A Conversation with Peggy Grande, Author and Former Executive Assistant to Ronald Reagan
Peggy discusses memories at Pepperdine, lessons learned from her time as Ronald Reagan's Executive Assistant, and the importance of intellectual diversity in education. Listen to the full conversation below or read the abbreviated transcript.
She is an international keynote speaker, TV and radio commentator, and widely published opinion writer. She was Chair of World for Brexit, a global coalition which stood in support of democracy worldwide, and was national spokesperson for a California ballot initiative.
Most recently, Peggy lived and worked in Washington, D.C. as a Presidential appointee, serving in two roles, as Executive Secretariat for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and the Deputy Director for the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships. Peggy considers it the honor of a lifetime to have worked for two Presidents of the United States in both supportive and strategic roles.
She currently serves on the Board of Advisors for Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy and is on the National Board for the Royal Commonwealth Society of the U.S.A. She is a graduate of Pepperdine University with a degree in Organizational Communications and Business and the mother of four children.
This interview was edited for brevity by Jordan Parrish. Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.
Can you start by telling us about your time at Pepperdine?
Back in the day, we didn’t send out a hundred applications like students do now these days. I sent one application and thought if I don’t go to Pepperdine, I’m not going to college. Thankfully, I got in. And I wanted to stay in Southern California. The thought of going to the East Coast and being in snow terrified me.
I had such a good experience at Pepperdine. I was involved in campus ministry, at the university church, and student government. I spent a summer in Heidelberg, Germany, which was an unbelievable experience. I graduated a semester early. I just plowed through my classes. And in my last semester, I only had one class.
How do you think that your time at Pepperdine prepared you for your career after graduation?
One of the ladies, an adjunct professor, was so influential, though I didn’t realize it at the time. She taught a business writing class. I thought I was a really good writer until I turned in my first paper. I got it back from her and it was like a red pen massacre. As horrified as I was, I really took to heart everything she said. I probably learned more in that class that I use to this day than in any other.
I didn’t know that I would spend so much of my career writing. I never, I never thought of myself as a writer, but I wound up writing a book, I’m a regular opinion writer, and I work in broadcast journalism.
How did you end up working for President Reagan right out of college?
Even as a kid, I was always interested in politics and government like some kids are into cars, dinosaurs, or animals. I studied presidents and first ladies; I’d go to my elementary school library and check out every book I could about Washington, DC, and the presidents. When I came to Pepperdine, I didn’t study political science, probably because I lacked confidence that there was a place for me in the political arena. Back in the day, there weren’t that many women in politics, and I just never thought that would be something that I would do.
Ronald Reagan was president when I was in junior high, high school, and college. He resonated with me because I had studied the presidency and history. I was a communications major and he was “The Great Communicator.” And so I followed him very closely at the end of his presidency.
The second post-presidency speech he made was at Pepperdine University. I overslept my alarm, so I wound up with bad seats in the Firestone Fieldhouse. I came across the pictures from the event not too long ago, and it’s like one of those Where’s Waldo? books: I’m up in the rafters and there’s little tiny Ronald Reagan down on the stage. But I was the happiest person in the world. I never imagined that one day I would work for him.
In the summer of 1989, I wrote a letter to the office of Ronald Reagan and asked for an opportunity to do my internship there in the fall. I never expected to hear back, but I remember standing in my Pepperdine dorm room when the phone rings, and it’s a woman calling from the office of Ronald Reagan. I was shocked, scared, and surprised. But I was thrilled. I knew that even if I only interviewed, it would be that happiest, most exciting day in my life.
After the interview, it’s a little bit embarrassing, but I was sitting in the lobby, waiting for parking validation. And suddenly Ronald Reagan was walking toward me through the lobby. And I panicked. It never dawned on me that Ronald Reagan might actually work in the office of Ronald Reagan. He was flanked by the Secret Service. I was very scared they were going to arrest me or shoot me. And so I just thought about what I would do if the flag was passing by. I stood up, put my hand over my heart, and didn’t even look at him, just kind of stared off in a non-threatening way. But Ronald Reagan walked right over to me, stuck out his hand, and introduced himself to me. I will always remember that moment of looking into those beautiful, sparkling, twinkling blue eyes and knowing that Ronald Reagan had seen me. What a powerful, wonderful moment that I will cherish forever.
So what lessons did you take from your time working there?
First, you’ll never get a job you don’t apply for. You will never accomplish anything that you don’t intend to set out and pursue. And so I would encourage people to realize that, as my Dad told me, somebody’s got to have the job you want, and [that] might as well be you.
I encourage people to dream big, and to lean in to opportunity. I never even dreamed of working with Reagan because I didn’t think it was possible. But I guess I did dream just enough to put the paper in the typewriter and type a letter and send it off.
I would especially encourage young women to pursue opportunities. I didn’t really have models of what a working mom looks like. I questioned if a career was something that a woman of faith was supposed to have. But in the end, I vowed that I was going to lean into my career. Because of that, I got so interconnected with the Reagans. I’d like to think that I become such an asset to them that when I needed time off to have a baby, they wanted me to come back. This was before the days of laws that have protected my job. That made it possible for me to continue with a career while also being a wife and a mother.
