California Literary Review

An Interview With Richard Reeves

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April 3rd, 2007 at 9:02 pm

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Richard Reeves

With the publication of President Reagan : The Triumph of Imagination, Richard Reeves completes a trilogy on presidential politics that includes his books, already hailed as classics, about John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Instead of writing from a historical or scholarly perspective, Reeves examines the Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan Administrations from the eyes of the presidents themselves, bringing new insights into these subjects.

After writing books on Presidents Kennedy and Nixon, why did you decide to write a book about Reagan?
Because I knew I got it wrong. I knew that we were wrong about Reagan. I just thought more about what a significant figure Reagan actually was, as opposed to the guy that we poked fun at, in a way. We thought he was this doddering old fool. So the answer is I did it because I knew there was a story there that interested me.
What did you think about Reagan when you were actually reporting on him?
I didn’t like Reagan. I first met Ronald Reagan in 1967. I was working at the New York Times, and there was a great movement at that time for a Republican dream ticket in 1968 of Rockefeller and Reagan, the liberal easterner and the new western conservative. And Lindsay was dispatched to talk to Reagan by Rockefeller, who didn’t want to be too overt. And I found myself walking down a long hallway of the Biltmore Motel in Los Angeles at the double doors of the Presidential Suite, and as Lindsay raised his hand to knock on the door the door popped open and there was Ronald Reagan, the old movie star, standing there. And he said, “I’ve always wanted to meet a real New Yorker and ask him a question.” And Lindsay said, “What question?” And Reagan said, “Have you ever been to the top of the Empire State Building?” And I thought, he really is a goof, they’re right.

What surprised you most about Reagan during the writing of this book?
There were a lot of things that surprised me, but the two that were most important were, one, I didn’t know about being an old man, and I didn’t know that old men are different than younger men. I think they are more focused, would like to conserve their energy, they don’t talk at meetings, they don’t want to control anything anymore, they don’t want to know everything, and they don’t care as much. And I’m the age now Reagan was when he ran for president. If I’d written this when I was younger it would have been different.
What else surprised you?
I found out, greatly to my surprise, that almost all of the conventional wisdom that I had read and heard about Ronald Reagan was not true at all. Beginning with the fact that he was always talked of as being passive. The man ran for president three times. Won on his third try. And in 1976 he committed the most aggressive act that an American politician can make, and that is that he ran against a sitting president of his own party. He ran against Gerald Ford and damn near beat him. The vote in that convention was 1,187 for President Ford, 1,070 for Ronald Reagan. Passive people don’t do that. I found this bold gambler, reckless fellow, old, stubborn, unlearning, determined to be president of the United States. Manipulated? He was manipulated by his staff and his wife, we all know that. What I discovered, really, was that the reason he called his staff “the fellows” was that he didn’t know their names. They were all interchangeable. And the same was true of his wife. He often told his wife he had heard enough about that and she should be quiet, which is why she was always working through other people, through Michael Deaver, through George Schultz. So no one was manipulating Ronald Reagan. When I talked to Don Regan, his second chief of staff, and asked, “What was the worst thing about the White House when you ran it,” he said, “Everyone in that building thought they were smarter than the President.” I said, “Including you” He said, “Especially me.”
Do you have any interest in doing a book on Clinton?
No. I’ll never do another presidential biography; I’m exhausted. There are two big reasons why. One is we don’t know the end of the Clinton story until we see what his wife does. The second thing is it’s just too soon. I have learned that the papers are the key. Interviews can take you only so far. And the interviews are quite different if you’ve seen the paperwork and you can reconstruct the moment. Often you interview people who will say they were there and weren’t, because they’ve developed their own memory. And Clinton, the Clinton papers will be a flood, but it won’t be soon because these people are determined. I mean, I know Clinton, but Taylor Branch is his friend, and if someone of my generation does a book on it, it will be Taylor. I frankly don’t think he will. I mean, that story will go on, and it’s going to be up to you or somebody of a different generation to look at that.
How would you compare Reagan with Nixon and Kennedy?
Nixon and Kennedy were young men who wanted to know everything, who wanted to control everything. This was an old man who was conserving his energy most of the time. And didn’t want to know anything he didn’t know already. Much of what he knew was wrong, but he knew it and he wasn’t going to find out too much more. And among the people who spotted this much better than the American press did, were the Russians who dealt with him over the period with Gorbachev. One of the Russian interpreters at Reykjavik wrote a note home to his wife in which he described Reagan as a lion in winter who was lying there asleep most of the time, not paying much attention, and would occasionally open his eyes and see an antelope on the horizon and roll over and close his eyes again. And in a while open them again and now the antelope is twenty, thirty feet away, but still he rolled over and appeared to go back to sleep, probably did go back to sleep, and then opened his eyes and the antelope was there, the antelope was eight feet away, and suddenly the lion’s roar filled the sky and the antelope was no more. That’s the way the Russians closeted in those meetings described him.
It seems that with your three books, especially with Reagan, that you always have the cold war as a backdrop. If you read about Clinton, there’s just no focus that keeps everything together, it just seems like a bunch of stuff, and with Reagan and with Nixon and with Kennedy you always have this Cold War to provide context.
Yeah. Yeah. No, you’re right. I hadn’t thought of it but you’re right. I consider the Kennedy decisions on race in 1963 – putting government on the side of minorities – as important as the cold war. I’m not sure Kennedy thought that, but I did. But yeah, the times were defined by that. It gives a nice arch to the Reagan book. Somebody asked me, what advice would I give George Bush, and I said, find a Gorbachev. And I don’t see one out there. And I think Reagan deserves tremendous credit, I mean, tremendous credit, for understanding what Gorbachev was about. Because certainly none of his people did. One thing I shared with him was that there was never any doubt in my mind that the Soviet Union was going down. And hopefully nonviolently, I thought it would be nonviolent, never quite so quickly. It was so clear that they were going no place, and the domestic problems were almost beyond solution. But obviously Gorbachev knew that better than any of us, and Reagan had intuited it, I mean, he had imagined it. It was all in his own head that he came up with that particular view of the world. Greatness and genius are often conduct that people make who see things differently; you know, Picasso or Freud. Reagan turned populism on its head by making big government the enemy instead of big business. And that was political genius.
  • Erasmus Front

    This conversation gets to something essential about Reagan — the way that much of his behavior and attitude was really a conservation of energy. It makes a certain amount of sense. Of course, two corollary pieces of the Reagan puzzle are that Reagan, for better or worse, had the political support which allowed him to conserve his energy like that, coupled with a clear geopolitical adversary — as Mr. Reeves notes — which was under internal pressures which played right into Reagan’s waiting game.

  • anonymous

    Maybe you just don’t understand a man of faith as Reagan proved himself to be many times. Thank God for men like him.Your book pointed out Reagan’s faults and mistakes and made him look less as a President. I knew immediately before the end of the first chapter that you disliked him, but I’m sure you made sufficient funds poking your fun at a man you seem to consider a poor leader.Mr. Reeves you’re in my prayers to become more of a man of mercy and forgiveness as our God is toward us.
    As you grow older may you see the beauty in the world He created and learn of His love for mankind.

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