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Remembering President Ronald Reagan
Aired June 11, 2004 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANNOUNCER: This is a special edition of CROSSFIRE: "Ronald Reagan Remembered," a town meeting.
He changed the face of American politics.
RONALD REAGAN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Go ahead, make my day.
ANNOUNCER: Inspired the nation.
REAGAN: We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.
ANNOUNCER: And helped transform the world.
REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!
ANNOUNCER: Today, in a special town meeting, CROSSFIRE asks, what is the legacy of President Ronald Wilson Reagan?
GEORGE H.W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And next, Ronald Reagan was beloved because of what he believed. He believed in America so he made it his shining city on a hill.
ANNOUNCER: How will America remember him?
REAGAN: My friends, we did it. We weren't just marking time. We made a difference.
ANNOUNCER: How will future generations regard him? Which of his achievements will be most long-lasting?
ANNOUNCER: Live from the George Washington University, Paul Begala, Tucker Carlson and Robert Novak.
TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST: Welcome to this special edition of CROSSFIRE.
For the next hour, we remember Ronald Reagan with some of those who knew him best, his friends, his White House advisers, journalists who covered him, and Americans who were inspired by him.
PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST: We are 144 days out from the election. For the next 143, CROSSFIRE will bring you the best in fiery political debate. But this day, we set partisanship aside, as America bids a final farewell to President Ronald Reagan.
Here to get us started, Reagan biographer Peter Hannaford. He worked for then Governor Ronald Reagan as an assistant and as director of public affairs in Sacramento. Also, Congressman Phil Crane of Illinois. He has been in the Congress since 1969 and now continues to serve Illinois there in the Congress. And Congressman David Dreier. He is the Republican chairman of the House Rules Committee. He first met Ronald Reagan back as college student in the 1960s.
Gentlemen, thank you very much.
REP. DAVID DREIER (R), CALIFORNIA: Sixties? It was the '70s. Please. I mean, I know I'm old, but...
CARLSON: But you have been here in Washington, Congressman Dreier, since 1980, the same year that of course President Reagan arrived. And you knew him well. Tell us what he was like.
DREIER: Well, he had this amazing touch.
This week has been challenging. I'm ecstatic, Tucker, to see that Ronald Reagan has been able to bring CROSSFIRE to a town hall status.
CARLSON: It takes a lot.
DREIER: That's something that Ronald Reagan has successfully done here.
He was able to really touch individuals. And I have a very moving story that I'd like to share with you all. In 1985, I had the chance to meet a young Afghan boy who, when he was 8 years old, he was walking out of his home in Afghanistan and headed to a friend's house. And three Soviet Hind-D attack helicopters came down and blew up his home, killing his mother and sister. And then they turned Gatling guns on him.
And he was put on to the back of a mule, taken to Peshawar, Pakistan, the huge refugee camp there, and brought by military airlift. He died on the plane. He was told he would never walk again. And I told President Reagan about this in about 1987 in a meeting at the White House. And he said, David, would you bring him down to meet with me?
And I think we can put up on the screen a photograph that's been on our Web site of my taking Hazrat Khan (ph) to meet with President Reagan. I guess it was in January of 1988. And three weeks ago, Hazrat Khan (ph), who is now 27 years old, became an American citizen. And he's here in the audience today. And I'd like to introduce him.
Stand up, Hazrat.
BEGALA: Everybody give him a...
DREIER: And he was at the service today. He was at the service today. We were able to get him to the cathedral. And he really is a demonstration of the kind of warmth and understanding, coupled with the dedication to bring an end to communism that Ronald Reagan had.
BEGALA: Congressman Crane, let me bring you into this.
A stalwart ally of Ronald Reagan ideologically, conservative Republican, as he was, and yet you ran against him in 1980? What was that like?
REP. PHIL CRANE (R), ILLINOIS: No, he ran against me in 1980.
CRANE: I announced in August of '78. He didn't get in that race until '79.
BEGALA: But a formidable political force he was. What is it like to stand up there toe-to-toe with the Gipper?
CRANE: It was a humbling experience, because I knew I was going to get buried.
CRANE: But, no, the reason I got in that race, I had campaigned for Goldwater aggressively when I was a history professor down at Bradley University.
And I campaigned throughout the Midwest, but especially I campaigned heavily up in Rumsfeld's district, which is the one I sequentially took over. But, during that time, I was impressed, profoundly impressed, with the speech that Ronnie delivered that we got on tape and we got circulated and distributed through all of the Goldwater offices. It was the most eloquent expression of the commitment to the fundamental principles that we embraced that I've ever heard.
And so we were trying to educate people. If Ronnie's for Uncle Barry, you should be, too. At any rate, it was as a result of that that we who were involved in that campaign decided to get Ronnie the nomination in '68. And in the interim, though, he got elected governor out there in California in '66.
DREIER: Thanks to Peter here.
CRANE: And so he wouldn't indicate a willingness to be considered as a candidate until he set his foot on the tarmac down in Miami, a little late.
