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Remembering Reagan

Lou Cannon
Reagan Biographer, Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 8, 2004; 12:00 PM

In "The Role of a Lifetime," biographer Lou Cannon describes former president Ronald Reagan as viewing the presidency as his greatest role, wondering how anyone could aspire to the position without the training he received as a young Hollywood actor. In Cannon's books about Reagan, a portrait emerges of a more complex leader -- one who helped to usher in the end of the Cold War and redefine America's political agenda.

Cannon, who covered former President Reagan from his 1966 run for California governor through his first presidential campaign and White House years, was online Tuesday, June 8 at Noon ET, to discuss Reagan's legacy and his experiences reporting on the Reagan administration.


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Cannon has known Reagan for more than 35 years and is considered Reagan's definitive biographer, writing five books about the former president, including "Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power" and "President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime." Cannon was The Washington Post's White House correspondent throughout the Reagan presidency, and covered politics, wrote a syndicated column and served as Los Angeles bureau chief during his 26-year tenure at the newspaper.

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.

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Lou Cannon: I first met Ronald Reagan in 1965 when I was a reporter for the Mercury News. He was travelling up and down the state of Calif. in an exploratory campaign for governor. Reagan skipped the big cities on this tour, engaging in what he and his strategists called "out of town" tryouts. The plan was to go into a small town, speak to a service club or other group, make a short statement and answer questions. Reagan was trying to demonstrate that he was more than an actor who was reciting lines written for him by others.

I met him in Sacramento where he spoke to a group of reporters and lobbyists and noticed that he was consistently cheerful even when he didn't know the answer to a question. I also noticed that the reporters flocked around him after this speech, wanting to meet him and shake his hand. Reagan was then known to his audiences for his movies and as host of GE theater. He was a genuine celebrity. The Democrats at the time were hoping Reagan would be a candidate for Governor thinking he'd be eminently beatable for lack of experience. Later in the day one of my editors asked me what I thought of Reagan. I replied, "I don't know anything, but I don't know why anybody would want to run against someone who everyone knows and everyone seems to like."

But after Reagan was elected governor over the formidable Pat Brown by nearly a million votes I found him frustrating. What was the source of his power? How was he able to govern effectively? Why was it that he was able to dominate a democratic-controlled legislature that was very experienced and ably led? So I decided to write a book about him to explain what happened and that led to other books. By then I was working for The Post. When I landed my contract for a second book soon after Reagan was elected president, but before he took office, he somehow heard about it. When I was interviewing him in December of 1980 he said to me that he understood I had a contract for a second book. "Yes," I replied, "I'm going to keep writing about you until I get it right." Now after five books, it's for others to judge whether I really ever did get it right.

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Virginia: Hello. How was he different as a governor and as a President? And what was state-federal relations like?

Lou Cannon: Well the governorship was important in its own right, but Sacramento was also a training ground for Washington. When I was working on my most recent book, "Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power," Reagan's aides from those days were unanimous in agreeing that he never would have become president unless he'd been governor first. Partly, this was because California is a macrocosmic state which even then was home to 1 of 10 Americans. But partly, this was because the political situation in Sacramento replicated the one that Reagan would face as president in Washington. Democrats controlled the legislature. Reagan initially was very wary about dealing with the legislature, but then realized he wasn't going to get anything done unless he came to terms with opposition leaders. He did in the 1980 interview that I alluded to after he was elected president, I asked him what was the most important thing he'd learned as a governor. He replied that he learned it was possible to work with good will with members of the opposition who held different views.

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Kennesaw, Ga.: Thanks for doing this chat, Mr. Cannon. I've read and admired your books for many years.

Since Reagan's Presidency ended, the Republican Party made two fairly significant decisions as to who would lead it, rejecting Bob Dole in favor of the elder George Bush in 1988 and turning away from John McCain in favor of Bush's son four years ago. How well in your view has the GOP built on Reagan's legacy? How important were the presidential contests of 1988 and 2000 in answering that question?

Lou Cannon: Michael Barrone once pointed out that there were more New Deal Democrats in the Senate in 1958 than there ever were when FDR was alive. And there are more Reagan Republicans in Congress today than there were at any time during the Reagan presidency. The "Contract with America," which was the blueprint by which Newt Gingrich and the Republicans took over the House in 1994, was a pastiche of old unenacted Reagan proposals drawn from his State of the Union messages. In essence, this meant that Reagan has defined the content and the character of the Republican party in the 15 years since his presidency.

Whether he has also shaped the nature of his party's presidential candidates is a more difficult question. Clearly I think that in 1988 the first George Bush was elected in considerable measure because Americans wanted a third Reagan term. But the country is much more polarized and bitterly so now than it was in Reagan's day. The second George Bush has many Reagan qualities but, in my view, he has failed to bring the country together as Reagan did in the second term of his presidency.

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Washington, D.C.: When did you start covering Reagan and what were the biggest changes you saw in him -- both personally and politically in the years you wrote about him?

