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Minding Our Business



Remembering Ronald Reagan

Published by The State

[Note: Covering a president and the White House may or may not be the pinnacle of a journalistic career. There is much that is tedious and mundane, much like the army’s propensity for “hurry up and wait” orders. There are journalistic lessons to be learned most steps of the way. This is not about how to cover the White House, but about how I remember the years I spent keeping a watchful eye on the president who both before and after he took office had an enormous impact on the country and the world.]

I was in Poland when Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980. Many Poles were excited by his victory because they felt they knew exactly where Reagan stood –strongly opposed to communism. The reports I filed then for ABC News indicated East Europeans liked that surety in Reagan better than the uncertainty they felt about President Jimmy Carter.

Much is being said about the Reagan presidency and its legacy in these days following his death. Here are a few of my memories of President Reagan gleaned from as close a perspective as they’ll let journalists have.

I could not know it at the time, but the reports from Poland were only the first of hundreds I would write about the Reagan presidency. In 1984 I became CNN’s senior correspondent covering the White House where I stayed for nine years through Reagan’s term and the following Bush administration.

At some point I concluded Ronald Reagan had only a few precepts that were the underpinnings of his policies. Government was too big. Taxes were too high. And communism was bad. Remember, he called the Soviet Union the “evil empire.”

In the end Reagan substantially brought about the collapse of communism. If he lowered taxes, he also raised the federal deficit. And government hardly ever seems to get smaller.

I was in Berlin in 1987 when Reagan stood before the Brandenburg Gate separating the eastern and western—the free and the communist—sectors of the city. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” Reagan demanded. “Nice rhetoric,” the old Kremlin watchers among us muttered. “Won’t happen.” Of course, it did.

In one sense, Reagan had spent the Soviet Union into collapse. His investments in the U.S. military could not be matched by a superpower rival built on a shaky Potemkin economy. I was on the deck of the USS Iowa in New York harbor at the Statue of Liberty Bicentennial in 1986 . On the bridge, the commander-in-chief could have hardly looked prouder of the manpower and might of the American military.

I was in Geneva, Reykjavik, Washington and Moscow when Reagan and Gorbachev held their series of summit meetings between 1985 and 1988. Reagan had come to realize that the evil empire might be a negotiating partner. The path was rocky, but the two managed to reduce the nuclear arsenals that were both the threat and the stabilizing factor of the Cold War.

“Doveryai, no proveryai,” became Reagan’s watchwords for the relationship with the Soviet leader. Trust, but verify. Possibly the only Russian words Reagan had rehearsed.

“You always say that,” Gorbachev noted laughingly at the White House arms treaty signing in 1987.

“I like the sound of it,” Reagan replied.

I was at the Reagan ranch in California’s Santa Ynez mountains for a photo opportunity earlier in his term when it seemed the chances of an arms treaty were slim.

“What are you doing to get the Russians back to the table?” I shouted across the distance we reporters were being kept from the President, the First Lady and their guest.

He paused, then said: “Everything we can.” No news there.

But the sound technician working with me had heard something else in that pause. Listening to the tape, we heard Nancy Reagan muttering to her somewhat hard of hearing husband, “Everything we can.” A helpful spouse or the clandestine voice of the administration? How often does that happen, we wondered.

Nancy Reagan was often ridiculed for manipulating her husband’s presidency. She had, we later discovered, consulted an astrologer to determine when the stars favored his travel or public appearances. Not very presidential, but wonderfully protective on her part. She wanted no risk of another ill-starred run in with the likes of a John Hinckley. The Reagans’ devotion to each other was unmistakable. Her care outlasted his awareness.

Mrs. Reagan and I spoke about it in 1996 at the Republican convention in San Diego. Two years after Reagan had written his last letter to the American public telling us that Alzheimer’s was leading him into its veiled world, she talked about the difficulty of watching someone who had wielded world power lose his own powers. Eventually, Reagan no longer realized he’d ever been President of the United States.

True, his memory had long been a bit of a problem. Names were particularly elusive. When I reported at a Venice economic summit that the president had been “talking down the value of the dollar,” Reagan caught my report on CNN and sent spokesman Marlin Fitzwater to “tell the man with the beard I’m doing no such thing.”

Sometimes his memory conveniently lapsed. As the arms for hostages deal known as the Iran-Contra scandal became public, I questioned Reagan at a White House news conference.

“Could you explain what the Israeli role was?” I asked. I’d been told earlier that day by White House chief of staff Don Regan that Israel had been the third party involved in the arms deal.

“No,” the president said. “Because we, as I say, have had nothing to do with other countries, of their shipment of arms or doing what they are doing.” The White House shortly issued a correction, an admission.

Iran-Contra sullied the Reagan administration. The president eventually acknowledged that mistakes had been made, though he never doubted his best intentions.

I was at lunch with the president on my first day on the White House beat in 1984, thinking this is pretty heady stuff. It turned out to be the only time I had lunch with Reagan. But after the informal session with a handful of television correspondents and anchors, Reagan noted he’d shortly be heading for his beloved California ranch.

It was a place he could get away from the fishbowl existence of the White House. Well, almost. The television networks would position cameras with long lenses on a mountain road about three miles from the Reagans’ ranch house.

“I’m tempted, some day when I’m out riding, “ Reagan said, “to clutch my chest and slump over in the saddle to see what you folks put on the evening news that day.”

We clutched our chests and laughed. He knew us pretty well, perhaps better than we knew him.

|   The Column

Charles Bierbauer

Minding Our Business is a column by Charles Bierbauer, dean of USC's College of Mass Communications and Information Studies and a former CNN and ABC News correspondent.

This column addresses issues faced daily by students, faculty, editors, news directors, public relations experts, and media managers about our professions.

We welcome feedback.

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