Marlin Fitzwater
Marlin Fitzwater
Call the Briefing! Bush & Reagan, Sam & Helen: A Decade with Presidents and the Press
ISBN: 0738834572
Call the Briefing!
Mr. Fitzwater discussed his recent book, Call the Briefing! Bush and Reagan, Sam and Helen: A Decade with Presidents and the Press, published by Times Books. He reminisced about his years in the White House press office in his service as press secretary to both Presidents Reagan and Bush from 1983 to 1993 and his relationships with members of the press. Mr. Fitzwater discussed why television cameras bothered him during the daily news briefing and his involvement in the 1992 presidential campaign.
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TRANSCRIPT
Call the Briefing!
Program Air Date: November 5, 1995

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Marlin Fitzwater, whose idea was it to name the book "Call the Briefing!"?
MARLIN FITZWATER, AUTHOR, "CALL THE BRIEFING!:" Actually, a young man who worked for me in the White House. One day when I yelled, "Call the briefing!" he said, "That'd be the name for the book." I said, "You got it."
LAMB: What's "the briefing"?
FITZWATER: Well, a briefing is the ordeal that every Press Secretary goes through every morning usually at 11:00 or thereabouts to explain the news of the day, and what the President's doing, and his schedule, and answer any questions that the President may have on their mind. And so it's really the focal point of the whole day for a Press Secretary, and everything you do is geared to it.
LAMB: One of the things that I noticed early on was you said that things change when the television camera is on during a briefing, and you didn't like to have the camera on. Why?
FITZWATER: Well, there's been a long tradition of not having cameras on, and I tried it for a few minutes, but when you're on camera, for one thing, they can record every stupid thing you say, and if you make a slip -- as I often did -- then it gets replayed over and over and over. So it was a kind of form of self-protection. I would sometimes leave the cameras on for a few minutes for networks to get the top story of the day and get some film of me and then turn them off so I could be more relaxed and more freedom and also make a mistake without that worry.
LAMB: When was your first day on the job in the White House and under what President?
FITZWATER: Well, in September of 1983, I first went to the White House as Deputy Press Secretary to Larry Speaks under President Reagan, and I had not been involved in politics in any way and didn't know any of the Reagan people, had never met the President until the day he hired me.
LAMB: How long did you stay?
FITZWATER: Ten years, '83 to '93. And the historians were looking it up and trying to figure out if I was the longest-serving assistant to the President in history, and they determined that I was -- it was either me or maybe one other person from the Roosevelt administration, and it was kind of unclear whether I get the award or not, but at least I'd been there a long time.
LAMB: During your 10 years, which reporter displayed the largest ego, to you?
FITZWATER: The largest ego? You want me to answer that question and continue to live in Washington?
LAMB: Well, you say some pretty strong things in there about them.
FITZWATER: Well, I would say that, first of all, most all reporters have a fairly large ego because, after all, the profession calls for you to make judgments about other people, and that requires for a pretty healthy sense of self in most people. I suppose Sam had the most obvious large ego and liked to display it the most -- Sam Donaldson of ABC News -- but he was also a very good reporter, and it helps when you can back it up.
LAMB: Which reporter had no ego that we would know by name?
FITZWATER: Well, you know, I think Gene Gibbon of Reuters, who's the head of the Reuters operation there in the White House, is a gentleman and a great reporter who has served well there and who somehow never managed to show much ego, at least in terms of demanding things or harassing people -- that sort of thing.
LAMB: You describe how reporters from the same network compete with each other, like Andrea Mitchell and Chris Wallace and others.
FITZWATER: Well, I think there's a lot of candidates for the award. Chris and Andrea were both excellent reporters, but they both worked for NBC at the time, and what I discovered one day was their contract described how they would relate to each other, and the reason was is they were so competitive that if they didn't write it in their contract, they would be getting in each other's way and competing for stories. And so the network finally said, "OK, let's put it in writing. Chris, you're number one; Andrea, you're number two. You report on these kinds of events. Andrea, you report on these kind of events." It was a pretty interesting situation.
LAMB: You write about Andy Rosenthal of The New York Times.
FITZWATER: Well, Andy is a personal friend of mine, and I wrote about this book -- I wrote this book to describe how the Presidency works and how it relates to the press corps, and so I did it by episode. In other words, episodes that happened that demonstrate various aspects of the press operation, or how press think, or how they relate to the President, and so forth. And Andy was involved in one of the most harmful, or significant, press episodes in the Bush administration, which was the supermarket scanner. So I come out pretty critical of Andy, but I really like him personally.
LAMB: Explain that supermarket scanner story.
FITZWATER: Well, President Bush during the 1992 campaign went to a convention in Florida of grocery manufacturers, and before the speech, he was being shown some demonstrations and displays, and he walked up to a new checkout scanner that was being displayed by National Cash Register Company, and the fellow who was at the cash register says, "This is our latest thing. This can do everything but slice bread, and it reads credit cards, and does billing, and everything." And that fellow -- the cash register guy -- said, "That's amazing!" And President Bush, to be gracious, said, "Yes, it is amazing." And we just kind of withdrew away. Nobody paid much attention to it. And then later on, when the President was asked about the technology, he said, "I saw some amazing technology on the cash register." And Andy wrote up the story as if the President was so out of touch with American life that he'd never seen a cash register -- a supermarket scanner -- before. And it was one of those kind of tragic situations where we could never catch up with the story.

And it painted the President as being out of touch, and I think it was also interesting that -- you know, in a sense, it touched on a truth -- which is why this story had so many legs -- in that we were out of touch on the economy. We really didn't know where the American people were hurting and how they were reacting to economic problems at that time. The problem was the President wasn't awed by this scanner. It wasn't really true. He hadn't expressed his amazement over something he had never seen before, and it wasn't a case that he'd never been in a grocery store before. So it was a case of where the story that Andy wrote -- which was from a pool reporter, really -- was not true or accurate in the sense of what the President did.
