A Friday funeral service for former president Ronald Reagan brought at least 20 foreign heads of state to the capital to mark the passing of the 40th U.S. president. Reagan succumbed to a 10-year struggle with Alzheimer's disease last Saturday at his home in California. Reagan -- credited with transforming the Republican Party, helping to end the Cold War and U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms build-up -- substantially defined the terms of contemporary political debate during two momentous terms in office.
Washington Post Associate Editor Robert G. Kaiser was online Friday, June 11 at 1 p.m. ET, immediately following the National Cathedral funeral service, to discuss Reagan's life, presidency and political legacy.
Robert G. Kaiser
(The Washington Post)
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.
Robert G. Kaiser: Hello. This is the end of an extraordinary week, one that has clearly brought forth many conflicting emotions in many of you. I will post a lot of your comments without comments of my own, because they don't need any help from me. And I will try to answer questions too.
I had an extraordinary experience myself yesterday when I saw Mikhail Gorbachev for 45 minutes at the Russian embassy here, and talked with him about Reagan. We'll give you a link to my story on the interview here. I have known Gorbachev since 1988, one of the great treats of my journalistic career, I freely confess. And I have written a book about him (WHY GORBACHEV HAPPENED). His views of Reagan are interesting, and revealing, I think.
We have about an hour for today's discussion.
washingtonpost.com: Gorbachev: 'We All Lost Cold War', (Post, June 11)
Ammon, New Brunswick, Canada:
What do you make of the collective amnesia regarding the Reagan Administration's initial inability to take advantage of or even recognize the opportunities that were being offered them by Mikhail Gorbachev? I can remember public opinion polls in the United States during the late Eighties when the American people considered Gorbachev more of a "peacemaker" than Reagan. Now -- in 2004 --conservatives have seemed to, in media if not historical terms, co-opted the entire event, i.e. "Reagan Won the Cold War" because of his intentional huge arms build-up -- despite the fact that when the Soviets/Gorbachev wanted to negotiate the Reagan Administration was, at the very least, diplomatically unprepared for the very outcome they now insist they had intended all along to achieve with their massive defense spending. What has changed and how did the Reagan White House -- which seemed so unsupportive of Gorbachev's attempts for months, if not years -- begin to receive credit in the US for Ronald Reagan "winning the Cold War?"
Robert G. Kaiser: This is a good place to start. As Gorbachev makes clear in his memoirs, and did again in conversation yesterday, he was initially very frustrated that the U.S. and the West generally didn't initially take him seriously when he said he wanted to reform the Soviet Union and abolish nuclear weapons. But wasn't this inevitable? For 40 years Soviet communists had been our enemy, had behaved badly, had repeatedly shown their true, and extremely unappealing, colors. Gorbachev did want to change those colors, but it's no surprise, I think, that we in the West were initially skeptical.
That said, I have written many times, and strongly believe, that ultimately, the end of the Soviet Union and the collapse of communism will b e understood as first of all internal events in the communist countries, in which westerners played a marginal role. Russians, Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, etc. , deserve most of the credit, not us, and not Ronald Reagan either.
Was an astrologist consulted in planning this funeral? For some odd reason I haven't seen any mention of the importance astrology played in Reagan's life.
Also, how is Jimmy Carter taking all of this talk about Reagan winning the Cold War? A persuasive case can be made that Carter's commitment to civil rights around the world was far more damaging to the Soviet Union than Reagan's military buildup and sabre rattling.
There seems to be a massive PR campaign this week to rewrite history. It seems to me we should be celebrating the man for what he was, not what we wished him to be.
Robert G. Kaiser: Wasn't astrology important to Nancy Reagan? I think so.
Can't speak for Carter. I wonder if he'll be speaking for himself soon? You are right, in my opinion, that his commitment to human rights was very important. So was Gerald Ford's decision to embrace the "Helsinki process" which had a great deal to do with undermining the communist regimes of Eastern Europe.
Robert, Andrew Sullivan posted a quote from you this morning, and I'd be curious to know how you feel about it 20 years later. Would you have written the same thing at the end of Reagan's second term, and would you write the same thing today?
