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Reagan’s Imagination, Part Two

#1406 Reagan’s Imagination, Part Two of Two.
FEED DATE: February 23, 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 two, this week on Think Tank.

WATTENBERG: Dick Reeves, welcome back to part two of Think Tank about President Reagan, the Triumph of Imagination. I wanted to ask you one question to start things up. You tell the story of President Carter and President Reagan talking about, quotes, “the burdens of the Presidency”. Could you relate that to us, please, ‘cause it’s a very interesting story.

REEVES: Well, the -- Carter believed and was obsessed with the burdens of the presidency and if I remember that correctly, it was the issue of dealing with the hostages when they first talked to each other, and my own reading of American history is that it’s better to have someone in there who loves the job, than have someone in there who thinks it’s a burden. And I think it’s one of the reasons that Reagan succeeded where Carter had failed.

WATTENBERG: I think the quote, as we have it here, is you said, “Reagan thinks there must be something wrong with Carter if all he thinks about is the burdens of his job.”

REEVES: Right. There’s that little saying just before he goes to the inaugural ball where Reagan jumps up -- he’s checking his tie and doing all that -- jumps up, clicks his heels and said, “I’m the President of the United States.” Jimmy Carter never did that “I’m the President of the United States.” And which would people rather have?

WATTENBERG: Well, he made a very sort of existential choice in ’76, and you describe it, where he talks to his wife after having lost to Ford by a whisker. And almost beating a sitting President, Gerald Ford, where he decides I’m going to do it again in 1980.

REEVES: I don’t want to be remembered as the guy who sat on the bench his whole life.

WATTENBERG: That’s right.

REEVES: I want to get in the game. The funny thing about it, you know, people who -– the staff we were talking about in the earlier session who thought they were making all of the –- all of the decisions as if Reagan didn’t want to be president, Ronald Reagan was one of the most aggressive politicians who ever came down the pike. He ran for President three times; the first time, six months after his election as governor at the 1968 convention.
He then commits the most aggressive act in American politics, which is to challenge a sitting president of your own party. He was a tough guy.

WATTENBERG: And to run at that age. His second term he began at age 69, is that right?

REEVES: His first term. I’m the age he was when he was elected. I could not have written sensibly about Ronald Reagan when I was younger. I did not understand what it’s like to be older. To conserve your energy to keep a limited direct focus.

REEVES: The other thing is that Reagan, particularly at the time he was elected, did not think of himself as an old man. I don’t think the thought had entered his mind. He would use it in jokes to make points...

WATTENBERG: Yeah, I know.

REEVES: ...and whatnot. But I don’t think that...

WATTENBERG: He used it in that famous debate with Mondale when he said...

REEVES: “I won’t hold your youth against you.”

WATTENBERG: Yeah, right.

REEVES: But I don’t think he thought of himself as old. He was in great physical shape and -– and -– but I didn’t know the difference. Every politician -– most politicians are middle-aged. They’re at the peak of their powers and they want to control everything. They haven’t learned to hold back.
The people who analyzed Reagan best as the way the man operated, I thought were the Russians who watched him with Gorbachev. And one of them, an interpreter, later wrote that watching him was like watching an old lion who opens his eyes and sees an antelope on the horizon and rolls over and goes back to sleep. Then he looks again a little later and the antelope’s only 50 yards or 50 feet away and he rolls over and sleeps again. And then he gets -– he opens his eye, one eye and sees the antelope is right there and he rises and fills the sky with a roar and the antelope is no more. And this was a Russian evaluation of the man who we thought was being tricked by this young Soviet leader.

WATTENBERG: On the other hand, now he was stubborn, he was unrealistic, he had his own reality, but when he saw that we had a losing hand, as we did in Lebanon and 284 Marines were killed in the barracks, he pulled the forts out.

REEVES: Right.

WATTENBERG: Just like, goodbye; we’re out of here.

REEVES: Well, first he gave the tough talk saying, “We’ll stay the course...”


