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PAULA ZAHN NOW
Remembering Ronald Reagan
Aired July 5, 2004 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
PAULA ZAHN, HOST: Tonight, his death brought a nation together.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RONALD REAGAN, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I, Ronald Reagan, do solemnly swear.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We know, as he always said, that America's best days are ahead of us.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZAHN: Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals set aside differences to honor the man. Now one month after the death of Ronald Reagan, our 40th president, we look back at the intimate memories of a son.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICHAEL REAGAN, SON OF RONALD REAGAN: You all loved him as president. I loved him as my dad.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZAHN: The private letters of a friend.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was not a typical politician.
ZAHN: An emotional and moving tribute.
Good evening. Thanks so much for joining us.
Across the country today, flags were raised to full staff for the first time since the death of President Reagan one month ago. It marks the end of the official period of mourning.
No matter what your political leaning, his death made us all remember that we are Americans. For a week, as the memorials moved from California to Washington and back, we brought you memorable interviews with people who had unique insights about our 40th president. Some of those interviews moved us so much, we thought we'd share them with you again on this long Independence Day weekend.
We start with Michael Reagan. He spoke to us right after all the farewells, the president's oldest son who gave such a moving eulogy to his dad.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
M. REAGAN: Good evening, I'm Mike Reagan. You knew my father as governor, as president, by I knew him as dad. I want to tell you a little bit about my dad.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZAHN: They were poignant words dramatically delivered at sunset by Michael, Ronald Reagan's oldest son.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
M. REAGAN: Ronald Reagan adopted me into his family in 1945. I was the chosen one. I was the lucky one. In all his years, he never mentioned that I was adopted either behind my back or in front of me. I was his son, Michael Edward Reagan.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZAHN: Ronald Reagan and his first wife, Jane Wyman, adopted Michael when he was an infant. Despite the seemingly perfect family portrait, Ron and Jane divorced just four years later. Wyman kept custody of the children.
Reagan remarried soon after in 1952 to Nancy Davis. They went on to have their own children. Michael complained in his 1988 memoir that he and his sister Maureen were raised by maids and nannies.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
M. REAGAN: I was an angry kid. I didn't spend much time with my parents when I was growing up. I was put away in boarding schools.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZAHN: During his teens, Michael returned home to live with his family. Later, he would join his father on the campaign trail during his run for governor and in the 1980s during his presidential bid.
But despite appearances, there was a distance within the family. Some years later when his father was elected president, Michael rarely visited the White House. President Reagan did not even meet Michael's daughter Ashley until she was 18 months old.
Over the years, there were reports that Michael was estranged from other members of his family, especially from his sister Maureen and stepmother Nancy. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
M. REAGAN: Yes, we're back everybody.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZAHN: In the 1980s, Michael found his own success and his own audience as a conservative radio talk show host in southern California. He also forged a new relationship with his father.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
M. REAGAN: You know, I had always griped about my dad had never hugged me, never told me he loved me or anything. And one day, I woke up and said when was the last time I loved him? When was the last time I hugged him? I never had.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZAHN: Ronald Reagan once wrote to his eldest son. "Mike, you know better than many what an unhappy home is and what it can do to others. Now you have a chance to make it come out the way it should."
"There is no greater happiness for a man than approaching a door at the end of the day knowing someone on the other side of that door is waiting for the sound of his footsteps. Love, Dad. P.S. You'll never get in trouble if you say 'I love you' at least once a day.'"
A love that ultimately brought the Reagans together as their patriarch was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. Together in his final moments. Together as they said goodbye.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
M. REAGAN: I'm so proud to have the Reagan name and to be Ronald Reagan's son. What a great honor.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZAHN: And Michael Reagan joins us now. Always good to see you. Welcome.
M. REAGAN: Thank you, Paula.
ZAHN: How are you holding up?
M. REAGAN: Holding up pretty, I mean it's as well as I think can be expected. It's easier to hold up, though, when you, you know, you have the support of a lot of friends and what have you. The cards and letters that we have gotten at our homes has been tremendous. And so, we spend a lot of time going through all the cards that we've gotten. And that's kind of a nice support system.
