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Reagan’s Imagination, Part One of Two

#1405 Reagan’s Imagination, Part One of Two.
FEED DATE: February 16, 2006
Richard Reeves

Opening Billboard: Funding for Think Tank is provided by the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

WATTENBERG: Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg. President Ronald Reagan led America through one of the most remarkable periods in world history - the end of the cold war. He cut taxes, increased military spending, and aimed to shrink the size of government. He also presided over huge budget deficits, controversy over foreign affairs, and scandal. His critics say he was a disengaged president, whose role in ending communism and reviving a stagnant economy was accidental. What’s the real story? To find out, Think Tank is joined this week by Richard Reeves, journalist, editor, biographer, and author of ’President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination.’ The topic before the house: Reagan’s Imagination, part one, this week on Think Tank.

WATTENBERG: Richard Reeves. Welcome to Think Tank.

REEVES: Thank you.

WATTENBERG: This is at the least your third appearance here. The other two times also on Presidential biographies; one on President Kennedy, one on President Nixon. As I recall.

REEVES: Twenty years of my life.

WATTENBERG: Tell me a little bit -– or not so little -– about your career, where you were born, et cetera, and then I have a question or two and then we’ll get into the substance of this.
This is a very fascinating book. I just want to tell our viewers that, but go ahead.

REEVES: He was a very fascinating guy. I grew up in -– I was born in New York but grew up in Jersey City. We didn’t know much about anything then, I became a mechanical engineer and...

WATTENBERG: Going to school where?

REEVES: Stevens Tech. Then I worked for Ingersoll Rand and I realized that I was no good at it, but I was already married and had a child so I didn’t have the option.

WATTENBERG: It’s easy not to be good at engineering; I can tell you that.

REEVES: Yeah. And I started a little newspaper in the town, Phillipsburg, New Jersey where their factory was. I then realized –- it became a success, actually, and I then realized I didn’t like being a boss. I wanted to write.
Got a job with the New York News which eventually led me to the Herald Tribune and the New York Times...

WATTENBERG: Herald Tribune and then New York Magazine?

REEVES: And I was one of the founders of New York Magazine.

WATTENBERG: One thing you say, so our viewers get a little chance at this thing is you say in one sentence or somewhere that you are a liberal.

REEVES: I’m a liberal democratic. Yeah. Pretty ordinary; garden variety.

WATTENBERG: Can you describe that any further? I mean some of -– I find -– I’m writing a book now –- that some people who call themselves liberal democrats, they’re really against defense; they don’t like America; they got... that’s not where you’re coming from?

REEVES: I’m not. I’m the traditionalist in moral, military, all of those terms. I just feel that the –- I feel it’s the obligation of the government to protect and nurture. I believe in national healthcare.

WATTENBERG: In 1975 there was an article in New York Magazine -– not New Yorker; in New York Magazine –- called something like “the dawn of an old era; the coming of Scoop Jackson”. Did you write that?

REEVES: I wrote that.

WATTENBERG: You wrote that. So you’re not that kind of left-wing democrat.

REEVES: No. That same era I also wrote the piece after I wrote a book called A Ford, Not a Lincoln. And when I did the promo on that book traveling the country I came back and I wrote a piece in New York Magazine saying that the next president of the United States would be either Jimmy Carter, who was anti-Washington, or Ronald Reagan, who was anti-government, because that’s what I had heard out there at that time. And actually part of my relationship with Reagan goes back to that, but I didn’t realize that being on the East Coast then - we also had New West on the West Coast at that time.
But in the middle of feelings about Washington and government made me realize that a political revolution was going on and I hadn’t noticed.

WATTENBERG: Do you have new sources and material that you uncovered?

REEVES: Yes. Uncovered is not exactly the word that I would use, but yes, there was a good deal of material that people –- because, I mean, my technique is to try to isolate what the president knew and when he knew it. So that I spent an awful lot of time with memos that nobody else would bother to look at of phone calls to congressmen.
But the -– the particular news stuff that changed my mind about a number of things were the –- the official reports and transcripts of the Reagan/Gorbachev conversations.

WATTENBERG: As an overview, what is your judgment –- and it’s just about his presidency -– I mean, talks about it –- of Ronald Reagan the President?

REEVES: Well, I suppose in the conventional terms they talk about it that he’s at this moment near the top of the near great presidents. He’s not –- he’s not Washington, Lincoln, or maybe Jefferson, but he -– or Roosevelt, either -- but he is in then the tier that comes just after that. I sure as hell did not think that while he was president.

