Episode 40 – Ronald Reagan | PRESIDENTIAL podcast | The Washington Post

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including me or Nancy Reagan ever fully figured out Reagan told me that when he was in college and Eureka College then gone I think just for fun to this fortune-teller who Rieger anyway it’s fortune teller predicted to be president that’s Lou Cannon and I’m Lillian Cunningham with the Washington Post this is the 39th episode of presidential I shall resign the presidency effective that noon tomorrow first touch a recent president there is something kind of surprisingly mystical and mythical even about the way that Reagan’s Legacy lives on in America Coulter so for this episode we’re not going to spend too much time on the nuts and bolts of economic policy in the 1980s or what was going on in Afghanistan or the air traffic controller strike no we are going to focus instead on some of the myths and the narratives that have enveloped Reagan’s Legacy so politicians today invoked his name constantly as you’re sure to have heard many many times this election year so we are going to take a look at where the image of Reagan today lines up with or beers off from the reality of Ronald Reagan the man the president really was and with me here to help separate that fact from fiction is a reporter in a biographer who’s considered like the Altima Regan expert and that is Lou Cannon blue thank you so much for doing this for the Washington Post senior White House correspondent covering the Reagan president the time you covered his governorship you’ve written five books about him so you know to start off why do you think it is that today there’s so much Collective Nostalgia for Reagan couple of reasons for that one is I think people who want to talk back to a time when things seem better when presidents were respected in the actual time there was a very partisan but I think looking back at 8 but overall people saw him as a leader of the country the other reason is that the Republicans have not really had a successful two-term president since that George HW Bush might have been he was defeated in his reelection campaign and President George W Bush is still a very controversial figure primarily over the Iraq War so I think that the Republicans Reagan represent success open Republicans Democrats Independence include myself in that there’s a sort of a glow of a memory of a time when Americans were able to come together and get things done I don’t mean just backup more toward the beginning so I’d love to hear what you think we’re a couple of the most formative aspects of his childhood what to-use standout is assertive most to know about his upbringing in the Great American Midland in the center of the country in Dixon Illinois he considers his hometown and it was a time before map to the first world war when Americans collectively felt a great sense of isolation from the rest of the world but also a collective sense of being safe in the world and I think some of that is inside Reagan in his owns Pacific growing up however even though he is he would like to in later years represented as some of a as he put in his early biography of Huck Finn ideal it was a difficult childhood his father was a nomadic salesman shoe salesman mostly and he had a drinking problem they moved all around Illinois in all of his formative years so Ronald Reagan grew up he didn’t really have any companies friends when you’re moving from one school to another every year and he became happy I think in the company of himself I think that’s very important is form of this he also developed there was an outside doing Nancy Reagan call it the barrier it was a part of him that you just couldn’t get through to that he kept himself to himself so I’m in both the ways that that he was really a child in the country of the of the heartland of our country an inner directed person in many ways he said he loved the stage but he also liked he also liked his own company and I think the combination of that is is what that may be what it was believe this though it without mentioning his mother who is a decisive influence in his life she was a religious person but she was also had the Flair for the dramatic she would put on all these is that their Church which was the Disciples of Christ Kaufman call the Christian church and Ronald Reagan was in them from the time that he was 3 he always said he liked to stay there was a sort of a M&M and his mom is the reason for that forget when you think about Reagan as the conservative icon is the fact that he grew up in a family of Democrats and that he himself was a Democrat for a good chunk of his life right his parents were Democrats in a republican County but I think was somewhat more significant is the fact that this was the depth of the Great Depression when Ronald Reagan grew up and his father was put in charge of getting relief in the county and his brother also got a government job in the distribution of usually food Aid to needy people and so it was rosabell he gave a pretty good broomstick invitation was in Eureka cause he used to broomstick as a microphone and to do that peroration of of FDR’s that everybody in my day doing the only thing we have to fear is fear itself he could do that very well do a possible if they are imitation it’s an interesting thing about Reagan in the end I think it says something to his childhood he forgot his gratitude to FDR he never said a bad word you can search all the Reagan writings and speeches and you’ll never hear bad word for Franklin Roosevelt and then eventually he’s president on the Screen Actors Guild for five terms and I mean his acting career always comes up as one of the first things when you hear about the story of Reagan and his persona I think it was really a central to his skill as a politician is we tend to think that it was speak softly and wonder it went to speak to radically at all he did very well on television I think his gift was his voice and it played all the way