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Remembering Ronald Reagan

June 7, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: And here to help us paint that political portrait further are four people who worked with him: Jeane Kirkpatrick, a member of the first Reagan cabinet as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; Ken Duberstein, who served in Reagan’s first term as assistant for legislative affairs and in the second term as deputy chief of staff and then chief of staff of the White House; David Gergen, who was White House director of communications in the first Reagan term; and former Democratic Congressman William Gray of Pennsylvania . He negotiated with President Reagan as chairman of the House Budget Committee throughout the second Reagan term and as House majority whip. Welcome to you all.

Let’s pick up where the last discussion left off and the discussion of Ronald Reagan’s charm and personal appeal. David Gergen, what is your most vivid personal recollection of how he used that charm to political effect?

DAVID GERGEN: I, listen, there’s so many different stories about Ronald Reagan. But one that I think impressed me and helped me understand leadership a lot more fully was what came from the summit conference, the G-7 summit conference in Williamsburg that he was hosting, and he had on a Wednesday he had a massive day of meetings – one-on-one meetings with world leaders, plus a couple of plenary sessions he had to be the host for. So there was this great big thick briefing book that was prepared by the White House staff and the State Department, and Jim Baker went to him very gingerly, chief of staff, and said Mr. President, you know, you tend to really like to read slowly at night, because you want to memorize things, but tonight can you, we’re really worried you won’t get enough sleep and frankly back of that we’d be worried Nancy would be on the war path the next day.

Could you just skim over this tonight and sort of come in the next day. And so he came in the next morning, looked like he came in for breakfast around 7:30 – look like he had been hit by a Mack truck, his eyes were all gray and everything like that and he sat down and he got about 10 or 15 minutes into the eggs and he and looked up and see, fellows, I’ve got a confession to make, last night I sat down with your briefing book around 9 and you’ve done a great job, and I want to thank you for it, but about 9:15 I turned on the TV, and you know the Sound of Music was on last night.

You know the Sound of Music is one of my favorite movies, so I never had a chance to read a briefing book, but I didn’t get a lot of sleep.

We thought oh, wow, he didn’t read all these things we put together. And then he taught me something about leaders.

You know, he was better that day in the meetings than we’d ever seen him, and that’s because he wasn’t bogged down with all those facts that we on the staff in our arrogance thought we had to stuff him with.

And he could get up and be Reagan and that was look at the big picture and that’s where he was best. He was a big picture guy. He look liked to look out over the far horizon, he would leave details to others but he was very good on the big picture.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Ken Duberstein, pick up from that and tell us your favorite recollection, and you were there as the legislative director in the first Reagan term. Here he was in political Washington with Congress controlled by the Democrats, yet, he’d managed to work his will on tax cuts and big defense spending. How did his personal qualities make that happen?

KEN DUBERSTEIN: You know, he always thought to that to be an effective president he needed to win on Capitol Hill. What he did was say I want to meet everybody, I want to listen to their concerns.

I want to make sure that they’re hearing me directly. It’s not from afar, but down in the Oval Office by meeting at Camp David occasionally, by the cabinet room, I want to get to know these folks, not just the Republicans, but every Democrat, but every Republican.

I want to start working with them, and I remember as we headed to that first budget resolution which Bill Gray will remember, and the Boll Weevil Democrats, those southern Democrats were saying we don’t know whether he’s going to cut enough, but you know we’re going to see if we can forge an alliance.

And the night he gave a speech to the joint session of Congress, I remember being on the House floor and walking up to some of those southern Democrats and saying well, I promised you he would talk about tax cuts but also spending reductions. And they said, well, I don’t know if he cut enough, we think we can work out some things.

And the next morning, Ronald Reagan had over 60 Democrats in the cabinet room and in the White House talking about where to cut more. It was always the give and take that he enjoyed doing, the personal relationships — always starting every meeting with a laugh or a story.

It was engaging, like I don’t think anybody has ever engaged before as far as being president. Even when they didn’t support him, ultimately they would on the next vote, or the vote after, he never gave up. That was his optimism and people always got to like Ronald Reagan, and therefore they trusted him. The other part, Margaret, is people used to say that Ronald Reagan was the best lobbyist in America . And Reagan would say to these congressmen, no, I’m the second best lobbyist.