WATTENBERG: I’ll tell you what sort of stunned me as a general view, is you hear so much about Reagan turning over authority and being disengaged, and yet on the two issues that mattered most to him, which was the Cold War, communism, Star Wars, STI, whatever you want to call it, and cutting taxes and supply side, those things he paid a great deal of attention to in detail. Is that accurate?

REEVES: Absolutely. He was an old man. He conserved his energy. He was not like Nixon or Kennedy who were young men who wanted to control everything, wanted to know everything, wanted to know everything that was being said about them. He had a limited, understandable agenda and I think that’s the reason he’s the only president who became a noun. You can be Lincolnesque; you can be Rooseveltian; Jeffersonian. There’s only one Reaganism. He had an understandable philosophy and agenda and most everything else he didn’t care about.

WATTENBERG: It is pretty amazing, I mean, as you point out, that a guy who was regarded as somewhat of a dummy had some pretty smart things to say.

REEVES: To say the least.

WATTENBERG: Yeah, to say the least.

REEVES: And then of course all of the people around him –- as Don Regan said to me when I was doing this book, you know, we all thought we were smarter than he was. And Reagan let these -– a lot of people go out and say they were smarter than him and it didn’t bother him. But to my mind it turned out they were interchangeable. It didn’t matter who Reagan’s staff was.

WATTENBERG: I want to come that. In fact I marked that one out.
He said in his inaugural address, “Government is not the solution; it’s the problem.” And he said -– that’s the quote –- and he said he would lower taxes, raise military spending, eliminate the budget deficit, and continue to deregulate the economy. Now that’s sort of what Howard Baker called the riverboat gamble. How successful was he?

REEVES: Well, I think three out of four ain’t bad. I think that he failed in his term -– in his attempt to reduce government, reduce the size of government and government influence, but he did do the others. He rebuilt the military; he confronted communism, as you say throughout containment, throughout détente. And then the restoration of American pride was very, very real and I’m not -– I think he succeeded on three out of his four goals.
The fourth goal -– the restoration of pride I have trouble with because he was so good at turning issues, real issues, into emotions; into turning fiction into fact and this blurring of entertainment reality, that not only was he the godfather of this kind of semi fictional way we live now, but being the great communicator was also the dumbing down of America to accept communication on the level he chose to deliver it. He was not a profound – he knew words were more important than deeds. Which is a profound...

WATTENBERG: That’s a point you make again and again.

REEVES: Right.

WATTENBERG: And as a former speechwriter I tend to agree with that. I mean, it’s...

REEVES: Nobody knows Lincoln’s agricultural policy.

WATTENBERG: That’s right.
REEVES: But we may pay a price for that down the road. He oversimplified some things that weren’t simple.

WATTENBERG: Well, let me make a couple points. One is he’s regarded, as you said, as the great communicator. And yet, I mean, he was as a speech reader. He read off a prompter or he had a text. He was beyond belief.
As a person who gave press conferences, he was not particularly good.

REEVES: In fact, one of his great mistakes was at a press conference where he referred to our peacekeepers in Beirut, in Lebanon, as being there to train the Lebanese army, which meant the Christians. And the Muslims at that point in that place, decided the U.S. was their enemy and ended up blowing up the marine barracks. I mean, if you watch his life and the people who were around him, he put such effort into speechwriting and into what he was going to say. Many people said the only time they saw him lose his temper was when the interrupted him while he was writing. And he put so much effort into that, that his speeches were of a different order than his extemporanea. And he would have done better if he never held a press conference.

WATTENBERG: Looking back, what do you have against Reagan? I mean, you say you’re a liberal, whatever. I mean, there are things you disagreed with. There are a lot –- what’s your -– give me a listing of the bad things.

REEVES: Well...

WATTENBERG: I mean, we’ll come to some of them, but...

REEVES: I did not want the welfare system disassembled. I disagreed on that. I felt that he never -– that he allowed racists and racism not to flower, but also not to be driven underground.

WATTENBERG: Well the symbolism of starting that campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi where there were the lynchings was outrageous...

REEVES: Was outrageous but politically effective.

WATTENBERG: But absolutely outrageous. I mean, astonishing that the press gave him sort of a free press on it as I recall.

REEVES: I was –- again, I thought that -– I’m supposed to be the liberal, but I was much more of a pay-as-you-go guy than he was. I thought he had cut taxes too deeply and too unfairly. I thought he brought out – Philadelphia, Mississippi being a good example –- that he had the capability both of bringing out the best in the American people, which he did sometimes, but he also had the capability of bringing out the worst in the American people. And part of the worst in the American people I thought he brought, I objected to, was the idea that we’re better than other people, or that we are God’s chosen people. Last best hope, shining city on a hill. I thought he went way too far and dangerously with that kind of thing.