into his later your politics because During the period after he was governor before he was elected president and that’s a six-year Gap he kept himself in touch with American people who thought that his insistence are doing the Saturday radio broadcast when he was president was a waste of time well guess what every president since has done it it’s a good way to reach a segment of the American people and the segment was of course much larger Reagan was an answer and we came to Hollywood absorb the culture of Hollywood without being changed by the directors like him because he memorized his lines he wasn’t temperamentally showed up on time then he got his break and I move call irakli All-American he often got good reviews in pictures that that was that were up and and and he connected with the American people this question that I I’ve asked on just about every episode is so you know humor me but what do you imagine it would be like to go on a blind date with Ronald Reagan go on dates with Ronald Reagan between the breakdown of his first marriage and they’re meeting Nancy Reagan I’ve actually talked to a couple of people who did they found Reagan lighthearted Charming very sociable and polite and good manners they like that dress 12 kind to and generous to his the person he was but also and this was after marriage that he thought was going to last forever a little bit remote not the rush into a commitment but he was he was Charming to be with her until 4 and then liked and he had a chance to him a self confidence did people like so you had mentioned you know that he could be difficult to know and I’ve I’ve heard that said of him before as well what exactly is meant by that I mean if he was warm and Charming I mean what’s what’s the part of him that that’s truck people is unknowable so the child of an alcoholic and if you are you even seen things that you don’t you don’t want to share and you put that somewhere in the back of your brain so you allow people to get so close but not closer Nancy Reagan told me you know Lou there are times when there’s a barrier there that I even I can’t get Beyond but this is not something that is is exclusive to Reagan lots of Great Men Who keep a part of themselves always to themselves the person who most readily comes to mind is Ronald Reagan’s first Idol Franklin D Roosevelt and FDR and and every one of them you find some passage by people who knew him that they didn’t know what he was thinking and I couldn’t there was some part of him that they could never penetrate I I think it’s her Nevada to the Mystique of both president it also can make frustrating to deal with but it’s a quality that usually replicated in other leaders until 1962 when Reagan was 51 years old that he officially switched his party affiliation from Democrat to being a Republican and a couple years later he gave a speech in support of Republican candidate Barry goal water which basically garnered regen a ton of attention in the sphere of national politics and here’s here’s a little clip from it mr. Reagan you and gravy Action Program regarding the choice that we I recently I’ve seen since Apollo another course make a list of peace and prosperity at Reagan ends up running for governor of California and is elected in 1966 he makes an unsuccessful presidential run in 1968 you know get the nomination he continues on his governor of California for a second term and then in 1976 he makes another run for president he tries to edged out President Gerald Ford for the Republican he comes a lot closer this time but still doesn’t quite get it turns out third time is the charm in 1980 all right did he make how did he make that transition from acting into politics and when did that interest in politics first actually really start to show itself during the Depression doing his father’s working and disbursing relief the other people when he was in Hollywood candidates even even more than they do now like to get Hollywood figures endorsing them showing up at their events in everything you never done in behalf of any Republican it was when he was a Democrat but I think that the real political training to political training grounds for Reagan and both served very well in different ways the 1st was the Screen Actors Guild I think I and all the other people who covered him in the governor’s race in 1966 made a mistake and just assuming that Reagan had no political experience River Hills office but the Screen Actors Guild in those days was it was just a great for him for all the issues in the land and they would get up and then yell and debate him and I’ve known people who were at some of those meetings where Reagan presided and they said he he did very well and the other training-ground was a more personal one he was hired by General Electric on the hot is Hollywood career was basically coming to an end and he toured all these plants do you was a very Progressive company run by a man named Ralph Corner whom Reagan admired Corner was the sort of apostille of decentralisation sand Reagan would go to Wally’s different plants and speak to the employees and speak to the middle level management and develop his speech and he had he had plenty of time to meet will make mistakes and learn how to give an effective political speech had a great read on his audience he’s he could tell her that something was going down or not he had a sense of the audience so that was a learning experience for him and at the same time trusting forward in a non partisan political way because he was the host of this show and this was a popular television program at the time that you know was put on by G-Eazy but Reagan was the host of it right SOG East theater was for many years the top-rated Sunday program Reagan had many years where he is speaking to the American people but is the host of a much watch the television show campaigns today I wanted to principal reasons that Donald Trump is the Republican nominee is that he was on shows which had it all audiences than the