LAMB: Meaning he wasn't even there?
FITZWATER: No, Andy wasn't there. He was at the filing center, which was another kind of phenomenon of the White House press corps. But when you take 300 reporters with you on a trip, for example, they can't all be with the President all the time. So what they'll often do is stay in a hotel ballroom that we rent for them and a pool of reporters, usually 14 or 15, go with the President and record everything he says and does, and write up a report of what he does, and they give that, then, to the other reporters so the 300 who stayed at the hotel are really rewriting a report by that 15-man pool. And that's what Andy did in this case and described this event in a way that no other reporters described. And it turned out to be a major kind of problem for the Bush campaign.
LAMB: One newspaper, The New York Times is who Andy Rosenthal writes for -- this is a quote from your book. "Andy spoke openly of his dislike for Reagan and Bush." Did he speak that way to you?
FITZWATER: Well, yes. He often would get on the press plane and would take the President's speeches up and down the aisle of the plane -- or the bus, even the press bus sometimes -- and denigrate the speeches, and he made it fairly clear how he felt. So there was a lot of animosity about Andy's coverage of the campaign for that reason. And, you know, I think so much of press relations is personal, and there must have been a lot of personal pressures on Andy that caused him to, I think, be a little wreckless on this story.
LAMB: Later on, then, you have a letter in your book, and the letter reads, "There was no question that Andy Rosenthal's article on the supermarket electronic checkout system was just a teeny weeny bit naughty. Little did any of us expect that that story would be picked up by others, including some not-too-subtle political cartoonists. The purpose of this story was to have a little bit of fun, and if we had too much at the expense of the President, I apologize." Who wrote that?
FITZWATER: Well, "Pun" Sulzberger, who's the publisher of The New York Times, wrote that to President Bush, and ...
LAMB: Is this the first time it's been published?
FITZWATER: Yes. And the President, of course, gave it to me as soon as he got it because in the President's mind, and in my own, essentially what the publisher acknowledged was that the story was wrong; that they knew it at the time, in a sense; and that his apology -- well, it may have been a personal one -- also recognized that this had done us a lot of damage. But it's done, it's done.
LAMB: But go back to the reporter walking up and down the aisle of a plane complaining. Did that go on very often? I mean, about a President and their speech.
FITZWATER: Not very often, and the reason is most reporters never reveal or don't want to reveal their personal attitudes toward the President or towards any political ideology. For example, most reporters, I never knew whether they were Republican or Democrats, or liberals or conservatives, or how they felt about the President personally. Now, that's not always the case. There were some who wore their politics on their sleeves and say, "I'm adversarial to what you're trying to do." But that's a pretty rare case.
LAMB: And then Pun Sulzberger, the man who owns The New York Times, writes this letter saying it was "a teeny weeny bit naughty, and the purpose of this story's to have a little bit of fun." Do you believe that?
FITZWATER: Well, I don't know what I believe. I suspect what happened is when Andy was asked about the story that his explanation was he was trying to be a little humorous with the incident, and maybe they didn't realize the political impact of it, but ...
LAMB: Did they publish that letter or any kind of apology in The New York Times?
FITZWATER: No. That never happens.
LAMB: Now, you say that he wrote off a pool reporter. Did any other news organization write the same angle on this story of the supermarket?
FITZWATER: No. No, not immediately. After The New York Times story appeared, then others wrote essentially the same story. So there were a few other stories that talked about the President going to the scanner, and seeing it, and so forth, but there were none that suggested that he had never been in a grocery store and was out of touch with American life because of what happened there.
LAMB: Later on, in the same story -- same chapter -- you say, "On February the 11th, 1992, Christopher Connell of the AP wrote the single most courageous story of my White House years."
FITZWATER: Yes, because, essentially, he pointed out that the story was wrong, that the facts as described were not what happened, and there's an unwritten rule of journalism that you don't criticize other publications, and you especially don't take on The New York Times, which is, after all, the biggest and perhaps most powerful newspaper in America. And for anybody, a reporter or otherwise, to challenge a Times story shows a lot of courage and a lot of ability to overcome peer pressure.
LAMB: You write that Mary Tillotson of CNN left your office one day crying.
FITZWATER: Well, that followed an incident at Kennebunkport which was during the campaign and following the revelations of President Clinton's involvement with Jennifer Flowers. There was a charge that President Bush had been involved with someone at a prior point in his life. There was no evidence of it. The story was printed as a footnote in some obscure book and then was picked up by the New York Post. And Mary Tillotson, representing CNN, asked the President about it at a press conference that he was having with Prime Minister Rabin of Israel. And the President's family was there -- Mrs. Bush, the grandchildren, and so forth.
LAMB: Were they all right there listening to their husband?
FITZWATER: They were all right there listening to the press conference. And it's funny how kids understand this kind of personal challenge. I mean, the grandkids started crying almost immediately. Mrs. Bush led them away in tears. The President, of course, said it's a lie. There's nothing to it, and it was responded to. But afterwards, Mary came to me because she said she heard that I was very mad about her asking the question. And I said, "Yes, because I think reporters have a personal responsibility to consider the veracity of their question and their information that it's based on before they ask it. And in this age where we have this huge revolution in television technology, and we have 500 cable channels now, and we have tabloid journalists ringing up every day, and computer Internet operations of every kind, every piece of information, no matter how scandalous, is going to be in the public domain -- and it always will be. And so I think there requires a new and higher degree of responsibility by independent journalists to say, I'm not going to use that story unless I think it's true.'"
LAMB: You quote Mary Tillotson as saying to you that time you met after this was all over, "If it wasn't me, it would have been somebody else. My office expected me to do it."
FITZWATER: Yeah. Well, she's probably right. Her editors probably did expect her to do it, and she's probably true that if she hadn't, somebody else would. My response was, "Well, so, that may be, but you did it." And I believe every reporter has to be responsible for their own work and their own conscience.