WATTENBERG: Let’s go back for a minute and tell us a story about the campaign against Reagan in 1980 where the man he ultimately picks as his vice president, the first George W. Bush, calls his economic system “voodoo economics”. And yet, as I understood it, by the time the campaign reached fruition, the people, the economists around him changed just enough of it that the whole reflow idea of supply side was not quite there. Is that accurate?

REEVES: Well, to me, I don’t believe in supply side economics. What I think was accurate, though, was that its rise and the rise of Reaganomics was we were in an economic disaster. You couldn’t buy a house; the interest rates were too high; everyone was losing purchasing power. I’ve forgotten all the numbers now, but the interest rates were about 20%; inflation was close to 20%, so that any change from that course, I think would -– would have been seen as a philosophy that had to be tried. I mean, you can make the argument that in the end supply side didn’t work, but whatever he did worked a hell of a lot better than whatever Jimmy Carter was doing. The country was really in trouble.

WATTENBERG: And I know people -– I mean, at the American Enterprise Institute where I was at the time, who said the most important thing that Reagan did during the big recession after –- in 1981, I guess, was nothing. He met with Volker and made it public that he met with the chairman of the fed and made no effort to get him to take down interest rates to reboot the economy. And that that’s what a president should do when –- but most presidents do the opposite. They say, “Come on, you know, let’s get this economy...”

REEVES: No, I think Reagan thought inflation was the real danger, and this was the price of bringing down inflation. I suppose there are economists who think maybe it was done too quickly and that led to other...but Reagan, again, knew what he cared about. He cared about inflation.

WATTENBERG: Now, you mentioned earlier that Don Regan who was his first Chief of Staff?

REEVES: Second.

WATTENBERG: Second. After Jim Baker, right. And then later became Treasury Secretary said, “What was the biggest problem at the White House?” And he said that everybody thought he was smarter than the president. Now, by my likes, Don Regan was no intellectual powerhouse himself. Is this accurate?

REEVES: They had permission from Reagan in a way to do that. Reagan was not like a Nixon or Kennedy, scouring every word that was in the New York Times. So in that period you had a staff who -– some of these guys were really vicious. I mean, you remember these days, who treated...

WATTENBERG: I mean, Dick Darman, David Stockman, people like that who...

REEVES: Who presented him in private and to the press as a doddering old fool and they probably believed that. But what they were doing was building up themselves as if they were running the government, and now we know they weren’t running it; Ronald Reagan was running it.

WATTENBERG: Not on the important stuff. The staff you write complained that he treated them all like, quotes, “hired hands”.

REEVES: No, that was Jim Baker’s quote.

WATTENBERG: Yeah. Well it wasn’t only Jim Baker’s. You know, Peggy Noonan wrote this very interesting book, which I’m sure you’ve read, called What I Saw at the Revolution.
And she says that she felt and that Baker felt -- and I interviewed Reagan once on television -– that there was –- he was one of these guys that sort of, there was a pane of glass between you and him. That he would respond to your question, he would be interested, but there really was a certain distance.

REEVES: I think that that distance is absolutely essential to leadership; that John Kennedy had it; that Richard Nixon had it...


REEVES: ... that one of the problems with Jimmy Carter was he didn’t have enough of it. I think that -– I think a president cannot allow people to get close to him. He’s got -– there’s too much power there and he’s got to keep them at a distance and that what Reagan did was not extraordinary at all.


REEVES: What was he going to talk to them about? He was the President. He was also a generation older than they were, and he had made up his mind about the things they wanted to talk about.

WATTENBERG: He actually, as I understand it, in the ‘70s, before he was elected, those radio broadcasts...was it weekly or twice weekly? We have the written text where Kiron Skinner and Martin Anderson and his wife whose name...

REEVES: Annelise.

WATTENBERG: Annelise Anderson sort of annotated but Reagan really wrote a lot of this stuff. I mean, he...

REEVES: I agree. You know, obviously Reagan was no intellectual...


REEVES: ... but he was a man of ideas. He saw the world in terms of ideas, of big ideas. It’s the way he took on communism among other things, and the fact that he probably didn’t have the IQ say of Dick Darman or David Gergen...

WATTENBERG: Who cares?

REEVES: ...If this job was about... right. There’d be statues of Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter and Nixon and Bill Clinton out there if it was about IQ. It’s about judgment.

WATTENBERG: He believed in good and evil and he thought that the totalitarian potentially expansionist states of the Soviet Union that we faced during the Cold War were evil.

