BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Lou Cannon, author of the book "President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime", what's the Treptow story?
LOU CANNON, AUTHOR, "PRESIDENT REAGAN: THE ROLE OF A LIFETIME": Martin Treptow was a hero in World War I. He was killed. They found a diary on him, and he expressed in it his devotion to his country. Ronald Reagan told the story about him in the first inaugural speech when he was originally inaugurated as president. He also said or implied that Treptow was buried at Arlington across the river, which you could see. The inaugural was on the west front of the Capitol. In fact, he knew that Martin Treptow had been buried in Bloomer, Wisconsin, because his aides had pointed it out to him, but Ronald Reagan thought it made a better story to say that Martin Treptow was buried in Arlington.
LAMB: How often did he do things like that?
CANNON: From time to time. I don't know the frequency, but he believed that a story should have a symbolic narrative purpose. There's a story in this book about a columnist who remembered how Ronald Reagan in the film Brother Rat had come in and sat in the drugstore in his hometown of Lexington, Virginia, and he had been telling the story for years. Ronald Reagan leaned over and told the columnist, "I was never in Lexington," and then said that he had been in Hollywood. They had shot his part of the film in Hollywood. The columnist was really mortified that he had gotten this wrong.
LAMB: Was this Charlie McDowell?
CANNON: Charlie McDowell, whom you know, who's sort of the Will Rogers of American columnists -- one of the great columnists, I think. Charlie had said, "Well, how can this be? I've told this story many, many times." Reagan asked him, "How many times did you see the movie?" He'd seen the movie a lot, and Reagan said, "Well, you wanted me to be there. You put me in that. You've seen the movie and you remember me as having been in that town. Don't feel badly about it. I do it all the time myself."
So the fact is Ronald Reagan did do that sort of thing a lot. He didn't lie. He didn't say Treptow is buried in Arlington. He gave the impression to the people who were listening that he was buried there. Really the point that Ronald Reagan was making was that this man had sacrificed for his country and should be remembered and other people have to make sacrifices for their country. The point was really valid. It's just that Ronald Reagan was a performer, an actor. He valued this part of his presidency, and he took dramatic license in his stories.
I tell the McDowell story in response to you asking me to tell the Treptow story because I think it shows that, on some level, Ronald Reagan was much brighter than people like to say he was, that he knew what he did. He understood the power of storytelling. I quote an authority on intelligence in the book as saying that Ronald Reagan made sense of the world narratively. He was not a good analyst. He didn't have a high intelligence in the way scientists and lawyers do -- analytical, logical intelligence -- but he had a great understanding of people and of the power of storytelling. Stories move us. Ronald Reagan knew that. He had the capacity to do that and on some level at least some of the time he knew what it was he did.
LAMB: Where did he get these stories?
CANNON: He got them from everywhere. He got them from newspaper clippings. You know, he had been on the road for General Electric Theater in the '50s. Ronald Reagan was afraid to fly, so he took the train. It was in his contract, in fact, that he wouldn't fly. He would clip out the papers in the little towns across America. In those days, which is 40 years ago, there was a lot more individualism among the American press than there is today. We were just at the beginning of television, and there were a lot of distinctive stories that happened in places that didn't get repeated on every wire service or in every paper in the world. He got the stories from people that he talked to. He has a terrific memory for anecdote and story. He remembered stories from his youth and refashioned them. He had been a sportscaster, and his specialty as a sports announcer was in recreating baseball games, which means describing a game that he never saw from information that had come over the telegraph. So he invented stories, he retold stories, he recast stories, he remembered stories and he read stories.
LAMB: At some point in your book, you talk about how the staff liked to keep Human Events away from him. What is it by the way?
CANNON: Well, you characterize Human Events. Human Events is an ultra-conservative Washington weekly, and there were members of Reagan's staff who felt that it brought out his doctrinaire or ideological impulses. Ronald Reagan can be extremely naive in some ways. That is to say he believes what he reads in the newspapers -- not just what he reads in Human Events. He believes what he reads in the Washington Post or the New York Times or the Des Moines Register, and he is apt to take it literally. He would sometimes repeat a statistic that either was wrong or the staff thought was wrong, so they tried to keep it from him so that he wouldn't spout some point of view that may or may not, in the staff's opinion, have been backed by fact.
LAMB: This is the third book you've written about Ronald Reagan.
CANNON: About Ronald Reagan. Well, I always said I was going to keep writing about Reagan till I got it right. I don't know whether I did, but I tried.
LAMB: You first met him in 1965. Where?
CANNON: I can't remember the small town in California. It might have been Sacramento, but I think it was a smaller town. He was going around the state giving little speeches. The speeches were the brainchild of his management team of Stu Spencer and Bill Roberts. Reagan at that time was planning on running for governor and the Democrats thought he would be such a weak opponent they wanted to get him nominated. Reagan was going around the state giving these speeches to show he that was not just an actor reciting his lines. Typically, he would give a very short speech saying what his views were -- a lot of generalities and not much of anything really -- but then he would answer questions. The purpose of these forums were to show that he, in fact, could answer questions, that he wasn't just a person who could not function without a script.
LAMB: Over the years, how many times have you been with him one-on-one, only two people in the room?
CANNON: With only people in the room is hard because sometimes there would be a press secretary. But when I've just been interviewing him? Forty, 45 times -- maybe 50 times.
LAMB: Has he changed at all during those years?
CANNON: The only change that I recognize in Ronald Reagan is in his hearing. His hearing is not good now. Even with hearing aids, he doesn't hear well, and in '65 he heard perfectly well. Has he changed in other ways? Has he changed in the core way he is? No, I think there's some way in which Ronald Reagan never changes. He has a way he makes sense of the world.
In my last book on him, I reprinted part of a speech he gave for Hubert Humphrey when Hubert Humphrey was running for the Senate. You listened to the speech or you read it -- I actually had a tape of it -- and it was the same Reagan. It had the same sort of goofy statistics. He never met a statistic he didn't like. He had a 90-year-old carpenter he was quoting, and he had this kind of nice, sort of rounded story. He liked happy endings. He liked stories that made a point. There's some way in which Ronald Reagan is always Ronald Reagan whether he was Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative.
No, I don't think he's changed. Nancy Reagan, by the way, once was at one of the national political conventions and she was asked by a publisher whether Ronald Reagan had changed at all, and she said, "He hasn't changed one bit." She turned to me and she said, "Right, Lou?" I said, "That's the way I see it." Then they asked her the question, and she said -- which I also agree with -- that she'd changed a lot.
LAMB: Lyn Nofziger, who used to work for Ronald Reagan -- I assume you know him fairly well --
LAMB: -- wrote a review of your book in the Washington Times. Let me just read a little bit of what he said here. He said, "Although the title and early pages of the book suggest that Mr. Reagan was merely an actor starring in the role of president, Mr. Cannon eventually and almost reluctantly finds that that is a serious oversimplification of what this complex and puzzling man is all about." Do you agree with that "reluctantly" finding that out?
CANNON: Well, there's no reluctance on it. I thought that Lyn's review, considering that he's totally devoted to Ronald Reagan and is very conservative, was very fair and very kind to me even and I appreciate it. But I had something different in mind about Reagan the performer, and I had something different in mind as a title here. "The Role of a Lifetime" is the subtitle of this book. Ronald Reagan valued acting. I understand why Lyn wrote those words because usually the jibe that Reagan was only an actor or was a B-movie actor or one of these things was said to run him down, that, as if somehow being an actor, he was not worthy of being a politician or certainly of being a president.
Reagan was portrayed in his very first campaign as a guy who couldn't hold his own with a chimpanzee in Bedtime for Bonzo. The point that I was trying to make, both with the title and in the book, is that Ronald Reagan is a person who values the performance and who thinks of himself as a performer. After he was elected governor, he was asked what kind of a governor he would make. He said, "I don't know. I've never played a governor." When he left the White House, he was asked about how acting had helped him be president and he said, "I don't understand how anybody could do this job without having been an actor." So Ronald Reagan didn't run away from the fact that he was an actor. He was proud of it.
It somewhat distorted his presidency, I think, in the sense that what he did best and valued most was the performance aspect of the presidency -- what Theodore Roosevelt had referred to as the "bully pulpit" part of the presidency. I happen to think that is an important part of the presidency. Reagan believed that his immediate predecessors, President Carter and President Ford, had not been particularly skilled in that aspect of the presidency. I agree with that, too, but I don't agree with the idea that the performance aspect of the presidency is so dominant that it should drive out other parts of the presidency the way that it did during many of the Reagan years.