"'We've really got to start talking,' says George Ball, undersecretary of state in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. 'The fact is we've let these fellows get away with murder, and the situation now is much too serious for that.' To ideological men like Ronald Reagan, new information is only useful if it confirms old prejudices. Though he is shrewd enough to bend and budge under pressure (hence, for example, his abandonment of old positions on Taiwan), in his heart Reagan knows he has always been right about the nature of the world, of communism, of America's proper role." - Robert Kaiser, Washington Post, October 30, 1983.
Robert G. Kaiser: Always good to be humbled! Thanks. I'm not a Sullivan reader, so I missed this.
To defend myself very briefly, I'd note the date: in 1983, we had seen no sign whatsoever of the flexible Ronald Reagan who, beginning in 1986, would do serious business with Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan had very little experience of foreign affairs when he became president, and his first term was not successful diplomatically. The loss of 230-plus Marines in Beirut, with no real response from us, was the lowpoint, but there were others.
I certainly could not have written those words during Reagan's second term, or today. I think it is very much to Reagan's credit that he learned in office, saw ways to change his old beliefs, and willingly pursued goals that, in 1983 I bet, still seemed inconceivable to him.
A president's legacy should be based his personal and political achievements and on his popularity. I think this week seems a fitting tribute to Mr Reagan. It's awesome to be in the D.C. area and see how the whole region contributes to the week's events.
With no intended disrespect to Mr. Reagan, why did such an accomplished man feel the need to be "The Gipper?" George Gipp was a highly celebrated Notre Dame football player without equal. He died at the end of his remarkable four-year career in 1920 but his legacy lives on. He deserves his own legacy and not the actor who played him in a movie. I cringe every time I hear Reagan referred to as "The Gipper."
Robert G. Kaiser: Don't think you're being fair. Because he played the part, Reagan got dubbed the Gipper by friends, reporters, etc. I know of no evidence that he himself cultivated that monicker. As several of the eulogists reminded us this morning, Reagan was a genuinely modest, even humble human being.
Mt. Lebanon, Pa.:
So how long will we have to wait for the hubris and hooey to die away and the testimony of history to write the complete and final words on the era of Ronald Wilson Reagan?
And when that time arrives, will any of us still be standing? Or care?
After all, eight years is a tiny period when framed against the 225+ years our Republic has stood. And for all of his accomplishments -- those real and imaginary -- Ronald Reagan did not save our Republic.
Robert G. Kaiser: thanks
I've heard about a potential political up-tick for Bush campaign from President Reagan's passing and the accompanying pomp and ceremony and photo ops with world leaders and Nancy Reagan but isn't there also a potential downside for Bush with people comparing the president present and the president deceased and then saying, "gee, this guy sure is no Ronald Reagan?"
Robert G. Kaiser: Good question, which I cannot answer today.
Mr. Kaiser: Obviously a big part of Ronald Reagan's political legacy is the political prominence of the Bush family. This would have been highly improbable had not Reagan put the elder Bush on the ticket in 1980 and given tacit support to his bid for the White House in 1988 against the far abler and more accomplished Robert Dole.
The 1988 race aside, Reagan passed over several Republicans of genuine character, ability and accomplishment in 1980 (e.g. Senators Baker, Lugar, Domenici) to pick Bush, a career-long ticket puncher who accomplished little in several posts before 1980 and was all but invisible as vice president. Do you think it is odd that this aspect of the Reagan record has been so little discussed this week?
No one would write about Theodore Roosevelt's presidency with discussing how well he planned for his legacy to be built on by his successor. Since the elder Bush threw away the mortal lock on the Electoral College Reagan had left the Republicans it seems appropriate to have the same discussion about Reagan, but we aren't. Why?
Robert G. Kaiser: As a number of your questions remind us, and I'll post more of these below, many aspects of REagan's life and times have been given short shrift this week. Reagan was nothing if not an extremely complicated person. His views changed dramatically on many issues over the years. He legalized abortion in California as governor, for example, then decided to become an anti-abortion crusader later. There are many more examples. Read Lou Cannon's wonderful book, The Role of a Lifetime, if you want a full account, and a great reading experience.
New York, N.Y.:
Bob, If memory serves correct, you spent time in Moscow serving as The Post's bureau chief. But had you ever visited the Russian Embassy before yesterday? And if so, did you ever visit before the fall of the USSR?