LAMB: "At that moment I hated the press corps for being so cowardly."
FITZWATER: For not being able to stand up and say, "This is not true." You know, "We are not going to engage in this tabloid story. We're not going to try to further it and legitimatize it."
LAMB: You also describe Mary Tillotson -- and I want to ask you just -- how you went about doing this. You say, "She has a square jaw; round, otherwise small features; black hair; and a small mouth that always gave me the impression of a magpie sitting on a telephone wire."
FITZWATER: Yeah. Well, Mary would stand right in front of me and just chatter, chatter, chatter and ask questions right after another, and you just wouldn't stop, and finally I said, "Mary, I've told you everything I possibly know. You've exhausted every ounce of knowledge." And she would turn away talking, and walk away, and she just always reminded me of those magpies on a telephone wire who couldn't stop asking questions.
LAMB: Reporters in this town sensitive at all about how you're describing them in this book?
FITZWATER: Well, I think they are. There're two aspects to this. One is I think reporters in this town know that I like them, and that I don't mean to be mean about this. On the other hand, I think these episodes are important to write about and to let the people know how the media works. And so that's why I say my interest was the episode involved and the reporters were kind of secondary in terms of their individual personality.
LAMB: What's this about a rumor that they tried to -- when the galleys came out, they tried to get you to change some of this stuff?
FITZWATER: Well, there were a few criticisms, and I made a few changes on that basis.
LAMB: What were they upset about?
FITZWATER: Well, mostly just characterization.
LAMB: Anybody you can tell us about?
FITZWATER: Well, I guess I'd rather not. I'd get back into the same trouble I started to avoid. But it's interesting. The other great phenomenon of journalism in the last 10 years, in addition to technology and what that's done to availability of information, is celebrity, and White House reporters today are almost all celebrities. A good many of them have agents; they give speeches; they make money on appearances; they appear on talk shows of every kind. We now have talk shows almost devoted entirely to the media, and introspection, and so forth. And as that celebrity grows, the reporters are opening themselves up to more criticism -- call-in shows, for example. People will call in to reporters and say, "Why do you write that dumb stuff?" And so they're starting to get used to the idea that they're going to be criticized for their work. I think that's probably healthy. It might take about 40 years before it's accepted part of their lives, but with celebrity, will go second-guessing and descriptions and so forth.
LAMB: You write about a night in the campaign that George Bush went on "Larry King," and I want to quote this. "I couldn't believe Larry King would set us up, but it happened." What did he do to set you up?
FITZWATER: Well, it was late in the campaign, and the independent counsel had charged or filed a new indictment on Caspar Weinberger and in that indictment had suggested again that President Bush had some kind of involvement in Iran-Contra. I firmly believed then and believe now that the independent counsel was trying to influence the elections. I think he did influence the elections. And immediately after the elections were over, that part of the indictment was dropped. Nevertheless, our only chance to respond -- this was just a few days before the election with "Larry King Live Show" that night -- and when we went on, Larry took a call from George Stephanopoulos, who challenged the President, in effect called the President a liar on television. And, as I found out very soon after that, it had been -- if not arranged -- well, it was arranged by Larry's producer at the time. And so the whole thing was a set-up. And that was very discouraging.
LAMB: Was that normal for that program?
FITZWATER: No, I don't think it is. That producer is now gone, by the way, and was gone soon after that.
LAMB: Tammy Haddat?
FITZWATER: Yeah. She left the show soon after that. But I don't think it is normal, and I have a very high regard for Larry King. I think he has a great show.
LAMB: What did President Bush say after the program was over?
FITZWATER: Well, I think he was so shocked by the independent counsel revelations and them trying to influence the election with these indictments that the television was of minimal interest to him, although he was upset about George's calling in.
LAMB: Has President Bush or President Reagan seen your book?
FITZWATER: President and Mrs. Bush have read the book. They both said they liked it, although President Bush disagrees with my conclusion that he was still suffering after effects of his heart fibrillation and thyroid problem as late as the heart of the campaign, really -- July and August of '92.
LAMB: You tell that story. Where were you the night that he had the heart fibrillation problem?
FITZWATER: Well, originally, I was at the Gold Cup, which is a steeplechase race outside of Washington, and it's a great Sunday afternoon, a bright sun, and big bonnets, and guys like me pretending we're horsemen and wearing tweed jackets, and all of that business, and drinking a lot of beer as each race progresses. And when I got the message that the President had stumbled at Camp David and was being examined for a heart problem on my beeper, then I had to race back to Washington by car, and we went through the whole process then of the President coming to the hospital and my having to go on television that night to explain his condition. But by the time I went on television that night, I'd been through enough beers to accommodate several steeplechase riders -- so it was quite an experience.
LAMB: What's your general philosophy about how to deal with emergency health problems like that?
FITZWATER: Well, my general philosophy is make it all public and available as soon as possible because the worst thing that can ever happen is if later it's found out that you tried to hide some illness, then you'll never again have any credibility on the matter. And it's not quite so important now, but during the Cold War years, there was always this kind of feeling that the nuclear bombs would be here in 20 minutes, and if a President got sick or passed out or had a cold or was in anyway incapacitated and couldn't get to that nuclear button in the next half hour, the whole world was going to collapse.

And so it put a great kind of premium on health, and Presidents never liked to admit that they were sick, and our history, of course, is full of Presidents who denied their illnesses for political reasons, simply because people might not vote for a sick President, whether it was FDR or Eisenhower's heart attack in Colorado, which they hid for almost a year, John Kennedy's back ailments and the drugs he took. And so President Reagan, he had two or three forms of cancer -- cancer in the colon and skin cancer, and President Bush had this thyroid condition, and it always strikes extraordinary fear in staff people because you don't know what's going to happen. You don't want to lose a political advantage.
LAMB: You've had your own bout with skin cancer, haven't you?