But in the sense that that review was discussing it, the canard that Reagan was only an actor or merely an actor, I don't see, by the way. The acting profession seems to me as respectable as the professions from which most conventional politicians are drawn -- the law, journalism, you name it. But the sense in which Reagan is run down as an actor is that he is speaking somebody else's lines, that somebody else prepares the script. As I say in there -- and it's not reluctant at all -- it was a script of his own devising. He came to the presidency wanting to do essentially three things -- cut taxes, raise the military budget spending, which he thought had gone way down since the Vietnam years, and also balance the budget.
Now, he accomplished the first two, and he didn't accomplish the third because of the first two, in my view. No economist has yet explained to me how you can cut taxes and significantly boost military spending and not come out with a huge deficit, which is what he did.
LAMB: You met him in '65. What were you doing then?
CANNON: I was a reporter for the San Jose Mercury-News.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
CANNON: I grew up largely in Nevada. I grew up in Reno and Fallon, Nevada, and I spent many of my summers on a farm that's now under water from a lake in California. I've always sort of considered myself a Westerner. I went to school in Nevada and California.
LAMB: Where did you go to college?
CANNON: University of Nevada. It was then just the University of Nevada. Now it's University of Nevada, Reno, and also briefly, before I went into the service, San Francisco State.
LAMB: Where did you get interested in journalism?
CANNON: I've been interested in journalism all my life. When I was a kid, I remember we played football games on the farm. I must been all of seven or eight, and I'd go and I'd write a story of the game. I've always wanted to be a reporter. I don't know why.
LAMB: No idea where it came from?
CANNON: I have absolutely no idea. I was editor of my high school paper. I started out as a sportswriter. I used to write sports for the local paper in Reno when I was still in high school.
LAMB: Your family -- what did your mother and father do?
CANNON: My father was a nomadic character. His family had come from Ireland. They were farmers. His mother died giving birth to him. He was largely raised by his sisters, and he took off at an early age and he went all over the West. He worked in a lumbermill and did all kinds of things. His father had been a stage driver over Donner Pass. He went east and he married my mother. Her family was from Hungary, and they came back out west and they grew up in Reno. They ran a store together. My father went back later in life and farmed . He was a classic case of you could get the boy off the farm but you couldn't get the farm out of the boy. I know we don't do commercials on C-SPAN, but he was a heavy smoker and he died of emphysema far too young in life.
LAMB: I want to get back to it but there's also a lot of talk in your book about your father being an alcoholic as was Ronald Reagan's father.
CANNON: There's not a lot of talk of it. I put it in a footnote. My father was named Jack, as was Reagan's father. He was an Irish American, as was Reagan's father. I think since I pay a lot of attention to the influence that this had on Reagan, it seemed to me that a biographer owes it to his readers to say, "Hey, maybe I'm interested in this because I had a similar circumstance." Actually, I've always thought it gave me some empathy to Reagan, and maybe it did. It's sort of a truth-in-advertising label. I think that people should know where their biographers or where their reporters are coming from.
LAMB: When you got out of college, where did you go?
CANNON: I was actually drafted during the Korean War. I went into the Army. I never got to Korea, although I volunteered for it, but probably very fortunately for me I didn't get there. Then when I got out of the Army, I sort of bummed around. I drove a truck for a while. I did different things. I worked in a political campaign, but I really had this view that I ought to be a reporter and that I ought to write books. I've always wanted to do that, and I went into some little paper in Northern California. They gave a story test. Remember they used to be those things? Facts in scrambled order. I was able to put them into good order and since I didn't have much experience, they could hire me very cheaply. That was always a great premium at newspapers in those days, and so I got the job.
LAMB: When did you get to the San Jose Mercury-News?
CANNON: The story I'm telling you was in the mid-'50s. I guess I went to work for the San Jose Mercury after working for two or three other papers in the early 1960s.
LAMB: And how long did you stay there?
CANNON: Well, I stayed there really until I came to Washington in 1969. I came back to Washington for what was then Ridder publications. They merged several years later with the Knight newspaper organization. Knight-Ridder is now, as many of your viewers will know, one of the large newspapers chains in the United States.
LAMB: The three books you've written about Ronald Reagan -- the first one was what year?
CANNON: The first one was written in '68. I guess it was published in '69. It was called Ronnie and Jesse: A Political Odyssey. It was about Reagan and Jesse Unruh, this larger-than-life character, unfortunately now dead. Jesse "Big Daddy" Unruh was the most powerful Democrat in California. The second book about Reagan I wrote was when I was working for the Washington Post and right after he became president. It was published in 1982. It was called Reagan, a title that a friend of mine in the White House said, "Good. It's so simple, even he'll remember it." And no subtitle. This is the last book. I've been working on it for some time.
LAMB: When did you start working on this?
CANNON: Well, in terms of the actual working on the book, the day after he left the presidency. I was one of the small cadre of correspondents who flew out with him to California, got off the plane, and spent the next two years on the book. But, actually, I had been doing interviews on this book going back into the '80s. Different groups of people, for instance, would leave the White House at the end of the first term. I tried to interview them then because I knew that after four or five years, they would remember things differently. So, I had done a lot of the interviewing before, but I actually wrote it over a two-year period. I started writing in June of '89, and I guess I finished November of last year.
LAMB: Nine hundred and forty-eight pages long, $24.95 at the bookstore, published by Simon and Schuster. What was your reaction when right in the middle of your book coming out, the Kitty Kelly book hit and got all that publicity?
CANNON: Well, since it's the same publisher and since the publisher had said they were going to publish it in May, my reaction wasn't very positive. I guess you're asking me about the production of this book. I've already done my anti-cigarette commercial. I ought to do the one positive commercial which is my wife Mary did the research for this book, which has 1,950 notes and an extensive bibliography. It was really a joint project. If she hadn't have done it, this book wouldn't be done and I wouldn't be sitting here.
LAMB: But back to the other question about Kitty Kelly. Does it irritate you? Yours is a very serious, in-depth look at Ronald Reagan. She writes this book that has a lot of the -- first of all, what was your reaction to the book?
CANNON: You know, you can only read so many books. I read the acknowledgements of Kitty Kelly's book, and it lists me as one of the sources. The implication is that she interviewed me. She thanks these people who shared stories with her. I never shared any story with her. I gave a speech to a group of journalists in which she came and she tape-recorded the speech. Now, that's not what we call an interview. So if you have that sort of fraud at the core, how do you then believe? I mean, if I were to do those sort of things, I'd be fired. Most people would be, you know. So I didn't take seriously the stories I've read and, of course, the news accounts, of the book.
When Ronald Reagan did the cigarette commercial for Chesterfield, they had to paint the cigarette in. Now, some people have criticized Ronald Reagan for taking money for a product that he didn't use and particularly a product that is as unhealthy as that one. But one thing you can be darn sure of is that Ronald Reagan didn't smoke anything -- marijuana, tobacco. Anybody who knows him, whether they like him or think he's terrible, will tell you the same thing. I just didn't take the book seriously. You have to ask yourself, over a period of time, how will that book or this book or other books be viewed? The National Enquirer attracts a lot of attention, too. That doesn't necessarily mean that it has historical validity.
LAMB: One more question on that, and we'll go back to your book. Has it helped or hurt you in talking about this man at this time and the fact that that book came out with a splash in the front pages of the papers for all the reasons that it got the splash -- how has it affected, do you think, the treatment of your book at this time?
CANNON: Well, I think it's clearly hurt me in the sense that I'm answering questions as I am now, Brian, about her book rather than my own. Most shows aren't like C-SPAN. They don't have an hour to talk about a subject. If you're talking about that subject and you have five minutes or three minutes -- 90 seconds can be a long time on television -- that's harmful. Over an extended period of time, we have to see.
LAMB: By the way, for our audience, this is a two-hour presentation separated into two different hours, and this is part one if they've just joined us. I want to make sure that they know because they're going to see your face on this network more than normal on a "Booknotes" program. Let me go back to page 97 of your book. "The source of Reagan's inspiration was less the Constitution than the movies."
CANNON: Well, I think that's right.
LAMB: What does that mean? Just kind of overall philosophy. I know it's tough to pick out a sentence in the book. But in other words, were the movies more important to him and how he, as you say here, "played his role" than the Constitution was?
CANNON: It doesn't mean that he valued Hollywood more than he valued the Constitution of the United States. It means that the stories that he told and the way he viewed America was very much based in Hollywood where he had spent, in the title of a great film, the best years of his life. He was grounded in movie stories, movie lore.