Robert G. Kaiser: yes, and yes. The Soviet embassy under Anatolii Dobrynin had many social events to which the likes of me were invited. And there are many such today as well.
Cape Town, South Africa:
Do you think all the quasi pro-aparthied policies of Reagan, ANC = terrorist organization (I think Cheney said that, too), keep Mandela in prison, his veto of sanctions against the apartheid regime, calling P.W. Botha a reformist, etc, will be glossed over because of his successes with the Soviets? No news organization has mentioned any of that.
Robert G. Kaiser: Here's one of those ignored pages from Reagan's past I referred to a moment ago...
Los Angeles, Calif.:
I find it interesting that there is no mention of what went on in Central American during the Reagan years as a result of U.S. foreign policy. Why is that?
Robert G. Kaiser: And another. But in fact we had a good story on how Reagan is remembered in Central America, which I hope we can link to here.
Why do you think African Americans are so hostile to President Reagan?
Robert G. Kaiser: And here's another. Reagan began his campaign in 1980 with a visit to Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were famously killed in the 1960s. The way he spoke there sounded, to many, like an expression of sympathy for the white people of Mississippi who felt tarred by that event. Reagan infuriated many black Americans that day. But he had never been a crusader for civil rights. Like Barry Goldwater, he opposed the civil rights legislation that Congress passed after the assasination of JFK, if memory serves. There were, and are, a smattering of black conservatives, like Justice Thomas, who were Reagan fans, but his popularity among most AFrican Americans was always low.
washingtonpost.com: In Central America, Reagan Remains a Polarizing Figure, (Post, June 10)
In all of the media coverage this week about Reagan's legacy, I haven't heard one word about the issue that, given the situation we find ourselves in today, I thought would be covered extensively: giving billions of dollars -- along with weapons, training and encouragement -- to radical Muslim jihadists. The atrocities of 9/11 and the war on terror (THE dominant issue at the beginning of the 21st century) will forever be connected to the Reagan administration's extensive support of the "freedom fighters" who grew into al Qaeda, as shown in Stephen Coll's excellent book, "Ghost Wars," and other books on the subject. Historically speaking, this part of his legacy may turn out to be studied and discussed much more than a lot of what we've been hearing about this week.
Robert G. Kaiser: I've passed your question on to Steve Coll. This is a good point. I haven't read every story we've published this week on Reagan, but I don't remember this topic being directly addressed, and I think you are correct about it.
Takoma Park, Md.:
Why didn't Reagan do anything for the 30,000 gay people who died of AIDS? Was it hate of gay people? Was it Pat Buchanan?
Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for your comment. My gay brother Charles Kaiser, himself a very good writer, wants us all to remember that Reagan really did almost nothing about AIDS, which, sadly, became an epidemic when he was president. Charles is right. But Reagan was far from alone in neglecting this crisis when it first emerged. Indeed, I think it's a measure of how America has changed in 20 years that we look back now at the beginning of the epidemic with some dismay at the way our government and leaders handled it.
Your piece in the Post today was excellent. What
do you believe Gorbachev is thinking when he
reads this week's Economist or all of the other
nonsense about how Reagan won the Cold War?
Robert G. Kaiser: I haven't seen the Economist piece, but I think Gorbachev made clear his reaction to me: "That's not serious!" In my view it is profoundly insulting to Gorbachev, and to the citizens of the former Soviet empire, to give an American primary credit for what happened at the end of the 1980s in Eastern Europe. Every American president from Truman onward was vigilantly, and expensively, anti-communist and anti-Soviet. As Gorbachev pointed out, this cost us trillions of dollars. But it did help prevent any spread of communism beyond the borders of the empire Stalin created after World War II. Reagan's biggest historical advantage was to be on duty when the end came. But I am confident that my grandchildren will read that Gorbachev himself was the principal hero of this drama.
I am not a gushing Reagan fan but I do recognize the many accomplishments that occurred doing his presidency. The biggest being the optimism the he brought to office that very few ever have. However, the blanket revisionism that is running rampant this week is making me a little ill. Do you rank him ,as many seem to be doing, as one of the greatest presidents of all time or just one of the good ones?