REEVES: And had thought it for a long time.

WATTENBERG: And had thought it for a long time.

REEVES And we had reached a point -– not unreasonably, where intelligent men and women devised - Kenan with containment, Kissinger and Nixon with détente. Those were all -– I mean, you can argue for them. Ronald Reagan disagreed with that and in that argument he turned out to be the one who was right.

WATTENBERG: Except in fairness, America’s victory in the Cold War, which actually came –- I mean Reagan built it up, but it actually came under the first President Bush...

REEVES: Well, I think we all did it. Truman and you and me and all those guys who put on the uniform.

WATTENBERG: Exactly. I mean, it was a joint effort of the so-called free world, and all the American presidents and Pope John and Mrs. Thatcher and Lech Walesa, Scoop Jackson and a lot of other people who believed this all along. And then Reagan came along, but he put it in words –- he may be, in recent years, the most quotable president. I mean, the three that come to mind was calling the Soviet Union the evil empire, standing in front of the Berlin Wall and saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” And the third one delivered, I guess the English parliament or somewhere, said –- I forget the exact phrase, but he relegated the Soviet Union to the ash heap of history.

REEVES: That was before the British parliamentarians.


REEVES: Yeah, he -– I mean...

WATTENBERG: You make that point in the book.

REEVES: But the big point –- yes, I do very much, but -– and I agree with that, but the other point was that the reason -– the reason –- ten years after Ronald Reagan became president, Russia was applying for membership in NATO and –- but a large part of the reason of course was he came across a new generation of communist leadership that also thought communism was collapsing under its own weight. And so you had at one point toward the end, he and Gorbachev had come to like each other and then trust each other and then depend on each other. The one guy trying to save his ideology and his presidency; the other guy trying to save his ideology and his country as well, so that timing was -– if that same group -– the group of four, Thatcher, Reagan, the Pope and Lech Walesa, had come along at a different time it may not have had that kind of result if different people had been running the Soviet Union.

WATTENBERG: Yeah, it’s so interesting. I, certainly in retrospect, although to my own credit I believed it at the time, when he said the Soviet Union was an evil empire, this brought out this incredible outcry against him. And nobody disagreed that it was an empire. And almost nobody disagreed that it was evil in every sense we have, and yet politics has its own dynamic and you describe it very well. I mean...

REEVES: You’re not supposed to say those things. Politics is not about flat out truth and –- well, his entire staff was against that; his entire staff, such as it was, was against the Berlin Wall statement. Which I don’t take the Berlin Wall -– I took the Berlin Wall statement as Kennedy envy. That is that if he wanted to... He wanted to get a dramatic thing in to match Kennedy’s performance in –- because by then, he was already -– he had to know by the time he said that that the wall was finished, and communism was probably finished.

WATTENBERG: Tell us about one of the most dramatic and important incidents, the attempted assassination of Reagan by John Hinckley in the side entrance of the Washington Hilton.

REEVES: Well, the -– obviously it was 70 days into his presidency. He was putting on the charge for the tax cut that he wanted and his grace under pressure, to quote Hemingway, in that incident was almost unbelievable.

WATTENBERG: Hinckley took five shots or something.

REEVES: Yes, but only one went into Reagan. It bounced off the bullet-proof limousine and stopped a couple of millimeters from his heart. If it had gone a little farther, that would have been it. But even with that –- and they didn’t even know he had a bullet wound -– he had lost half his blood by the time they got from the Hilton to GW Hospital. It was maybe two miles. And they were going to carry him in and the man said, “I’ll walk in.” And he stood up -- there was only half of him left, really -– stood up, walked in until that door closed and then he collapsed to the floor and the last thing he heard was Jerry Parr, a Secret Service man saying, “My God, we’ve lost him” and a nurse saying, “I think he’s dead.” And they then -– the American people were lied to regularly about that particular incident. I mean, he was playing racquetball inside if you listen to the press releases they were saying.

WATTENBERG: My old colleague in the White House used to say, “People want to see leaders in a moment of nakedness”, meaning that they wanted to see what he was like, grace under pressure; what he was like in an off-script moment.
This attempted assassination made him mythic in American life.
REEVES: As Tip O’Neill said at the time.


REEVES: “This is not an ordinary politician we’re dealing with anymore; this is a hero.”

WATTENBERG: Okay. On that note, Richard Reeves, thank you so much for joining us on part one of our discussion about Reagan’s imagination. And thank you. Please remember to join us for a future episode where we will continue our conversation about Ronald Reagan’s life. And please remember to send us your comments via email. We think it makes our program better. For Think Tank, I’m Ben Wattenberg.

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