And so we then geared up to get him the nomination in '76. And I remember, we worked really strenuously to get that nomination. And we lost that by I think it was 12 votes, the biggest heartbreak I've ever experienced in politics. And our feeling was that Ronnie wouldn't do it again.
DREIER: But he sure did. He sure did.
CRANE: Well, I know. But that's the only reason I announced.
BEGALA: Because you thought he might not run?
CRANE: Right. And I told him -- I got him off to one side right after the New Hampshire primary, and we had a little one-on-one. And I explained to him why I was in that race, and that he had my support totally, and my supporters would be behind him 100 percent, but I had to stick it out through Illinois, because, in Illinois...
BEGALA: That was your home.
CRANE: Yes, but, on the ballot, it had my name after their names, and they were all going to take a bath. And I told Ronnie, I had an obligation to take a bath with them.
BEGALA: As much as I like to think of Republicans taking baths together, let me get this young lady here.
BEGALA: What's your question?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My name is Leslie (ph) from Alexandria, Virginia.
Ronald Reagan was known for being a man of faith. And my question is, how did he observe that faith through his life and through his presidency?
CARLSON: Peter Hannaford obviously
PETER HANNAFORD, REAGAN BIOGRAPHER: Well, yes, he was man of deep faith. He believed that God has a plan for every person and that every person is valuable. But he didn't wear his faith on his sleeve.
He'd answer questions about it. He'd enunciate that. But he also -- when he was shot in the assassination attempt and he recovered, he made it clear, he said, that whatever days I have remaining on this Earth belong to the man above.
Well, on that note, just a quick commercial break.
In just a moment, we'll meet someone who was a witness to one of the most critical moments of Ronald Reagan's presidency.
We'll be right back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REAGAN: I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BEGALA: Ronald Reagan using wit and humor to perfection to deflect criticism in the 1984 campaign debate.
We're talking about the late president today in a presidential CROSSFIRE town hall meeting with Reagan biographer Peter Hannaford, with Republican Congressman Phil Crane of Illinois, and Republican Congressman David Dreier of California.
But we have a special guest in the audience, gentlemen, I want to introduce you to. Frederick Bailey is here. Mr. Bailey was the security guard on duty at George Washington University Hospital, about a block from here, when President Reagan was shot.
Mr. Bailey, they brought you in. You were there with the president when he had been shot, right?
FREDERICK BAILEY, GWU HOSPITAL SECURITY OFFICER: I was actually there when the vehicle actually rode up into the emergency room, right.
BEGALA: Tell us what happened. What was he like? He was still -- he was walking, right? He was still conscious?
BAILEY: He was still kind of -- he was walking. The agents were helping him inside of the emergency room, but then he slumped down. And they took him in the back of the ER and immediately started working on him.
BEGALA: What was his mood like, his
BAILEY: He was kind of like kind of slumped down a little bit. You could tell it was a pretty serious situation. At the time, we didn't actually know who was actually coming. And they didn't know if it was some kind of conspiracy at the time and so forth.
But they helped him in the back and they immediately started working on him. And I met him a couple of times. I actually rode up on the elevator with him. And it is true that he liked to make jokes. I don't remember exactly what he said, but I remember him saying something pretty funny and the nurses were laughing and so forth.
CARLSON: Now, Peter Hannaford, you knew and worked, of course, for him long before he was president. When he became president, was he worried about his physical safety?
HANNAFORD: He figured that the Secret Service would take care of him. He always willingly put himself in their hands. And I don't think he consciously thought about his safety.
DREIER: That really was the case.
The other night, I was talking to the surgeon who performed the surgery after you saw him. And he said the credit for saving Ronald Reagan's life has to go to -- I think his last name is Paul (ph), who was the security guy there who saw the little bit of blood as they were headed to the White House and he made the snap decision to go right here to G.W. Hospital to the emergency room.
DREIER: And so it was the Secret Service who in fact did save his life, based on that decision that was made there.
BEGALA: Of course, Congressman Crane, President Reagan did not ever serve in combat, but was shot that day and showed enormous physical courage that day. He showed another kind of physical courage as he told the country 10 years ago as he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. And I know you brought a copy of the letter that he sent.
I brought a copy because not everybody, I'm sure, has seen the letter, and I'd recommend you see the whole letter. But I'd like to read just his last line. He says: "I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that, for America, there will always be a bright dawn ahead. Thank you, my friends. And may God always bless you."
BEGALA: That's a remarkable optimism.
CARLSON: We also have in the audience Congressman John Kline, who, in addition to being a member of the United States Congress, also carried the nuclear football during the Reagan administration.
First of all, tell us, what kind of security clearance do you have to have to carry the nuclear football?
REP. JOHN KLINE (R), MINNESOTA: A high security clearance.
CARLSON: I believe it.
CARLSON: So tell us, what was President Reagan like?
KLINE: He was just a wonderful man.