REEVES: And now I’m going to redeploy them in the Mediterranean on American ships.


REEVES: I think that’s an extremely important moment in history and I would like to go over to the White House now and explain to the current President what that meant. That Ronald Reagan, one of the toughest guys ever to come down the pike, when he saw...

WATTENBERG: You are against the current war in Iraq?

REEVES: I’m very against the current war in Iraq and it’s going the way I thought it was. But Reagan, who was...

WATTENBERG: Okay. I’m for it.

REEVES: He was believed to be this militarist, but in fact he used that –- first place, he used that image to his advantage. He scared people who he wanted to be scared. But one of the great anecdotes I came across in this was just before we went into the last meeting in the Oval Office before we invaded Grenada. And John Vessey, the General Vessey of the Army was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and was annoyed because he realized Reagan wasn’t listening to most of what they said. He was drifting off as he often did. And as they got up to leave, Reagan said to Vessey, “Come here. I want to talk to you. How many people did you say you’re going to send in there?” And Vessey said, “About a thousand.” And he said, “Double it.” And Vessey said, “Why would we do that?” He said, “Because if Carter had doubled the number of helicopters at Desert One, you’d be giving this briefing to him rather than to me.” Americans have succeeded militarily because they’ve used overwhelming force and you don’t go in there with fewer people than, you know...

WATTENBERG: Tell us the story –- you tell it very beautifully in the book and I have something to add on it. Gorbachev comes to the United States on one of these home and home visits in I think it’s 1986 and he stops the limousine on the corner of...

REEVES: Right.

WATTENBERG: ...K and Connecticut.

REEVES: L and Connecticut.

WATTENBERG: L and Connecticut. He gets out of the limousine and people mob him, “Hooray, great hero” and Reagan is...

REEVES: Watching on television.

WATTENBERG: And fairly quiet during the time.

REEVES: Yes. And says -– somebody says, “Well, what do you think?” And he said, “Wait ‘til you see what I do when I’m with his people.”

WATTENBERG: Well, you know...

REEVES: And of course Reagan did do that. Jack Matlock who was the Soviet Ambassador and head of the NCS, thought that that stop on Connecticut and L was where the Cold War ended because like any good Marxist, Gorbachev had been taught that the capitalists all hated them, the Americans all hated him, and he stepped out and he realized they didn’t. He was like Elvis.

WATTENBERG: Tony Dolan who was a speechwriter for the White House at the time couldn’t stand this Gorbachev getting all the –- and he called in four people who had either written columns or edited columns -– myself, Emmett Tyrell, George Anne Geyer and the Op Ed Editor of the Washington Post [inaudible], and we went around the circle and I asked the question and I said, “Mr. President, aren’t you being sort of soft on Gorbachev because we really won the Cold War?” And he gave a very diplomatic answer –- “Well, we can’t really say who won, who lost.” It came to my turn again. I said, “Excuse me, Mr. President”, blah, blah, blah, blah... “We really won the Cold War anyway”, blah, blah, blah. It’s the only interview I’ve ever taped and he had a whole diplomatic -- and I asked him, I said, “Mr. President, excuse me” and he answered the question, a long, rambling answer, and the last three words were, “Yes, we did.” And I wrote it up as a news story and so did Bob Tyrell, the other two sort of didn’t quite get it. But he really knew that Gorbachev was giving stuff away because he knew he had a losing hand.

REEVES: Yes. Definitely.

WATTENBERG: I mean that...

REEVES: And that’s what the transcripts show.


REEVES: I mean, the idea that Reagan didn’t win those encounters, is -– you read the words they said to each other, Gorbachev was applying to be Vice President of the United States.

WATTENBERG: Alright. Tell me something about Iran Contra that you deal with at some length.

REEVES: Tell you one thing?


REEVES: If someone said “tell me one thing about Iran Contra”?

WATTENBERG: No. Tell me two or three things.