There are many stories in this book where he tells stories which he thinks happened in fact, which, in fact, happened in a movie -- the famous story about the B-17 pilot who rides the plane down with his wounded gunner, various other stories. He has this story from the Spanish Civil War -- we think it's from the Spanish Civil War, but I don't know that I ever pinned it down -- but the story where Americans come in and the fact that they're Americans is especially wonderful and he tells the story. He has these images in his mind's eye of the flags and the bands playing. I don't think there's anything particularly sinister in that. Hollywood, when Reagan was a part of it, was a reflection of American values. It was the leading exponent of American mass culture.
People went to the movies in the 1930s and the 1940s. Reagan was cast as a handsome, Midwestern hero playing the heartwarming role, to paraphrase Garry Wills, of himself. I don't think it's surprising since he was in Hollywood from the time he was 26 years old to the time he was in his mid-50s that he would draw his stories from where he lived and from the craft that he practiced.
LAMB: You write a lot about either the 3-by-5 or the 4-by-6 card.
CANNON: They started out as 3-by-5's and became 4-by-6.
CANNON: I'm not sure exactly. I suspect it was more of a function of his eyesight. From the time of his childhood, he had a little problem with sight. He was nearsighted. I don't know how that affected him on the cards, but he also had a great developed shorthand where he could compress almost the whole of a speech, this sort of basic speech he had, that was often just called "The Speech." He would write it out. I've looked at those cards in the Hoover archives, some of his early, early cards, and you would see that he would get almost a whole speech on the card. I think he could get more on a 4-by-6, obviously, than he could get on a 3-by-5.
LAMB: Those cards made a lot of people mad.
CANNON: I don't think the cards made people mad. I think what upset people, after they got to know him -- congressmen are good examples. Congressmen who had known him for several years -- not their first meeting but who had maybe been at the White House a dozen times or the leadership many more times -- and here the President is reading to them from cards. That annoyed them because they thought he should be talking to them the way we're talking, without notes.
They also felt, I think, that he was too much a captive of those cards. I think Don Regan said that in the book, but other people have said it to me, they were a device for him. They were a comfort mechanism for him. They were like a cane is for some people or some prop that somebody uses that they feel comfortable with. They were security for him. I think he overused them, particularly in the last years of his presidency.
On the other hand, I've seen Reagan very effective without notes. I don't know if I tell the story in this book or in my last one, but I remember one time -- I think it was in Florida -- where he was speaking outdoors and the wind came up and it blew all the cards around. He has to pick them up and they're all in different order. Reagan, who had a good self-deprecating sense of humor, said, "It doesn't really matter what order these are in anyway," and essentially gave the speech without his cards.
LAMB: If you had to list the three or four main defining moments in his presidency, what would they be?
CANNON: I think one of them was clearly the assassination attempt. This occurs on March 30 . He's like 40 days into his presidency, and all at once he's wounded, and America sees this rather gallant man quipping, telling stories, using one-liners that would have seemed, I think, artificial in many circumstances, except this is a person who could have died from this wound. We found out later that it missed his aorta by this much. I mean, it was a very, very serious wound. Doctors have told me that many people never really recover fully from gunshot wounds, and here this man is well advanced in life. At this point, he's just had his 70th birthday and he bounces back in a hurry. But I think that he became a mythic figure in America when he was quipping to the doctors, "I hope you're all Republicans" and those kinds of lines. I think that was a defining moment in his presidency.
I think that another moment that was very important to him -- I don't remember what day that was -- was when Congress finally got these tax and budget bills passed in that first year of his presidency. Dick Wirthlin, who was his pollster and had done a lot of polls, showed that what people particularly liked about Reagan was that he was getting stuff through Congress. There had been a long period where Congress and the presidency had been stalemated. Most Americans are not partisans. They like to see their government work. And here, paradoxically, under a person who denounced government, the government seemed to be working.
There are a lot of other moments in the Reagan presidency that are worth something. I'll just give you two or three which are quite removed. One is him standing in Berlin in front of that wall and saying, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall," which is a speech that still kind of gives me a goosebump when I hear it. Another was Ronald Reagan in Red Square where it seemed to me the mere fact of him being in Red Square -- him and Gorbachev walking together, even though they both had their own propaganda impulses of this meeting -- was a signal to the world. "Hey, this Cold War is really over."
Another, and a darker one, I think, was Ronald Reagan in that speech he gave in November of '86, soon after the mid-term elections, where he's explaining what happened -- or thinks he is -- in the Iran-Contra affair, and he is so unbelievable. I mean, he's telling stories that turn out to be totally untrue, and you see a different kind of Ronald Reagan. People always believe Reagan. He's telling these stories and he's essentially unbelievable, as every poll said. People who had always trusted Reagan said, "Hey, this guy's lying to me." That was a new experience for Ronald Reagan -- not being criticized. He took many positions that a majority of Americans didn't agree with. The Contras, for one. There was never a poll that showed a majority of Americans supported the Contras. That's fine. You go through life and you're disagreed with. But people believed Reagan. There was another news conference right after that. I remember the speech. I was actually in my hometown of Reno when that speech was given, for a reason I don't remember. I remember watching that speech on television and saying, "I've never seen him look that bad."
LAMB: Let me ask you about some other incidents. I know you write about a bunch of them. Bitburg -- How did that happen?
CANNON: Bitburg was a demonstration of a lot of elements in the Reagan administration that were important to him. The story that I wrote that caused the most anxiety among the Reagan staff of any story I ever wrote about Reagan as governor, president or campaigner was the story where he had told at two different times how he had photographed Nazi death camps after World War II. Of course, he had not been out of the country during World War II. He told one of these stories to Simon Wiesenthal, the famed Nazi hunter, and he told it again to Yitzhak Shamir.
Now, they deny, to this day -- Reagan wrote me a letter, Jim Baker called me. But the fact is you have two highly intelligent people and these two stories occurred five months apart. It took me a long time. It was well after the event when I heard about it and longer than that when I was able to prove it. I think it's statistically remote that two people who were in totally different meetings would remember these stories. I go back to that because I don't think that Ronald Reagan was consciously lying when he said those things. I think he was caught up in his story. He actually impressed Shamir, particularly, so deeply that he cared so much about the Holocaust. Now I think Reagan did care about the Holocaust. I think that there's nobody who's occupied that office who felt more deeply that the world had abandoned the Jews. He had seen newsreels -- that's what he had confused -- when he was in the what was then the Army Air Corps during World War II, the newsreels of the camps after the Allies had liberated them. That was a living memory to him if you can have a memory of something that you have not experienced. I think that most people who talked to him about the Holocaust knew how deeply he felt about it. I think for him to agree to Bitburg, in a way, cast a pall over his presidency that is particularly unfortunate for this president who felt so deeply about the sufferings of the Jewish people.
LAMB: In the event that some of our audience have never heard of the Bitburg story, could you just give us a brief summary.
CANNON: What basically happened was that Helmut Kohl, the West German chancellor, who had attended some French-German reconciliation ceremony with [Francois] Mitterrand at a cemetery where the World War I French and German dead were both buried, asked him to come to Germany and celebrate a similar event in a cemetery where German soldiers and American soldiers were buried from World War II. The problem was that there weren't any such cemeteries. They were buried separately, and in all of the German cemeteries, there were also not just soldiers from the German army, the Wehrmacht, there were also SS soldiers. That was done deliberately. They had scattered the SS soldiers around so there wouldn't be one cemetery that was just of the SS. So Reagan wound up sort of casually agreeing to go to Germany for a similar ceremony where there couldn't be a similar ceremony. He wound up showing up at this cemetery which had been a tank staging area for the Battle of the Bulge and in which there were SS soldiers, some of whom had murdered Americans, were being honored.
Now, Reagan could have gotten out of it. He would have gotten out of it if he had probably had a more skillful chief of staff than Don Regan, but he's a stubborn man. He had agreed to go to Bitburg. He had agreed with Kohl, and once Reagan gives you his word, he tries to keep his word. I mean, many black people in this country think Ronald Reagan signaled that he was a racist because he started his '80 campaign by going to Neshoba, Miss. It's the Mississippi state fair, but it's also where three civil rights workers were killed. Reagan went there because he had given Trent Lott, then a congressman and now senator from Mississippi, his word that he would go. He didn't go there because he wanted to advertise that he identified with the darkest elements in Mississippi's history.
He said on that occasion -- in fact to his pollster -- something about once you've made a booking, you shouldn't cancel it or something. That was the same thing that was at play in Bitburg. He had told Kohl he would go. Sometimes Ronald Reagan could see the big picture better than anybody in the world. He could see a distance, he could see across the room. Other times, he couldn't see at all and to not go back on what was a promise that he was going to visit you, he would do something that sent the wrong signal. Now, no Bitburg story, I think, should be complete without saying the same day he laid this wreath in Bitburg it was a most uncomfortable ceremony, by that time, for Ronald Reagan and everybody else; Nancy Reagan had not wanted him to go and a lot of his staff people hadn't wanted him to go -- that he also spoke at Bergen-Belsen, giving one of the most moving tributes to the victims of the Holocaust that has ever been given by any American political leader, certainly. So you often saw the worst.