Robert G. Kaiser: Ranking presidents is a fool's errand, especially this close to his time in office. But even much farther back you can get really good arguments about the merits of a particular president. How about Rutherford B. Hayes, for example?
The greatest presidents in history, in my judgment, are those who helped save the country or the world in some profound way: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, TR, FDR. I suspect that of the presidents in my lifetime (I was born in 1943), FDR and Truman will look the best a hundred years from now. Ike and Reagan will come behind them, I'd guess today.
Hello Mr. Kaiser,
I am neighbor of yours and also a German(West). When the wall fell I was 18yrs. Living in western germany at that point was experiencing all the turmoil that was happening in Eastern Europe. The East German Monday demonstrations e.g. and many other things. Why are the citizens of the former Soviet satellite states not getting any credit in this country? Sure maybe the US provided the umbrella that made sure no Soviet tanks rolled in but ultimately it was a peaceful revolution that started from the bottom. I find it outrageous how politicians now say that Reagan singlehandedly brought the Soviets down.
Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. I agree with you that the contributions of East Europeans to the "velvet revolutions" of 1989 are not properly appreciated in this country, and that Reagan's personal role is often exaggerated.
Do you believe that the GOP has exploited this week's events in honor of President Reagan to afford President Bush favorable coverage?
Robert G. Kaiser: Sure. Who wouldn't? Reagan is a Republican hero, the Republican president is in trouble, how could they resist? And should they? I don't think it would be fair or sensible to ask them to.
It's another matter entirely as to whether this will help them. An earlier questioner asked how well Bush II measures up to REagan. We will all have our own answers to this question, but I doubt all of them will be helpful to our current president.
I recall Reagan's administration as very corrupt; the old man slept through his term and allowed his Texas buddies to steal billions. They tripled the national debt. The beginning of the S&L scandal ($150,000,000,000) happened during his term. The Iran-Contra scandal where he secretly provided arms to our enemy was an impeachable offense worse than Nixon's who simply spied on a political opponent. The Soviets collapsed on their own from the arms race costs, creating a legacy of environmental destruction rivaling our own. I recall being very embarrassed by our actor president whose main achievement was looking good on TV. Why is this man remembered with such fondness?
Robert G. Kaiser: I have a couple of dozen comments like this one, and offer it as representative.
I do think there's an answer to the last question here, and I'll talk about it in response to another query in a moment...
Grand Rapids, Mich.:
As an American, I can't help but be moved by the outpouring of good will from the leaders of former allies and enemies for President Reagan. It calls back to a time when other nations looked up to us as a beacon of hope and higher purpose. It also is a tribute to Reagan, the man, who could connect with people. When Kennedy was buried, it seemed we buried out innocence. Now, in a sharply-divided country that has gained more animosity than I can ever remember, don't you sense that we are burying more than a former president?
Robert G. Kaiser: Here is the other question I just mentioned. I think Grand Rapids is on to something important. Here's my way of putting it: This has been a lousy spring for America and Americans. We have learned dismaying things about how some of our men and women in Iraq have behaved. We have had to come to terms with the fact that our military operations in Iraq have not produced the results promised by our leaders, and may indeed end up badly. We continue to be anxious about terrorism, an anxiety government officials periodically aggravate with grim but vague public warnings.
So it doesn't seem strange at all to me to see the country react as it apparently has to REagan's death. Whatever else you say about it, and as this discussion has already made clear you can say a lot, the last years of Reagan's presidency really were, compared to today, Morning in America. We felt better then about ourselves, our place in the world, our president, and more. I think the outpouring this week is, at least in part, a manifestation of a kind of mass nostalgia for those times.
Could I be all wet about this? You bet I could. But I feel this in my bones.
Amidst the feverish outpouring of support for the "legacy" of Ronald Reagan a number of significant and relevant issues in regards to his presidency go seldom discussed. Examples include Iran-Contra and numerous proxy-wars among others.
Being the "Teflon" president many have labeled him as, do you think his legacy will, say 20-30 years from now, be scarred by these events? If not, why can't some president, such as Clinton, shake off their mishaps with such ease?