Our friends have -- some have made dinner for us and come over to the house. And so we're not like there alone just kind of dwelling, that we're able to be with some friends. And that's nice. You find out who your friends are at a time like this.
ZAHN: You certainly do. If you would reflect on the week of your father's state funeral and the commemorations that sprung up all over the country. What stands out in your mind?
M. REAGAN: You know, there's a couple of things that stand out. I mean, other than just the outpouring of people, which was absolutely tremendous, there was a father and a son. The son was probably four- years old, standing in the median of the freeway as we drove from the library out to Point Magu on that Wednesday before we went back to Washington, D.C. And the father and son standing at attention.
I thought here's a little boy who no more than four-years old, five-years old. The only thing he knows about my father is what has been told to him by his dad. And there they were, you know, saluting.
The fire trucks on the overpasses of the freeway with the firemen standing at attention on their trucks as the American flag was unfurled between their ladders was so moving to us. And, of course, all the outpouring of people between, you know, point A and point B, wherever that might be.
It was tremendous to be able to see it. And it had such a great effect. And I think on my children, that Cameron and Ashley were able to really understand, maybe for the first time, how wonderful a grandfather they had and how much he meant to the world.
ZAHN: Your father was much beloved. And, yet, did some of this outpouring and support come as a surprise to you?
M. REAGAN: Oh, yes. I mean, you expect some. I don't think we expected, any of us, the literally hundreds of thousands of people that would show up. I mean, you don't -- I mean, maybe you hope for it. And people say, you know, we want to remember, but the way it was, the national day of mourning the president of the United States made on that Friday.
G.W. BUSH: We know as he always said that America's best days are ahead of us. But with Ronald Reagan's passing, some very fine days are behind us. And that is worth our tears.
M. REAGAN: The people from the cathedral -- National Cathedral going out to Andrews Air Force Base or from Point Magu to the library, yes, it was tremendous. And it was a tremendous surprise in many ways to us.
But at the same time, it was such a great support system to us, to be able to see it and just see the outpouring. And I know it was -- it meant so much to Nancy and to myself and Patti and Ron, too.
ZAHN: There's been so much talk about that week neither being a Democratic moment or a Republican moment, but an American moment.
M. REAGAN: Mm-hmm. ZAHN: If you would, share your thoughts with us tonight about that.
M. REAGAN: It truly was. It was an American moment. I mean, we're able to honor one of our presidents who had passed away.
And my father's one of those people that, you know, the only reason he got elected governor twice and president twice is because he was able to really reach across party lines. He was respected on both sides.
People argued and debated his policies all the time. They always do. But at the end of the day, everybody respected Ronald Reagan. He was able to make friends out of his enemies.
I mean, the fact that at the National Cathedral sitting behind my daughter Ashley and my son Cameron was Mikail Gorbachev. Who would have ever thought of that?
Back in the early 1980s when my father was referring to it as an evil empire, that here Mikail Gorbachev would be part at my father's state funeral. And to see that, and to be part of it, and to see how America can come together at points in time and show respect and show honor for one of their fallen presidents, I thought, was tremendous that the world was able to see that with all the arguments that take place in America because of our freedom of speech, that we can, at times, come together. And I think it was good for everybody to see.
ZAHN: It's one thing as a son to see a nation honor your father's legacy, but it's another thing to have delivered the deeply personal eulogy you delivered at the library. As a son, what got to your core the most?
M. REAGAN: Oh, the eulogy, talking about that. You know, I thought about that all week.
M. REAGAN: You knew my father as governor, as president. But I knew him as dad. I want to tell you a little bit about my dad.
M. REAGAN: What do I say? How do I take 59 years of my life with my dad and put it into four or five minutes that I have and then I'm going first? And my worry was how do I get through it.
And all week long, we'd heard about my father, the president, what he had accomplished. Margaret Thatcher and President Bush and the other President Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, Mulroney and those people. And I thought I got to tell them about my dad. I just got to tell them about my dad because you all loved him as president. I loved him as my dad.