Lou Cannon: Reagan didn't change very much. He was always more pragmatic than either his critics realized or his cheerleaders acknowledged. In the first week of his governorship he agreed to a $1 billion tax increase which would be more than $5.5. billion today and was a record tax increase in any state. That wasn't because Reagan liked taxes; he hated them. He realized tax increase was necessary to balance the budget. Reagan did what was necessary and moved on. We saw much of that pragmatism during his presidency in his dealings with the air traffic controllers union, many of his economic decisions and especially in his dealings with the Soviet Union after Gorbachev became its leader. Reagan wanted to succeed. That's what made him stand out from other conservatives of his time. He was a conservative, he had strong beliefs, but he much preferred -- as he often said -- to get some of what he believed accomplished rather than go off the cliff with all flags flying.

Of course he slowed down in his last two years in office. But this was also the period in which he arguably had his greatest accomplishments. The achievement of the first nuclear arms agreement during the Cold War which actually reduced the number of nuclear weapons. As Reagan said in his farewell statement, with modesty, "All in all, not bad."

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Silver Spring, Md.: Lou, nice to see you online!

Reagan seems to be known for not knowing the names of most of the reporters in the White House press corps while in office. I'm assuming you had a bit more access than most. Why was that? Did you have an amiable relationship outside of the reporter/reported on one? Did you get much time to interview him one-on-one?

Lou Cannon: I don't want to blow my own horn. My advantage was that I had been covering Reagan since the inception of his career and he naturally was a bit more comfortable with reporters that he'd known over a long period of time. I wasn't the only one in this group. He was quite comfortable with George Skelton of the LA Times and various TV correspondents, including the late Frank Reynolds of ABC.

Beyond that, I was persistent, I hope not foolishly so, in writing books about Reagan and his entourage and bookwriters tend to get more access. I had the good fortune of interviewing him one-on-one many times and I think he probably got used to it.

Even though it's true that Reagan sometimes forgot the names of reporters he got along much better with them than almost all of his Republican predecessors and better too than Jimmy Carter had. That's because Reagan didn't have a hateful bone in his body and actually liked the reporters whether he could remember their names or not. When he criticized the press it was always in abstraction. When he dealt with reporters individually he dealt with them as human beings. ANd although not all of the reporters would have admitted this, I think they all liked that.

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Highland Park, N.J.: Hi Lou,

While it's clearly a time to mourn for many people, it also seems to be a time to ignore or re-write history. Reagan's presidency, more so than many, was filled with contradictions and nuances, few if which we seem to be hearing this week. Contrary to many commentators I've heard this week, he wasn't the most popular president in history (at least according to Gallup) and his record in Central America, on AIDS, with Iran-Contra, budget deficits, and so on clearly leaves a mixed legacy. Why can't we mourn and still recognize both the good and the bad?

Lou Cannon: Wait a while.

To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, there's a time for everything. I think the celebratory content of this week's commentaries reflects the human reality that Ronald Reagan was a big part of our lives and that many Americans, including me, miss him. But I don't think this means an end to the debate about the wisdom of particular Reagan policies. That debate is inevitably going to go on, but we may find that people on both sides change their opinions over a period of time. For years, for instance, the Democrats and liberals largely resisted the notion that Reagan had much to do with the end of the Cold War. Now we find that even Gorbachev, who lost his country in the process, gives Reagan considerable credit. I changed my own mind about various aspects of the Reagan presidency in my 1992 book, "Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime." I faulted him mightily for the legacy of enormous deficits he'd left behind. When I revised this book in 2000, the deficits were gone and the budget agreement between Clinton and the GOP Congress that caused them to vanish was made possible by reduced defense spending. Now we have another war, higher defense spending again and new record deficits. Will this lead to another reassessment? I don't know.

Everyone, however, should be aware that there will be more papers released on the Reagan presidency 25 years after it is over (which means 10 years from now). And that what is revealed in these documents may again change our opinions. So this debate is going to go on and should, but I think it's appropriate that we take this week to celebrate the life of Ronald Reagan.

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Clifton, Va.: How do you think Reagan will be best (and worst) remembered through the lens of history?

Lou Cannon: My guess, and I hope it's an educated one, is that he's going to be best remembered for two things:

The first is reviving the confidence of Americans at a time when it was very low. All of the indices of public opinion and the economic situation show that 1980 was one of the most perilous times for the country in terms of public confidence since the Great Depression. Reagan, whose first political icon appropriately was FDR, banished those fears. He did it much the way that FDR did it -- by telling us in effect that we didn't have anything to fear except fear itself.

The most lasting policy achievement, if it holds, is ending the Cold War without a nuclear exchange. I feel that far too much of the focus has been (even before Reagan's death) on the role he played in ending the Cold War. Clearly he played a role, clearly he didn't do it by himself. But a more important question is: could the Cold War have ended in some other way? Reagan was highly aware that we'd had a number of near misses during the 40 years in which the nuclear arsenals of the U.S. and Soviet Union were pointed at each other. He believed firmly that if this continued indefinitely that the U.S. and Soviet Union would blunder into thermonuclear war with consequences we can't even imagine. Gorbachev believed this, too. So what I think we should do is turn our focus away from trying to assign a mathematical proportion of credit to Reagan (or anyone else) for ending the Cold War and thank both Reagan and Gorbachev -- and Margaret Thatcher, too -- for seeing to it that this potentially deadly conflict was resolved on peaceful terms.

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