The best one is the one back home who votes, and my job is to connect with them. And David will remember that’s one of the reasons why Ronald Reagan started the radio addresses — because he wanted five minutes unfiltered talking to the American people about his beliefs ultimately the Congress would then follow.

MARGARET WARNER: Right, and over the heads of Congress. Bill Gray, your cue. You were on the other end of this, whether it was a charmed offensive or a negotiation. What was he like to negotiate with?

FORMER REP. WILLIAM GRAY: Well, he was very charming, very optimistic, very persistent, and very impressive. When I was chairman of the Budget Committee I often met him in the private residence part of the White House, we would have lunch with his chief of staff and with the Republican chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Pete Domenici. And he was just absolutely impressive.

But one of the funny stories that I remember is we were having a good time, he was telling jokes, we were having a wonderful luncheon together; then it was time to talk business, he reached in his pocket and pulled out three by five cards, and he said, Bill Gray, I want to welcome you – he started reading from the three by five cards. But he was optimistic. He was very persistent. We never did agree on any of the budget priorities, I was chairman his second term.

The first term he bowled the Democrats over and he did get over 60 Democrats to vote with him. And there’s a reason. That was because of a political alignment, it wasn’t on the substance, it was on the fact that Ronald Reagan did something that no other president had done in recent political history and that was when he got elected, congressional districts that were heavily Democratic voted Republican. That’s where the name Reagan Democrats came from.

So you suddenly found all of these Democrats who came from the South, largely some of the issues that Roger raised earlier about race. He won those districts big time, and some of them were facing a political storm. Do I support this president or fight him? And they bolted the Democratic Party and they supported him.

That was not only true of the South, but it was also true of suburban districts and also certain urban districts where traditionally Democrats left the Democratic Party and voted Republican and they were called the Reagan Democrats by 1984 they came back. But he was a charming very personable persistent guy, and the one thing I remember in dealing with him, he was never vicious or mean. If you disagreed with him, he would consider with you politely, but he was a gentleman, there was never a threat, there was never this I’m coming after you approach of today’s politics.

MARGARET WARNER: Jeane Kirkpatrick what was he like negotiating with foreign leaders, I remember had he was first elected – there was great alarm in Europe – this cowboy had been elected. What was he like actually interacting with them?

JEANE KIRKPATRICK: Just, just as you’ve heard him described in domestic politics. That’s charming, prepared — he might have a three by five card or two, but most heads of state do when they have real negotiations — very pleasant — very interested in the other person’s views, that’s always seeking the views of the persons with whom he was dealing.

MARGARET WARNER: But was he, he has this image of being a sort of rock hard conservative, anti-communist, antigovernment on the domestic side. But did you find him – I mean, in foreign affairs, was he, how ideological was he? I know you were there in the first term and we saw a change in the second term. But do you think it was ideological…

JEANE KIRKPATRICK: We saw a change in the Soviet Union in the second term, I think. I think that Ronald Reagan had his views in about the world, in foreign affairs how to deal with the world, reasonably well formulated before he ever ran for office for president in fact.

And I don’t think, I think that he wanted to hear other people’s views, and he always listened carefully, and from time to time he changed his own mind about a position. And especially he took pains to listen carefully to foreign leaders with whom he was dealing.

MARGARET WARNER: Weigh in on this — this question of really to what degree he was an ideologue and to what degree he was a pragmatist – and flexible.

DAVID GERGEN: Well, I think he was both. He had very firm principles, but he was willing to be pragmatic on how he carried them out. You know, there’s an old story about Abraham Lincoln, about his leadership, that captures Reagan and that Lincoln said from his boyhood that he used to go down the Mississippi on a raft and what he learned was if you want to get to the end of the Mississippi, don’t get on the raft and go straight down the river, you go one side and you put your raft over there, and you get further, you zig back the other way, and Reagan was willing to do that as long as he kept always in mind that he wanted to get down the river.