Those of us who had the privilege and honor of being close to him -- and the duty of carrying the football put you in that proximity virtually every day -- we were constantly uplifted by him. He was the most optimistic person. He had the greatest love for life and for this country of anybody I ever knew.
We were talking about jokes earlier. He was also the very best joke teller that I ever heard. And one of our challenges, those of us who were privileged to be around him, was to scrounge the earth trying to come up with a joke.
KLINE: Because, if you had a joke that you could share with President Reagan on the elevator, out by the horse corral, anywhere you could get him for a few seconds, it was the gold standard.
DREIER: What was your favorite one, John?
KLINE: I will not share that one.
DREIER: Yes, that's what I was afraid of.
KLINE: But thank you, David, for bringing that up. I appreciate that.
BEGALA: This is, after all, a family broadcast. KLINE: The best thing, though, was, if you told him a joke and he repeated it later, then you have reached the absolute pinnacle. Of course, when he repeated it, it was much, much better than our feeble efforts at telling the joke in the first place.
CRANE: Could I comment just a little bit on that subject?
I think one of his great talents was his sense of humor in sitting down with colleagues from the other side of the aisle -- I speak as a Republican -- and...
BEGALA: So far. We're still trying to convert you, though.
CRANE: Democrats were...
CRANE: Well, I view all Democrats as potentially salvageable.
But the fact of the matter is, the Democrats controlled the Congress when Ronnie got elected president, and yet he managed to get passed the biggest tax cut in the history of this country with Democrats in control of the Congress.
And it was because of his ability, the great talent he had to sit down with people. It never got personal, never got bitter. And his sense of humor was an important ingredient in getting people to mutually have a laugh together. And those of you that watched the service today at the National Cathedral, broke up the audience there at the National Cathedral with some of Ronnie's jokes. And everybody in the whole place laughed.
DREIER: For the record, I'd like to say I never called him Ronnie. And Peter probably did, but I never called him Ronnie.
HANNAFORD: No, I didn't.
CARLSON: And what was your favorite joke of President Reagan's?
HANNAFORD: Golly. It's hard to remember one now. There were so many of them.
DREIER: I will give you a couple. My favorite -- one of my very favorites, Tucker, was, hard work never killed anybody, but I figured, why take the chance?
HANNAFORD: Why take the chance?
CARLSON: That's our slogan.
DREIER: Yes, I know. I thought CROSSFIRE could relate to that.
BEGALA: But even more remarkably -- that was a great line, as was the debate line. But as a political aide, I know those are sometimes scripted by bright people who hand them off to him.
I'm more struck that, as he was lying on that operating table, he looked up at the doctors at George Washington University.
BEGALA: And he said, I hope you guys are all Republicans.
BEGALA: No aide could have given him that line. That is brilliant grace under pressure.
DREIER: You know, one of the great lines he had there, Paul, was, two days later, Mike Deaver went into him and said, Mr. President, I want you to know the government is moving smoothly, as usual. He said, what would make you think that would make me happy?
BEGALA: Congressman David Dreier, Peter Hannaford, a former aide to President Reagan and also his biographer, and Congressman Phil Crane of Illinois, thank you very much for doing this.
BEGALA: We'll take a quick break.
And my other colleague on the right, Bob Novak, will join us in just a moment. We will talk about the Reagan presidency with two officials who served under President Reagan in the White House and with a Democrat who brings perspective from the other side of the aisle.
Stay with us.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BEGALA: The federal government is closed today, in honor of President Reagan, a tribute that he would likely really enjoy. His remains left Andrews Air Force Base on a final trip home to California earlier this afternoon.
With us to talk about the Reagan presidency are Richard Allen, who was President Reagan's national security adviser, Tony Coelho, who was a Democratic congressman from Reagan's home state of California in the '80s, and Frank Donatelli, who was White House deputy assistant and political adviser for President Reagan.
Gentlemen, if we could, on this town hall meeting, I want to start with this young man's question here.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Of all of President Reagan's accomplishments, what was he most proud of?
FRANK DONATELLI, REAGAN POLITICAL ASSISTANT: Well, part of that is guesswork, because he had a number of things he was very proud of. And a lot of people will talk about the fall of communism and the revolution in economic policy.
But I think, really, the most long-lasting achievement is making America feel good about itself again. Reagan really was an American exceptionalist, in the sense he talked about John Winthrop and the city on the hill and so forth and so on. And he believed that Americans have a special mission in the world. And I think probably the one thing that he was very, very anxious to change when America came into -- when he came into office was this idea that America's best days were in the past. He strongly believed that America's best days were still ahead.
BEGALA: And Mr. Allen?
RICHARD ALLEN, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, I would just add that -- I certainly agree with that.
People don't often realize that, at any given time, no more than 5 percent of the American electorate pulls the lever because of a foreign policy or national security matter. Sometimes it spikes as high as 11 or 12, as it did in the case in 1980 of the hostages.
But Frank is absolutely right, because what Frank just said really comprehends all of Reagan, including winning the Cold War, belief in oneself, belief in the system, belief in fundamental values, and what some considered to be hokey during the 1980s, a crusade for democracy.
