On Jan. 29, 1981, presidential press secretary Jim Brady called to tell me that the following Monday I would have the first one-on-one Oval Office interview granted to any magazine (Inside Sports) with the recently inaugurated Ronald Reagan.

In preparing for that interview, I had lunch with Franklin Burghardt, who, after playing football at little Eureka College with Reagan, had gone on to earn a doctorate from New York University. Burghardt told me why early on he concluded "Dutch" Reagan was a winner.

Their Eureka team, which had one other black player besides Burghardt, was playing a road game about 15 miles from Reagan's home town. The hotel where the Eureka team had reservations turned out -- like the overwhelming majority of hotels in America in 1930 -- to have a whites-only policy.

The Eureka coach said the team would sleep on the school bus. A young Reagan had a better idea. The coach's plan, he pointed out, would make the black players uncomfortable, knowing that everyone had been denied lodging because of discrimination against them. Reagan's solution to the coach: "Why don't you go out and tell them that you can only take part of the squad in the hotel? Then I'll take the both of them home."

The coach could not believe Reagan's offer to welcome blacks as overnight guests in his family's home. But Dutch knew his parents, Nell and John Reagan, well. They had brought up their son free of racial or religious prejudice.

A half-century later, Franklin Burghardt became emotional as he told me this story. When asked how his teammate could later, as the conservative political leader, so totally oppose the historic civil rights laws that ended America's legal segregation, Burghardt could only shake his head.

Ronald Reagan was a man capable of frequent acts of personal generosity to friends and acquaintances down on their luck. His political opponents were adversaries -- never enemies. Reagan was a man of enormous sympathy, yet little empathy. He tried to deny the reality that his budget cuts were hurting poor American families. Yet, during his presidency, for the first time since the Great Depression, the number of homeless Americans grew. Reagan was the very opposite of the stereotypical liberal who loves mankind but just does not like individual people.

I'll let the scholars and others judge his overall legacy. One part of it is worth noting here, though: The Gipper will have a major influence on this election, because of something he did 20 years ago.

In the 1984 campaign, President Reagan, while holding a double-digit lead over Walter Mondale, the Democratic nominee, agreed to debate the Minnesotan. Incumbent presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon had refused to debate their challengers. In 1976 President Gerald Ford did debate Jimmy Carter but that was because he was trailing well behind the challenger.

Reagan debated Mondale because, as Franklin Burghardt might have told you, it was the fair thing to do. By debating his challenger even though he held a commanding lead, Ronald Reagan made it impossible for George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and all future incumbent presidents, including this one, to duck presidential debates with their challengers.

That's a considerable legacy in itself.

{copy} 2004 Creators Syndicate Inc.