turnout in any of these Republican primaries so I think Reagan was a more he didn’t know anything about state issues but he was more formed as a politician than any of us realize or gave him credit for when he started out now I don’t think Reagan ever plan to be Governor he was always interested in federal issues but what happened in 1964 when when Barry Goldwater with the nominee but the Republicans are Republicans were kind of wiped out at all sorts of levels many prominent Republican standing after that election and a 1965 a group of people at Reagan new friends of his from the films are the most important was it was a car dealer named Holmes Tuttle there wasn’t a big business person in the whole lot of businessmen and there were intrapreneurs or small business been like like homes and they thought they could run against the democratic government you said that he wasn’t as interested in state issues so was his decision to run for governor then like a strategic decision does to help him toward the presidency linear quality to it became a stepping stone his daughter marine Reagan was in Washington at the time she’s trying to get her dad to run for governor and there’s a crazy you could be Governor dad and he he writes back mermaid that was her family nickname doctor today listen this year and he ran for president in 68 and 76 before the 1980 what you think he learns the most from those losses that ended up sort of shipping his 1980 campaign and helping him evolve National political stage when he ran in 68 did not have a high view of Richard Nixon’s prospects and some people that sold him the thought that Nixon would make it and so he sorta half ran in 68 and what he learned I can go into things to 68 and file state boss is particularly in the South who you can Dad said nice things to him but they were secretly committed so he was and I think that’s what Reagan really really learn from 76 was he developed the confidence in himself he’d also develop the network of people who were genuinely committed to him and I think he start at 9 80% Carter had not started in 1980 in a very strong position I think he learned you know from to failures he’s a great example at the first you don’t succeed try and I am well in terms of his campaign-style I read about how he at one point made kind of like a disparaging comment about the former California governor Pat and an ID center again you know that that kind of language was beneath him and like freaking really took that to heart and throughout all of his presidential campaigns you know didn’t really make personal attack jacks or better did and still respect the way he campaign he never insulted anyone refer to his opponent’s respectfully he thought that they were diluted or something but he never never question the Integrity of anyone but there was a higher standard I think in the 70s and the 80s generally there was a vicious campaign but I think the candidates generally showed more respect for the motives of their opponents then they do today when you consider the Arc of America election history what’s really most notable exception all about the 1980 campaign when he was president David S broader than great political correspondent for the Washington Post in my manager said that the 80 campaign was the most issue-oriented in the history of American pilot Reagan promised as he promised that he would lower taxes overall that he would erase the defense budget which he considered have been neglected and that he would either balance the budget or reduce the deficit which was a very small Promises at the expense of the Third call Warriors he wanted to raise the defense budget for a purpose at a time that the CIA had exaggerated estimates of Soviet capability and a lot of people Reagan’s simply from his own research didn’t believe it he thought that the Soviets couldn’t afford to be an arms race with us and they would come to the bargaining table the second Turner like some people believing is he could bargain from a position of strength he could force the Soviet Union to give up or reduce its nuclear and its Congressional military Arsenal so he had to go and of course he also had a historic of the ghost of a historical voice whispering in his ear during that campaign and that was FDR are you better off than you were four years ago ask Ronald Reagan after he was President 1934 he’s trying to get people to vote for Democrats or Congress and he says ask yourself if you’re better off now than you were when but Hoover was President so I think he had Botha purpose for becoming president which helps and it was a historical sweep that made him right for the moment Ronald Reagan decisively beep Jimmy Carter in the presidential action of 1980 and So Reagan comes into the White House in 1981 and on inauguration day he is the eve of his 70th birthday he was just still 69 and still that makes him the oldest person so far in American history to take on the presidency his vice president was George HW Bush and Reagan easily ended up to two terms in the white house which meant that his presidency spanned basically the entire decade of the 1980s there’s a ton that we could potentially talk about the takes place during ministration things like he appoints the first female Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor there’s the Invasion of Grenada and he was shocked and his would-be assassin actually just couple weeks ago was released from a psychiatric hospital so I’m going to put it on Lou you know what do you think are a couple things that you would draw attention to you as already use that Reagan said as he entered the White House and then I mean Beyond even specific policies themselves we talked about how FDR was kind of an early presidential icon for again so when he enters the White House what is his vision for the type of presidents that he wants to be do you have to sort of recreate the scene of 1980 we had record interest rates record inflation Americans held hostage in Iran and stories about