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Friends, Colleagues Remember President Ronald Reagan

Aired June 8, 2004 - 16:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is a special edition of CROSSFIRE: "Remembering Ronald Reagan."

In the CROSSFIRE, memories of President Ronald Reagan from three people who worked with him.

His attorney general:

EDWIN MEESE, FORMER ATTORNEY GENERAL: I just admired his ability to assimilate information.

ANNOUNCER: His secretary of transportation:

SEN. ELIZABETH DOLE (R), NORTH CAROLINA: There is no doubt in my mind that President Reagan was welcomed in the gates of Heaven with open arms.

ANNOUNCER: Plus, his deputy U.N. representative and arms control director.



ANNOUNCER: Live from the George Washington University, Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson.


Ronald Reagan has given one final gift to the people of the United States. His passing has muted to the political bitterness that usually stifles Washington. It won't last, of course, but it is nice to remember a time when both parties could disagree without being so disagreeable.

PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST: Some 40,000 people have filed past President Reagan's casket at his presidential library in California. Crowds have been so large that viewing hours have been extended until 10:00 p.m. Pacific time tonight. Tomorrow, the president's body will be flown here to Washington to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda.

With us today to reminisce about the former president, three people who worked closely with him in his administration. Edwin Meese was Governor Reagan's chief of staff in Sacramento, then served as counselor to President Reagan in the White House and later United States attorney general. Ken Adelman was deputy U.N. representative, then head of President Reagan's Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. And Elizabeth Dole was Ronald Reagan's secretary of transportation after she was on his White House staff. She's now, of course, the senator from North Carolina.

So, welcome all three of you to CROSSFIRE. Thank you.

DOLE: Thank you. Great to be here.

CARLSON: General Meese, you knew Ronald Reagan for almost 40 years. You met in 1966, I think.

MEESE: Right.

CARLSON: You knew him when he was governor of California, a pretty big deal. But you knew him of course when he was president, very big deal. How did he change when he became president?

MEESE: I don't think he changed very much at all. Certainly, he didn't change in his viewpoint.

But he did of course have the experience of being the governor, the chief executive, if you will, of the seventh largest economy in the world, which is pretty good preparation for being president of the United States. But I think basically he had the same cheerfulness, optimism, the same sense of vision that he had as president, which he demonstrated as president. He had that as governor.

And I think he also had an unusual quality. He had a sincerity that got through to the people of the state and ultimately of the country. You know, I've often said that Ronald Reagan was the same person if he was talking with one or two of us in the Oval office or if he was talking to 10,000 people in a speech. And I think that kind of shown through and stuck a responsive chord with the people.

BEGALA: Senator Dole, there's a moment that I know we've talked about before the show that I'd like you to share with our audience. And that is, he was a very public man, a movie star, a governor, a president, but fairly private about his religious faith, which was actually very profound. I know he shared it with you once in private in the Oval Office.

DOLE: Yes, he did. Actually, we were not in the Oval Office.

We were waiting in the holding room for him to give a speech. And it's very rare that you find yourself alone with the president of the United States, not for you, Ed, but for me. And so I just couldn't resist. And I said, Mr. President, I just have to ask you. You've got the weight of the world on your shoulders and yet you are always so gracious, so thoughtful, so respectful of people. You never seemed flustered. And I said, how in the world do you do it?

And he did love to tell stories, didn't he, and he kind of leaned back and he said, well, Elizabeth, let me tell you, when I was governor of California, it seemed like every day, yet another disaster would be placed on my desk. And I had the urge to hand it to someone behind me to help me. And he said, one day, I just realized I was looking in the wrong direction. I looked up instead of back. And he said, I'm still looking up and I don't think I could go another day in this office if I didn't know I could ask God's help and it would be given.

And that just told me an awful lot about this wonderful man that I was privileged to work for, for almost seven years.

BEGALA: Now, Ken Adelman, you spent your time in the Reagan administration thinking a lot about nuclear weapons and the threat of them. I read a description of yours that was fascinating. Tell us about President Reagan's view of nuclear weapons.