And I just wanted to get part of that out there so people could see, with all of the things that had been said about our family, how we've never been together and that we've gone apart or whatever.
You know, there's one thing that's been consistent in this family and you know it, Paula, we all love Ronald Reagan. And I want to just bring that to the table and just tell you a little bit about him. And I was glad I was just able to get through it and be able to share it with the American people, my deep love for my father and what he had done for me, and what he had given me that maybe I didn't see when I was younger but I certainly saw and respected as I got older.
ZAHN: You told this beautiful story about one family turning into two when your parents got divorced and the sense of anticipation you would have on weekends...
M. REAGAN: Yes.
ZAHN: ...when you could see your father Ronald Reagan, rounding the corner to come spend time with you.
M. REAGAN: You know, interesting enough, it's not more than a half a mile from where he was living when he passed away. Just down Beverly Glen.
And you know, I was in boarding school. When I was 5 1/2 years old, I started boarding school. My sister was already in boarding school before me. And I missed my mom and my dad. I missed my dad terribly because they -- my mom and dad broke up when I was three.
But on Saturdays, that was the day I got to be with my dad. And you know, and I would sit there on the curb at 333 South Beverly Glen and wait for that station wagon to turn the corner, and wait for him to pull up with a smile on his face and tell me to get in the car. And Maureen and I would pile into the car.
We'd play a game called Beaver going out to the ranch and coming back. And Beaver was any station wagon that had wood sides. Back in the 1950s, there was woodies. And so, if it had a wood side, it was Beaver, Beaver.
And dad always kept count in his head. And by the time we got almost to the ranch and almost home, he figured out who was ahead, who was behind. And he would play on whoever was behind, he would play on their team. And whenever we ended the trip, it'd be a tie. It would just end up to be a tie.
And that was the games we played, you know, in the car, going to and from the ranch. And of course, we'd get out to the ranch and swim, and ride horses, or just as I said, sit and watch him. But Saturdays was the day to be with my dad. And boy, I loved it.
ZAHN: What a special memory.
When we come back, my conversation with Michael Reagan turns to the Reagans and their family divisions.
TIME STAMP: 2016:25
ZAHN: Welcome back. We continue now with my conversation with Michael Reagan, the eldest son of the late Ronald Reagan.
ZAHN: Michael, you mentioned one thing before we went to the break. And you talked about some of the friction that has existed in your family over the years. And you said there was one unifying factor in your family and that was the love of your father. Help us better understand the journey your family took to get to that point?
M. REAGAN: Well, I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that he had a terrible disease, Alzheimer's Disease, incapacitated and not able to be the father to us that he once was, not able to maybe recognize us as he wasn't able to recognize us at the very end. And we all watched him go through this.
And you know, all of a sudden, he was the child and we were the parent. It puts a new perspective on things. And that was important to all of us.
And seeing Nancy, who, you know, we've all kind of, you know, had our relationships, been with her, been against her. And over the years, who, you know, in many ways, was reaching out and taking care of dad as she was, you know, 24 hours a day and having the nurses and the doctors there.
I was so lucky and so happy, Paula, that I was able to, before dad got so deep into the Alzheimer's, to get our relationship really where it should have been. You heard me talk about the hugs. And certainly those hugs just meant a whole lot to both of us in his final years and me, as even I kissed and hugged him in his casket there at the library, the Rotunda and back at the library here a couple of weeks ago.
Patti was able to finally find her way back into the fold and have that relationship with Nancy and finally build a relationship, even though dad was in Alzheimer's with her dad and understand who he was and what he was and how important he was. And that was just wonderful to see.
So that I think dad would of wanted it the way it ended. He would of asked and said, "Gosh, who are all of these people out here for?" And been surprised at the outpouring of love for him because he never patted himself on the back.
But I think he would have been proud and smiling. I think he was when we laid him to rest because his family was together. His wife, his Nancy, his daughter Patti, his son Ron, and his other son Michael, I think that would have made him so proud. And I think that was a great gift to be able to give dad at the end, send him off, having the kids all together, all loving him, and all surrounding Nancy there at the casket.