But we seem to forget that Korea is now a democracy and Taiwan is a democracy and the Philippines are a democracy and most of Latin America are democracies. That was Ronald Reagan's really abiding spirit, the move and the push for democracy.
Now, someone who is with us in the audience I want to call on right now is Stan Brand. Stan was a counselor, lawyer for Tip O'Neill. He was on the staff of the House speaker, ardent Democrat from Boston who wound up, Stan, being friends with the Gipper I guess after 6:00?
STAN BRAND, FORMER LEGAL COUNSEL FOR TIP O'NEILL: Well, yes.
I wanted to follow up on the -- Reagan's sense of humor and point out that one of his qualities to me was his ability to take a joke, as well as deliver one.
BEGALA: That's right.
BRAND: We had a lot of tough battles, as Tony will remember, when the Republicans rolled over us in 1980. And we were trying to hold the line on Social Security and hold the line on the tax cuts.
But we had a truce on Saint Patrick's Day. And Tip invited Reagan up to the restaurant for his annual Saint Patrick's Day lunch. And Tip was a great one for needling people in public. And the president came in and he introduced him. And he said, you know, Mr. President, I understand that you have people -- ancestors from Ireland. And I understand that they are from a place called Ballyporeen, which I know very well.
And he said, now, Mr. President, you may not be aware, but Ballyporeen in Gaelic means land of the small potatoes.
BRAND: And Reagan, true to form, took it in stride, laughed, loved it. And while there were a lot of very intense, and I wouldn't say bitter, fights, but hard-fought, there was a -- there was a mutual respect. And there was an admiration.
ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Tony, you were the whip on the minority side -- on the majority side.
TONY COELHO, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Majority side.
NOVAK: Majority side. I keep thinking
NOVAK: ... minority.
COELHO: Then. Those were the days, I'll tell you.
NOVAK: Those were -- I covered those fights. Those were really tough fights. I listened to a lot of the obituaries and so on that kind of indicated it was a sort of golden, fuzzy-wuzzy period. But those were hard fights, particularly because you were losing a lot of your Democrats who were going over, like Phil Gramm and people like that, who eventually became Republicans, going over to the Republican side to vote.
COELHO: Well, what happened, in 1980, we lost philosophical and political control of the House of Representatives. The Senate had went Republican.
And we had the majority, but we couldn't control any vote in the House. And so it was bitter, because here Tip O'Neill was the speaker, but yet he couldn't carry any particular issue. It was very tough, very -- I think that Stan identified it. Tip handled it with humor, but so did Ronald Reagan. But it was a vicious battle going on.
COELHO: And it was to set -- to be honest here, was to set the stage for the '82 elections. We couldn't win any battle, but you had to set the stage. And we did.
NOVAK: Audience question, please. Go ahead.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hi. My name's Josh (ph). I'm from Chicago, Illinois.
And my question was, Reagan made a lot of big decisions as a leader. I was wondering, what do you think was the most difficult for him as an individual to make?
BEGALA: Mr. Allen, probably national security are the toughest calls for any president to make. You were his national security adviser.
ALLEN: Oh, I think his toughest call was raising taxes when he had to.
ALLEN: Even when he had to.
There were not many tough calls at the outset, at any rate, in the field of foreign policy, other than, we had to overcome the opposition of David Stockman, his budget director, in order to get a...
ALLEN: I was always convinced that Tony Coelho and the bad guys put David Stockman in.
NOVAK: We could find out today. Did you put David Stockman in?
BEGALA: ... secret alliance with Stockman back then, Tony?
COELHO: No way.
ALLEN: And argued against the defense budget increases, which were absolutely necessary.
ALLEN: But it's important to remember that Ronald Reagan armed in order to disarm. This is a paradox that is yet not well understood by even historians, but arming to disarm was the essence of his entire strategy.
BEGALA: But, in fact, Mr. Allen, that was controversial even with Republicans. I found an old clip from "The Washington Post," where Dick Cheney, a congressman then, said, if Reagan doesn't cut defense, he becomes the No. 1 special pleader in town. The severity of the deficit is great enough that the president has to reach out and take a whack and that's got to hit defense.
ALLEN: Well, that was written by somebody else, not Vice President Cheney.
BEGALA: That was Dick Cheney. That was Congressman Dick Cheney.
NOVAK: We're going to take a break.
And Ronald Reagan could bring out the best in people. He inspired us with words, with actions. And some people he inspired will share their stories in just a minute.
NOVAK: ...is focusing on the Reagan presidency.
Our guests, former Congressman Tony Coelho, Democrat of California, former Reagan National Security Adviser Richard Allen, and Reagan political adviser, Frank Donatelli.
Dick Allen, I want you to take a look at a picture up here from the primary campaign in 1981. That guy on the left is former Governor Reagan.
NOVAK: I'm on the right. And the guy looking over my shoulder is Reagan's foreign policy adviser, Dick Allen.