FITZWATER: I've had skin cancer for 25 years, and it grows out of exposure on the farm when I was growing up, cutting cornfields out of wheat and the kafir corn, and I would peel all the time, and there's about a 15, 20-year latency on skin cancer -- often, anyway. So by the time I was probably 30, it was beginning to show up.
LAMB: How many hats do you own?
FITZWATER: I own about a hundred hats. I started wearing them on doctor's orders, and then I just kind of liked them, and now I feel naked without them.
LAMB: In your book, in every chapter, is this little graphic -- which we'll show you in just a second -- what is it? Right here.
FITZWATER: Well, the camera photographers who have got their shoulder cameras at the ready there are going to catch whatever incident they're aimed at.
LAMB: What's the shape, though, of that graphic?
FITZWATER: The shape of the graphic?
LAMB: I'm trying to figure out whether or not it means anything.
FITZWATER: I don't think so. If it does, it is beyond me.
LAMB: Because you have this ...
FITZWATER: I hope not. I hope there's not some subliminal message there that I missed.
LAMB: What was the difference between working for Ronald Reagan and working for George Bush?
FITZWATER: Mainly the difference is just the two men's character, that they're both men of extraordinary dignity and kindness in the way they dealt with staff and the way they conducted their business. Both a pleasure to work for in that sense. But Ronald Reagan liked his briefing materials in writing -- on paper -- and every decision would go to him with an explanation and with options, one, two, three, four. Pick the one you want. He'd come in the next morning, said, "I pick option three" and that was it. The result was for a Press Secretary that I could be with President Reagan maybe 20 percent of the day and know 80 percent of what he knew by reading all of his briefing papers. I would know what he considered, what the options were, what he chose, and usually why.

And so it was a very effective way for a Press Secretary to stay on top of what the President was doing. With President Bush, he liked to have oral presentations, and he'd have people come in and talk to him about what the options were, and he often would decide on the scene. "OK, let's do this. Let's do that." And so I would have to spend 80 or 90 percent of my day with the President to get really the same amount of knowledge that I could get by reading briefing papers under President Reagan. So they had a totally different way of doing business that caused me to do business in a different way also.
LAMB: Who was the most interested in the day-to-day press?
FITZWATER: Well, President Bush was the most interested. I mean, he was really a news junkie. I mean, he would read all the papers before I ever got in in the morning. I'd check with him about 7:15 in the morning. He'd say, "Did you see this Times story? Did you see this Wall Street Journal piece?" I'd say, "Mr. President, I haven't seen anything. I've been on the road driving in all morning." And he'd been up since 5:30, reading the papers. At night, he had four television sets in his study in the private quarters of the residence, and often he would invite me up there, and we'd watch all the newscasts simultaneously or staggered, if they were. And he would compare the newscasts from each correspondent and each network.
LAMB: What was the difference in the way they prepared for their press conferences and how many total press conferences did Ronald Reagan have?
FITZWATER: The President, he had 48 in eight years.
LAMB: And how many did George Bush have?
FITZWATER: He had 280 in four years.
LAMB: And how did President Reagan prepare for his press conferences?
FITZWATER: Well, President Reagan viewed the press conferences as a very formal opportunity, and one that he was good at. I mean, it accentuated his talents, his experience as an actor. I mean, he had the presence. He had the aura of the Presidency about him, and he liked to study his questions and, in effect, script them out for himself. I would say President Reagan really memorized the answers to various problems and issues that you could identify were going to come up at a press conference and delivered them almost like he was an actor. And he had the ability to do that in a way that people loved and appreciated and felt really warm about.

President Bush, on the other hand, didn't like that kind of formality and eschewed the big East Room evening press conferences. He only did really two, one in the beginning of his administration and one at the end, and he just did those to show he could it. Most of the rest were held in the briefing room or in more informal settings, in the Rose Garden or on the driveway or something. And he didn't have very much preparation at all. He was very much a student of the Presidency. He stayed on top of all the issues all the time.

And about every two weeks, he'd say, "Marlin, what are those reporters yelling at me about?" I'd say, "Oh, Helen's crazy down there. She's got it in her mind that we don't know what we're doing on this issue or that issue." And he'd say, "Well, let's go do it. Let's go talk to them." And I'd say, "Well, fine. When?" He'd say, "Well, right now." I'd say, "Well, I can't do it right now. Give me a half an hour." He'd say, "OK, in a half an hour." And we'd go call a press conference, and he'd go down to the briefing room and spend a half an hour explaining an issue.
LAMB: Which one had it right, in your opinion, President Reagan or President Bush?
FITZWATER: I think they both had it right for themselves, and they both couldn't do it the way the other did it. President Bush did not have the background, the training, the confidence in scripts, and the presence to do the big East Room press conferences. And President Reagan didn't have the kind of intellectual capacity -- not capacity, but intellectual curiosity -- that allowed him to want to get into all these issues and answer every reporter's question on every issue, and therefore, he didn't like to do, and really could not have done, the more spontaneous things.
LAMB: Page 178, quote, "I never trusted Sununu again."
FITZWATER: Well, that was during the episode where Sununu was accused of using government aircraft for private purposes ...
LAMB: Seventy-some trips.
FITZWATER: Seventy-some trips -- and we went through about a six-month internal investigation and at the end, concluded that they were all justified in one way or another. But in the process of doing that, of going through that long, tortuous, period of justifying all of these trips, Sununu had lost a lot of confidence with colleagues and others on Capitol Hill and so forth. And an instance came up where the Washington Post came to me and said, "We have evidence that Mrs. Sununu had arranged a trip for the President -- I mean, for Governor Sununu," and he told me, "No, absolutely not."

And the thing a Press Secretary has to worry about more than any other is ever misleading or lying to the press corps because it not only destroys the Press Secretary's reputation but it destroys the President's because the press will take it right to the President. They'll say if the Press Secretary lies, so does the President. And I was nervous about a flat denial on this because so many revelations had come out, and so I told the press that John Sununu said it was not true. Well, of course, the next day The Washington Post had it documented, and it was true. And at that point, because Sununu had obviously lied to me about that episode, I was leery of him for thereafter.
