Ronald Wilson Reagan, 40th president of the United States, died on Saturday at age 93 after a 10-year struggle with Alzheimer's Disease. Reagan, often called "the great communicator," led the country through the height of the Cold War, dramatically reshaping U.S.-Soviet relations.
Washington Post Foreign Editor David Hoffman, who covered the Reagan White House for The Post and wrote about Reagan's contribution to the end of the Cold War in Sunday's paper, Hastening an End to the Cold War, was online Sunday, June 6 at Noon ET, to discuss Reagan's life and legacy.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
I'm a little puzzled about the approach you took in your
piece on Reagan's global legacy, in particular, with respect to the Cold
War. You seem to start out vaguely towards the Foxnews-ish "Reagan's policies caused the collapse of the Soviet
Union and won the Cold War" where (as you kind of
mention) the evidence appears to be pretty weak (system
was rotten to the core before Gorbachev, as you note,
increasing inequity between Eastern and Western Europe,
U.S. policies go back to Truman, etc.) and you end up
having to qualify a lot of stuff. But you don't mention the
power of simply putting a charismatic face to the
American ideal... (an obvious and lasting impact in Eastern
Europe and elsewhere, seemed to have had a galvanizing
effect on pro-democratic elements in those countries,
etc). Essentially, what was behind your choice in focus for
David Hoffman: The Soviet Union imploded. It did so for mostly internal reasons, among them the huge burden of military expenditures. But the system did not live in isolation of the rest of the world; to the contrary, it was a global competition. And I believe Reagan, and the United States and the West generally, raised the ante. Perhaps you could say Reagan's era was the tipping point. He didn't create the conditions, and didn't cause the collapse. But he might have pushed it at a key moment. Also, I think the Westminster address, which I mentioned, is a good example of the charisma factor you mention. Indeed, I think words were Reagan's greatest weapon -- and more powerful than the Strategic Defense Initiative, which did not come to fruition in his lifetime.
I read your work when I lived in Washington in the 1980s. I have a general memory of you as a particularly skeptical observer of the Reagan White House. From your vantage point, does Reagan's performance look more impressive in retrospect than it did at the time? Or have your views been more static?
David Hoffman: A good question which is hard, even now, to answer. At the time, Reagan's budget deficits and Strategic Defense Initiative both looked terribly reckless. I wrote as much in a magazine article. In retrospect, the economic policies look better. The problem with SDI was that perhaps I was taking Reagan too literally. In the end, the mere threat of it, the mere prospect that it would be attempted, had an impact -- it was a symbol of the Industrial Revolution in high technology. We now know that the Soviet Union was hopelessly behind and that leaders felt they could not complete. So I would admit that estimations made back then were off the mark.
Did Reagan as president have much personal engagement with his White House press corps -- in other words, did he know the names and personal stories of the reporters, the way George W. Bush supposedly does? Or were they just faces in the crowd to him?
David Hoffman: I covered Reagan's 1980 campaign, and 1984, and the White House from '82 to '87, and spent countless hours on planes and in press conferences with Reagan, and yet I do not think he would put names and faces together but for a small group of people. There were a few, perhaps half a dozen reporters, that Reagan recognized, including my colleague Lou Cannon, and some from television and the wire services. The rest of us were faces. I don't say this regretfully; I don't ever recall feeling hostility from Reagan in the process of covering him. Once when I wrote a story that appeared on the front page, he came right into the White House press room to deny it. I don't think he knew the person who wrote it was sitting there in front of him, but he was exceedingly good natured about all this. By contrast, his successor, whom I also covered, retreated to Camp David early in his term with photos of all the reporters and tried to memorize names and faces. The senior Bush was very transactional this way, while Reagan saw us perhaps as a cloud. He respected the cloud, but didn't feel he needed to know every member.
In some of the earliest words of praise for the changes wrought by the Reagan Administration, it seems like some of the context for accomplishment by the Executive Branch (1981 onward) is getting blurred. Doesn't it take bipartisan majorities in the legislative branch of our Constitutional government and favorable NATO cooperation to achieve "victories" over evil empires? The world is changed by more than just presidential speech-making that turns the tide against our Cold War opponents and "tore down the Berlin Wall"...?