And you look worried, like you're -- he is telling me something you don't want him to tell me. This guy had no foreign policy experience. You had a lot of experience. Was that a big concern, what he might say to a reporter?
ALLEN: To a reporter, yes. But, to you, that would be another issue entirely.
ALLEN: But in 1980, by 1980 -- Peter Hannaford was on, on this earlier segment. Pete will attest to this, that, by 1980, in the primary campaigns, when that picture was taken...
NOVAK: 1980 is right.
ALLEN: ... some place on an airplane, Ronald Reagan already had more than enough information in the field of foreign policy and national security than he actually needed, not only to be a candidate, but actually to step into the presidency, because he had spent more time on arms control and disarmament from 1977 through 1980 than probably any other subject.
There were more briefings on national security issues of a complex nature, defense, weapons systems. I might add that one thing we did do was use the Committee on the Present Danger, primarily Democrats of great distinction from prior service, Paul Nitze, Eugene Rostow, and others, Max Kampelman, to brief Reagan.
And with that, we not only enhanced his knowledge, while he had the opportunity to talk to these great experts. That was my job. I was the founding member of the Committee on the Present Danger as well, which was about to be recreated. But he had the opportunity to deny those great Democrats to Jimmy Carter in 1980. It was a huge mistake that the Carter administration made by letting this happen, by not reaching out to those realist Democrats.
They were the original -- I would say the real neoconservatives, not what passes for neoconservatives today.
I want to welcome a special guest here. John Hilboldt is here, who ran, among things -- but he ran the White House Gift Office for President Reagan. And having worked in the White House, I know being president inspires a lot of odd and interesting and wonderful gifts.
What kind of gifts did people give President Reagan?
JOHN HILBOLDT, FORMER WHITE HOUSE GIFT UNIT DIRECTOR: Odd doesn't necessarily describe it, but anything that touched him personally.
We forget that President Reagan, while he knew he was president, while he had a goal for being president, he still thought he was an average American citizen. And so he was struck by average citizens who spent personal time making things, sending them to him. He would then have a photo-op and be fascinated by something. And immediately, we would get several of them back for cataloging and sending the 25,000 that actually got to California for the library out of the few that came.
And there would be a note from his secretary: R.R has taken up to show Mrs. R. He immediately wanted to take and show Mrs. Reagan, this is what somebody made for me, just because they find something very warm and ingratiating to want to do this.
Of course, the foreign gifts got to be much more problematic. We were given a pair of eagles. They made their way to the zoo. Unfortunately, they died. They were given a small baby elephant from Sri Lanka. It made its way to the zoo. It didn't survive long either.
HILBOLDT: But then, when they appeared in Indonesia, our State Department friends were baffled by wanting to have a Komodo dragon brought back with them. They were able to talk them into a sculpture of it, negotiating with the zoo. The zoo got it six months later as a gift to the U.S. and it's doing quite well.
BEGALA: The statue is the only thing that didn't die.
HILBOLDT: Yes, so far.
BEGALA: That's fascinating.
HILBOLDT: But they just loved Ronald Reagan.
You had to be careful. If you said, as he did on one occasion, that what he always wanted as a child was a toy train, 38 of them arrived within the next week.
HILBOLDT: You just had to be careful. So sometimes being scripted was not a bad deal.
BEGALA: That's fascinating. John, thank you for that.
Another piece of Reagan on human level, Tony, you're somebody who has been a leader on behalf of people with epilepsy. As a congressman, he invited down for a lunch in the White House and told you really an amazing story that I've never seen him print anywhere.
COELHO: Well, what happened is that I'm campaign chairman for the House Democrats. My job was to attack Ronald Reagan every day.
COELHO: And the -- so I am doing it. And I get a call from the White House asking me to come down to lunch the next day. I rearrange my schedule. I get their late. They know I'm going to get there late. They show me right into my table. I sit down.
And within a few minutes, Ronald Reagan gets up and he starts speaking. He always starts off with a joke. He said a joke. And then he said, I have a story I want to tell. He said, when I was in Hollywood, I played the role of Grover Cleveland Alexander, a famous baseball pitcher. And in that movie, I projected that Grover Cleveland Alexander was an alcoholic and he would pass out from his drinking.
The facts are -- is that he had epilepsy and he would have seizures. And my biggest mistake was that I didn't take on the studio and I didn't take on the family to tell the truth, because they felt that it was better to be an alcoholic than to have epilepsy.
NOVAK: Frank, do you have a last word on anything?
DONATELLI: Well, the only thing I wanted to say is that Reagan was somebody that was very, very comfortable with himself, as has been said before.
And I remember very, very clearly the last Cabinet meeting that he presided over the day before he left office. They bring the press in. And there's a tremendous buzz around the vice president that day, because he's going to become president. And Reagan...
BEGALA: He's the president-elect.
DONATELLI: He's the president-elect.
And Reagan is looking very bemused, laughing and so forth and so on. Finally, the press leaves and Reagan sits down and says, well, I see there's a lot of interest in George today. He says, that's OK. The country is in very good hands.