As Tip O'Neill said on another day when the Challenger had gone down -- Tip had had a big quarrel with him that morning in front of a lot of other congressmen because Reagan had started in about how some of the unemployed were people who didn't want to work. Tip got angry and said, "You've been telling that story for years. I'm talking about people who were thrown out of work in the steel mills. They're not welfare cheats." Then later in the day you had the Challenger disaster and Reagan gave that speech, and Tip O'Neill wrote that he'd seen the best and worst of Ronald Reagan in one day. I think that was true. I think that was also true the day of Bitburg. I think you often did see Ronald Reagan best and worst close together, and I think that Ronald Reagan's gifts often rescued Reagan from himself, as they did on this particular day.
LAMB: Lou Cannon, the book President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime is one of many books that have been written about this man, as you know, because you talk a lot in your book about other books. How come you did that so much? You mentioned the George Will books or the columns and you talked a lot about Garry Wills and Bill Niskanen and many others, Martin Anderson.
CANNON: Because I think that one of the duties of a biographer is to examine the contemporaneous record. Part of that record is in the books, the so-called kiss-and-tell books. I like Ken Adelman who wrote a very good book about that administration. I like his phrase of "kick and tell" even better. There is in books by David Stockman and by Don Regan and Niskanen, and especially I would say by Marty Anderson, a lot of rich material from people who either had felt close to Reagan and were estranged from him, as was the case in Stockman and Regan, or who remain essentially loyal to him, as is the case with Anderson. I think that Reagan did not inspire the kind of lasting loyalty from people that some presidents did.
There are obvious exceptions to that. You started this program by quoting from Lyn Nofziger and Lyn Nofziger is a conspicuous exception to that. Reagan kept himself to himself. On one level, he was always the most mannerly and courteous of men. He treated people well, the people who worked for him -- the secretaries, the people who guarded him. He was never imperious. He never threw his weight around. He was never demanding. But he also didn't give of himself. He kept apart. Different people who've worked for him have described that it was like he'd seen so many different directors, been in different casts, been in so many movies that it was like he didn't form lasting attachments.
I think Marty Anderson, among others, have said that when he left and came back -- he was sort of forced aside in a political power struggle and returned -- that it was like Reagan didn't know that he'd been gone. So unless you had a lot of self security on your own, unless you had a lot of confidence in yourself and didn't need the approval of the sun king here, you became after a while disenchanted. What you see running through these kiss-and-tell books, is sort of a disenchantment with Reagan, I think partly because the people involved never really felt that he took them to him. Somebody asked me just the other day did I like Reagan. I said, "Yes, I liked him well enough." This person knows Reagan very well and said, "I don't dislike him, but to like somebody, he has to be a person who extends to you some kind of friendship." And Reagan didn't do that. He was the friend of the American people. He had a bond with the people. But up close, if you formed an attachment to Reagan, it was often one way. That was harder for some of these personalities.
It's often said that they wrote all these books just because there's so much money, that they got such huge sums. I'm sure that has something to do with it in the case of some of the books, but I don't think that that's the real story. I think the real story is that they didn't feel the kind of loyalty that you often see. People like Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter produced a kind of a personal loyalty, personal attachment of people that, with some conspicuous exceptions, didn't last in the Reagan case.
LAMB: This sounds like a leading question, but I don't think it is. Did anybody else in the United States follow Ronald Reagan as closely as you?
CANNON: I don't know the answer to that question. There are a lot of reporters who followed Reagan for a very, very long time. One that comes to mind is my friend, George Skelton at the Los Angeles Times. I don't think there's been anybody who set out to define him at different stages of his career as I did. It would be great to say that I saw all this in the late '60s, but I didn't understand Ronald Reagan. I wanted to write about him and I thought that writing about him and Jesse Unruh was a wonderful way. You could do a dual biography.
Then as he continued in public life, I still felt I didn't understand him. I call this book the third book in an unintended trilogy, and that's really right. I never set out to write three books about him, but I found that there was more to Ronald Reagan than the surface, that beneath the surface you had a rather complicated character and a guy who wasn't quite what either his fans or his critics thought. He was a little sharper than his critics thought. He knew more, he saw further. But he had great gaps in his knowledge and great lapses that his fans didn't see. My effort in these books, and particularly this book, is to try to get beyond this and get some kind of a coherent whole. I think that the reason I'm unique in this, if I am, is that once I got started, I couldn't stop because I didn't think I had really done the job, even though both of my first two books were very well reviewed and I felt good about those books. I felt there was still more to Ronald Reagan that I wanted to tell.
LAMB: Lots of people that were around him are written about in your book. Of all those people who you remember, who had the most impact on him, besides his wife?
CANNON: Probably Mike Deaver. I think Mike Deaver had much impact on Reagan because he understood him in personal terms. It was often said that Mike Deaver was like a son to Reagan. Well, Reagan was kind of distant with his sons sometimes, too, but I think Deaver was sort of dismissed in this town. It's odd that I use that word because Deaver was considered to be a media meister, it was often said. But I think he was dismissed as sort of a glorified valet to Reagan, sort of the retainer. But I think he actually had influence on him and got very close to him and understood Reagan. He certainly understood Nancy. But I think there were also issues -- we didn't know about that until Deaver wrote his own book -- like the bombing of Beirut which outraged Reagan and which outraged Deaver. I think Deaver was influential with him.
I think that a lot of different people were influential with Reagan, however, in their own specialties because Reagan tended to rely -- I would argue too much -- on experts in some areas. I think George Shultz was influential with him on some things. Cap Weinberger was certainly influential with him. Ed Meese, Jim Baker, even though Baker wasn't as close to Reagan, personally, as these other people. It's hard to just say here is one person. There is no Harry Hopkins, who was FDR's great adviser. There's no Harry Hopkins in the Reagan administration.
LAMB: Which feud was the most interesting to you? Like the Shultz-Weinberger?
CANNON: Shultz and Weinberger, by far, because these were two people of genuine accomplishment. They both had Reagan's ear and they were both distrusted by different groups of people within the Reagan administration. Reagan once quipped at a Gridiron Dinner, I think it was, that the trouble with his administration is that sometimes the right hand doesn't know what the far right hand is doing. There was a lot of truth to that jest. There were the people who considered themselves the militant guardians of the conservative flame, who thought that people like George Shultz and Jim Baker, who would by any standard of normal political measurement be considered quite conservative, were dangerously moderate or liberal.
The moderates, the pragmatists as they were often called during the Reagan administration, many of them thought that right wingers, as they called them, were sort of raving, dangerous people. So in this context you had Weinberger and Shultz who didn't like each other. It went back way back. It goes back, according to Frank Carlucci who worked with both of them, to when they were both in the Office of Budget, which it then was, in the Nixon administration. They had a personal dislike. They're just temperamentally opposite. Cap's a lawyer who is adversarial. George is an economics professor. The significance of their feud within the Reagan Administration went way beyond their personalities. They were often on opposite sides of the fence, and they were successful in blocking the advocacies of others. Reagan's great fault, I think, as a president, which goes back to his childhood of wanting harmony of this situation where he did have a home with an alcoholic father, Reagan craved harmony. He didn't like disharmony. If you and I were arguing together and we were on equal footing, which Weinberger and Shultz were, Reagan would want to give each of us something. He wouldn't want the dispute to end with you winning or me winning, and so the conflict between Shultz and Weinberger produced frequently a sort of paralysis within the Reagan administration.
LAMB: We're going to talk a lot more about people in the second part of this two-part series, but I want to show our audience the book. Our guest has been Lou Cannon, author of "President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime". Thank you for joining us.
PART II: May 19, 1991
LAMB: Lou Cannon, author of "President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime", on page 231, you quote Paul Laxalt, former senator from Nevada, as saying this about Ronald Reagan: "He's a loner. He's a loner even in his relationship with his God and the same way, unfortunately, with his kids." Why did you pick that quote?
CANNON: Well, because I thought it was true. I think that Ronald Reagan keeps his distance. I like the part about even in his relationship with his God because I think Ronald Reagan is quite religious in a very personal way. He's not particularly enamored of organized religion, despite the show of that from the White House. But he's a believer and I think Paul Laxalt, who knows him very, very well, realizes that. As far as the kids are concerned, I quote all of the children in this book, either from things they've written or from interviews I've done, all of who say in their own different ways that they don't really, really quite know their father.