David Hoffman: I agree with this, but I also think a presidency must be judged on how it manages to build such support. Reagan did not have it when he started out -- Europeans were skeptical, Congress too.
And it is interesting, in the end Reagan and the nuclear freeze movement/skeptics in Europe, who had protested the 1983 deployment of missiles, wound up, by 1987, in exactly the same spot: the zero option, the elimination of an entire class of nuclear weapons. It had never happened before. The real question is: who is responsible for that outcome? Reagan speeches? The freeze movement and the demonstrations? The reluctant and worried allies?
They all did it.
David, did you ever get to interview Reagan one-on-one? What was your impression? And can you share any favorite memories from your White House press corps days?
David Hoffman: Never one-on-one, but several times with my colleague Lou Cannon. Impressions change over the years, but in general my sense was that with Reagan, the "Great Communicator" was on whether in a big speech or in an interview. He was who he was, and it was not complicated. You didn't get a different person in an interview.
I don't understand all this praise of Reagan. Wasn't he an economic disaster that sent budget deficits soaring? Wasn't his foreign policy unduly risky and we just managed to avoid a major conflict with the Soviet Union? Didn't he forever change the Republican party into an institution with no moral fiber and a willingness to say whatever it takes to win? I'm sorry, but I just have to get this off my chest: We will long pay for the "legacy" of Ronald Reagan.
David Hoffman: Seems like you have made up your mind, far be it from me to seek to change it.
I think his policy toward the Soviet Union was more risky than most people realize, and it was risky because of the paranoia and fear among the isolated old guard in Moscow. We now know that Andropov put out a search for signs Reagan was preparing for war. We ought to be grateful that Reagan changed that policy before risk turned to disaster. But it is abundantly clear to me that he did correctly identify what was wrong in the Soviet experiment by the early 1980s. That clarity was not widely apparent to others at the time.
Chapel Hill, N.C.:
Are we going to see a spate of efforts to rename public buildings and sites (maybe a state?) after Reagan soon?
David Hoffman: Well, in Washington today you can leave a Reagan building and fly from a Reagan airport. So I suppose it has already started, but it is hardly novel or unique to Reagan. We have a high school nearby named after Churchill, a highway named after Kennedy, an island named after Teddy Roosevelt.
Silver Spring, Md.:
You talk in your article about how Reagan shaped foreign policy. I know he helped to hasten the end of the Cold War, but are the effects of his policies still being felt today? Would you consider President Bush to be Reagan-istic in his policies?
David Hoffman: I see in Bush a striving to be Reagan-like in the sense of having a big vision, and eschewing small details. However, while both were true of Reagan, it must also be said he was not always a prisoner of his vision. He made important compromises and took pragmatic routes when necessary.
As for the legacy being felt today, yes -- the end of the Cold War produced a huge release from an enormous burden. It also re-ordered the world in a way we don't fully understand. We spent nearly half a century locked in a hair-trigger death dance with a big state that had a clear if flawed ideology. Now we are in a different world, a different competition, with groups that are neither states nor very clear. One thing I often wonder is what are the lessons of the Cold War that are still useful? What can we take from the long battle with Communism that would apply to the current battle with terrorism? When you look back at the fight against Communism, one thing that is striking is the degree to which we were carried on by our own values. One of the real challenges of the new era is going to be to maintain those values and not adopt those of our adversaries.
Now that Reagan is gone, do you think we'll learn any new details of events that transpired during his administration? Will any additional information be released, for instance, about Iran-Contra?
David Hoffman: Yes, I think there will be lots of new data, and should be. I think we do not know the whole story of Iran-contra despite the efforts of the Independent Counsel. I also think there's lots to be learned about how the Cold War ended. We don't know the full story yet.
I am disturbed at the regressive moves recently to hide presidential papers. While all of us must understand that certain things must remain confidential while governing is in progress, it is terribly unfortunate that more is not made public sooner after an administration passes into history. I would favor a seven year rule or something like that.
What do you think were Reagan's five greatest accomplishments and five greatest failures? Thank you.
