Remembering Ronald Reagan
Published by The
[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
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.