LAMB: You write, "Imagine an overweight Kermit the Frog walking head down with his hands in his pockets." Are you talking about Mr. Sununu?
FITZWATER: Well, I wanted to give the people in Iowa a good picture of what this gentleman looks like. I think that's quite ...
LAMB: You say, "He is a nerd and nurtures his reputation for brilliance."
FITZWATER: Yes. He loved it. He was always doing these computer games, and he carried little computer boards with him, and he would enter contests sometimes and often win them -- that would be mathematical puzzles of one kind or another.
LAMB: You say, "So it was John Sununu as he offended one person after another in Washington with his bellicose personality and belligerent meetings."
FITZWATER: Yes. There were always episodes of him blowing up with a member of Congress or somebody. He and Newt Gingrich would get into horrible fights, shouting, and screaming, and so forth, and Gingrich would not speak to him for two or three weeks, and so it became a kind of part of his persona, which I would suspect that he was kind of privately proud of, but I don't know that.
LAMB: I'm going to quote a series of comments here. You write, "`Hello, Mrs. Reagan,' I said meekly," -- meaning you -- "`Hello, Marlin,' she said. What can I do for you?' I said. Well, Marlin, you know those stories about Don Regan?' she said. Yes,' I replied. Well, you should just stay out of them,' she said. Yes, ma'am,' I said. Good-bye, Marlin,' she said." What's that all about?
FITZWATER: Well, when I first became Press Secretary to President Reagan in -- the full Press Secretary, after Larry Speaks left -- in 1987, Don Regan had hired me, and I worked for him at Treasury also, and I thought very highly of him, and liked him a great deal. And when I first got in the job, there were all of these stories appearing about how he was hurting the President, and Regan was in trouble with the first family, and I went to the President, and the President said, "No," he said. "Don Regan and I have talked about these stories. There's no problem."

And so I defended Mr. Regan in the press, and there were some stories that appeared that had Marlin Fitzwater saying there was nothing to these stories, and Don Regan was doing a good job. So Mrs. Reagan called me with this colloquy. Then it was clear that indeed she was involved in telling these reporters that there was a problem, and that Don Regan was going to be leaving.
LAMB: There's a little Journalism 101 on page 169, and I wrote down, "Mrs. Reagan, Paul Laxalt, Stewart Spencer, and Lou Cannon."
FITZWATER: Yes. Well, that's kind of how the game worked is that Mrs. Regan would tell Paul Laxalt, who is known by everybody to be a close friend of the family's ...
LAMB: Who was he then? I mean, I know he's not ...
FITZWATER: He's a former Senator who I think even then was -- had left the Senate and was working in Washington as an attorney with a law firm here in town. But still a widely known friend of the President's.
LAMB: So Mrs. Reagan called Paul Laxalt.
FITZWATER: And would let him know that there were problems, or they wanted to make changes, or just to talk about what was going on in the Presidency with a couple of his close advisers.
LAMB: Would she say things like, "Don Regan should go'?
FITZWATER: Well, I don't know. I'm not privy to all those conversations, but there was a process whereby -- and I think that works with every President. Every President has friends that become kind of their private confidantes, or their family's confidantes, that talk about this -- so-and-so's hurting the President, or so-and-so's not helping the President. And that's usually the way these things start.
LAMB: Mrs. Reagan to Paul Laxalt; Paul Laxalt to Stewart Spencer. Who is Stewart Spencer?
FITZWATER: He's a political consultant in California who helped engineer many of the Reagan victories over the years and also remained close to the Reagans then and now.
LAMB: And then Stewart Spencer to ...
FITZWATER: To Lou Cannon, who was a Washington Post reporter who covered President Reagan and had in California -- knew all of the people close to the party, and in that kind of amorphous way -- I mean, it's hard to quote words but in that kind of amorphous way, Lou Cannon gets the story, which appears in the Washington Post, that says, "The Reagans are known to be dissatisfied with the Chief of Staff's performance, and his days may be numbered." When the Chief of Staff sees those stories, he knows that process, too. He knows basically where they come from.
LAMB: Was Mrs. Reagan really that abrupt -- "Good-bye, Marlin"? I mean, she just ...
FITZWATER: Yes, although she was very kind and gentle about it. It reads a little more abrupt than it sounded, but it was clear that she called with the express purpose of letting me know that these were not inadvertent stories, and there was a purpose behind them.
LAMB: And did you give a copy of your book to Mrs. Reagan?
FITZWATER: Yes, I have sent her one.
LAMB: Have you talked to her about this?
FITZWATER: I haven't talked to her about the episode, no.
LAMB: Have you talked to her about the book?
FITZWATER: Not since it's come out, but I've talked to her beforehand.
LAMB: What do you think they will think of the book?
FITZWATER: Well, I think they'll like the book because one of the purposes of my book was to point out the importance of the Reagan Presidency; the role of the President in ending the Cold War; and in the fact that Ronald Reagan was a dreamer and a romantic in ways that people didn't often recognize; and in so, was able to give a new direction to America that people never understood at the time. So I hope they find it good in terms of portraying his place in history.
LAMB: In and around your story about Don Regan and what we just talked about is the following line: "The Chief of Staff was crying. His face was red, his eyes swollen, in a wild combination of anger and sorrow. No one spoke."
FITZWATER: Well, I worked for ...
LAMB: Don Regan crying.
FITZWATER: I worked for seven chiefs of staff, and I saw three of them forced out, and ...
LAMB: How many of them cried?
FITZWATER: Three out of the seven -- all three who were forced out. And I tell the story to show the enormous pressures that are on a Chief of Staff and that operate in a White House, and that men who have been successful in many avenues of life, and so forth, and have risen to this great peak of power when faced with this kind of personal humiliation of, in effect, being forced out are subject to the same emotions as everybody else. And they seldom see it coming. They often think they can defeat it, and they can't, and yet it happens. And here we had -- it happened to three Chiefs of Staff who had been enormously successful, strong, powerful men.
