|A CONVERSATION WITH...|
May 1, 2000
TERENCE SMITH: The book is "President Reagan, the role of a lifetime. It's an update of the book that former "Washington Post" reporter Lou Cannon first wrote in 1991, after covering Ronald Reagan for 25 years in California and for the two terms of his presidency. Lou, welcome.
LOU CANNON, Author, "President Reagan" The Role of a Lifetime:" Nice to be here.
TERENCE SMITH: We're pleased to have you. This book was so well received when it first came out in 1991, why update it now?
LOU CANNON: Well, a lot happened after Ronald Reagan left office that was related to his presidency. The Berlin wall came down, the Soviet Union collapsed, the independent counsel, Mr. Walsh, after a while issued a report on Iran-Contra affair, and tragically, Ronald Reagan contracted Alzheimer's. And I felt that all of those things needed to be... Needed to be recorded and updated.
TERENCE SMITH: Having read it, I know there is new material on Iran-Contra and other things in the book. Did it... Did the new material... Tell us what you think is important that's new and whether it changed your perception of Ronald Reagan in any way.
LOU CANNON: Well, actually, we knew pretty much everything about Iran-Contra at the time, as Mr. Walsh himself acknowledges. He spent seven years on this investigation, and he found there was no evidence that Ronald Reagan knew of the diversion. And he examined everything and had access to everything, so I think that probably is the historical word on that, and that was the question that was in everybody's mind.
TERENCE SMITH: So you concluded that as he actually himself acknowledged, that Ronald Reagan knew of and in fact authorized the arms for hostages to Iran, but not the diversion of the profits for the Contras.
LOU CANNON: There was no question that Ronald Reagan knew of the arms sales, and he acknowledged while he was in office that he did it... not only did he do it, but he did it against the advice of his secretary of defense and his secretary of state, and he acknowledged that he shouldn't have done it and apologized to the American people, which is something you don't hear too often. And I think had he not done that, he would not have been able to successfully complete his presidency-- not that he would have been removed, but that he emotionally would not have been able to do it.
TERENCE SMITH: Having covered him all these years and now having looked at the record even more recently, what's Ronald Reagan's legacy as president?
LOU CANNON: I think it's two things... it's a lot of things, of course, but I think it's two big things. One is I think there was a restoration of confidence in the government. Every poll showed that confidence in the country was at a very low ebb. There's an irony in this. Ronald Reagan was anti- government in most of his preachments, but people thought more of the government after he was President because so much of what we think about the government is bound up with what we think about the President. The even bigger part of the legacy is the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Condolesa Rice has said that the conservatives don't give Gorbachev enough credit and the liberals don't give Ronald Reagan enough credit. But clearly, it wasn't something that one side alone could do. I think Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev deserve a lot of credit, and I think that Reagan's policies do. And it seems hard to say that in retrospect. Ronald Reagan, you know, in 1980 came to the "Washington post," said that he thought an arms race would be a good thing, and it shocked a lot of people. And I wrote that story, but his point was that the Soviet Union would have to negotiate because it wasn't economically strong enough to compete. Now, we all know that in retrospect. In 1980, there were a lot of people, liberal and conservative, who wouldn't have agreed with that formulation.
TERENCE SMITH: So he meant what he said?
LOU CANNON: Yeah.
TERENCE SMITH: He meant that they would spend themselves into penury.
LOU CANNON: Yes, and I think he had... I don't mean he had a timetable where it all worked out that you arrived at the station at 3:42 on a particular day in March, but he had a plan. And his plan was, you have a buildup, you call the Soviets what they are, an evil empire, but you also negotiate. And you know, he didn't have much of a chance in the fist term. He kept saying the Soviets kept... leaders kept dying on him, as if that was a... you know, there was something personal about that. But the truth was, there was a succession of geriatric leaders in the Soviet Union, and it was not until, as you well know, Gorbachev came along that there was really an opportunity to sort of cash in on the buildup.
TERENCE SMITH: If he gets credit, then, for ending the Cold War and dismemberment basically of the Soviet Union, does he have to take responsibility for other things, like the huge deficits that he left behind?