One is that I just wanted to follow up on what Senator Dole said. And his religious faith, interestingly enough, gave him the optimism that everybody's talking about. And it really is remarkable. After he was shot as a 70-year-old man and with the bullet half an inch away, he didn't look back at that as, oh, my God, that was just terrible, I was shot and I could have been dead and it was just an outrage.

He said, oh, there's someone there who must have saved me for a purpose. In other words, he put a good gloss on it. On nuclear weapons, Tucker, his view that was nuclear weapons were just abhorrent to the human spirit, that the world would be better without them, that we should have never invented them, we should have never had them, and he would do everything he could to get rid of them, to the best of his ability.

He was a hawk, so like -- unlike most hawks that we had ever met before, he was anti-nuclear. And an anti-nuclear hawk was a very odd combination. It gave rise to his faith in the Strategic Defense Initiative, Star Wars, and it gave rise in his absolute, fierce determination to really reduce nuclear weapons, which we spent eight years trying to do and doing, so that we eliminated a whole class of nuclear weapons, the only time in history that's been done.

BEGALA: Mr. Attorney General, let me bring you back to that terrible March day in 1981 that Ken referred to, when President Reagan was shot. You were with him in the hospital. He's no longer president. He's a man and he's got a bullet in his chest. And I want you to share with our audience the physical courage he showed you that night.

MEESE: Well, it was amazing.

I got to the hospital and he was being wheeled from the emergency room to the operating room. And I was there. And there were a couple of others, Lynn (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and I think Jim Baker and Mike Deaver. And as he saw us, he kind of leaned up a little bit in the gurney and he said, who's minding the store?


MEESE: And this is a guy close death, possibly, and he had that grace literally under fire. And I think that was a part -- just a part of him naturally.

That was when he said, all in all, I'd rather be in Philadelphia, remembering that old W.C. Fields line. And this is a guy who now is in very tough shape.

ADELMAN: I had heard, Ed, that afterwards, while he was still in the hospital, someone said, Mr. President, the government -- you will be happy to know that the government is running like normal. And he said, well, what would make me happy about that?


CARLSON: Senator Dole, President Reagan's biographers had a famously hard time getting a handle on him. I think one of them reached almost the limits of sanity trying to figure out what Ronald Reagan


CARLSON: Or maybe perhaps beyond -- what he was really like.

What do you think? If you were to sum him up, what are the things that were most important to Ronald Reagan, do you think?

DOLE: Well, I think he came into the presidency with a very clear vision. He knew why he wanted to be president. And, obviously, he felt passionately about the goals that he had set out. He was able to articulate those goals in a way that he could cut through the most complex issues and make it understandable to the layman.

And, of course, many times, he went over the heads of special interest groups and all to talk directly to the American people by television on a piece of legislation, something very specific. And, in terms of his eloquence, almost unsurpassed in our history. So here was a man who was very clear-sighted. And he, you know -- he literally helped to change the world. He was not going to tolerate communism. He rejected the Iron Curtain. He rejected communism.

And despite conventional wisdom, he moved forward and literally helped to provide freedom to hundreds of millions of people who had been under oppression and tyranny. So here's a man with a tremendous record, but also so important to him, I can remember many times when I was his assistant at the White House, I was in charge of taking individuals and groups in to meet with him, and just scores and scores of people.

And, you know, and some of them occasionally would say, I really disagree with him on this or that issue and I'm going to give him a piece of my mind, you know? Well, the door would open and they would get into Ronald Reagan's presence. And it was just like any anger that was there just melted away. Then he would state his position very clearly. He would address their concerns. He might sit back and tell them a story, might even pass the jelly beans, you know? When they came out, they were ready to climb any mountain for Ronald Reagan.



BEGALA: I want to ask you about one of his more famous moments on the world stage, when he needed more than just charm.

You were with him in Reykjavik, Iceland, probably his most famous summit with Mikhail Gorbachev. Tell us about that.

ADELMAN: Well, that was the second summit.

We started out, the first summit was in November in Geneva, in November of '85. And what Senator Dole says was absolutely right. Gorbachev came in


BEGALA: It certainly can't be enough just to charm Gorbachev, who was the leader of the Soviet Union.

