attend a governmental affairs conference, sponsored by the National Newspaper Association.

For most of the convention-goers, the highlight was the White House reception hosted by President Reagan.

Patrick Buchanan, the White House director of communications, after a career as newspaper columnist and TV panelist, briefly introduced Reagan, whose robust stride carried him through the audience to the dais in the East Hall.

Most of Reagan’s remarks, outside of the gentle humor he used frequently, concerned Nicaragua and his efforts to gain congressional support for aid to the Contras, opposing the Marxist Nicaraguan government.

He answered only two questions before Buchanan tried to terminate the session, which was turning rather heated, but Reagan spotted my raised hand and said, “I’ll take one more questions — from him” — meaning me.

With the overkill on Nicaragua, it appeared to be a good time to change the mood, so this roughly was my question:

“Mr. President, I know you have many more pressing problems, such as the deficit and Nicaragua, but with St. Patrick’s Day approaching, I wonder if you could explain how an Irishman by the name of Reagan got the nickname of Dutch?”

After the laughter subsided, Reagan obviously relished the chance to reply to a homey question that didn’t try to sear his hide over some major issue.

And the Great Communicator talked and talked and talked some more.

Oh, yes. How did he get the nickname? He said his father took his first look at him as a newborn baby and said, “He looks just like a big, fat Dutchman.”

The nickname took hold and persisted even through Reagan’s days in Des Moines, as a sportscaster for WHO Radio.

Then really warming up to the name topic, Reagan indicated his mother actually wanted to name him Donald, but that her sister had a baby first and chose that name so Mrs. Reagan opted for Ronald.

The president indicated that he would have preferred Donald.

Next the President’s discussion meandered to his first days as an actor in Hollywood when studio officials wanted him to change his name, even though Reagan was holding out to be known as Dutch Reagan.

After the movie moguls suggested several unfavorable names for the future star, he quickly came around to the decision that his own name wasn’t so bad after all.

When Reagan paused for breath and finally completed his comments he stepped down from the platform and paused to shake my hand before heading toward the exit.

Reagan probably wished he had more such creampuff questions from the regular hard-nosed press corps.

Reagan wasn’t the first president to be proud of his Irish blood in his veins.

Most Irishmen and women still speak with pride about John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Andrew Jackson, Chester Arthur and William McKinley all had ancestors in County Antrim, Ireland. And Woodrow Wilson, Grover Cleveland, James K. Polk, Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman and even Richard Nixon were among those with Irish backgrounds.

George Washington was not Irish, but he was a member of a St. Patrick’s society. Once I asked George Hector Bush (wearing a bright green tie) if he were Irish and he answered, “No, but I wish I were.”

Although not all Irish are Democrats, this has reminded me of a story dating back to the 1938 congressional elections when John Danaher became the first Irish Catholic ever elected to the U.S. Senate as a Republican.

As the tale goes, two old Irish women met on the street and one cried out, “Have y’ heard? John Danaher has gone and become a Republican!”

“Begorrah!” her friend shouted back, “That kin’t be true! I saw him at Mass just last Sunday.”

•••

Jerry Moriarity was publisher of The Ottumwa Courier from 1971 to 1979. A former editor-publisher of four Midwest daily newspapers, he has interviewed every U.S. President from Harry Truman up to and including George W. Bush. Moriarity was chosen the outstanding community newspaperman n the nation; former Editor of the Year in Illinois; Distinguished Service Award winner in Iowa; Master Editor-Publisher in Iowa. And he was the first newspaperman in the U.S. to lease a 24-hour news and advertising service on cable television.

He spends his winters in Sun City West, Ariz., and his summers on Little Pine Lake near Perham, Minn., when he isn’t giving speeches or finishing his book.

He started working full-time at the La Crosse Tribune on St. Patrick’s Day in 1941.

Trending Video

Recommended for you