ZAHN: Given the amount of attention you described over the years, were you surprised you were able to get to that point? A lot of families don't. They don't heal that way. M. REAGAN: I think because a lot of families, Paula, wait for somebody else to make the first move. They sit back so often and say, well, I'm right, they're wrong, they owe me a phone call! I felt that same way. That's why I can say that.
And I remember back in early 1990s, '91, I was feeling the same way. And my dad had never told me he loved me or that he really cared about me. I knew he did, but he never said it. And I needed voice to me.
And one day, I was - literally I was praying about it. And it was like God spoke to me and said, Michael, when was the last time you told your dad you loved him? And I realized in my whole life until 1991, Paula, I never told my dad I loved him.
M. REAGAN: He knew I loved him, but I never said, "Dad, I love you."
ZAHN: Why do you think that is, Michael?
M. REAGAN: I don't know - maybe because he never said it to me, so I never learned to say it back to him.
ZAHN: And why don't you think he told you he loved you?
M. REAGAN: I think he comes from a generation where it's hard for a guy to tell another guy, "I love you." I think that's tough for his generation sometimes.
And so, I swore the next time I saw him I would give him a hug and tell him I loved him. And he came down to my radio show in San Diego, KSDO. And he came to be interviewed by me for his book "An American Life."
And when he walked into the green room, I got up and I went in there to greet him. And I put my arms around him for the first time. And I gave him a hug and I said, "Dad, I love you."
And the first time in my life, he said to me, "And I love you, too.". And I'd began the process of hugging him every time I saw him. I would hug him and tell him I love him.
And then, Paula, as he went deeper and deeper into Alzheimer's, he could no longer voice my name, he would recognize me with his eyes. I was the man, when he saw me, I was the guy that hugged him. And he would open up his arms to me, waiting for that hug hello or the hug goodbye.
And one time as I left the house with my wife, Colleen. And I was almost to the car. Colleen said to me, "Michael, you forgot something." I said what? She said turn and look at the doorway. And I turned to look at the door of the house there in Bel Air. And he had followed me all the way from the den, not able to voice my name. I mean here he is. And he's, all the way. And he had followed me. And here he was standing in the doorway of his house with his arms opened up, waiting for that hug I had forgotten. And I ran back and I just gave him the hug.
It was such - it's such a blessing. And it was me that looked inward and said, "What can I do to change the dynamic?" Instead of saying, "What should he do to change the dynamic?" And once I made the decision that I was going to change, everything changed.
ZAHN: And because you were able to get to this point where there was a reconciliation, or at least the acceptance of each other's love, what is it then that you will miss the most about your father?
M. REAGAN: Stories. The great stories he used to tell us all. Just life stories about, you know, whatever it was. You know, tell us how a watch was made.
Or a simple little story when I was a kid, Paula, he took a cube of sugar one day. And he opened up a cube of sugar. And he said, "Do you see this little tear in the paper?" And I said yes. He says, "Do you know that when they originally started putting paper around cubed sugar, it would disintegrate within the paper?" And some guy came along and said "You have to put a slit in the paper to allow air to get to it and that way it will stay in solid form." You know that happened to me about the time I was five. To this day, I open up every cube of sugar paper and I look to see if there is a tear in the paper. And you know, most of the time...
ZAHN: Who knew Ronald Reagan, the scientist?
M. REAGAN: Most of the time, there is. But he would just tell us stories about so many things about life. A story - you know, he sat Maureen and I down. You know, Maureen who you knew. He sat Maureen and I down when we were 12-years old. Her 12 and four years later, me. And said you know, let me tell you about smoking and drinking. It's a bad, terrible thing for you. But I'm willing to do this for you, kids. When you turn 21, if haven't smoked or drank, I'll give you $500. Well, that was a lot of money.
ZAHN: Sure, a windfall.
M. REAGAN: You know, Maureen thought $500. I think Maureen made it like 13 or 14. I don't know. But...
ZAHN: And how about you, Michael? Did you make it to 14 or 15?
