COVID-19: Updates on library services and operations.

President Reagan : the role of a lifetime /
Lou Cannon.
New York ; Toronto : Simon & Schuster, c1991.
948 p. : ill., ports. ; 214 cm.
067154294X :
More Details
New York ; Toronto : Simon & Schuster, c1991.
067154294X :
general note
Errata slip laid in.
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references (p. [895]-910) and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One



One of his magics is looking to the future.

George Shultz,

February 13, 1989

    He had always prided himself on knowing how to make an exit, and when the end came, on a day of sun and shadows he called bittersweet, Ronald Reagan understood exactly how to leave the stage. An aide, thinking about it later, would say that Reagan had made fifty-three movies and that being on a movie set was like being cooped up in the White House with your crew all those years. Reagan was ready for the freedom of California and a new role. But some members of his staff were not quite ready and Reagan, recognizing this, tried not to seem overly cheerful during the scenes leading up to his exit. He was mindful that he was president until the curtain fell at noon.

    It was 9:50 A.M. on January 20, 1989, when Reagan slipped into the Oval Office for a last look at the room that had been his grandest set. The walls were bare. Gone were the resplendent color photos of his presidency and a bronze saddle that had given the Oval Office a western look. Gone, too, was the barrel chair he had brought with him from California for his Oval Office desk. In its place was a worn chair that had been wheeled in from somewhere when the office was swept clean looked forward to the day when it would not be needed by an American president. Reagan did not think he needed it now, on the last day of a presidency that had begun in bitter U.S.-Soviet hostility and ended in the warm glow of what Reagan called "a new era" in superpower relations. In the final hours of his presidency, in the White House where he and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had signed the first treaty eliminating a class of nuclear weapons, the white card seemed an anachronism of a darker era and Reagan wanted to get rid of it. "Who do I give this to?" Reagan said quizzically. "You can't get rid of it yet," said Powell, who told him that the card would be taken from him after Bush was sworn in. Reagan shrugged and put the card back in his pocket. He looked at Powell, an artillery officer and the first black to serve as national security adviser. Like Reagan, Powell had a commanding presence and a sense of history. In his final briefing he said simply, "The world is quiet today, Mr. President."

    It was quiet now in the Oval Office, too. Kuhn glanced at his watch. Reagan had spent a half hour in the Oval Office. Kathy Osborne and the other aides, who had been joined by White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, were fighting memories and tears. "It was strange to think he was never going to walk in the office as president again," Osborne thought. Reagan was composed. He waited for the news photographers who had been summoned to take pictures of the leave-taking, but wanted pictures of themselves with the president before they did their business. That was fine with Reagan, who valued pictures and treated photographers with respect. He posed with the photographers, taking his time and joking with them, and then posed for them as he gave a last sweeping look at the bare Oval Office. "It looks like they got everything," he said. It was 10:30 A.M. and Reagan had spent forty minutes in the Oval Office. Without saying more, he turned and walked out into the colonnade beside the Rose Garden.

    The leave-taking proved more difficult for Nancy Reagan than for her husband. Nancy Reagan was a trouper, too, and also recognized the value of a graceful exit, but she liked Washington and loved being first lady. On August 15, 1988, at the Republican convention that nominated Bush, she had told luncheon guests who came to honor her that there were times to enter, times to stay, times to depart. "We've had a wonderful run," she had said. "But the time has come for the Bushes to step into the political leading roles and for the Reagans to step into the wings." When the time actually came, however, she could not bear to go. "Don't say anything nice about me," she warned her staff. She knew she would cry if anyone complimented her, and when, respecting her wishes, no one did, she cried anyway.