him in the Washington Post but I think the Reagan did have the idea of what he wanted to be is President right which was to trust the people and to get the people to feel better about themselves again and he focused on economy everybody said that the economy was the most important thing Richard Nixon letter about this and James Baker Compton Chief of Staff said while we don’t we won’t be able to do anything until they focused on the economy they didn’t get it right not at first the supply-siders who believe that if you just cut taxes enough but that would accomplish everything it didn’t it didn’t it first produce produce they spiral into recession but I always thought the dragon in the recession was particularly strong was then the head of the Federal Reserve he was a Wall Street banker and Democrat Carter had appointed him and everyone said that Reagan gave him more support than Carter ever did and Reagan actually reappointed him and they broke the back of the recession in the traditional way by raising interest rates caused a lot of short-term harm but we haven’t had an inflationary problem really in this country since that it was the source of a lot of Reagan’s popularity and it did give him great Running Room to do what he did and I thought the most important thing that he did was forging an arm control treaty in the second term with Mikhail Gorbachev now last year but few miles from here where I live out of Vandenberg Russians were going out and inspecting American missile facilities and we were doing the same in Russia Arms Control treaty Reagan and Gorbachev sign in 1987 with Russia or we are still inspecting each other’s weapon systems and we’re a long way from the nuclear doomsday we seem to be Tracy when Reagan took office how much credit do you think that we should give Reagan for ending the Cold War word do you think we give him too much on the whole not enough is a leader in that I don’t think you did it all by himself but I don’t think Reagan cared one way or another about that once a Soviet Union was defang once they were not a menace to the world so yeah I think he deserves accolades for ending the Cold War and regular have been the very first by the way and it did say that he didn’t do it by himself and his last speech he gave credit for anything that he done today American people fairly humble guy and I see a lot of people who are in a bragging tone talk about themselves to be you talk a little bit about his management style as President we know the way that he interacted with staff and cabinet members how much he delegated versus how much he had his hands on things Reagan’s management style is kind of a key to the highs and the lows of his presidency did not believe in sitting down over the maps and determining from the terrain where the next what’s going to be the big picture guy and he also felt that staying in the office at all hours was kind of a ridiculous thing they wore you out working long hard hours many times and Reagan did but he didn’t have a conceptual idea of doing that and he also didn’t think the National Security advisor should be as important as his secretary of state and he believed in the cabinet system he was a delegator he believed in delegating Emily it is idea of magical style was to keep your eye on the ball and let the subordinates handle all the small stuff on a time on that aspect of his presidency and it was a payoff but he sure as heck didn’t pay attention to what is changing the security in all sorts of dealings with the contras the opposition force in Nicaragua and Reagan admired and Dexter and the colonel Oliver North on his staff took his a license to do a whole number things yeah and just deposit here for a second and remind listeners the Iran-Contra Affair was this kind of joint Scandal where the US secretly sold arms to Iran as part of an effort to help free American hostages were being held by Hezbollah and Lebanon and then on top of that profits from the secret arms sale ended up going to fund rebels in Nicaragua called kontras he were trying to topple the Nicaraguan government okay so so the common narrative Lou is that you know all of this was sort of able to happen and Reagan’s administration because he was detached he was oblivious is that the right read of him then his involvement in the Scandal or is this place where you know the kind of common story is different from the reality and it didn’t come from his managerial style it came from his Tennessee to put every issue in terms of human qualities and of protecting American citizens and he saw all these people who taken hostage in in Lebanon and he was persuaded that there was an Iranian group of moderates who could get these people freed and against the recommendations of both the Secretary of State Schultz and defense secretary Weinberger authorized these arms sales it was never a good idea to hit it violated the common sense and Reagan’s home policy and but he recovered from it eventually because he wasn’t doing it for corrupt purposes he was doing it because he was castrated by his inability to help these Americans there’s a misconception about Ronald Reagan and it probably helped spread it but he was passive and I think that misconception arises from the fact that they just sometimes be out to lunch and telling you an addict. That had nothing to do with the problem at hand or that he was common and generally imperturbable people were getting excited I used to think that Reagan got into his trouble the Iran-Contra being an example and the Lebanon experience where we lost up all those Marines in the bombing I used to think those came out of it in fact it was the opposite listen to Lebanon the first one was was relatively successful the second deployment occurred as Israel was cutting its losses and withdrawing from Lebanon after its Invasion through are these awful massacres friendship Atilla refugee camps in Lebanon where the Israeli Army stood by as these falangist groups in Lebanon massacred and he