Robert G. Kaiser: No REally Big Things happened on Clinton's watch, whereas Reagan's second term, especially, was a time of dramatic, historic changes. I think that's a big part of the answer to your question.
But I think that Reagan's many missteps, from driving the country deep into debt to Beirut to Iran-Contra and more, will indeed "scar" his reputation in years to come. Like JFK, I suspect his reputation will decline somewhat when those of us who were alive when they were president, and felt their personal charm, are gone. For my generation, JFK was exciting, beguiling, a source of hope and optimism, but that won't be easy to see when historians of the 22nd century, say, look back at him. Ditto for Reagan, I expect.
San Jose, Calif.:
All I have seen on this discussion is Reagan bashing, He did a lot of great things as President including the turn around of a moribund economy (double digit inflation, unemployment, interest rates), revamped a horrible army (remember our helicopters unable to make it out of the desert to get to Iran), etc. How about a little love for this great man on the day of his funeral?
Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for your comment.
Palo Alto, CA:
Do you know if Reagan started suffering from Alzheimer's while still in office?
Or was his "I don't recall" mantra during Iran/Contra just acting?
Robert G. Kaiser: I am not a medical expert, but I don't think "I don't recall" was a symptom of actual disease.
Why is it funny that Reagan said his meeting with Bishop Tutu went "so so." Do the dignitaries remember that Reagan never took any steps to stop apartheid in South Africa? I find this joke to be in total bad taste.
Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for the comment.
If we did not have a Republican president and both houses of Congress controlled by Republicans (let alone also have conservative TV channels as Fox News and MSNBC), do you think the tributes to Reagan would be at the current level?
One can mourn the passing of a past president. However, many of us felt he was a disaster for the country and do not remember him the way he is currently being portrayed in much of the press.
Robert G. Kaiser: I don't think you can blame Fox and MSNBC for what we've seen this week.
You are as all wet about "morning in america" as you have been about Iraq. Its sentiments like this that keep Americans from thinking critically about the hole we have dug ourselves into. I suppose you have smiley faces all over your office. lol.
Robert G. Kaiser: The only smiley face here is mine--ocasionally.
Good heavens -- there's a lot of venom here. Mr. Kaiser, please give your opinion on the role Reagan, the Pope and Lech Walesa played in the downfall of the Soviet Union.
Robert G. Kaiser: Venom? I don't think that's a fair description of our readers' opinions.
The Pope and Walesa were both critically important to events in Poland that led to the collapse of the communist regime there. Did they also hasten the end of the Soviet Union? Probably, but in ways that would be difficult to precisely identify. They were part of a vast movement that included Vaclav Havel in Prague, and Andrei Sakharov in Moscow, and countless other courageous individuals who, beginning I think with the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, began to assert non-conformist opinions and agitate for change in the Soviet societies. Their efforts ultimately turned into an irresistible historical tidal wave that swept corrupt, failed communist regimes out of office across central and eastern Europe. That's my opinion.
Reagan was an inspiration to many of those people. When he first called the Soviet Union the evil empire, it sent a shiver of excitement down the spines of dissidents throughout the communist world. This is a well-recorded fact, and is an important aspect of Reagan's record.
But Reagan making speeches, or the CIA supporting Walesa's Solidarity movement in Poland, wasn't the key. The key was the courage and behavior of the heroic figures who threw off communism, combined with the rotting, corrupt regimes in those countries which could not respond effectively once the bell began to toll for them.
How would you rate The Post's Reagan coverage over the last week? Balanced? Gushing? Overkill?
Robert G. Kaiser: I'd call it balanced overkill. This is not atypical for us; we often overdo a big story. But our competitor to the North, up I-95, really blew the Reagan story this week, beginning with last Sunday's paper, which had just an obituary and one story. We, of course, has about two dozen stories. But I found them all interesting.
Why isn't the press covering that the legacy of Ronald Reagan's civil rights policies was to divide the nation along racial lines? The lines to see his casket were almost all white, and except for Colin Powell it was hard to see any person of color at this "state funeral." Its a travesty to applaud this type of legacy, and an embarrassment for the nation.
Robert G. Kaiser: Referred to this earlier. Thanks for the comment. I too was struck by the crowd in the Cathedral.
In what way did Reagan transform the Republican Party?