LAMB: Don Regan, ex-Marine.
FITZWATER: Don Regan, ex-Marine.
LAMB: Or, as they would say, former Marine.
FITZWATER: Right, yeah.
LAMB: You saw Sam Skinner cry.
FITZWATER: Yeah.
LAMB: And what was the story with him?
FITZWATER: Well, when I say "tears," I don't mean like sitting in your living room totally broken down. Often these were tears of anger. But these are men who had to face the fact that a Chief of Staff is still just a hired foreman, and when it goes wrong, somebody pays the price, and it's not going to be the President.
LAMB: Who fired Don Regan?
FITZWATER: Well, that's the other kind of -- these things never happen that directly -- or seldom happen that directly. For example, Don Regan had gone to the President earlier, a month or two earlier, and said, "I think it's probably time for me to leave" -- this was the time Iran-Contra was breaking -- and the President had agreed. So they had talked about his leaving. But then the Chief of Staff said, "But I'd like to wait until the Tower Board comes out and clears me, and so I can leave with a clear conscience and a good name" -- and so forth. And President Reagan said, "Fine."

And that's what Don Regan really was resentful of, that he didn't get a chance to play out that scenario. And I think President Reagan probably wanted him to, but events took over, and the public pressure through the media and the others were building to replace Don Regan, and so he never got the chance really to wait and give his side of the Iran-Contra story out. And he felt he'd been treated badly because he saw it on CNN that he was going to be replaced.
LAMB: You say that when you read President Reagan's press release or the letter that he was going to send back to Don Regan when he was gone -- the words, "I look at this with deep regret" -- and President Reagan calmly said to you, "Leave the deep' out'?
FITZWATER: Yes. He waited until I finished the entire letter accepting the Chief of Staff's resignation, and he said, "I would only add one change: Leave out the word deep.'"
LAMB: Do you think President Reagan knew what his wife had done?
FITZWATER: I'm not sure he recognized all the maneuvering that had gone on, but I think, yes, basically.
LAMB: Do you think he told her to do it?
FITZWATER: No, but I think he understood -- I'm sure that they'd had conversations about the Chief of Staff and his impact on the Presidency, and the impact on the Reagans. And, you see, Mrs. Reagan had served in this capacity, in essence, in other ways as it relates to staff. She was very protective of the President and, for example, as I write this story, I write it with Mrs. Reagan having very noble purposes. I mean, her purpose was to protect the Presidency as she saw i -- to protect Ronald Reagan personally and to protect her husband. As she saw it, he was not being well-served by Don Regan. And there were other times in the President's career where Mrs. Reagan had been involved in, if not guiding people out the door, at least making sure the President understood that not all these people were as helpful as he might have thought.
LAMB: There was an incident in the Oval Office with Jack Kemp and Jim Baker. When was that?
FITZWATER: Well, I thought it was pretty funny, actually, at the time because -- well, first of all, that incident shows that there are often heated debates in government, in the Oval Office, in cabinet rooms, between members, and I think that's usually pretty healthy. And in this case, there'd been a very strong debate in the cabinet meeting about foreign policy and about whether or not we would recognize Lithuania, which at the time was seeking recognition of its independence by the United States. Our policy at the time was to not grant the independence -- we were trying to balance competing interests with Gorbachev and hold the Soviet Union together while the reforms were taking place and so forth. Jack made his arguments and, of course, there's always some consternation by cabinet officers when another cabinet officer wants to get involved in their affairs, and that's really what this was about. So that Jim Baker, the Secretary of State, and Jack Kemp, as Housing and Urban Development, ended up in the Oval Office because Jack was going with the President on a trip and Kemp again made his argument about Lithuania, and Secretary Baker gave him a curse and walked out the door and left.
LAMB: He used the language that I have here on page 351, "He used a four-lettered word that begins with f-u Kemp." Is that the way that men talked behind closed doors?
FITZWATER: Well, occasionally, not very often -- which is why it's so extraordinary. It doesn't really happen very often. And it was a strange setting also because Jack, the old football player, was across the room of the Oval Office, and he had to sidestep about three coffee tables to get out the door and to catch up with Secretary Baker. And when he did, they had a few words. They didn't come to fisticuffs or anything like that, but they had a few words in the outside hallway and then General Scowcroft, who was also in the room at the time, of course, overheard all this, and President Bush says, "General, I think you might want to go get my Housing Secretary. We're about to leave." And so General Scowcroft retrieved him, and they went off to the housing ceremony. That was the end of it.
LAMB: In talking about Dan Quayle and whether or not he should be dumped from the ticket, you quote President Bush as saying, "I could take Kemp. Can you imagine how out of control he would be?"
FITZWATER: Yeah.
LAMB: What do you mean?
FITZWATER: Well, I think it's one of Jack's flaws -- and it always seemed strange for me that a fellow who came out of professional football, a kind of team sport, was never perceived as a team player. And there was always this kind of feeling of, "Will Jack really be with us on this sort of thing?" And, of course, loyalty President Bush saw as a very strong quality for especially the Vice President because he had been a Vice President to President Reagan, and he had been loyal all the way to the point of being criticized for it. I mean, people called President Bush a wimp basically because he was loyal to Ronald Reagan and would not be disloyal in any fashion, so he put a high premium on that, and Jack didn't really measure up to that standard.
LAMB: You say here, "Jack always had a sort of a class-clown habit of smirking or rolling his eyes when others, including the President, said things he didn't agree with."
FITZWATER: Yeah. It was just a personal habit, and I don't know quite why he did it, but it wasn't always the best way to engender warm feelings around the table.
LAMB: There's a couple odds and ends. You said that, "Invariably, the Kemp position opposing the President would appear in an Evans & Novak column within a few days." What did you mean by that?