There's a particularly poignant story from Michael Reagan's book about how Reagan arrives at, I think, his prep school graduation in Arizona and introduces himself and says, "I'm Ronald Reagan." And he says, "I'm your son, Michael." Now, he was wearing a mortarboard and stuff, but still.
LAMB: Lou Cannon, you're still a reporter with the Washington Post?
CANNON: Yes, I'm Western correspondent for the Post now, based in California, and enjoying it very much, thank you.
LAMB: How long have you been with the Post?
CANNON: I've been with the Post since 1972.
LAMB: How does the world look from California now that you're back there after you spent all this time in Washington?
CANNON: Well, more interesting, I guess. I loved working in Washington. I maybe sound a little corny about it, but I think that to be able to cover the White House for the Washington Post is a privilege, and I really enjoyed it. But what I didn't enjoy was being a slave to whoever was the president. You know, you don't have a moment when your schedule is dependent on anything other than the president's schedule. There's a hothouse atmosphere that flourishes with reporters within the White House. There's too many of us, and too few of them. It's very nice to be back where you're writing about farmers and droughts and people who are coming in to make a new life for themselves in America. California's an exciting state. Nearly one of eight Americans live there. By the turn of the century, everybody in the state will be a minority. I find it great. I don't think a person should do the same thing in life all the time, and it's wonderful to be back there.
LAMB: One of the things that you write often in this book -- I don't know how often, but I noticed it more than once -- is that Ronald Reagan supposedly didn't care much about Washington and he was looking forward to going back home to his California. Is that true?
CANNON: Well, that's true. I don't know if it's true always as much as he thought it was true. Ronald Reagan liked Washington. I also write in that book that he campaigned against Washington politically, as Carter had done. He adjusted to the social life of the city much better, but what Ronald Reagan likes -- another one of these paradoxes -- is both the spotlight and he likes solitary time. He likes to be alone. He liked the ranch a lot in California because he could get away and although the Secret Service were up there, it wasn't obtrusive. He could have the feeling that he was by himself. He told me after he came back to California -- I interviewed him for his 80th birthday for a piece in the Post -- that what he missed was Camp David.
Ronald Reagan was not power mad. He also said that he knew when there was time to leave the stage and he was able to walk away from the White House and I don't think that drove him crazy or that it even particularly bothered him. But I think that he felt, as he says at one point in there, kind of cooped up, like he was in a cage in the White House and all the more so after the assassination attempt. I mean, obviously, there was a high degree of security. But he loved Camp David and he does miss Camp David and he's said that before. I think that one of the qualities about Ronald Reagan that was, on the whole, a positive quality about him was that he became president and wanted to accomplish certain things. He didn't become president just to be the most powerful man in the world. He knew himself enough that he was able to walk away from it when the time was over and be happy with himself.
LAMB: In our other interview, you said that you probably interviewed him 40 times in your life.
CANNON: That's conservative.
LAMB: Including those 40 times and possibly others, what's your favorite personal moment with this man and why?
CANNON: I don't know if favorite is the word.
LAMB: Let me just jump in to ask you though about one moment that I remember is when he called you after your mother died.
CANNON: Well, that's the moment I was thinking, and I don't think anybody would use the word favorite. That's why I was balking on it. Yes, he did call me. My mother had been sick a long time before she died. When he called me, I thought, as you do, that I had been prepared for her death, and like most of us, I wasn't. I said that to him. I thanked him for calling me and I said, "I thought I was prepared for this." He said, "You're never prepared for the death of your mother."
Now, Ronald Reagan's mother is the most important person to him. He's influenced by his mother. But I thought that was such a wise, comforting thing to say. He may have called me because somebody told him to call me and his opening words may have been a script, but he didn't know what I was going to say. That wasn't from a script. That was from his heart, and it was also wise. But that's not part of an interview. That's kind of a personal thing. I guess the favorite moment that I ever had in an interview was also personal, but it was personal about him. I had never heard this story. It was an interview for this book. We were talking about his father, and Ronald Reagan, like a lot of us, romanticizes his boyhood. It's ideal. Everything was wonderful. But he was talking about the alcoholism, his dad's drinking.
By this time Reagan was a young man working as a sports announcer in Des Moines, I think, and his father apparently had been drinking kind of heavily. His mother had visited him regularly. Reagan wrote him a letter. This is what Reagan told me. He wrote his father a letter and said that he wanted him to stop drinking because he, Ronald Reagan, had this problem, too. Reagan said this was a lie. By the way, in all the time that I know Reagan who has this marvelous ability to tell something that is factually not true and make himself believe it's the truth, this is the only time that I've had personal experience where Ronald Reagan said, "Yes, I told a lie."
The fact that Ronald Reagan is not comfortable with lying is that he remembered this going on 60 years later, and it still troubled him. It troubled him that he did it. It's a noble lie, it seems to me, if there is such a thing. He was saying it to get his father to stop drinking. His father never replied, and he never knew what impact, if any, that that had on him. The reason that that sticks with me is that Ronald Reagan rarely told you anything about himself. Ronald Reagan was a great frustration to most of the people who interviewed him most of the time because he would tell you a story that you'd heard a hundred times and he would tell you that story as he were telling you for the first time even though he told it to you before.
It was very hard to get inside of him. So the moments that were satisfying in interviewing Reagan or that were interesting in an interview was when he told you something about his personal life or his value system. I was very interested in the stories he had to tell about Armageddon because he believed in Armageddon literally. He took it as a biblical prophecy, but he somehow wanted to avert it which was part of the story of the strategic defense initiative or Star Wars. He saw it as the foretelling of nuclear war which he thought he ought to avert. I don't know anybody who's quite got it that way. Most people who believe in a biblical prophecy literally think it's going to happen, and there isn't anything that they can do about it. A lot of people don't believe in it. A lot of people think it's an allegory. I don't know anybody else who believes in it but thinks that he can do something to stop it.
LAMB: You've written three books on Ronald Reagan. For how many years, would you say, as far as Ronald Reagan's concerned, you were writing about him? In other words, you following his every moment. How many years in the State House in California? How many years in Washington?
CANNON: Well, I covered all of his campaigns. I covered, I guess, most of his first governorship, and then I came to Washington when he was governor in his second term. But I went back to cover the campaign for reelection in '70. I covered his campaign for the presidency in '68 and '76 and '80 and '84. Then I covered him periodically in the '70s. I covered the White House when he ran against President Ford. I spent about half the time with the Ford people and half the time with him. But, then starting in November 1979, when he announced, I covered Ronald Reagan continuously until literally the day he left office. I covered his entire '80 campaign. I covered the entire eight years of the presidency.
LAMB: Is there anybody that wouldn't talk to you for this book?
CANNON: There are a handful of people. I don't, frankly, desire to name them because we're only talking about six or seven people out of several hundred. I will name one that I think had a particularly good reason not to talk to me. That was John Poindexter. Now, I had interviewed Poindexter, however, when he was the national security adviser in the White House, so I knew him and I didn't just know him from television or stories. But, of course, Mr. Poindexter was facing felony charges for which he was convicted and which are now under appeal. I thought he had a pretty good reason not wanting to be interviewed. But, basically, with very, very few exceptions, with a handful of exceptions, the people who worked for Ronald Reagan sat down to be interviewed. I interviewed all five of his national security advisers for this book, for instance, except Poindexter, all of his four chiefs of staff, his secretaries of Defense and State, Ed Meese and William French Smith, his predecessor as attorney general. So I think I interviewed all of the major figures, with very few exceptions, in the Reagan administration and a lot of the minor figures as well.
LAMB: We've often seen people refer to "Wait till Lou Cannon's book comes out. We'll see the definitive Reagan." They also write, "Wait till Edmund Morris's book comes out. We'll see something else." What will be the difference between what you did and what Edmund Morris is doing?
CANNON: I haven't a clue, Brian. I think everybody's got to write their own book. I hope that people will find that this is a definitive work about Ronald Reagan. Mr. Morris, a distinguished biographer of Theodore Roosevelt, I'm sure he'll have his own look at it. There's no last word on a president. Even the presidents who are most written about -- Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt -- a new book will come out almost every year. So, if anybody is so full of self-delusion that they think that they're going to do the last word on any subject, they should do something other than be a biographer or historian. That doesn't bother me or even really interest me.
