On Jan. 21 Franklyn "Lyn" Nofziger, Ronald Reagan's pudgy, rumpled assistant for political affairs, will pack up his stogies and savoir faire and return to private life, closing out the latest chapter in a close association with Reagan that dates back to 1965. Then a Washington correspondent for the Copley newspaper chain, Nofziger interviewed Reagan at a Hollywood restaurant about the former actor's prospective campaign for Governor. The two hit it off, and Nofziger soon became Reagan's press secretary—a post he filled again during the 1980 campaign. In between, Nofziger served from 1969 to 1971 as a congressional liaison for President Nixon. Now, having fulfilled what he says was a one-year commitment, Nofziger, 57, wants to "get back to some writing and consulting—and work on my terms, my hours." He talked with Doris Klein Bacon of PEOPLE.

How did you earn your pay [$60,000] at the Reagan White House?

I spent a lot of time trying to make sure Reagan people who wanted to work in the Administration got a chance to do so. I also tried to make sure those who weren't Reagan people didn't get a chance to, or were removed. It's important not to reward people who have not helped you.

You served in both the Reagan and Nixon White Houses. How did they differ?

Ronald Reagan is a much more relaxed person than Richard Nixon, and the staffs reflect the guy they work for. Nixon took more of an interest in little things; he reacted strongly to press reports, and would ask his people to counteract them. The staff spent a lot of time dealing with such things.

Does Reagan have a thicker skin?

He doesn't have all that tough a skin. He's really not a political animal. With Nixon, politics was an end in itself.

How has Ronald Reagan changed in the years you've known him?

As a human being, he hasn't. As a politician, he's more sophisticated and perhaps a little more careful; he gives things more thought. Philosophically, he's more conservative. When he started in government, he was not a supply-sider. He didn't see tax cuts as essential. Experience made him view things differently.

What are Reagan's strengths and weaknesses?

He's secure without being conceited or self-righteous. It's hard to turn Ronald Reagan down when you're one-on-one with him. You go away saying, "Gee, this is such a nice guy." Sometimes he's too nice. There have been instances where other people might have fired someone and Reagan has given him another chance.

Like David Stockman?

I wasn't thinking of that specifically, but that certainly might be the case.

What's your reaction to the flap over Nancy Reagan's costly redecorating of the White House?

It was very unjustified. The redecorating was done privately. Those things will all be there long after the Reagans are gone.

What about the criticism that she spends too much on her wardrobe?

What's wrong with that? What do you want the First Lady to do, go down and buy her clothes at JCPenney's?

How do you rate the Washington press?

Political coverage is very inaccurate. I don't think it's always the fault of the reporters. The people feeding them information are doing it for their own reasons. But some reporters go back to the files and old stories, and if there's a mistake there, they don't bother to check it out; they just perpetuate it. Right now you have a cross section of capable people and incompetent fatheads.

How did you avoid, as you've seemed to, getting arrogant in this job?

There are always some people who feel as if somebody has anointed them. But it comes down to one thing, and I reminded my staff of it from the beginning: "Look, there's only one guy in this building who's been elected. The same people who wouldn't return your phone calls before you got here won't return them after you leave."