REEVES: The President knew it’s what he wanted to happen; that’s why he sent -– assigned [inaudible]; that’s why he had all these people into the Oval Office, private citizens giving money. He thought, and most American presidents have thought -– and particularly the romantic ones, and Ronald Reagan was a romantic –- that a few good men sent in the right place at the right time can change...

WATTENBERG: Now, he...first he had the tapes of the CIA guys being tortured…

REEVES: Yes. That videotape was a terrible thing.

WATTENBERG: A terrible thing to show.

REEVES: Casey showed him that it was wrong.

WATTENBERG: Yes, it was wrong. And so that really grabbed at his heartstrings. But on the Contra case, he believed, I believe, that you had a situation where the Soviet Union, known expansionists were on the mainland of North America.

REEVES: But if he truly believed that the threat was as big as he said it was, then he would be irresponsible not to use our own power.

WATTENBERG: But that...

REEVES: If it was really that bad. That’s why we have marines; that’s why we have planes.

WATTENBERG: But they did win. When they finally had elections [inaudible] won the election.

REEVES: Yes, but I think under any scenario -– saw John Negroponte the other day, who was the Ambassador to Honduras and was running a lot of those operations and I said, “So, now that it’s all that time ago, what did we accomplish? Would Central America be different today if we hadn’t done that?” He said, “No, I don’t think...” He said, “There might have been one thing happened. That is the people who ran Salvador, the families were so vicious and so hated that it was conceivable that a leftist revolution could succeed in Salvador. But as far as Honduras, Nicaragua were concerned, the same thing would have happened whether we were there or not.”

WATTENBERG: Most years or all years in their annual statement, the Soviet Union talked about global domination. Is that correct?


WATTENBERG: I mean, he didn’t imagine this.

REEVES: No. I mean, part of Reagan’s political pitch was, “Look, they’re telling you that they want to take over the world. Why don’t you -– why don’t you believe them?” I supposed people like me at that time would have argued, it’s one thing to say you’re going to take over the world; it’s another thing to be able to do it and they weren’t able to do it.

WATTENBERG: And this Star Wars thing was, in my judgment, the most successful, cheapest military program in the world. There was a mimeograph released -– a mimeograph released and a few billion dollars that said, “We’re going to do something that you can’t do” and because we had all these kids in garages making high tech things. I don’t think it ever would have worked, but it might have. It said, “We can’t match that. We don’t have the kids; we don’t have the money” and they said, “We’ll toss in the deck -– toss in the cards.”
Alright. Now, we’re going back to Iran Contra for a minute. What did Reagan think about both sides of Iran and the Contra thing? What were his emotions? I’d describe some of my emotions. What were his emotions?

REEVES: Well, he despised the Iranians. I saw Ken Kacheegan [ph] the other day and he said Reagan rarely swore but that he -– when they were out making their demands at one point during the -- before Reagan became President, they walked by a television set and it showed the students, whatever they were, outside our embassy in Tehran...

WATTENBERG: [mumbling]

REEVES: And Reagan glared at the set and said, “Those ****.” And I think that he despised them. He also understood that Iran is not Iraq; it’s a big country with big resources and you can’t mess around with it as easily. And I think that he saw the -– it’s a terrible thing to say about him, but the Central America thing to him was like guerilla operations in World War II. I mean, he saw it as being the Philippines and a small group of founding fathers and patriots were trying to fight off...

WATTENBERG: So-called Reagan Doctrine.

REEVES: ...totalitarian government. Well, that’s all sensible up to the point of the fact that our people were as bad as theirs. I mean, there were no -– there’s no great patriotic force that we were backing. We were backing ex national guardsmen who had been with Somoza and I think that he had a kind of ugly American, Colonel Lansdale view of all that. It was more romantic than real.

WATTENBERG: You did have Soviet backed military force on the mainland of North America at a time where we believed, correctly I think, that the Soviets were expansionists. So that there...