FITZWATER: Well, that was another problem with -- of course, Jack was a very strong conservative voice, and still is, in Washington and in politics. And he was a great Cabinet officer. He was a great Housing and Urban Development Secretary that everybody appreciated, they liked his work, they liked the things he had done with enterprise zones, and the leadership he had shown after the Los Angeles riots. But, on the other hand, he was a very strong ideological advocate of conservative positions, and Jack had a tendency of leaking all of his ideas to Evans and Novak. And so if there was ever in a meeting, for example, where Jack was rejected for some fashion, you just knew as sure as night follows day that Evans and Novak would have a column about it within two days, saying what a great job Jack Kemp was doing, and that stupid Bush White House was rejecting him at every turn.
LAMB: Another odds and ends question. "Predictably, of course, George Will said on the Sunday Brinkley show that it was unprecedented for a government spokesman to be this political." What do you mean "predictably, of course'?
FITZWATER: Well, because there had been an episode when President Bush was Vice President in which a column was written that referred to the President as a lap dog -- or to Vice President Bush as a lap dog. Again, for the same reason: because he would not differentiate his position from President Reagan in any fashion, and so from that point on, there had always been hostility between the columnists and the President, and I frankly was surprised a little that he chose to lash out at me, but nevertheless it was predictable that he would accuse me of being a political animal.
LAMB: You make this statement, "The Clinton campaign had been so arrogant, so dishonest, and so filled with scandals about philandering and draft-dodging that I just didn't believe that in the privacy of the voting booth, people would vote for Bill Clinton."
FITZWATER: Right, yeah.
LAMB: You really think that they were that dishonest?
FITZWATER: Well, I don't know that they were -- what I wanted to show in this book was at the time, I thought they were. You know, when you're in the midst of a campaign, and you're fighting another group of people, and you're arguing back and forth, and it just seemed to me that there were so many falsehoods coming out, and things that they were saying about us -- they probably felt the same way about our campaign. But to me, I thought there had been so many flip-flops on issues, and explanations that were said and taken back, and so forth, I just couldn't believe that people were going to forgive that.
LAMB: You talk ...
FITZWATER: And I was wrong. I was wrong. They did forgive that.
LAMB: You write earlier, before the announcement was going to be made about the campaign team and all that, and there's a whole scenario here about Bob Mosbacher calling immediately to say that his name should be mentioned first in the list, and then Bob Teeter called later and wanted his name mentioned first, and all. How much of that ego infighting kind of thing did you see?
FITZWATER: Well, there was quite a bit of that going on, and I think part of it was a function of having been in office for 12 years, and I suspect that's a problem that every incumbent President has to deal with. I would be surprised if President Clinton doesn't have to deal with that problem in this campaign. And the reason is that people around the President get certain status and certain stature in the course of a President's life or term of office. And egos get involved, and one person thinks he's closer to the President than another, and people fight over their role in the campaign, and you tend to lose that kind of challenge or sense of one-for-all-and-all-for-one, and it doesn't matter who gets the perks and so forth. We're going to win this election. And you get into an incumbent situation where people have developed these kinds of egos. People start looking at turf and how're they going to be perceived, and who gets the credit, and it's a pretty sad situation for a candidate to find.
LAMB: If you go to the National Portrait Gallery and look at the Time magazine covers of men and man and persons of the year, in the political section, there's one of President Bush with two faces.
FITZWATER: Right.
LAMB: You write about that.
FITZWATER: Yes. I write about it because the President -- the press holds a Press Secretary and a President to some pretty high standards, I think. And I think it's good that they do. I mean, I firmly believe we should not try to lower press standards -- rather, we should raise standards for the Presidency and the people who're in it. But by the same token, I think the press have to understand they can be held to some high standards also, and they don't always tell the truth. And one of the cases where they didn't tell the truth to me was on the Man of the Year cover for Time magazine, because they wanted an interview with the President. They knew damn well we wouldn't grant one with the President if we knew that this was going to be a mocking cover that showed him to be a two-faced politician -- which is what they had in mind. And so I was really resentful of the idea that we were duped into granting an interview and granting a photo session which was used for those purposes.
LAMB: How'd they do it?
FITZWATER: They lied. They told me ...
LAMB: I mean, how did they set it up so that when we -- you talk in here about how something was strange about the photo session.
FITZWATER: Well, yes. They brought in a photographer from New York who was well-known for class photography and fashion photography and so forth, but not a news photographer.
LAMB: Do you remember the name?
FITZWATER: I don't -- it's in the book, but I -- frankly, I don't remember it at the moment. And ...
LAMB: It's Gregory Heisler.
FITZWATER: Gregory Heisler -- yes. And he had these shots all set up in the morning, and he had marked on the floors diagrams of exactly where the camera was going to be, exactly where he wanted the President, exactly what angle his face would be and his shoulders and so forth. And I looked at it, and I thought, "Well, that just means the guy is well-prepared and that he's a pro, and he knows what he's doing, and he's really got this planned out down to the last i' and t'," but then, when I saw the pictures being taken, I began to be suspicious because they wanted a profile of the President in one area, and then they asked him to turn and his face had to be just at the exact same height as it was in the other profile. And I began to suspect then that something was wrong.
LAMB: You quoted yourself as saying, "`Those bastards!' I screamed. They lied to me. This whole thing was a setup. Those dirty, rotten bastards.'"
FITZWATER: That's a fair and accurate ...
LAMB: Who did you scream at, to, or at?
FITZWATER: Just my staff. I never did those things in public, you know. I had a rule that in my office we could let go with all the frustrations and dealing with the press on a day-to-day basis -- I mean, 70 people yelling at you for one thing or another, and it's very close quarters, and the fact is that in the course of a day, a Press Secretary and his staff will come to hate the press, hate the President, hate each other. Mad, frustrated, whatever. And so I had a rule that anybody on my staff could come in my office at anytime, close the door, and scream any fool thing that came into their head because you had to have a release for it, a release for this pressure. And that's what happened in that case. I never said a word to Time magazine, I never said a word to the correspondents who covered us, or the editors, or anybody else because I felt that, professionally, you deal with reporters in a professional way.