And the point was that this was somebody that was a soldier in a cause. It was his time to serve. He had served. He was happy to pass it on.
BEGALA: And seemed to be a person very comfortable with strong people around him, strong people like Frank Donatelli, who advised him on politics, and Richard Allen, who was his national security adviser, and finally across the aisle with my friend Tony Coelho.
Thank you all for sharing with your reminiscences with us today.
(APPLAUSE) BEGALA: You know, one thing that both President Reagan supporters and his opponents agreed on was that he deserved the nickname the great communicator. When we come back, we'll talk to three veteran journalists who covered the Gipper when this very special town hall meeting continues.
CARLSON: Welcome back.
Well, presidents not only develop a relationship with the American people. They also develop a relationship with the dreaded Washington press corps.
Joining us now are three Reagan-era veterans of the fourth estate. Helen Thomas was the White House bureau chief for UPI. CNN's Judy Woodruff was White House correspondent for NBC News from 1977 to 1982. And our Bob Novak was covering Washington back when Ronald Reagan was still acting.
BEGALA: That's true. Thank you all.
CARLSON: We have got an audience question. Let's -- yes?
BEGALA: Do you have a question?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hi. My name is Michelle (ph) from Clearwater, Florida.
And my question is, since the president was in fact an actor, did you feel during press conferences he was often playing a role?
CARLSON: Judy, did you detect that?
JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: I didn't think he was -- I didn't think he was playing a role. But it clearly lent -- gave him the ability to deal with a tough press corps.
He came, as you say, from Hollywood, where the media that covers the Hollywood actors and the rest of the Hollywood community can be very tough. And he was used to being criticized, thumbs up, thumbs down. And so I don't think it was that -- it was that tough for him to make the transition to Washington.
BEGALA: But, Bob, he once told Tim Russert that he was the only president who knew what he looked at photographed from every angle because of his experience in Hollywood. Did you as a print guy have a feeling that he preferred television to you guys?
NOVAK: Oh, there's no question about it, because I met him and I first interviewed him in 1965, before he ran for governor. And I was a guest in his home for dinner, for breakfast. I can't tell you how many interviews.
I did a "Saturday Evening Post" article for him. And he never knew my name. He never knew who the hell...
NOVAK: He knew who I was, but he would never -- and then, in 1981, I started doing a lot of television. I was on "The McLaughlin Group." And in 1980, CNN started, had the -- in 1981, the "Evans & Novak" program started. And, suddenly, I was Bob. He knew me.
NOVAK: And I think seeing the guy in a television set really meant that you were alive. He knew who you were.
CARLSON: Helen Thomas, I always had the sense that not everyone in the press maybe loved Reagan. Do you think he won reporters over with his charm?
HELEN THOMAS, FORMER UPI BUREAU CHIEF: Oh, I think that from his affability and geniality, yes. I think we all thought he was a nice guy. But he also moved the country to the right. And we weren't all in that category.
NOVAK: Some of us were.
THOMAS: There was -- that's true.
There was a Reagan revolution. I think it turned our country into a much more conservative nation, where it remains today. But he was totally at home behind the camera and totally at home with a microphone. He had -- right out of college, he was a radio broadcaster. And you always had that sense that he was totally poised.
NOVAK: And not only that. He wrote -- the period between his governorship and president, when he was running for president, he wrote a syndicated column. And he had a lot more papers than I do. And he...
CARLSON: Were his columns better?
NOVAK: Well, I wouldn't say that. But...
NOVAK: It turns out now that, the material they've shown, that he wrote the column himself. I had thought they were ghost-written, but they weren't, because they have now the documents, handwritten columns by him. And he was a pretty good journalist.
THOMAS: And I think he delivered a speech very well because he really worked on his own speeches.
THOMAS: That doesn't mean he didn't have a prepared draft, but he put it in his own language.
WOODRUFF: He was clear underestimated, though, yes. That's been talked a lot about this week. People looked at him. They thought, oh, B-grade actor out of California? What does he know about public policy? Yes, he was a governor of California, but he got away with it because of his acting skills. He was always underestimated. And I think that's one of the reasons he did so well.
NOVAK: He was a reader, too. He read an awful lot. He read a lot of things that some of his staff didn't want him to read, like "Human Events." He was a voracious reader of "Human Events," a conservative weekly publication.
And I used to go on trips with him. And he would go in a paper and I would see him circling a Reuters dispatch on page 36 out of Pakistan, you know, and he would stick that in his speech.
THOMAS: The best crack I think on being an actor, someone said, how can an actor be a president? He said, how can a president not be an actor?
BEGALA: Let me take this young woman's question.
What's your name and where are you from?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hi, I'm Azmat Khan (ph) from Grand Rapids, Michigan.
And I was just wondering how his public diagnosis and battle with Alzheimer's disease was able to better advancements in research and education in Alzheimer's.