M. REAGAN: I made it till 18...
M. REAGAN: But I felt the lesson was he never was going to have to write the check. However, he figured that the more mature we were when we started, the better we'd be able to handle it. So I do the same thing with my kids, but I raised the ante, figuring with inflation, you never have to write the check. I just wrote a check to my daughter for $5,000 on her 21st birthday because she didn't smoke or drink. ZAHN: Wow, way to go, dad.
M. REAGAN: And so you know, the beat goes on. And yes, I had to write the check. She took the check, too. And she didn't smoke or drink until she was 21, which is great. Now I don't know if the story had anything to do with it, but the fact she didn't. But it was something my dad handed to me. And I said that's a great story.
ZAHN: No doubt a lesson that will be passed on to the next generation of Reagans.
When we come back, a new controversy for the Reagans, the debate over the use of stem cells to help find a cure for Alzheimer's and other diseases.
TIME STAMP: 2027:22
ZAHN: Welcome back. One month after the death of Ronald Reagan, we look back at some of the remarkable words said after his death. More now from my emotional conversation with Reagan's oldest son, Michael.
ZAHN: Michael, let's talk about Nancy Reagan for a moment. There's a lot of speculation that she will become actively involved in the battle to push for stem cell research. What kind of a role do you think she'll play, particularly when there is such a tough balancing act with where the Republican party stands on this issue?
M. REAGAN: Well, she'll be a lightning rod because of who she is. I mean, she'll be a lightning rod as people are already, you know, finding out.
NANCY REAGAN, FMR. FIRST LADY: We can't share the wonderful memories of our 52 years together. And I think that's probably the hardest part. And because of this, I'm determined to do what I can to save other families from this pain.
M. REAGAN: She took care of her husband for 10 years. She knows what it is to deal with someone who has this disease. So give her, you know, give her the leeway.
And I think people trying to play politics are doing a disservice to everybody. Understand where she's coming from. And you have to be there.
M. REAGAN: You have to have been there and had to deal with this 24 hours a day to understand where she's coming from. So now is not the time to play politics with it. It's time to say, hey, Nancy, we understand.
ZAHN: So basically, Michael, what you're telling us tonight is she's willing to take the risk and alienating other Republicans to push for what she thinks is the right thing?
M. REAGAN: To her, it's not a Republican, Democrat issue. It's a life issue. That's exactly, you know, what it is.
And listen, I'm not going to go up to Nancy and say gosh, you're absolutely wrong. You've got to take a political stand on this. No, that's - I'm not going to ask her to do this. Listen, she took enough political stands during her life being married to the 40th president of the United States of America. I think they've proven their worth to the world, to America, that we live in. It's a better place, you know, because of it.
I'll be the one who takes political stands. I'll do that and enjoy doing it and understand both sides at the same time.
ZAHN: And finally, your family had to endure so much as you basically watched your father so slowly disintegrate in front of you. Just a thought to the audience. Many of our audience members are confronting this disease as well, is what's the hardest part was for you to confront of all of this?
M. REAGAN: Just watching someone you love go through it, that's the hardest part. Somebody so vibrant and so alive. A little bit of that person going away each and every day. That's very tough to be able to watch. And you do, you find yourself praying that, you know, it's time to go. You can leave now.
And you sit back and say why did he last so long? And I think he lasted so long so that the family could finally be together at the end.
ZAHN: You can't hear those words without thinking of your own family and the tragedy of seeing someone you love slip away. My special thanks to Michael Reagan for sharing his time with us.
When we come back, Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, the passionate letter writer.
ZAHN: And welcome back. The sound bite, the quotes, the one- liners, even the occasional mistake that seemed to distill Ronald Reagan's presidency. Phrases like "evil empire," "tear down this wall," "there you go again."
But what few of us understood then was that this president was a man who loved to write. Reagan, the actor, had learned from Hollywood how to get the most out of the written word, and what he wrote in thousands of letters shows us the depth of his thinking and the warmth in his heart. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
ZAHN (voice-over): President Reagan was unquestionably a man of words, writing more than 5,000 personal letters in his lifetime: letters to his loving wife, his famous Hollywood friends, influential world leaders and Rudy.