    She was not alone. After the inaugural ceremony the Reagans and Bushes walked together down the steps of the East Front of the Capitol and across a red carpet stretching thirty yards to a Marine helicopter. Reagan turned and saluted his successor. "I was trying to keep the tears from flooding down my cheeks," Bush said later, knowing that he had not fully succeeded. "After eight years of friendship, it's pretty tough." The new president's campaign manager and secretary of state, James A. Baker III, who had served Reagan for eight years as chief of staff and treasury secretary, made no attempt to hide his feelings. Standing to one side with his wife Susan, the usually reserved Baker wept openly as Ronald Reagan climbed into the helicopter and disappeared from view.

    But Reagan was not somber. He had thought about the departure scene beforehand, as he always did about big performances, seeing himself as he would be seen by others, and he was ready to leave. As the helicopter dodged clouds and soared high above the monuments of Washington before heading to Andrews Air Force Base and the last, long flight to California, Reagan played the role of the great comforter, giving solace to his wife as she struggled to control her emotions. When the chopper banked over the White House for a final look, he turned to her and said, in a voice that an aide thought was filled with great tenderness, "There's our little bungalow down there." Nancy Reagan smiled at him with tears running down her cheeks.

    Much had been done to change that "little bungalow" in the 2,923 days of the Reagan presidency. Drawing on the budgets of four federal agencies, the administration spent at least $44.6 million to renovate and improve the White House complex in a busy program of reconstruction and repairs not seen in Washington since the presidency of Harry S Truman. The exact figure was kept secret, and reporters piecing together the information from government documents suspected that the actual cost was higher. The subject was sensitive to the Reagans. In addition to the public funds, Nancy Reagan had raised more than $1 million in private donations to remodel and redecorate the White House living quarters. Many who had seen the White House before the remodeling thought the renovation was long overdue, but Nancy Reagan had paid a political price for it and for the high style of the Reagan presidency. Even before the inauguration, she came under fire from those accustomed to the less lavish tone of the Carter presidency. of personal mementos the preceding afternoon after Reagan finished his last appointment with speechwriter Landon Parvin and departed to the White House family quarters. Reagan looked at the chair, cocking his head as he often did when something was out of place. He walked over to the desk, where he had always worked in coat and tie as a gesture of respect for the presidency, and tried out the chair. The desktop was bare except for a telephone. Tucked in a drawer inside the desk was a note of encouragement he had written the day before for George Bush on stationery emblazoned with the slogan "Don't let the turkeys get you down." Reagan picked up the phone and asked the White House operator to place a call to Sue Piland, the oldest daughter of his former longtime aide Lyn Nofziger. It was a terrible time for the Nofzigers. Sue Piland was dying of cancer and her father had been sentenced to a prison term for illegal lobbying after he left the White House. The operator could not reach the daughter in the hospital and Reagan had her call the Nofziger residence, where Lyn's wife Bonnie answered the phone. Turning his back to the aides and the Secret Service agents who had accompanied him into the Oval Office, Reagan cradled the phone and sought to comfort her. It was the last telephone call of his presidency. A White House photographer took a picture of Reagan making the call, and his personal secretary Kathy Osborne later sent it to the Nofzigers.

    Meanwhile, Reagan's personal assistant Jim Kuhn had been busy at the second phone in the room, which was tucked away on a wooden stand that fit under an end table near the fireplace. Kuhn, preoccupied with the logistics of the final day, knew he would be with Reagan on the flight west and was not sentimental about leaving the Oval Office. He dreaded the leave-taking in California, but he had other things on his mind this morning. Following a daily routine, Kuhn used the other Oval Office telephone to call Vice President Bush and Chief of Staff Kenneth Duberstein to inform them that "Rawhide," as Reagan was known in the code of the Secret Service, was in his office. Bush was gone forever from the vice president's office, but Duberstein joined Reagan from his office two doors down the hall as he was completing the Nofziger call. With him came Reagan's sixth and most popular national security adviser, Lieutenant General Colin L. Powell, who had hitched a ride to the White House with Duberstein that morning after his official car and driver were taken from him. Duberstein was struck by the bareness of the room, from which all signs of Reagan had been removed. He did his business quickly, standing in front of the desk and talking distinctly and loudly to the president even though Reagan was wearing his hearing aids. White House chiefs of staff in the Reagan administration were expected to know the daily script, and Duberstein made a point of being meticulously prepared. He ran through the scenes of the day, telling Reagan what he needed to know about the inauguration ceremony, the departure and his arrival speech at Los Angeles International Airport. He also gave Reagan a rundown on last-minute phone calls, including his conversation with Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, a conservative who had written Reagan urging him to pardon Oliver North.