was really angry he felt that we needed to stop that and it was that I think that fueled second deployment in the Lebanon which ended so disastrously for Americans so I think if there’s a misconception about and it was that he was to detach sometimes it was the opposite sometimes he he care too much of Reagan as a conservative icon Hughes oh and optimistic leader inspirational in that way but what did you know practically mean in terms of how he worked his will you know how much she was willing to compromise how little was willing to compromise I’ve read you described him before as more of an idealist then an idealogue but you know what do you mean by that was a conservative if you’re going to compromise you have to compromise him some set of principles of all people should be pragmatic the idea in California really as Governor I think he probably had it in the Screen Actors Guild in order to get something done you were going to have to give some things away Reagan agreed in his early months and Sacramento to the largest tax increase in history California the largest tax increase in the history of any state with a deaf Baxter corporations in the insurance company’s but when he was president he did essentially some of that on Social Security the last Social Security reform we’ve had in this country was in the Reagan presidency and he got it and a bipartisan Alan Greenspan if you go through most of the legislation that signed during the Reagan years and notably the tax bill and a second term which is the last tax reform we’ve had in this country you can see many hands on it democratic as well as Republican was and on a narrow political level Reagan was smart enough to realize that when you when you did this it was a president always got the credit but more broadly more idealistically Reagan believed in this governance he Democrats had the majority in the house during the entire Reagan presidency he was always looking for ways to accomplish his goals and if he couldn’t accomplish his goals to accomplish part of your skull and I think that’s arguably the right way for a president to behave the Reagan I mean Megan said I’m leaving the White House something to the effect of that he didn’t know how anyone could do that job without being an actor you know could could do the job of the presidency without Indian actor and it reminded me of in our FDR episode this quote came up where FDR said to Orson Welles that the two of them were the greatest actors in America do you think that the like that the abyss need to act in to perform is actually a really fundamental skill for leaders and presidents to have the presidency is unique office in these different different roles in one of the roles it’s projected sense of leadership to the American people Orson Welles joking about where the two best actors Reagan and Gorbachev take it was at Geneva Gorbachev says we are both actors he is a good one and I found when I was doing my research that both Gorbachev and his wife had dramatic interest when they were starting to study in the Soviet Union was a people felt as they often do with celebrities that they knew him and that they had a bond with him and that was the radio experience and the acting and was an actor he could take criticism in his presidency much better than he could take criticism of he’s acting and it was his presidential Legacy what strikes who is something that maybe he tends to get too much credit for and then conversely something that you know you think he tends to get too little credit for as president Republican order so reducing regulations and restrictions on business so I gets his from the left to the removed too many restrictions on the environment actually if you look at the number of regulations they really piled up to every residency the most you can be said of Reagan is he slightly break their increased but if you just looked at the number of regulations without knowing who was pressed that you wouldn’t say that to eat. All that much I don’t think he gets enough credit on the big picture all the Soviet Union because the Soviet Union didn’t actually disintegrate and died on his watch and the Cold War technically didn’t end until George HW Bush’s watch but Reagan it put in motion all of the elements that cost at 2 I’m not sure he gets the credit that he deserves for restoring America’s pride in their own country Carl shirts in the 19th century said our country right or wrong it’s right to be kept right it’s wrong to be right I think that we’re going to have a sense of this he had to send some of the greatness of America it wasn’t vapid everything in it was okay he thought was part of the process job and keeping us on this High minded Road of American ideals if wrong to be made right we’re sort of lacking that today and Ronald Reagan in this country its it’s palpable you can feel it Ronald Reagan left the White House in 1989 and when he did he had the highest approval rating of any American president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s thanks to this week’s guests Lou Cannon music for this podcast is by Dave Buckner and you can find us on Twitter Instagram at presidential underscore WP next up next week Reagan’s Vice President George HW Bush takes over the American presidency
Lou Cannon, biographer and senior White House correspondent for The Washington Post during President Reagan’s administration, helps us separate the fact from fiction when it comes to who Ronald Reagan really was.

The Washington Post’s “Presidential” podcast explores how each former American president reached office, made decisions, handled crises and redefined the role of commander-in-chief. Hosted by Lillian Cunningham, the series features Pulitzer Prize-winning biographers like David McCullough and Washington Post journalists like Bob Woodward. This podcast is hosted and produced by Lillian Cunningham. Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/lily_cunningham.

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