It began in 1984 with this letter from President Reagan. "I was delighted," Reagan wrote, "to see your letter on my desk today. I am proud to have you as my pen pal."
President Reagan had visited a local elementary school that his White House was adopting. The principal selected one very lucky first grader, Rudy Hines, to be the president's pen pal.
You might think a couple of letters would be exchanged, and then it would be over, but in this case, something quite extraordinary happened. Ronald Reagan and Rudy Hines exchanged letters, hundreds of letters, for more than seven years.
For this inner city boy, it was an education. Rudy got a glimpse of politics and history and diplomacy through the prism of his pen pal, the president. But perhaps more importantly, Rudy gained an advisor, a mentor, a lifelong friend.
Reagan gave him advice on everything from homework to friendships. These letters were filled with stories about the president's dogs, his hobbies, even the doodles he made in high-level meetings.
And it wasn't just letters. President Reagan often sent photographs, as well: the president and the first lady at the Great Wall of China, the president at the ranch, the president with world leaders. And on the back of each picture, a handwritten note from Reagan to his friend Rudy.
Through the years, Rudy and the family made dozens of trips to the White House, including one to celebrate the president's birthday. Rudy came with balloons and cupcakes in hand for his friend.
And then in 1984, the president and first lady turned the tables when he and Nancy stopped by Rudy's home for dinner. A little different from the steak dinners Nancy became famous for.
STEPHANIE LEE, RUDY'S MOTHER: Fried chicken and rice and salad. And he seemed to enjoy it.
ZAHN: A quiet fried chicken dinner on the living room couch in front of the TV.
Now, 20 years after the correspondence first began, these letters and photos are not just keepsakes, but cherished memories of a young boy and his very devoted pen pal.
ZAHN: Joining us now, all grown up, is Rudolph Hines, along with his mother, Stephanie Lee.
Great to have both of you with us tonight.
RUDOLPH HINES, PEN PAL WITH RONALD REAGAN: Thank you.
LEE: Thank you.
ZAHN: What a piece of history. I've been looking through this book, and you have not only pictures that the president took the time to sign on the back and tell you who was in the pictures but dozens of dozens of letters that he wrote to you over the years.
We want to look at an excerpt right now from the first letter that he wrote to you, dated March 20, 1984. And the handwriting, the "P.S." at the bottom reads, "I was so pleased to get your letter, I got excited and started to sign my name in the wrong place."
Clearly, the president was trying to have fun with you. You were only 6 years old at the time.
ZAHN: Were you surprised at how he was able to connect with you?
HINES: I was surprised that he took the time to sit down and write a letter. I was just a 6-year-old kid, really.
ZAHN: He was a good letter writer, wasn't he?
HINES: Yes, he was. Yes, he was.
ZAHN: I want to share with our audience another letter that was dated April 9, 1984, where the president said, "You said that one of your hobbies was painting. That's fine and it's something you can get a lot of pleasure from throughout your life. I didn't paint when I was your age, but I like to do draw cartoons and still do. What I do is called doodling, and usually it's done when I'm in a meeting of some kind. I've enclosed a few from a recent meeting."
What did you think of his doodles?
HINES: They were pretty good, actually. Unfortunately, I was never as good of an artist as he was. But the doodles he sent me -- I think there were four different ones on one page -- they were quite good, quite good.
ZAHN: Did you have any idea at that stage during your life, because you were basically a little kid what the impact of this communication meant?
HINES: I didn't really make a big deal of it at the time. I knew who he was, that he was president. But he was just a friend that I wrote letters to. He just happened to be the president.
ZAHN: Just happened to be the president. Now, Mom, you had to know what a big deal this was. That a president that had so much to do would take time out of his day to, in many cases, personally handwrite the letter.
LEE: Well, the grown-ups around Rudolph at that time were quite flabbergasted. They were -- they were totally impressed and just gaga with the fact that he was signing them and writing them and sending him pictures and everything.
ZAHN: And it, obviously, was something that the president did because he wanted to do it. He wasn't doing this for show.