ADELMAN: NO, but it wasn't just charm. It was a combination of charm and insistence that he tell the truth and be very, very tough on that.

And that was a combination that was really unique. I remember reading the talking points from the State Department before the discussion, the first summit where with Gorbachev about Afghanistan that said, you know, some foreign countries may be in some foreign places or something like that. You had no idea what the talking points were, didn't even mention the Soviet Union, didn't even mention Afghanistan.

It was so abstract. And Reagan got in and he was there and he said, Mike, now I'd like to talk to you about Afghanistan. I just think it's genocide what you're doing there. I think you're killing lots of people. I don't think the Afghan people want you there.

CARLSON: We're out of time, but very quickly, in one sentence, he called him Mike?


ADELMAN: Yes. They called each other Mike and Ron, which I thought was very peculiar. But Gorbachev could not believe what he was listening.


ADELMAN: The only person more surprised than this was the State Department notetaker.

(LAUGHTER) ADELMAN: Who really went wild.

BEGALA: Hang on just a second. We're going to take a quick break. And our guests will be back in just a moment to share more of their memories of President Reagan after CROSSFIRE returns.

Plus, we expect Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry to pay his respects to President Reagan in California in just a few minutes.

Stay with us. We will have live coverage.

ANNOUNCER: Join Carville, Begala, Carlson and Novak in the CROSSFIRE. For free tickets to CROSSFIRE at the George Washington University, call 202-994-8CNN or visit our Web site. Now you can step into the CROSSFIRE.


CARLSON: Welcome back.

We're remembering Ronald Reagan's accomplishments with three people who saw him up close and often. Ken Adelman was director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Edwin Meese was U.S. attorney general. And Elizabeth Dole was his secretary of transportation. She is now, of course, a U.S. senator from North Carolina.

BEGALA: Senator Dole, let me take you back to your days as President Reagan's secretary of transportation.

DOLE: Yes.

BEGALA: Ronald Reagan famously hated big government and regulation and yet he backed you up on a couple of regulations that have saved thousands of American lives, air bags and seat belts. Why?

DOLE: Yes, he did.

Well, he believed, as I do, in less regulation, because small businesses -- and, by the way, North Carolina is a state of small businesses...



DOLE: ... can thrive and grow and create more jobs when you have fewer regulations, right? So this was his philosophy.

But there were certain areas where more regulation might be necessary, like safety. When you're talking about protecting the traveling public, you want to prevent deaths and crippling, disabling injuries. This is a very important area. And so he backed me up on the drinking age, increasing the drinking age to 21, worked with Frank Lautenberg on that. And also on air bags and safety belts, this was a regulation which was designed to promote state safety belt laws. We had the safety belts, but no laws. Not a single state had passed a law. New York was thinking about it. And we also wanted to preserve technology for air bags and passive restraints. So I looked everywhere to find a car with an air bag and there were still a few around somewhere, because I wanted to put it on the White House lawn, so that Ronald Reagan and the Cabinet could go out and look at what an air bag car is like. And we finally found one.

But, at that time, consumers really didn't have faith in them because they thought they'd go off when you crossed the railroad tracks. So we had a selling job to do, but ultimately, we got it done and he backed me all of the way.

CARLSON: Now, General Meese, the Reagan legacy, has it been picked up and taken forward by anyone? Is this president, is President Bush an heir to Ronald Reagan?

MEESE: Well, I think he is in many ways.

I think he definitely has some of the same views. I think the significance of his global war on terrorism is comparable to what Ronald Reagan did with the Soviet Union. I think they both have a sense of moral clarity. Ronald Reagan was very much disturbed that a lot of people were talking about the moral equivalence...

CARLSON: I'm sorry to interrupt you, General Meese.

I just want to point out that we are watching John Kerry, Senator Kerry of Massachusetts, paying his last respects to Ronald Reagan here in California.

BEGALA: In effect, Mr. Attorney General, if I can interject here, a man who had deep, principled arguments with President Reagan throughout his presidency, but has commented since on his admiration for a very different perspective for his convictions and his commitment to civility, this is from one of the president's ardent political opponents. But I think he did have respect for someone on the other side who had just as strong convictions as he did, didn't he?