Ronald Reagan also showed me so much about leadership. I appreciated the fact that even though he was the oldest president that had ever served, he always connected with young people. I appreciated that even though I was so young, he was very supportive of me, and we found new ways to do things together. He gave me his trust and loyalty, maybe even before I had earned it or deserved it. When you feel like somebody is counting on you, it empowers you, it inspires you. That inspired a feeling of loyalty. I worked really hard for him, not because I was afraid of him getting mad at me, but because I never wanted to let him down.
Reagan was involved in Pepperdine’s development. Do you think his faith was one of the reasons he wanted to see Pepperdine succeed?
You know, we always think that everything is new today, but back in the ’60s and ’70s we saw the unrest on college campuses, we saw the pushback against traditional values. So much of what we see is very cyclical. And those were things that Ronald Reagan, as a person of faith, as a person who embraced the values of the heartland and of his Midwest roots, was concerned about.
A place like Pepperdine, that was planting a flag and saying, “We are going to be a people of faith, a people of service, and people that see the world around us and choose to give back to it in positive and generous ways” — I think he couldn’t help but be aligned with that. He loved California, so I’m sure he saw Pepperdine as a place in beautiful, sunny Southern California that would pass on faith and good values.
So, moving on to political conversations. Do you think that part of the reason people take conflict so personally is that we’ve lost, perhaps, an understanding that people are acting out of good faith when they’re talking about politics?
I work in the political arena and do a lot of media. It’s not always the most warm and welcoming place, especially because I’m a conservative and a person of faith. But I always try to respond to hostility with civility, and to be prepared to defend the things that I value. I can’t expect anybody to listen or to embrace the things that I’m talking about if I can’t articulate them myself.
When it comes to social media, I think a lot of people are threatened because beyond the thin veneer of their talking points, there’s not a fundamental belief in anything, or belief in even what they’re saying.
When people are just repeating talking points, they haven’t done the deep dive in the research or the historical context of an issue. There’s this arrogance of thinking that what we’re facing now is the most critical, the most sensational, the most exceptional time in history. It’s very arrogant, because it belittles all the struggles of the past.
It’s better to realize that the conversations we’re engaged in now are the same questions that have been asked for centuries, although maybe they hadn’t been asked on Twitter before.
How do you think that universities, especially Christian universities, play into that understanding of why we believe what we believe? And what do you think is or should be the role for Christian universities today, in largely a post-religious country and world?
I think people who attend Christian universities know exactly what they want to find there, and that’s why they choose to go. If they want to go to a secular university, they know exactly what they will find on those campuses.
I think that it is so important for Christian universities to unapologetically adhere to the values on which they were founded. Because otherwise they are no longer a Christian university. It’s tough. You take a lot of darts. But if you’re not taking fire, you’re not over the target. If we’re hiding that aspect of faith on our campus or any other campus, then we’ve lost the whole mission for existing.
What role or responsibility do you think universities have for the situation in our country? Do you think that the leftist monoculture of American universities plays into the division that’s occurring right now?
Well, I would love to see teachers who cultivate curiosity. And I actually feel bad for students who are graduating from some of these very liberal institutions, because have they really learned anything? Have they been challenged in their thinking? Have they ever heard any diversity in what they’ve been taught? Some of the brightest minds I see coming out of some of these universities are conservative students, Christian students, who have gone through these very liberal places and had to defend what they believe in.
I remember a teacher I had in high school who was very overtly left-leaning. I appreciated him so much, because he would say, “Tell me why you believe that. Well, don’t just give me a talking point. Tell me why do you believe that? Defend your idea.” He would egg me on to get me to think through it. At the end he would say “You just made a great point. Learn to articulate your ideas.” But students that go to school in a political monoculture are graduating after just kind of floating downstream with the current, and I don’t know what they’re prepared to do at the end.
So, for a Christian university, I think that it’s important that they have a diversity of viewpoints without hiding their Christian worldview.
Can you tell us a little bit about what plans you have moving forward? Where can our readers find your book and your social media?
My book is called The President Will See You Now: My Stories and Lessons from Ronald Reagan’s Final Years. I always love hearing from people if you’ve read the book and there’s something that stuck out to you! I always respond to emails. Plus I’m on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and my website, Peggygrande.com.
As for what’s next, I’m still looking for my next big full-time job. In the meantime, I will continue to be engaged in advocating for the things that I believe are important for America. I believe this is the greatest country in the world. I love this nation, and I am a red-white-and-blue bleeding patriot. And I will continue to stand in defense of her, in defense of freedom.
Caden is the Founder and Editor Emeritus of the Beacon and a Senior majoring in Economics with a focus in Great Books. He is also a Master's in Public Policy candidate at Pepperdine's School of Public Policy.
In his time at Seaver, Caden went to the Florence International Program and served as the Resident Advisor. He was also a Regent's Scholar. But before he was a student, his father attended Pepperdine in the '80s.
He has aspirations to attend law school and enter the film industry after his master's program.