REEVES: Well, we had troops in both Europe and Asia on both sides of the Soviet Union as well. I mean, their little adventures, as it turned out, all of which failed at least in our hemisphere, was an indication that they were weak; not that they were strong and expansionist.

WATTENBERG: Tell me the story as you tell in a very interesting way -- and then I have a comment to make –- about Reykjavik. The capitol of Iceland. There was a Summit meeting there in what year?
REEVES: What was it? ’86.

WATTENBERG: ’86. Right. Okay. What happened?

REEVES: What happened then was, I mean, what the press told the world and in fairness, what the White House told the press, was – everybody was terribly depressed. This thing got totally out of control and literally people like George, [inaudible] a pretty levelheaded guy, thought my God, we’re going to solve the nuclear problems of the world and destroy all the...

WATTENBERG: They offered terrific cuts, right?

REEVES: ...missiles and as we know, Reagan walked out, Gorbachev was upset, Reagan was upset because Reagan wouldn’t give up SDI. But what really happened...

WATTENBERG: SDI meaning the Strategic Defense Initiative, the so- called Star Wars.

REEVES: Right. Because at that time the Soviets believed maybe it work. Later they concluded it wouldn’t work. But looking back, this is quoting Jack Matlock, who was in the room, what really happened in that room he said, was we saw their bottom line and they saw our bottom line, and from then on both sides knew what it is they wanted and what the other one was willing to give up. And it was then that series of events which end on December 8th, 1987 when they’re dancing to Moscow nights in the White House and George Will is saying that this will be remembered as the day the Cold War was lost, when in fact it was the day the Cold War was won.

WATTENBERG: On Reykjavik you make the case that all of his advisors urged Reagan to take the deal, that they were giving us so much, except Reagan. I happened to have a conversation the other day with Richard Perle who was one of the hard line advisors and I mentioned this to him. And he said, well, both he and Ken Adelman who was the head of arms control and disarmament, they were on Reagan’s side saying “don’t do it”. Any comment?

REEVES: I –- well, I mean, I covered that. Richard Perle talked out of both sides of his mouth on that particular thing because when the president asked him, “Can this work? Should I do it?” He didn’t confront him directly, and rather worked to sabotage the agreement.
But I think in the end what we’ll think in history is that the atmospherics were more important in that event than were the -– were the discussions.

WATTENBERG: And the atmospherics were...

REEVES: The atmospherics...

WATTENBERG: ...Reagan said no.

REEVES: Right. Well, no, also the atmospherics was that these two guys came to understand what was each guys problem and where this thing might go when they calm down, ‘cause they were both pretty -– Reagan was almost euphoric thinking he’d be remembered as the man who eliminated nuclear weapons.

WATTENBERG: Yeah, I want to talk about that. This idea of eliminating nuclear weapons when you think about it is preposterous, isn’t it? I mean...

REEVES: To me.

WATTENBERG: To me, too. I mean, it means that if one piddily country has fifteen nuclear bombs -– we have several thousand –- and a means of delivery, they become the world superpower because nobody else has any. I mean, you know, we’ve seen...

REEVES: It’s a sign of being –- having nuclear weapons makes you a grown up nation.


REEVES: If you don’t...


REEVES: It’s one of the reasons -– I mean, look what Iran’s doing. The fact is if you were running Iran, if I were running Iran, we’d do the same thing.

WATTENBERG: Absolutely. I mean, we’ve created the monster. We’ve created Frankenstein. Now we got to figure out, and the great remarkable thing is in 60 years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki they’ve not been used again, partially because –- but the idea of doing away with them completely is silly.

REEVES: [cross talking]... I mean after all...

WATTENBERG: It doesn’t make any sense.

REEVES: ...if we had not had them in the 1950s, all of Europe would have been communists.

WATTENBERG: Without question.

REEVES: I mean, they had hundreds of divisions of the Red Army, so no, I’ve never –- it was a -– I think it was a -– it was almost as if they were drinking all night, which they weren’t, but they got high on themselves and what they thought they could do...