MEESE: I think absolutely.

And the thing about Ronald Reagan, he constantly said -- and my colleagues have heard him say -- you can disagree without being disagreeable. It sounds like a cliche, but he made it real. For example, he and Tip O'Neill, I don't think there were two people who had more different views, Tip, the ardent liberal, Ronald Reagan, having different views, conservative views.

Yet, as Ronald Reagan used to say, after 6:00, Tip and I are friends.

And they were. Tip would come down and they would have a drink together in the White House residence there. They'd talk about Irish stories. They were great on swapping Irish stories. And they really could be. So I think that was important.

Going back to what we were saying earlier, though, on this business of moral clarity and the two presidents, Ronald Reagan was disturbed that many people were saying, well, the Soviet Union is just one form of government and it's just as good as ourselves, which is freedom-oriented. And he didn't feel that way. That's why he said that the Soviet Union was the evil empire, because he wanted to say that any government that oppresses people, that subjugates captured nations not only can not long endure, but is wrong and that freedom is right.

And that was a part of his sense of what he needed to do in terms of, as you point out, Ken, dealing with the Soviet Union.

CARLSON: Ken Adelman, was Ronald Reagan a hard man to know? And who knew him well?

ADELMAN: You see, you keep asking that and biographers


CARLSON: Well, I'm struck that nobody has gotten to the bottom of him in a biography.

ADELMAN: Well, no, but that's the wrong question. That's really the wrong question, with all due respect, Tucker.

What we are, in large respect, is what we do and what we dedicate our lives to. And you knew that with Ronald Reagan, because his life was very public. And you saw what he did. And this idea of Edmund Morris was so baffled with, let's find out what the real...

CARLSON: The official biographer.

ADELMAN: The official biographer. Let's find out what the real, real, real person is.

I taught right across the street here at George Washington. I taught Shakespeare for many years, and still do. And the fact is, what Shakespeare shows you is that not only do we surprise each other on what we really are, but we surprise ourselves on what we really are. What you can know about a human being is what you see he dedicates his life to, what his principles are and what his successes are.

On that, Ronald Reagan is very knowable and very laudable.

MEESE: I think the reason that he was so difficult to define by these biographers was, they thought there was a hidden person there, that somewhere beyond that facade, there was a different person, as has been true, unfortunately, with some other political figures.


BEGALA: Certainly, politically, he was able to capture both sides of issues. (CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: In 1981, the largest tax cut in American history; 1982, kept his Republican support as he passed the largest tax increase in American history. That's an amazing political feat, isn't it?

MEESE: But, you see, he was up front about both.

And the thing that was interesting about him, if there were just a couple of people together, as I mentioned, he was the same. And it was this sincerity that was so important. And there was no hidden Ronald Reagan. He did not have one persona for the people that were closely around him and another one for the public. And biographers just can't believe that that was the Ronald Reagan they saw.

BEGALA: Mr. Attorney General, and Ken and Senator Dole, right now, the United Nations is voting on the American-British resolution on the transfer of authority to Iraq. The president earlier today said he predicted a unanimous support. That would be nothing but good news for the United States.

But, Ken, let me ask you. You served Ronald Reagan there at the United Nations. There's been a bit of a conservative critique of the U.N. lately.


BEGALA: Tell me, would he have shared that, President Reagan?

ADELMAN: No. He was always interested in the dialogue with countries.

But I'll tell you it, it was wonderful. Jeane Kirkpatrick and I worked for him up there. And it was just wonderful working for him, because...


BEGALA: They're telling me that the resolution was adopted unanimously, as President Bush predicted today. The American Anglo resolution on transfer of authority in Iraq has been passed by the United Nations Security Council unanimously.

I'm sorry to interrupt you.


ADELMAN: It was really wonderful working with him up there, because you just knew where he stood and you knew where he would support you.

There was a special resolution or a special General Assembly in 1981, I remember. And Jeane Kirkpatrick was out of town. And I had heard -- and it was about Cambodia. And I had heard, in fact, from the secretary-general at that time that the Cambodians were going to come, Pol Pot's government, but, if we didn't mind, Israel was not going to be invited.