What interested me is that I had a look at Reagan over an extended period of time. I had written a lot of stories about him. I'd written hundreds and hundreds of stories about him. I'd seen him in different settings. Ronald Reagan is 80 years old. A lot of the people who work for him are the 70s. The Reagan archives are going to be open 20 years from now. Most of these people will be gone. I know Ronald Reagan and his administration well enough to know that a lot of these stories aren't in the archives anyway, because a lot of what happened with Reagan didn't happen with what was written down. The written record, Reagan sometimes didn't read it. He didn't know about it. Reagan was a between person.
What happened was between him and people, and so it seemed to me very valuable to get this history down while the people were alive and close to it. I'm sure that 50 years from now there's going to be a whole different look at Reagan and everybody else, but I hope that this book, because it has the living recollections of people when they were close to this process, will be of help to those historians who are writing long after I am dead, let alone these people who are far older than me who worked for Ronald Reagan.
LAMB: There's a May 5, 1989, quote from Nancy Reagan. I assume that's from an interview that you did with her?
CANNON: You'd have to see my wife's good notes because if it's noted ...
LAMB: I'll read it. He assigns to everyone else his own makeup.
CANNON: Yes, that's from an interview with Nancy Reagan.
LAMB: What did she mean by that?
CANNON: She meant, I think, that Reagan could not conceive of being duplicitous, that Reagan tells you what he thinks. That's the way Nancy sees it. The idea that somebody would sit there and tell you something that he didn't believe in order to advance himself with Ronald Reagan, in order to get a job or promotion within the White House, in order to get somebody else demoted or fired or hurt, since Ronald Reagan wouldn't do these things, he doesn't see to it that other people would do these things. Ronald Reagan was gullible frequently in dealing with people. Nancy Reagan observed this about him. She's not unique in observing it about him, but she's the closest to him of anybody on earth so she saw it the most and I think she felt it the most keenly. She felt that he needed protection from people who pretended to share his agenda or his objectives and, in fact, did him harm. That's what she means by it.
LAMB: People that were around him. As a way of getting you to explain, let me tell you a story that happened to us so you can put the pieces together. You and I have never talked about this. I can't remember the year. I think it was 1983. We got a call from Joe Holmes. Do you remember Joe Holmes?
CANNON: Oh, I remember him well.
LAMB: Who was he? How did he fit in?
CANNON: Joe was sort of a character who believed very much that there ought to be a video record of Reagan. He wanted to make sure that Reagan's meetings were all preserved -- not just with still pictures, but that there be an actual camera record of Reagan. He was kind of an old P.R. guy.
LAMB: Not alive anymore?
CANNON: No, Joe passed away several years ago. I liked him. I thought he was a good guy.
LAMB: The reason I bring it up is because he called and said, "We want to do some programs with high school kids. The president does." Now, then he said, "The president wants to do this, but a couple of his aides right around him don't. And what we want to do is just put the president in a room, turn the camera on, and let these kids at random ask him questions." I tell this story as a way to get into the troika. The three people were Jim Baker, Mike Deaver and Ed Meese. Joe Holmes said, "Jim Baker and Mike Deaver don't want him to do these programs, even though he wants to do them, but Ed Meese does." Eventually we ended up doing five programs with him in the White House with 45 high school students asking him questions at random. Now, what is that all about? Why would the two not want him to do it and Joe Holmes working through the Ed Meese side of that troika?
CANNON: Well, I don't know since I don't know this story. I don't know why, in this particular case, if that was in fact the lineup.
LAMB: That's the way it was portrayed to us.
CANNON: Yes. We can talk about it generally. I wouldn't say why somebody wanted to do something unless I had done the reporting on the story.
LAMB: Let me tell you just a little more as a way of getting you to fill in the blanks. The explanation: "This is too random and too chancy and we don't know what those kids are going to ask but the president wants to meet with kids."
CANNON: Well, that sort of sounds right to me. It sounds to me as if Joe was probably giving you the correct lineup. Basically, Deaver and Baker were often worried that Reagan would say something. They'd seen a lot of examples of it where he talked off his script or he just would say what came into his head and get into trouble for it. There are a lot of examples. The one that comes to mind during the campaign of '80 was that he went to some religious conference and a religious broadcaster asked him about creationism. Reagan said, "Well, maybe they could teach both. They could teach evolution and creation."
I know that's an explosive subject for your viewers. I raise it only because Reagan just was offhandedly saying what occurred to him, and it created a huge furor that Reagan didn't believe in evolution . I think more was made of the reply, probably, than was warranted. But you never knew what was going to pop out of Reagan. You never knew what would come out of him. If you were trying to run a campaign for something in the early Reagan years -- '83, I'm not sure . . .
LAMB: It was '83, '84 and '85.
CANNON: But what they were trying to do in the White House -- what Baker and Deaver particularly were trying to do -- was to keep the focus on the economic program. I tell there in some length the story about how they all came down very hard on Al Haig originally when he wanted to put out some white paper -- I don't remember whether it was Nicaragua or El Salvador -- but they didn't want to get the story focused off the economic program. The people who were managing in the White House tried very much to get a particular theme and stay with it. They knew that if they just turned Reagan loose that he would talk about anything that came up and pretty soon the White House would be enmeshed in some extraneous or ancillary controversy that had nothing to do with what they were trying to emphasize and often with what Reagan was trying to emphasize.
It's odd because in some ways -- I think I say this in there -- the conservatives tended to overrate him, overrate his abilities, and the people who were the more pragmatic faction tended to underrate his ability. But they all really, at some level, agreed that you just couldn't turn Ronald Reagan loose. You'd have to know, in any given controversy, what had gone on between them to know why Meese was on the side of letting Reagan speak. I think that in fairness to Ed, that Meese -- more than any of the other people because he had seen him in California where he had been his chief of staff although they had another title for it -- knew that Reagan is particularly good with young people. I don't know how your programs turned out, but I always found those absolutely more interesting than just about anything else Reagan did because Reagan really tried to answer the questions.
You'd have to put that to Meese, but my guess is that Meese thought that the advantage of seeing Reagan in that setting, naturally talking to kids, outweighed the disadvantage of him saying some comment that the White House had to explain for the next three days. On the other hand, it wasn't usually Meese who had to do the explaining. There were a lot of controversies between those three people and other people in the White House that didn't really withstand close analysis often. By '83, they were in such conflict that oftentimes something that Meese wanted to do, the Baker faction opposed because it was Meese advocating it and vice versa. I mean, oftentimes the conflict was not based upon a different perception of Ronald Reagan as it was on a power struggle in the White House that went on. Reagan was oblivious to it. Reagan just never paid any attention to these conflicts in his staff and that allowed them to rage.
You couldn't imagine that going on in the Bush White House. I mean, Bush is so, it seems to me, obsessive about having a single line come out of the White House that he calls people up. He has them not talk to reporters. Maybe he's reacting to what he saw go on in the Reagan White House, but Reagan never took any action against this. Reagan would complain about leaks and stuff, but the leakers were all around him. He never banged heads. So I'm not sure, without knowing more about this story, that it represented a perceptional difference of Reagan or whether it was just the difference between these two guys on a particular day.
LAMB: Well, Joe Holmes kept telling us as we led up to doing the first program, "I can't get a decision. I've talked to the president out at the ranch when I'm there with him on the weekends, but the others are preventing this from happening." Well, eventually they happened. Then what happened, I'd like to ask you about, is then after the program was over we brought the kids back to the studio, right where you're sitting, did a call-in show, and, all of a sudden out of nowhere, Ronald Reagan calls the call-in show. He said, "I'm here in my family quarters watching this program with the kids, and I couldn't help hearing what they were saying. I wanted to call up and correct this," and gave us the distinct impression that the aides weren't there to tell him he couldn't call. He just picked up the phone, dialed away and here he was.
CANNON: Oh, yes. That part of the story really rings true. Reagan would call up columnists. He'd call up reporters. He called me up a couple of times to complain. He'd call up people and say, "I liked your column" or "I didn't like your story." He called up David Broder, who'd made the point that many of us made, that I made in an earlier program of yours, about how Reagan lowering taxes and raising the military budget made it impossible for him to balance the budget or that he hadn't, himself, submitted balanced budgets and said, "Oh, no, no. I did submit balanced budgets," which, of course, he had not.
But Reagan was used to -- he told me once about fan mail. He paid a lot of attention to fan mail when he was in Hollywood. I think that this was sort of his fan mail. He watched television. He read the newspapers. You know the expression on a ballfield of a player who you razz and you get on him and he hears you and they say he has rabbit ears. Reagan had rabbit ears sometimes, too. He'd see something that he thought was unfair -- a documentary on television, Bill Moyers's famous documentary, but others that held him to blame for the hardship of people and he'd call up. My guess is that if his aides hadn't been more interfering with him or more protective of him that he would have done that a lot more than he did, and he did it fairly frequently.