BEGALA: Judy, that's a fight that's probably going to come up as soon as the formal week of mourning is over, don't you think?
WOODRUFF: It is, yes.
I think it's hard to say at this point. Just, it's clear that the fact that Ronald Reagan had Alzheimer's and that it was publicly disclosed 10 years ago brought more attention to the disease, put more pressure I think on the federal government and on scientists to try to do something about it. But right now, you've got the very visible fight that's going on between those who say more embryonic stem cells should be out there. We should have access to those lines to do that research.
Nancy Reagan, of course, has come out and said she's all for it. President Bush is against it. I think we've only begun to hear the rest of that.
NOVAK: And it isn't a question whether you're not -- we don't want to get into that debate tonight -- today -- but it isn't a question of whether you're against research or for research. It's the kind of research you're going to do.
WOODRUFF: And it's federal funding.
NOVAK: And it's a scientific debate, too.
BEGALA: And it's one that we're going to come back to.
But when we come back after this break, I want to come back to the media and Reagan's mastery of it. Every single detail of today's funeral, indeed the entire week of remembrance, was carefully choreographed for the media. When we return, we'll talk more about how the Gipper mastered the media, even after his death.
Stay with us.
CARLSON: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.
We're at our town meeting right here at the George Washington University. We're talking about Ronald Reagan and the media with three people who know the subject well, former UPI White House bureau chief Helen Thomas, former NBC White House correspondent Judy Woodruff, the anchor of CNN's "INSIDE POLITICS," of course, and our very own Bob Novak of CROSSFIRE.
And a question from the audience.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My name is Paul (ph) and I'm from Richmond, Virginia.
My question is this. Considering the type of media coverage that Ronald Reagan had during his years in office, did he ever get frustrated with the lack of privacy?
CARLSON: Judy, did you sense that, that...
WOODRUFF: Not at all.
He had that Hollywood experience with the press. He really never let, as far as I know, the press get to him, except when the press was critical of Nancy Reagan. Then he really -- he got his back up and would complain about it. But when it was about him, he just let it roll off.
Helen, I don't know if you or Bob felt that way.
THOMAS: I think that's basically true.
But he really -- he was very, very angry during the Iran-Contra scandal. He called us sharks in the water circling for blood and so forth. No, I thought -- no, he kept his cool most of the time. And I'm sure there were a lot of things that irritated him.
NOVAK: But the gentleman asked about privacy. I think he got -- he thought the press was unfair on some occasions. But I don't think he was ever worried about privacy. If you're in 56 motion pictures, the last thing you worry about is privacy.
BEGALA: But Helen mentioned the Iran-Contra problems. But before that happened, he got remarkably favorable press coverage.
THOMAS: With total control of information at the White House.
THOMAS: It was one message of the day. They made sure that we stuck to that. Total control. It was managed, raised it to state-of- the-art. That was it.
BEGALA: I admire that, frankly.
THOMAS: I don't.
BEGALA: I used to try to do that for another president.
THOMAS: I think that's terrible. That's what you tried to do, isn't it?
BEGALA: Yes, it's called actually delivering a message. Yes, it's actually believing in something, which is unusual I think for the media.
But President Reagan did believe in something. And he hired Mike Deaver to try to express that to the American people. This is what Deaver wrote about that.
THOMAS: I think you should tell the truth at the White House.
BEGALA: Of course you should.
BEGALA: And here's what Michael Deaver said. And this is, I believe, the truth: "President Reagan enjoyed the most generous treatment by the press of any president in the postwar era. He knew it and liked the distinction."
He did get good press and he was pretty proud of it, wasn't he, Judy?
WOODRUFF: I think there was some tough coverage, though.
NOVAK: Oh, yes.
WOODRUFF: I don't think we want to completely gloss this over.
There were news conferences where he would get a lot of things wrong, and then there would be a story the next day. And the White House would
WOODRUFF: We all are familiar with those stories.
THOMAS: And they would come around and say, what he meant to say was...
NOVAK: The press coverage this week has been so -- you know, a guy dies, you don't say the negative. But they don't go back to 1981, his first year, when they had a -- the only year he really had a big cut in spending to go along with the tax cut. And there was a lot of negative stories about the world coming to an end because he cut some bureaucrat's pay a little bit. And there was...
THOMAS: No, because he cut social programs.
NOVAK: Well, that's what you say. I put it a different way.
I think what was worried was the bureaucrats and the social welfare workers. And I think that you and a lot of reporters bought into that.
THOMAS: What do you mean?
CARLSON: I think we have got a new CROSSFIRE topic on Monday. We'll invite you back, Helen Thomas.
First, we're going to go to our audience.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hi. I'm Brian (ph) from Dodge City, Kansas.
My question is, did the media accurately portray the Reagan administration? And, furthermore, was one aspect of the media having a kind of bias?
CARLSON: What do you think, Judy?
WOODRUFF: Did the media accurately portray -- was that the question -- the Reagan administration?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. Was there any bias?
WOODRUFF: I think for the most part.