LOU CANNON: I think he has to be responsible. I don't think it's fair to give any president credit for all the good things that happened on his watch and none of the blame or do the opposite. However, I don't think the huge deficits that he left are in retrospect as an important a negative as the achievement of the end of the Cold War is a positive. The reason I say that is that these deficits have got to be looked upon, I think, to some degree as wartime deficits. They would not have been so large if you hadn't had that military buildup. We ran huge deficits during the Civil War, huge deficits during World War II. The Cold War was a war. It was an expensive war.
TERENCE SMITH: Oddly, Ronald Reagan is playing a small role in campaign 2000. Every Republican candidate that I can recall in the primaries at least, from Gary Bauer to John McCain, wrapped himself, or sought to, in the mantel of Ronald Reagan. What do you think it was that they were trying to associate themselves with?
LOU CANNON: What they're trying to associate with, I think, is two things. One is this aura of success and optimism that Reagan projected. And the other thing is that they're trying to find their way. Ronald Reagan was a political leader, whether you liked him or not. He brought together his party. He campaigned for moderates, as well as conservatives. He was a unifier. After Ronald Reagan, the Republicans really never had a leader close to the dimension. And you can look at them now-- Bush's tax plan is like Reagan's, McCain's sense of humor is like Reagan's-- but it doesn't all add up to Ronald Reagan, it seems to me. And they're all looking to... You know, they want the find another Ronald Reagan, Terry, and they haven't found him yet.
TERENCE SMITH: Let's talk about Reagan the man for a moment. Was he or is he a difficult personality to penetrate and to understand?
LOU CANNON: Well, Ronald Reagan had a sense of... He had a reserve about him. I mean, he kept himself to himself, as you know. But in one sense, I think everybody knew Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan's audience wasn't you or me. Ronald Reagan's audience was the American people. And if you look at what he said over the years, what his policy was, he basically told them what he was going to do. I mean, Stew Spencer once said that Ronald Reagan's genius was that he said what the guys at the bar would say when you bought up an issue. And, I mean, he had that sort of... He had it inside of him. And I don't think... while he didn't wear everything on his sleeve, I don't think he was impenetrable. I think he was basically a pretty straight American guy from his generation, like he appeared to be.
TERENCE SMITH: You also are quite critical in this book, not in a personal way, but in an analytical way, about Ronald Reagan, about his tendency to confuse fantasy and reality, film and life. He did do that, didn't he?
LOU CANNON: Oh, he did. And in addition to that, while I think Ronald Reagan performed powerfully within the confines of this agenda, and I think it was the most important agenda because nuclear war was the most important threat, material that wasn't part of his agenda was off his screen, it was completely off the screen, it wasn't...people made fun of him for forgetting the name of the secretary of Housing and Urban Development. I thought it was extremely appropriate. He never went to HUD during the eight years he was there. That wasn't part of his agenda. But that was Reagan. You... He didn't pretend. He didn't pretend to have a great interest in things outside of his agenda.
TERENCE SMITH: In your view, looking back on it now, was he losing his faculties at all in his final year as President?
LOU CANNON: I don't think so, and I base it on two things. One is my own experience in interviewing him. Most of the interviews for the last part of this book were done after he was out of office. He didn't seem... I'd been interviewing him since '65. He didn't really seem any different. But the other thing was, if you look at his achievements, they're really in the last part of his presidency. I don't know if this is an answer to your question, but you know, conservatives cheer Ronald Reagan now. You know, you remember Bill Buckley came in and opposed the INF Treaty? George will called it moral disarmament. Paul Wyrick led a group of conservatives in there and said, "this is all a Soviet plot." I asked Paul, "what did Ronald Reagan say?" He said, "I know more about it than you do." And he did. And I don't know. What I do think is that he was slowed down in his last year. And so his... This notion of having this limited but powerful agenda became even more true. He just was not engaged on issues that did not deal really with this agenda that he had.
TERENCE SMITH: And the dissent into Alzheimer's, you believe, followed his presidency.
LOU CANNON: I think that's pretty clear. I feel confident of that because, as I say, I had dealings with him, and not just for this book. I wrote a piece for the "Washington Post" on his 80th birthday, which was after he was out of office. And I must say he seemed... he seemed the same as he always was, which means that you had to pull teeth in an interview to get anything out of him, but eventually you did.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. Lou Cannon, thank you very much.
LOU CANNON: Thank you, Terry.