ZAHN: That had to get you right here?
LEE: It did. It -- it probably had more of an impact on us as the months passed and we saw exactly what was coming. They were quite prolific in their writing to each other, and we were very amazed at what was coming -- what was coming in the ordinary mail for Rudolph.
The mailman would just get a real quick out of delivering the mail and leaning it up against the door and said, "Got another letter from the president today!" The mailman was a trip, but we, the neighbors and the family, clearly enjoyed the whole process.
ZAHN: So the president not only sent you letters; there was one Christmas where he sent you a check. But you never cashed it, did you?
HINES: No, I did not. I did not. We still have it.
ZAHN: And we have a picture of it. Why didn't you cash it?
LEE: Actually, he got the money. His dad and I gave him the money, but we kept the check. The accountant, I think, called about six months later and said, "Are you guys going to cash the check?" And we said no.
ZAHN: And what a piece of history they have. When we come back, my conversation continues. The night President Reagan and the first lady dropped by Rudy and his mother's house for dinner.
ZAHN: We return to my conversation with two people who have a very different perspective of Ronald Reagan.
President Reagan chose Rudolph Hines as a pen pal when Hines was in elementary school. He and his mother, Stephanie Lee, share their memories.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) ZAHN: Now, one of the best parts of your history is that you actually invited the president to eat at your home with the first lady. How did that come about?
LEE: Rudolph sent a letter to the president. He asked the president if he'd like to come over and have dinner. Actually, it was supposed to be at his grandmother's house, because she had a vegetable garden that year.
And he says, but, "If you want to come, please call in advance so my mom can get the laundry up off the floor." I was totally mortified by that, but I didn't -- the letter went out to the president, and I didn't give it a second thought.
ZAHN: So when he arrived, what was it like?
LEE: Not when he arrived. When they called and said that can he come? It was absolutely -- And I said, well, I need a day to clean up. I need a day to kind of straighten up a little bit. Borrow some furniture. Cook some food!
And he came. It was amazing. Absolutely amazing.
ZAHN: Describe to us how the president behaved. He didn't get out of the White House all that often. In fact, he often talked about feeling in prison in the White House and he wished he could have more opportunities to do what he did with the two of you.
Was he relaxed?
LEE: He -- he really was. We had gotten some information that said, "Please do what you normally do in your home," and we normally ate on trays, because we lived in a small apartment. And they said, "Fine, just do that."
And so that's what we did. We had TV trays, and we served them on that. And they talked, and they were so casual. It was like bringing family over and tucking them in the sofa and letting them eat. It was great.
ZAHN: Did you dress up that night?
LEE: Are you kidding me? It was summertime and it was hot. And we dressed accordingly. So it was fun.
ZAHN: So, Stephanie, do you remember what you talked about?
LEE: They actually talked about their life in the White House, what it was like to have family in the White House. They had talked about their early years.
Mrs. Reagan told this story about how she used to be a nurse's aide at a hospital and she was instructed to bathe this patient. And the patient had a sheet over them. And she said she gave that patient a really, really good bath. And when the supervisor came back to her and said, "Well, why did you bathe that patient?" She said, "Because you told me to."
And she says her, "No, that patient is dead. You were supposed to do the one next to it."
We were on the floor. I mean, it was just totally hilarious.
She was very comfortable. She was sitting back on the sofa, sort of tucked into the corner. And they were animated about very ordinary things: about him being a lifeguard, about growing up in Illinois. We were very much enchanted, very much so.
ZAHN: How great that they could be so at ease with all of you. And of course, meanwhile, the neighborhood is going nuts!
ZAHN: Let me share with our audience another letter the president wrote to you after you asked him a number of questions about his relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev and the U.S. relationship with the Soviet Union.
The president wrote, "I don't have many answers to your questions about Gorbachev's family or his hobbies. We never got around to that kind of conversation, possibly because all our talk had to be through interpreters. You're right, it would be better if he could understand our language or, of course, if I could talk Russian. Just between us on another subject, I was rooting for the Redskins, even though in my job I'm not supposed to take sides. I think it's going to be quite a Super Bowl."