He always had a destination in mind, he had a port to seek, and I think that was part of his strength. The other part is Ken Duberstein can relate so well is when he negotiated. If he were negotiating with Tip O’Neill, he’d go up there – he’d get 67 maybe even 80 percent in the first bargain and then he’d come back for the rest. He said let’s get half a loaf now and go back for the rest later.

KEN DUBERSTEIN: But it wasn’t half a loaf, it was usually, as Tip said I don’t like compromising with Ronald Reagan because Ronald Reagan gets 80 percent of what he wants each time. But you know, Margaret, it really is encapsulized in that Russian proverb that Reagan used to use so much, translated, trust but verify.

He was an ideologue, but he was also the ultimate pragmatist. I want to get as much as I can — what it is, is this country and the world is not made up of Hail Mary passes, but three yards and a cloud of dust. And I want to move things down the field.

MARGARET WARNER: And Ken Duberstein, let me just ask you about the second term because you were really there at the end after the Iran contra affair, after the Senate went back to Democratic hands. Did you, and this is a sensitive question, but you were there at the beginning of the first term and the end of the second term, did you see a diminution in his energy and engagement and maybe in his faculties that looking back now you would say, you know, there was a diminution?

KEN DUBERSTEIN: I have thought about that long and hard and I’ll tell you the energy and the insight and the leadership, yes, and also the stories from 1981 were every bit as strong in 1988 and in ’89. I remember sitting a across with him from Mikhail Gorbachev in Washington , in Moscow , and then in the last month in Governor’s Island .

And here was Mikhail Gorbachev in some ways treating Ronald Reagan as a big brother, as an older brother. And I remember this conversation with Gorbachev complaining about his problems with the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union and Reagan saying to him, but how many times must I tell you, the only way to beat a bureaucracy is to have the people on your side.

So Mr. Gorbachev, you have to spend more on consumers and less on the military. There was no diminution that I ever saw between 1981, 1989. Last comment. Ted Kennedy said at the end of the presidency, Ronald Reagan might not remember your name, but he always remembered his goals. That’s what I think was important.

MARGARET WARNER: Bill Gray. Your observations, you there were in the second term. In terms of you said he would pull out a three by five card, but did he always seem on top of the essential details?

FORMER REP. WILLIAM GRAY: No, not on details, but on the big picture he was. He was very persistent. He knew exactly what he wanted and he had a firm set of ideas about the major items. He wouldn’t get into the details.

In fact, I almost had a fit one time when he raised up the budget, all the books, and said I’ll never do this again, I felt like screaming, but you approved every line, you knew of every negotiation that took place, you weren’t involved in it, but your secretary of the treasury, your chief of staff, your budget chairman, and so what he was very firm in his big principles and then he would leave to it his staff to negotiate the details.

And often the details were not what the principles were. Let me give two examples, one, he always talked about reducing the size. Government did not get reduced, you just got a shift of where money was spent. Secondly, he talked about the budget deficits being Democrat. The fact of the matter is that the Republican and Democratic Congress appropriated less than money than he actually requested in all eight of his budgets.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me just get to Jeane Kirkpatrick — we only have a few second left. Howard Baker said he also had a great capacity for surprise, that he did have an ability to embrace sort of big sweeping new ideas. Would you agree with that?

JEANE KIRKPATRICK: Yes. His biggest surprise was when he turned down the Gorbachev deal at Reykjavik and walked out and said we’ve talked long enough and I’m not going to talk any more now.

Let me just say, I was with him at the dinner with Gorbachev, I sat beside him and with Raisa, he was absolutely charming to Raisa, he was very well informed about her particular interests, he knew what she had been teaching. He knew she was a professor. He was charming to anyone because he liked to charm people, I think.

MARGARET WARNER: Final quick thought from you, Dave Gergen?

DAVID GERGEN: I think we ought to remember the big picture about Reagan himself, it does seem to me that after a long time, remember when he came to power we were wandering a bit.

I think he did expand the boundaries of freedom in this country and oversees, he rebuilt the American presidency; it was in trouble when he came into office as an institution, and he did through his communications and through his own inspiration, and his principles.

I think he did lift our spirits about, and convince us that once again that the future of the best, our best days were always ahead of us.

MARGARET WARNER: David Gergen, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Bill Gray, Ken Duberstein, thank you all.