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On Centennial Celebration, Reflecting on Ronald Reagan’s Legacy

February 4, 2011 at 6:45 PM EST
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With Sunday marking the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's birth, watch an excerpt of a 1989 interview where Jim Lehrer spoke with the former president about debating then-President Jimmy Carter.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And finally tonight: Sunday is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan and the beginning of a yearlong observance of his life and legacy.

The NewsHour marks the occasion with a look at the political instincts that made Mr. Reagan such an effective presidential candidate in 1980.

In an interview with Jim in 1989, the former president talked about debating President Jimmy Carter.

Here’s an excerpt.

JIM LEHRER: President Carter said that his strategy going into that debate was to show — show the people that you were not that well-informed on national security and foreign-affairs policy.

Did you know that going in, that that was his target?

FOMER U.S. PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: No, I didn’t really know that.

But I think he was a little off-base in that, because, as governor, first of all, I was governor of a state that, if it were a nation, would be the seventh ranking economic power in the world, California. But also President Nixon had asked me on a number of occasions to represent him on trips abroad.

And I had been in 18 countries and actually meeting with the heads of state of 18 countries while I was still a governor. And I think that I had a pretty good insight into our foreign policy and those foreign affairs.

JIM LEHRER: That debate is remembered for several things. One of them is your — your line, “There you go again.”

Was the “There you go again” a line that just came to you spontaneously, or was it something that you had worked on?

RONALD REAGAN: No, it just seemed to be the thing to say in what he was saying up there, because it was — to me, it felt kind of repetitious, something we had heard before.

JIM LEHRER: The other thing that came out of that debate was President Carter’s statement about his daughter, Amy, and that he had talked to his daughter about what the big issue was, and she had said nuclear proliferation, nuclear weapons, nuclear disarmament.

What — did you — when he said that, as you were standing there on the stage, did you — were you aware of the fact that he had made a terrible mistake?

RONALD REAGAN: It seemed to me he had, because the whole thing sounded — and I think you could almost feel an attitude from the audience on it — that the president was going to make a major policy based on what a child told him?

And I’m sure he didn’t have that in mind, but it’s what — that’s the way it came out. And I was prepared to say to the people — I promised them I wouldn’t ask my kids what I should do.

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: And that’s how you felt that night?

RONALD REAGAN: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: I mean, you knew that when — when he said it.

Generally, how important do you think that debate was to your having defeated President Carter?

RONALD REAGAN: I think — well, I think there were some things. As a matter of fact, I think a very telling line was at the very end of the debate, when I told the people that, if they believed they were better off than they were four years ago, then they had no other choice but to vote for my opponent. But if they thought they weren’t better off, and that there were things that could be done, I would like to offer myself as the candidate for their selection.

And I did feel that there were very definite shortcomings, that, you know, we had been — we were being told by our government before that election that we should lower our sights, that never again would we live at the level that we had lived as Americans, that the world was different now, and that we must be willing to tighten our belts and not have the things we used to have.

My philosophy and my belief was that there was a long way for us to go in improving what we had ever known before, that this country of ours was a country of constant improvement. And so I thought that, well, what my whole approach was based on the promise of a better America.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Former President Reagan speaking in 1989.