WATTENBERG: Get rid of them all.

REEVES: ...and then came the dawn. It may be a fairly grey dawn in Iceland, but thank God they got out of that room.

WATTENBERG: Now, he got great support from the, what we now call the religious right. Did he give them anything in return other than rhetoric?

REEVES: I, you know, he had one experiment. I remember he was going to renew -– there were sanctions against Bob Jones and he got so badly burned on that. No, I don’t think he gave them much of anything. Patronage. I mean, they got some political jobs and...

WATTENBERG: But they didn’t really change things.

REEVES: He didn’t buy into their view of the world.

WATTENBERG: I mean, there’s something so...

REEVES: Well, he knew how to talk to them.

WATTENBERG: Nancy Reagan. Describe her influence on her husband.

REEVES: I don’t think -– Nancy Reagan and I are friends. I don’t think -– I think her influence on her husband, like most spouses, was greatly exaggerated at the time. There were many things she wanted from him, and most of them were really personal, like not wanting to run for a second term because she was afraid someone would try to kill him again. That they very fact -– I think that people trust their husbands and wives. They’re the only people who have no separate agenda in a good marriage, and that their advice on personnel is extremely important. “Watch this guy. Don’t trust them.”

WATTENBERG: I mean, she was the one who took care of Don Regan.

REEVES: But in many of those cases she had to go through other people, through George Shultz, through Deaver to get them to put pressure on the presidency. So certainly it wasn’t that he came home every night at 5, which he did, and his wife said, you know, “Let’s attack Grenada.”

WATTENBERG: Yeah, but I mean in fairness this whole idea that he didn’t work hard and everything else, and there’s some truth to it. The presidency is a full time...you come home at five and then at seven you’re in white tie and tails for a state dinner and you’re traveling, I mean...

REEVES: And they don’t pay by the hour.

WATTENBERG: And they don’t pay by the hour.

REEVES: The one conclusion I came to in spending five years with Ronald Reagan was naps are not a great threat to national security. And he loved Coolidge and Coolidge -– one of the lines he read in Coolidge’s autobiography was “the first thing a president has to know is that he never must do anything that someone else can do”.

WATTENBERG: It is said -– we’re getting very close to the end here now, Dick -– that President George W. Bush is -- much more so than the heir of his father, he is the heir, the ideological heir of Ronald Reagan. You buy that?

REEVES: I totally -– I totally agree with that, although I tend to see him as “Mini Me”, if you remember the Mike Myers movie. Reagan was a man, whatever his intellect, who had lived history. Tom Brokaw was on to something with the people who lived the greatest generation, who lived the Depression and World War II. They saw what history was. They saw what could happen. And George Bush is a bird in a gilded cage.

WATTENBERG: Clinton had this great complaint that, you know, I had the misfortune of not living through a moment that demanded greatness, and Bush, forget how he responded, the 9-11 was something that required...

REEVES: Absolutely. Bill Clinton. I mean, people hate hearing this, but nothing happened while Clinton was President. And presidents are really there to react to the two or three big ones.

WATTENBERG: Let me ask you a final question. During the years of the Cold War, and I think particularly during his presidency, there were a couple of phrases in currency. One was “moral equivalence” and one was “two scorpions in a bottle” and I think that was -– Paul Warnke said that. That they were two superpowers and they were doing things that only superpowers did and we have a tradition in this country after a war is over of saying, “We were really I’m not so sure we were on the right side.”

REEVES: If I was Reagan, I’d say we knew God was on our side. I’m not Reagan and I’ll say there was no moral equivalence. Our motives were much more benign than theirs were.

WATTENBERG: Okay. On that note, Richard Reeves, author of President Reagan. The subtitle is...

REEVES: The Triumph of Imagination.

WATTENBERG: President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination, which is a wonderful book. Thank you very much for joining us for at least the third time on Think Tank.

REEVES: Thanks. Every minute was good.

WATTENBERG: Okay. And thank you. 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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