LAMB: How did you write this book, physically. Did you write it in California?
CANNON: With great difficulty. No, I wrote it in the basement in my bunker of a home in Oakton, Va., with my wife doing the bulk of the research. I finished it, again with Mary's help, in California in Summerland, which is right near Santa Barbara. I wrote the last chapter and some of the things like the acknowledgements out there, but most of the work was done in the same place I lived when I was covering the White House. Everybody said they were going to California on the first plane, now that the Reagan administration was out. Well, Ronald Reagan did, George Shultz did, but more of them didn't. A lot of people who were always going to leave -- they can't wait to get back to California -- and I suppose that's true in other administrations, too. We all know people who couldn't wait to get back to Georgia or Texas or Massachusetts who stayed in Washington the rest of the lives. That was true for a lot of the Reagan people.
LAMB: In the acknowledgments, you mention several people. I just want to bring them up to ask you what involvement they had with the book. You start off by saying, "Six friends of considerable professional accomplishment read the book in manuscript." You name David Broder, Peter Silberman, William Lee Miller, Bill Plante, Don Oberdorfer, "and my eldest son, Carl Cannon," who our audience knows from appearing on many of our call-in shows. Why did you pick those folks to be your readers?
LAMB: Well, because they all care enough about me to wade through these pages to start with. But they all have a different perspective. Bill Plante had covered the White House and he has a television perspective. David Broder is, in my view and in the view of many other people, the best political correspondent that ever there was. He's a good friend and had been kind enough to read my other books.
Pete Silberman, in addition to being my dear friend for all these years, was my editor at the Washington Post, and he has a good eye for things that are off. Don Oberdorfer has a particular expertise in foreign policy, another good friend. Carl was the youngest of my readers. He's not only a heck of a political writer and my oldest son, but he's a good friend. The stuff on AIDS and on inner cities and stuff, he had a little different touch. William Lee Miller, who is a very distinguished professor at University of Virginia and wrote a most wonderful book on Carter called Yankee from Georgia, has been reading my books for a long time, struggling with my grammar and syntax.
I think you need a reader who has an academic background as well as readers who have backgrounds in journalism. But the central thing was all of these people were willing to struggle through this book. The other reader was my wife Mary, who made many valuable editing suggestions and to whom this book is dedicated.
LAMB: The best thing that someone can say about it?
CANNON: That it tells them about how Reagan was in the presidency. It tells them honestly, that the book is true, that it tells you what happened and what Reagan was like. That's what I want to people to say about it if that's what they think about it.
LAMB: I want to ask you about people. All those folks that worked around him. We talked a little bit in part one about the Weinberger-Shultz relationship. What about the Weinberger-McFarlane relationship? That, according to you, was this nasty thing.
CANNON: It was poisonous and harmful to both men. Weinberger thought that McFarlane was an upstart, completely over his head. Frankly, Cap, who I respect in many ways -- I should say that I give him a lot of credit in this book for opposing the involvement in Lebanon which Shultz and McFarlane favored. I think Weinberger was right on that. But I think Weinberger was wrong on a lot of other things, including the U.S.-Soviet relationship. Weinberger had been very close to Bill Clark who was McFarlane's predecessor and who I've know a long time and who, I think, was very influential on Reagan. He was the national security adviser.
When Bill left to become the secretary of Interior, replacing Jim Watt, Weinberger had not wanted McFarlane, whom he had clashed with in the past, and he made McFarlane the scapegoat for everything that happened wrong in the White House. In Weinberger's own book, he blames McFarlane for the Iran-Contra affair, even though it's quite clear that the decision to trade arms for hostages was Reagan's, a decision taken against Shultz and Weinberger's advocacy -- one of the few times they agreed. McFarlane, on the other hand, felt that Weinberger had all this military of power that they had assembled and he was unwilling to use it. There was this odd thing where the diplomats wanted to be warriors and the warriors didn't really think that they ought to use military power.
We have a little different look at it now after Operation Desert Storm, but this was what happened during the Reagan years. The military establishment had been through Vietnam and had learned a lot of negative lessons from that and Weinberger was reluctant to use a military power. So in any case, these two guys became the villains. Anything that went wrong from the White House from Weinberger's point of view was McFarlane's fault. And Weinberger, from McFarlane's perspective, was an obstacle to everything, including arms control and a successful U.S. Soviet relationship which McFarlane very, very much wanted. The conservative-liberal or conservative-moderate dichotomy that everybody has doesn't fit too neatly. McFarlane was in the camp of the moderates and the pragmatists on U.S.-Soviet relationships. He was a conservative on the Contras and on the question of Lebanon, I don't know how you categorize him, but he and Shultz both were the foremost advocates of the use of military power in Lebanon.
LAMB: I'm going to jump all over the place just names that come to mind ... Landon Parvin.
CANNON: Landon's one of my favorite people in the Reagan White House and a kind of underrated guy, although I see he's now getting his due for these speeches that he writes at the Gridiron. He had been Nancy Reagan's speechwriter, and he did a lot of the humor speeches. He did a lot of the Gridiron speeches, and he contributed to speeches by both Reagans. He wrote the AIDS speech, got really torn apart on that speech. I think he would have gone further, Nancy Reagan would have gone further, than Reagan was willing to go.
But Landon Parvin made a singular contribution during this long and difficult period of trying to bring Reagan out of the Iran-Contra morass. He was the principal speech writer on this speech where Reagan finally owned up to his responsibility, where he says, "My heart and mind tell me one thing and the facts tell me another," which was as close as Reagan ever got publicly to admitting that he had, in fact, traded arms for hostages. Now, if you had Ronald Reagan on this program today, he'd revert it and he'd tell you that he hadn't. Landon once said -- I think I quote him in the book -- that what Ronald Reagan was really saying was, "I didn't do it and I'll never do it again." I think that Landon had insights into Reagan that were, on the whole, very accurate, and he had a close working relationship with Nancy Reagan, which didn't hurt.
LAMB: Before we go onto somebody less known, Nancy Reagan.
CANNON: Well, Nancy Reagan was the constant protector of her husband. She had a lot to do with who was chosen and who wasn't chosen for the White House staff. She was a large pain in the knee to a lot of the people on the staff. But Nancy Reagan often did not get her way on policy. You wouldn't have had Star Wars. You probably wouldn't have had the commitment to the Contras. You certainly wouldn't have had the trip to Bitburg if Nancy Reagan had had her way. Nancy Reagan thought that Ronald Reagan ought to get rid of Caspar Weinberger. Caspar Weinberger, I think, served longer as secretary of defense than all but one secretary of defense in the history of the country. She was very influential on schedule. She was very influential in the immediate confines of the White House staff. But Ronald Reagan had a stubborn streak in him, and on policy, he usually followed what he thought was right, which often was not what Nancy Reagan would have had him do.
LAMB: How open was she to you for this book?
CANNON: She was very helpful to me for this book because she understood that I was trying to find out what made Ronald Reagan tick, and she was helpful to me. I have written a lot of negative things about Nancy Reagan over the years. I guess we sort of reached an armed truce. I was never her favorite cup of tea nor her mine, but I have to tell you that she gave me insights into Reagan that only she possesses. Item: She sees the importance of the alcoholism, of course, of his alcoholic father, but she also sees that Ronald Reagan spent his youth moving from town to town.
His family moved almost every year there for like the first nine or 10 years of Ronald Reagan's life, and this nomadicness made it very difficult for Ronald Reagan to form boyhood friendships. If you think about it, that would have to be true, because you'd just be in town for a few months and then you'd move on. So he sort of developed a kind of a life of his own. I always felt that, but I think that insight of hers is particularly helpful, and there were several others.
LAMB: I mentioned this in the first show. The Lyn Nofziger Washington Times review talks about the alcoholism thing and also says something about you. It says, "The son of an alcoholic father, Mr. Cannon, who clearly believes much of the psychiatric drivel that has been written about the children of alcoholics, sympathetically blames many Reagan weaknesses, such as his passivity and his dislike of confrontation on the fact that the former president, too, had an alcoholic father." Tackle that one, if you will.
CANNON: Well, Lyn was relatively generous. The truth is that neither Lyn nor I have one moment's practice, experience, as a doctor. I'm not ga-ga about anything a psychiatrist writes but most of the people who have written about the influence of alcoholism on families are not, in fact, psychiatrists. Most of them are psychologists. There are psychiatrists who have written. There's a whole variety of doctors who have written. There is a lot of pop psychology that are sort of self-help books for people who have not come to terms with their childhood experiences, but there also are some very serious studies. There's one in particular I quote in there about the successful children of alcoholics. They do have certain patterns. They have a liking, most of them, for harmony, which Reagan did. They have an ability to create worlds of their own which Reagan had.