Did you ever think he would be a witness to history that way and have a president respond to some very specific questions you asked?
HINES: No, not in -- not in a million years. I figured I would get just a generic response typical politicians give, you know, when people write letters to them. But he was not a typical politician. He actually sat down and took the time and carefully thought out his responses to my letters, and I really appreciated that.
ZAHN: It certainly is a measure of a man.
Just a final thought of what this relationship meant to you as a mother to watch Rudolph correspond with the president in a very meaningful way.
LEE: You know, after awhile, you stopped thinking about him as president of the United States. I mean, always as adults, we knew exactly what was going on, but, clearly, it was turning into something a lot more than that.
And his father and I both very much appreciated the relationship that he developed with Rudolph because, as you can see, it turned out to be something that no one would have thought of.
ZAHN: It's a beautiful story and thank you... HINES: Thank you.
LEE: Thank you.
ZAHN: ... for sharing part of your story with us tonight. Good luck to you, Rudolph.
HINES: Thank you.
ZAHN: And Stephanie, thanks for your time.
LEE: Thank you.
ZAHN: When we come back, the Reagans loved music and brought it to the White House. One of their favorite singers will perform their favorite love song for us when we come back.
ZAHN: No one loved music more than Ronald and Nancy Reagan. They loved lyrics. They loved rhythm, and they loved to dance, especially possess American pop music.
Their song was the Gershwin's "Our Love is Here to Stay." They loved it so much that Ronnie, as Nancy called him, would actually have her sing it to him.
The also loved the rendition by the incomparable Michael Feinstein, a Gershwin aficionado who the Reagans often invited to play at the White House.
The day before the state funeral, I met Michael Feinstein at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington, D.C., for a conversation and a musical tribute.
ZAHN: Great to see you.
MICHAEL FEINSTEIN, MUSICIAN: Thank you. Likewise.
ZAHN: What happened the first time the Reagans heard you play?
FEINSTEIN: It was at the Annenbergs' home, and I was playing "Somewhere My Love" from "Dr. Zhivago."
President Reagan, whom I had never met, came over and said, "You know, I think that that song added a lot to the success to the movie."
I said, "I agree with you, Mr. President. Songs do expand the success of a film." And I said, "You know this movie theme?"
And he looked at me and he said, "That's 'Kings Row!' That was my best movie!"
And I said, "Yes, I'm glad you recognized it."
And from then, from there, we had a conversation about music. And I discovered that he was an avid fan of American popular music and knew a lot about composers and songwriters. And was in heaven, listening to the president of the United States, not only tell me stories about great song writers but also hearing him sing at the sing-alongs
ZAHN: What was it about their favorite song, "Our Love is Here to Stay" that spoke to them? Was it the beautiful lyrics?
FEINSTEIN: I think the combination of the music and lyrics being so eloquent. And Ira writing that lyric after the death of his younger brother, George. And the meaning of that song, about how everything in the world is changing, but this is something that is real and is lasting and it's going to be around forever.
And clearly anybody who was ever with the Reagans in a social setting saw this tremendous love between them. And whenever I would start to play that song, as I did on many occasions, they would always hold hands and they would look at each other in a way as if they had just met and fallen in love.
ZAHN: And I understand it was very painful for you to play it the last time you played it at Nancy Reagan's birthday party that the president was incapable of attending?
FEINSTEIN: Yes, that was -- that was tough, because Nancy was -- you could see a world of memories in her eyes. And everybody was just feeling this -- this palpable grief for everything that she's gone through and seeing an era disappear before her eyes.
ZAHN: Would you play the song for us now?
FEINSTEIN: With pleasure.
FEINSTEIN: Good-bye, Mr. President.
ZAHN: What a spectacular tribute. We'll be right back.
ZAHN: A touching note: Nancy Reagan's 83rd birthday is tomorrow. From all of us here at CNN, we wish her the best.
Thanks so much for joining us tonight. A happy holiday to all and safe travels.
"LARRY KING LIVE" is next. Have a great night.
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