Sure, there were reporters. We've all heard the accusations about a liberal press. I'm sure there were some reporters who didn't give Reagan a fair shake. But I think, by and large, the public got what was going on. They understood the cuts he was trying to make. They certainly understood the buildup in the Defense Department. They understood what he was trying to do with the Soviet Union. And I think a lot of that is because he put his goals in very simple terms. And people understood that.
BEGALA: Bob, isn't there a lesson in that for conservatives of today?
Ronald Reagan succeeded. There was no Rush Limbaugh. There was no right-wing cable network. There was no talk radio dominance. There was no "American Spectator." There wasn't any of this right- wing stuff that the conservatives have today. And yet all they do today is whine. The Gipper didn't whine. He dealt with the dominant media and he dominated them. Shouldn't conservatives today try to learn from that?
THOMAS: He did. And they also had a secret program to spend $1 trillion on new weapons program, which I admit hastened the demise of the Soviet Union.
NOVAK: It certainly did.
THOMAS: But this was a big secret for five years, a five-year program, secret at the Pentagon.
NOVAK: Well, I will say this, that the press corps -- and Helen will agree with me, I believe -- the press corps overwhelmingly disagreed with what Ronald Reagan was after.
And he didn't have Rush Limbaugh and people like that. But he was very effective in getting the message out himself. And you say that -- you criticize Mike Deaver for being manipulative. And...
BEGALA: I don't. I think he did a great service.
(CROSSTALK) BEGALA: I like Mike Deaver.
NOVAK: But I would say that he was dealing with a press corps that wasn't hostile to the president personally, but they were hostile to his ideas. And I think you have got to use all the weapons you can to try to get the message out to the American people.
CARLSON: Now, is it true, Helen Thomas, that during press conferences, President Reagan called on female reporters wearing red? Do you think that's true?
THOMAS: No. There was just one gag evening where everybody decided to wear red because they heard that he liked red on his wife. And so men wore red ties, and women wore red dresses and blouses and so forth. But the winner was the woman who held up a mitten, a red mitten.
BEGALA: Judy, how did you prepare for a press conference with Reagan, knowing how gifted he was, but also the rap that he didn't really have the specifics down? He often did misstate facts. Did you try to get a more specific...
WOODRUFF: Well, he didn't have that many news conferences, first of all,. There weren't that many formal chances that we had to ask him questions.
BEGALA: Compared to today's president, a whole lot more, though. He was fairly successful.
WOODRUFF: Well, that's true.
WOODRUFF: But after Reagan, George Bush, H.W. Bush, the first Bush president, Mr. Bush, had many more news conferences. Bill Clinton had a good number of news conferences. I think they were...
THOMAS: Not all prime-time, but they were
NOVAK: I think it's another canard that he got facts wrong. All presidents and even all journalists, Helen, make mistakes.
THOMAS: Don't look at me.
NOVAK: Look at me. Look at me.
BEGALA: Once you've been in the game for a while, you might make a mistake.
NOVAK: I have made a few mistakes. And politicians do.
But I think he was remarkable. Rowly and I interviewed him early in his presidency, and he started citing just -- he didn't have any talking points or anything. He didn't have an aide with him. And he started citing budget figures for the last 10 years. And so were taking -- on a tape -- and we checked them. And they were -- they were right on the nose right to the minute.
He knew a lot more than he was given credit for and I think given credit for by the media. I think he was a lot smarter and a lot more knowledgeable than most of us were.
BEGALA: On that happy note, Mr. Novak will be back in just a second.
But, Helen Thomas, thank you very much.
Judy Woodruff from CNN's "INSIDE POLITICS," thank you very much.
WOODRUFF: Thank you.
THOMAS: Thank you.
BEGALA: Bob Novak himself was inside the National Cathedral for today's funeral service. He will share his thoughts when this special edition of CROSSFIRE returns.
BEGALA: Welcome back.
Bob Novak rejoins Tucker and me for some final thoughts.
Bob, you were at the funeral today at National Cathedral.
NOVAK: This is the fourth presidential funeral that I've been around.
The first was Eisenhower's -- well, I guess the first was the Kennedy's, actually. Kennedy's was special because he was -- it was such a tragedy. But this was something far better than the Eisenhower and Nixon funerals. It was -- there was just a sense of history. There wasn't any doubts of whether -- in the case particularly of the Nixon funeral, whether there -- there was something wrong with the guy.
And I thought the president, who sometimes messes up his speeches, did a beautiful speech. And his father gave a very graceful speech. And I thought John Danforth, who's the U.S. ambassador- designate to the United Nations, who's the Episcopalian priest who ran what was an Episcopalian service, and he did a beautiful job.
BEGALA: Bob Novak, thank you very much.
From the left, I am Paul Begala. That's it for this very special CROSSFIRE.
NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak.
CARLSON: And from even farther out on the right, I'm Tucker Carlson. Join us again next week for another edition of CROSSFIRE.
"WOLF BLITZER REPORTS" starts right now. Have a great weekend.
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