LAMB: Do you feel that way?
CANNON: Yes, to some degree. I don't know about the latter. I hate disharmony. I don't like to have people fighting in a room around me. I didn't write a psycho-history of Reagan. I write about that. I wrote about other influences. But it seems to me that we live in the modern age. People are affected by what happens to them. They are affected by child abuse. They are affected by alcoholism. They are affected by inadequate nutrition. If you are a biographer of anyone and you find out that a person didn't eat properly, didn't get to school or had a particular condition, that affects you, and you have a duty to write about it. I don't think that there's a single touchstone -- and the book doesn't at any point say there -- that you can just say, "Aha -- Ronald Reagan is the child of an alcoholic and therefore that explains his whole life." Or, "They moved 27 times when he was a kid." I'm deliberately exaggerating. "That explains his whole life." But all these things contribute and we ought, those of us who write about people, be aware of them.
LAMB: If Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan are sitting together talking about Lou Cannon and all the stories you've written and what they thought of you, so you have any inkling as what they would say?
CANNON: God, I haven't a clue. Ronald Reagan once told me when we'd had a little battle about some story I'd written that he knew I tried to be fair, and he said this to somebody else in another context. I haven't a clue. I imagine it would depend on the story or the subject. I think they'd probably praise me for some things and run me down on others. The only thing that I would say to you, Brian, is that when I'm writing that thought never popped into my head. I want to be fair because that should be a value of a reporter. It should be a value of a historian. But as far as your subject, you'd always like to have them like it. I don't feel good if somebody says, "That guy wrote a rotten story about me," but that isn't why you're writing.
LAMB: But you don't think they thought you were trying to do them in because you work for the Post?
CANNON: Oh, no. I don't think that at all. I think that, on the contrary, they thought that I probably would try to be fair-minded. Ronald Reagan probably thinks I'm too liberal for his taste, although most people don't feel that way about me. I guess the honest answer is that I don't really know what they think except that I do think they don't think that I was out to get them. And I never was.
LAMB: Let me go back to some names ... David Stockman.
CANNON: I think it was Bill Niskanen's phrase about Stockman, who said he was more brilliant than wise about Stockman. I think that's right. Stockman had a tremendous IQ -- probably more than anybody in the Reagan cabinet. A brilliant man, but he saw himself as the center of the Reagan universe and of what he called the Reagan revolution. If you read David Stockman's book, you are left with the distinct impression that all this would have worked if they'd only done what I, David Stockman, had thought they should have done.
Now, as a matter of fact, I think Stockman's book is a valuable book because Stockman does tell you an awful lot about the unrealistic and sometimes even goofy economic assumptions of the Reagan administration. But a lot of those assumptions were Stockman's as well as Reagan's, and there's one thing where I particularly take him to task there. Stockman's argument, you know, is that Ronald Reagan wasn't willing to really come to grips with the budget -- that if you gave him these options, he always took the middle-ground option. Well, most people would.
Stockman himself, according to Reagan and according to other people who worked for Reagan, would often say that some of these more draconian things, cuts in the budgets, you couldn't do because they weren't politically acceptable. Well, in his book Stockman doesn't say that. In his book, Stockman says, in effect, that if they had carried out his program, they'd have had the Reagan revolution. I think that's not quite fair.
LAMB: While we're on David Stockman -- because it's something that you write a lot about -- he played a role in the Louisville debate back in 1984?
CANNON: Stockman first came to Reagan's attention in '80. I think he probably got the job of budget director because he had so skillfully impersonated first John Anderson and then Jimmy Carter in the rehearsals for the debate. In '84, he was doing what he'd done in '80. He played Mondale and, according to the people who wanted to blame somebody other than Reagan for his terrible performance in the Louisville debate, Stockman was supposed to have brutalized -- I think was Paul Laxalt's phrase -- Reagan by just destroying him in this rehearsal for the debate that Stockman played Mondale and just tore Reagan to pieces and shook Reagan's confidence.
But the real reason, as Stu Spencer is quoted as saying in this book, that Reagan didn't do well in that debate was that he was over-confident and lazy. He didn't prepare for it. I don't think it's fair. I take Stockman to task for a lot of things. I don't think you can blame Stockman or Dick Darman or any of these other people for Reagan's performance in that debate. You have to blame Ronald Reagan, whose performance it was.
LAMB: When you're talking about people early in the book, you suggest that Richard Nixon had a tremendous impact on the first cabinet choices of Ronald Reagan.
CANNON: Well, I reprint a memo from Nixon that has not appeared anywhere before, which I felt fortunate to have. I think it shows that Ronald Reagan did, in fact, follow Nixon's advice on a number of things. It wasn't just that memo. Nixon would call Reagan from time to time. He called him in times of crisis. He called him after the Iran-Contra. Reagan consulted with him before he went to Moscow. Most of the Republicans who were part of the Republican establishment in Washington and who were part of Reagan's team had been members of the Nixon administration. Jim Baker had been, George Shultz, Caspar Weinberger.
These were all people, and lots of others, that had worked for Richard Nixon. I think I quote Mike Deaver in there saying at some point that Reagan thought of Nixon as the president. Although Reagan marched to a different drummer, he certainly did pay a lot of attention and have a lot of respect for Richard Nixon's advice. We didn't really know that that much during the Reagan years because at the outset of the Reagan administration, you had a situation where you were quite close to Watergate. You were only six years away from the resignation, and the White House press office and others in the administration did their best to conceal Nixon's influence with Reagan. They didn't want it known. They never advertised it. But it was always there.
LAMB: On another issue, on personnel, did Ronald Reagan personally choose Judge [Robert] Bork and [Antonin] Scalia and [Douglas] Ginsburg and [Anthony] Kennedy and all those names? Did he have anything to say about that?
CANNON: He doesn't even mention Ginsburg or Kennedy in his memoirs. For Bork he has reference that things were going bad. It was when Nancy had her operation and other things, and he mentions Bork in passing in a sentence. No, he didn't have anything to do with the selection of any of those people. Most of them were chosen at Justice. But what he did have something to do with, curiously enough, was the selection of Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman in the Supreme Court. Ronald Reagan had made a promise during the '80 campaign that one of his first nominees to the Court would be a woman. He chose to interpret that promise not as if he had said one of the first, but as if he had said the first.
Of course, Smith and Meese and the people came up with the list of names, as they would for any president. You don't expect the president to be carting those names around in his head. But he never interviewed anybody else for the O'Connor seat in the Court other than O'Connor. He liked her and he wanted to name a woman and once he'd interviewed her, that was it.
LAMB: We haven't got much time and in the last chapter, "Visions and Legacies," there are a couple of sentences I underlined. I just want to ask you about them. You write, "Similarly the greatness of Reagan was that he carried a shining vision of America inside him."
CANNON: I think that's right. I hope this isn't one of the other sentences you underlined because it will ruin your close, but I paraphrase Walter Lippmann there who said that the greatness of deGaulle wasn't that he was in France, but that France was in him. I think America was in Reagan. He had a view of this country's goodness and of this country's mission and an idea that America stood for something very special, particularly in its commitment to freedom. He believed that. He always believed that. He believes it still, and he expressed it very well.
LAMB: That's not the other line. The other line was, "His career as an actor had prepared him for the presidency." Elaborate on that and I also want to ask whether or not you think you think we'll ever have another actor as president.
CANNON: It had prepared him for the presidency, but I think I do conclude that it hadn't prepared him fully and sufficiently. It had prepared him to be a performer. It had prepared him to be able to take center stage, dominate it, communicate to the American people, to know what his role was. But what it had not done is it had not equipped him analytically to be president. No, we're never going to have another actor because the world that Ronald Reagan comes from doesn't exist. Hollywood has changed. There are no re-creations of baseball games anymore. There's no Dixon [Ill.] as it was. Television has homogenized America. The world that Ronald Reagan came through and came from doesn't really exist anymore. All of Ronald Reagan's adversaries, as well as Ronald Reagan's friends, surely must know that he was one of a kind.
LAMB: Last question. What's next for Lou Cannon besides returning to the West Coast to be the Washington Post correspondent.?
CANNON: Well, I don't know. I guess the thing that interests me most is I want to write about the way the West works, the way American works. I think California is the wave of the future. I think that white, middle-aged males are going to be a minority. I think we're going to have more Hispanics, we're going to have more Asians, we're going to have more immigrants of every kind. Some people are afraid of that. I think that's a very exciting prospect, and I'd like to write about it.
LAMB: Here's what the book looks like. The title "President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime" by Lou Cannon. Thank you very much for being here.
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