CARLSON: We are almost out of time.

ADELMAN: And so I said, if Israel's not invited, we're not coming, we're out of it. And the State Department went wild at that point. And I just said, that's the way we are.


CARLSON: If you made the State Department mad, you were doing the right thing.

We will be...


ADELMAN: President Reagan said, that's just fine.

CARLSON: We are going to go -- we'll be right back.

When we come back, we'll hear from our audience about Ronald Reagan's legacy.

And right after the break, will President Reagan's death have an effect on stem cell research in the United States? Wolf Blitzer will tell us.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

Coming up at the top of the hour, as mourners continue to file past Ronald Reagan's casket in California, preparations now continuing here in Washington at the U.S. Capitol, where the 40th president will lie in state.

Former President Reagan's death after years of fighting Alzheimer's disease reigniting the debate over stem cell research. We'll talk with Senator and Surgeon Dr. Bill Frist.

And President Bush beginning discussions right now with other world leaders at the G-8 Summit in Sea Island, Georgia. Can he get some help on Iraq?

Those stories, much more, only minutes away on "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS."

Now back to CROSSFIRE.

CARLSON: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

Now we go to our audience for questions.

Yes, your name and what's your question?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm Michael from Omaha, Nebraska. I was -- this question is for General Meese.

I know that President Reagan had a great sense of humor. What's one of the funniest things he had ever said to you?

MEESE: Well, one of the things Ronald Reagan liked to do was use humor to deflect criticism.

And one of my favorites is when he was up before -- I think it was the Gridiron Dinner. And the press had been all over him about not working very hard. And he said, well, I know you people have said that I don't work hard, but, you know, they say that hard work never killed anybody, but I say, why take a chance?


CARLSON: That's our slogan here on CROSSFIRE.

Unfortunately, speaking of that, we are completely out of time and have to go to a commercial break.

Thank you very much, Ken Adelman.

Senator Dole, thank you.


CARLSON: Thank you.

DOLE: Thanks.

BEGALA: Thank you very much.

CARLSON: Up next, condolences for Ronald Reagan are literally coming in from all over the world. We'll share some of the far- reaching responses we've gotten here on CROSSFIRE.

We'll be right back.


BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

Our e-mail has been overflowing with tributes to former President Reagan. Let's get to them.

Tom Kraus from Decatur, Georgia, writes: "The thing I remember most about Ronald Reagan is that he made us feel good to be Americans again."

CARLSON: Outstanding.

And from all the way across the planet, Ikechukwu Obiorah from Onitsha, Nigeria, writes: "Indeed the world has lost a great one. Accept my sympathy for the death of Ronald Reagan."

It's accepted. Thank you.

BEGALA: I didn't realize we were on in Onitsha.

CARLSON: Of course we are.

BEGALA: Really?


BEGALA: This is CNN.



Rosa Harris is in El Dorado, Arkansas. The uneducated might call it differently, but I know it's El Dorado, having worked for a governor of that state. "The most impressive part of Mr. Reagan's life is his luck at love. I consider Reagan to be the most blessed person on the planet. Nancy's love was never in question. And she showed her love to the end and beyond."

Amen, Rosa. She is a remarkable woman. And our heart goes out to her, our condolences. She conducted herself with incredible, wonderful grace during his illness, and then during his presidency.

CARLSON: That's right.

And, finally, Leslie Syme of Mackenzie, British Columbia -- that's in Canada writes -- "As a 38-year-old woman in this day and age, it was so refreshing to see real respect from a gentleman who had so much power and knew how to distribute it with the respect it requires. As a Canadian, I mourn the passing of one of the greatest presidents the U.S. has seen."

That is very nice. Won over even the Canadians.

BEGALA: Of course, as a gentleman, we probably shouldn't need to know Leslie's age, though, right?

CARLSON: No, we shouldn't.

BEGALA: From the left, I am Paul Begala. That's it for CROSSFIRE.

CARLSON: And from the right, I'm Tucker Carlson. Join us again tomorrow for another edition of CROSSFIRE. See you then.


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