David Hoffman: hmm --
-- restoring optimism to politics after watergate/vietnam
-- contributing to the end of the cold war
-- understanding the value of his words in causing change
-- he promised to balance budget, build up defense and cut taxes. he did two of them; this leaves open the question of the damage done by the deficits. in retrospect, was it worth it?
-- deep economic and social inequality did not register with him as it should have
-- SDI, as hardware. perhaps as software it worked
Owings Mills, Md.:
Many comparisons have been made between George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, but the key difference seems to be Reagan's appeal to a broad cross-section of Americans, and not just his core political base. Why could Reagan cross party lines -- "Reagan Democrats" were a unique occurrence in our political system -- while it is clear to Republicans and Democrats alike that George W. Bush has not been able to do so?
David Hoffman: I was overseas for much of the 1990s, but on my return it seemed to me American politics had become much more polarized than in Reagan's time, and I remember thinking then that it was getting polarized. Today, we've got what seems to me to be binary-choice politics: black and white, ones and zeros, either you are with me or against me. How did we get here?
The late Lee Atwater once told me that he went looking for those voters who were not naturally Reagan's people but might be. Where, I asked? He found them watching MTV, watching movies. He was not interested as much in the base as how to enlarge it. I suppose that today's consultants would say they have the same interest but we seem instead to be held in a binary-choice prison. I don't know the code to get out of it.
Los Angeles, Calif.:
Not to put you on the spot, but how would you grade Reagan as a president?
David Hoffman: You are putting me on the spot!
Presidents make history but are also a product of it. And there are two kinds: transforming and transactional. Reagan was a transforming president. He made history, and we know a lot about what he tried to do. What we know less of, and will be interested to learn, are the ways he was a product of the times. Left unfettered would he have taken us to new levels of risk and danger in the Cold War? Did the arrival of Gorbachev in his second term come just in time to end the whole madness? How and why did Reagan change?
Few discuss Washington's aid to Iraq in the 1980s in the Iran-Iraq war and the simultaneous aid to Iran for hostages (Iran-Contra scandal). What is Reagan's role in this dishonest and crooked affair?
David Hoffman: Oh, I beg to differ. We published huge amounts about it. And Walsh spent years investigating. I don't have time to recap it all, but I think the central issue of the Iran case was that Reagan let his worry for the hostages overwhelm his good judgement. He said he would never make deals with terrorists and he did.
Its 3 a.m. now, about 11 hours after the news of President Reagan's death. John Kerry's touching statement has been posted on his Web site, but George Bush's site has no mention at all of President Reagan or his passing. Your thoughts?
washingtonpost.com: Video: Bush Pays Tribute to Reagan, (AP, June 5)
David Hoffman: I have no idea.
It may appear unseemly to ask this before President Reagan is buried, but how do you see the politics of his death in this election year unfolding?
Will President Bush try to attach himself to the Reagan legacy, aligning his own war in Iraq and that on terrorism with President Reagan's successful confrontation with the Soviet Union?
Will Senator Kerry try to paint President Reagan's efforts on the global stage as far more successful than President Bush's? Arguing that America was safer after the Berlin Wall was torn down, unlike now?
Will any attempt to make political capital of his death simply backfire on those make them, given Reagan's iconic status?
David Hoffman: I suspect both will try, and that's a tribute to what Americans are thinking today about Reagan. Remember it wasn't always so -- Reagan was a tremendously controversial and sometimes divisive figure in American politics two decades ago. Many, many Americans felt disenfranchised and bewildered by some of his policies. We tend to forget how worried we were about nuclear war in the early 1980s, and how many people felt Reagan was ripping up the social safety net. Many of Reagan's policies look much better today than they did at the time they were implemented.
Do you think that the Reagan administration's interest in avoiding Congressional oversight and accountability in the Iran-Contra scandal has helped to provide a blueprint of sorts for similar evasive tactics by the current Bush administration? A piece by William Arkin in the Los Angeles Times today would certainly lend support for such a view.
David Hoffman: I think the blueprint was set long before, and continues. For this, I can only say I wish Congress were more aggressive in its oversight function. One of the biggest scandals of the day is the way Congress has wimped out on oversight.