Robert G. Kaiser: Reagan's ascendancy marked the demise of "moderate Republicanism." Until 1980, Nelson Rockefeller and his ilk were as important to the party as Barry Goldwater and his. Nixon and Ford were straddling figures with support from moderates and conservatives. But REagan made the GOP a conservative party--which in turn has made the Democrats a more liberal party, in my opinion. The result is a kind of polarized politics that we haven't seen in this country for decades--since, perhaps, the post-Civil War era.
I've seen nothing involving the Reagan biographer Edwin Morris -- no mention in passing by journalists or TV news commentators, no op-ed by him. I have both the book text and the audio, and find them not inappropriate, mostly.
Robert G. Kaiser: It's Edmund Morris, and I too have noticed his absence from the hoopla, though I confess I have not been glued to a television set this week.
Comment upon seeing televised pictures of Mr. Gorbachev and Lady Thatcher seated together at the Cathedral for President Reagan's funeral: How unimaginable this would have been in 1980 and what a fitting memorial today.
Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for that. You're right.
Silver Spring, Md.:
Just a question about your article on
Gorbachev's visit to the casket:
I don't think he's learned English so someone
must have translated. Thus, the words you quoted are those of the
translator, who deserved some credit (even if
it's you :-), but received none.
washingtonpost.com: Gorbachev: 'We All Lost Cold War', (Post, June 11)
Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. Pavel Palazchenko, Gorbachev's splendid translator for many years, did a simultaneous translation of the interview into my tape recorder, which helped me a lot when I got back to the office and had 90 minutes to transcribe and then write the story. I do speak Russian, and have interviewed Gorbachev previously in Russian, but there's no one as good as Pavel, who particularly has a way with English and American idioms. I never, for example, would have translated the phrase Gorbachev used when, as Pavel put it, he called Reagan "the quintessential hawk," but it was a perfect translation.
I think Reagan's legacy is viewed very differently, depending on your political persuasion, and that we should leave it at that. I see those responding here as being mostly Democratic, and the comments back that up. I hope you can be as "kind" when President Clinton slips through the veil.
Robert G. Kaiser: thanks.
As a fiscal conservative, how much Federal tax money has been spent on this weeklong funeral, including a day off for federal employees today? Why is this getting no media coverage? By the way, I can see why people are fed up with the electronic media -- this week of "all hagiography all the time" is enough to make one wish to throw the TV out the window (maybe not a bad thing).
Robert G. Kaiser: Are you really such a skinflint that you would deny a popular former president a grand funeral? I hope not.
Shutting down the entire government is another matter. I frankly don't know if there is a tradition of doing this for state funerals, of which we have had very few in American history.
I must admit this Reagan gushing is a pleasant respite from the usual sound and fury that gains notice in the media. Remember the WWII memorial controversy and all the architectural critics (who would have fled from battle like Bill Moyers)? Reagan would have known better than to listen to them. Why do the media give them a megaphone? We are such whiners.
Robert G. Kaiser: thanks.
Who is entitled to a state funeral of this magnitude? For example, will an unelected President, like Ford, and one-term only presidents, like Bush I and Carter, be entitled to the same type of ceremony.
What about Clinton?
Robert G. Kaiser: All presidents are eligible, I believe.
How would you rate Washington's ability to conduct a state funeral?
Robert G. Kaiser: You mean, can we run a two-car funeral here in DC? Yes, we can. I'd rate it quite high.
Robert G. Kaiser: No more time. Thanks to all for taking part.
A final thought: History is complicated. Historical actors are rarely all good, all bad. All week I have been frustrated by efforts to oversimplify Reagan, who, to be fair, has got to have been one of the most complex people ever to serve as president. Edmund MOrris, the gifted biographer mentioned earlier who tried to figure out Reagan, ultimately declared defeat--he couldn't do it! I am full of sympathy for Morris. Our children, their children, and then their children will puzzle over this man, who professed great religiosity but almost never went to church; whose own children said they barely knew him; whose politics changed from New Deal Democrat to conservative Republican; whose ideology shifted more than once, most dramatically in his partnership with Mikhail Gorbachev, etc etc. I end as I began: read Lou Cannon's book if you're really interested in Reagan. Lou has come the closest.