LAMB: Well, you name two of the correspondents -- and we've seen a lot of them on this network.
FITZWATER: Yeah.
LAMB: Daniel Game, who is now the bureau chief, said -- you say, "He believed in an activist federal government, and Duffy" -- Michael Duffy -- "had concluded that our domestic policy was lacking."
FITZWATER: Yeah. Well, you see ...
LAMB: How did you know both of those?
FITZWATER: Well, because they had just written a book, ironically. They had written a book of their own about the Bush Presidency, and it had been published on the day we started the campaign. It was clearly a book that was going to take advantage of the campaign for sales and so forth. And it went through most of the issues that had appeared in Time magazine and that they had covered. But it also had an opinion. It was not a reporting job, as books are not. Books are opinion pieces and tell what you think, and it was pretty -- they made the supposition and conclusion that George Bush had been a good foreign policy President but a crummy domestic policy President. And that also turned out to be the general themes of the Man of the Year issue.
LAMB: You say, "The press can never be destroyed," and you also write that -- in here, you've got a scenario: the President's press conference on March 19th, and you say that -- let's see. "Ronald Reagan might actually wilt under the intense pressure of Sam Donaldson, turn in his six-guns, and stumble off stage in total humiliation, with Dan Rather intoning in the background about how" -- here's what I wanted to get at -- "how the great and righteous media arm of democracy had once again saved the country. What a cockamamy idea!"
FITZWATER: Well, the "cockamamy" part of the idea that a President is going to be so intimidated by the press or wilt under the pressure and walk out of the Presidency, or something like that. But it's also true that there was a kind of prevailing attitude of -- you know, the Iran-Contra situation, that this was another Watergate, and that reporters who had been through Watergate and had seen President Nixon humiliated and forced out of office -- often would talk about that in kind of wistful tones, and I'm sure there were times during Iran-Contra they thought that was going to happen to Ronald Reagan.
LAMB: Did you really sit at the desk of Dwight Eisenhower?
FITZWATER: Well, I claim I did anyway. I sat in the same room in the same schoolhouse as Dwight Eisenhower, and under my desk were his initials -- or at least "D.E." carved there, and I claim they're his initials. But I walked in Eisenhower's shoes in the sense of the same streets, the same small town, the same schoolyards when I was growing up in Abilene, Kansas, in the '50s.
LAMB: Two kids ...
FITZWATER: Two kids, 24 and 21, both just getting out of college at this point. One wants to go into -- my daughter Courtney wants to go into criminal justice, and my son Bradley wants to get involved in housing construction.
LAMB: Where'd you go to college?
FITZWATER: Kansas State University.
LAMB: When did you first come to Washington?
FITZWATER: Nineteen sixty-five. I graduated from college in '65, and I worked on a number of newspapers by then -- small-town papers -- and so forth, getting through college. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, so I just threw all my bags in my car and told mom and dad I'd be back to Kansas when I could afford to fly. It took three years to get rich enough to do it, but drove East.
LAMB: What are you doing now?
FITZWATER: I drove to Washington. I figured there're more journalists here per square inch than anyplace else in the world, and I tried to get on with the Washington Post, and the Washington Star, and Bureau of National Affairs, and newsletters, and I couldn't get hired at anyplace. They all said, "Go back to Kansas, kid, and get some experience."
LAMB: Actually, my question was ...
FITZWATER: Oh, I'm sorry.
LAMB: No, that's all right. The audience may have heard it: What are you doing now?
FITZWATER: Oh -- now?
LAMB: This minute -- yeah.
FITZWATER: Well, I'm starting a book tour, so I'm facing two or three months of meeting people around the country and trying to sell the book, and I'm building a house over on the Chesapeake Bay on the western shore, and come next year -- well, I don't know. There's a political campaign to get involved in, if that suits me, and if not, maybe write another book.
LAMB: What was the hardest thing about writing a book?
FITZWATER: The discipline of doing it every day. It took 18 months, and you've got to do it every day, a little bit at a time. For the first four months, I couldn't write a word, and I went to my publisher and said, "I can't do it. All I see is 400 blank pages, and I don't know 400 blank pages."
LAMB: Peter Austin.
FITZWATER: Peter Austin. Peter said, "Well, remember James Michener writes a thousand pages per book, but he only does it two pages a day." And once I got that mentally set in mind, then I could do it.
LAMB: Had you kept a diary?
FITZWATER: Not really. I tried several times, but I didn't have the discipline to do it. And then I'd heard about some advice Bill Safire of the New York Times gave somebody. He said, "Just take scraps of paper from events you want to remember, put the date on it, throw it in the bottom drawer, and collect them every six months or so, and when it's all over, they'll help you remember events." And I did that, and that was very helpful.
LAMB: If you did write another book, what would you write about?
FITZWATER: I think I want to do fiction next time and make it up.
LAMB: Anybody really mad at you for this book?
FITZWATER: I hope not. Well, there are reporters, I'm sure, who're not happy with every piece of it, and I've had a couple of reporters who've told me they're mad at me for a portrayal or a characterization in the book, but they'll get over it.
LAMB: Are you still talking to John Sununu?
FITZWATER: I haven't seen John recently, so I'm not sure he's very happy with me.
LAMB: What about Sam Skinner or Don Regan?
FITZWATER: No, I haven't seen them either. But they're all public figures. They've lived with criticisms and comments before. Nothing new in that sense.
LAMB: This is the cover of the book. It's called, "Call the Briefing!" Press Secretary to Ronald Reagan and George Bush, our guest Marlin Fitzwater. Thank you very much.
FITZWATER: Thank you.
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