    Reagan listened to Duberstein without comment, which was often his reaction to even his highest-ranking aides. He had thought of pardoning Nofziger and former key aide Michael K. Deaver, who had been convicted of perjury after an investigation into his lobbying activities. The former aides had made it easy on him by making it known that they considered themselves innocent and not candidates for pardons. Nofziger even said publicly that he would refuse one if it was offered. Reagan also had considered pardoning North, whom he had once called a "national hero," and he especially wanted to pardon former national security adviser Robert C. (Bud) McFarlane, a tragic figure of the Iran-contra affair who had in a moment of despair tried to take his own life and subsequently pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of lying to Congress. "I really want to do something for Bud" was the way Reagan had put it even before the decision came to him. But those closest to Reagan--his wife Nancy, Duberstein and longtime political adviser Stuart K. Spencer--opposed all pardons for former aides on grounds they would blemish his presidency. Reagan had heeded the recommendations, despite misgivings about doing nothing for McFarlane. He had no desire to reopen the question on this final day.

    Wheat Reagan wanted was to get on with the last act. He reached into his coat pocket and removed a deceptively plain white laminated card that had the power to summon hell on earth. When properly inserted into the black leather "football" carried by the president's military aide, the white card authorized the launching of nuclear missiles. Reagan had carried the card with him for eight years and said early on that he "Spare us from four years of bombardment concerning the `elegance' of Nancy Reagan," declared a letter to Time magazine protesting a Hugh Sidey column a month before Reagan took office. "Most of us cannot identify with it."

    But many did identify with the economic changes that took place in the nation during the Reagan years. In 1980, the year Reagan defeated President Jimmy Carter with the battle cry, "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" the prime interest rate averaged 15.26 percent, inflation 12.5 percent and civilian unemployment 7.1 percent. For the final year of the Reagan presidency, the comparable figures were 9.32 percent, 4.4 percent and 5.5 percent. The gross national product had nearly doubled and per capita disposable income, highest for whites but higher, too, for blacks and Hispanics, had increased from $9,722 to $11,326. The stock market, recovering from the 1987 crash, continued to soar. The Dow Jones industrial averages stood at 2235.36 on the day Reagan left office, up from 950.68 when he was first inaugurated. Reagan delighted in such statistics, though his recitation of them was sometimes flawed by exaggeration of the interest and inflation rates during the Carter years. He delighted, too, in polls showing that most Americans considered themselves better off as a result of the Reagan presidency.

    In his final meeting in the Oval Office the day before his departure, Reagan spoke with quiet pride of his administration's record in maintaining "peace through strength," reducing taxes, lowering inflation, creating jobs and "getting government out of the way of the people." It was Reagan's favorite speech, delivered this time for the benefit of Landon Parvin, who was in the White House to help smooth out the Reagan post-presidential script for his return to California. "The policies that we've set have brought about this prosperity," Reagan said to Parvin, who had heard the message many times before. "Government isn't the answer."

    Of all Reagan's core convictions, this statement resonated most clearly throughout his public career. "I have always talked generally on one subject--the growth of government," Reagan told me in 1968, in the second of his eight years as governor of California, a comment as accurate on the last day of his presidency as it was then. But his talk had not been matched by comparable deeds. The steady growth of government that began in 1933 during Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal had continued unabated during the Reagan presidency, mocking the claims of both those who favored and those who feared a "Reagan revolution." Reagan had not expected this to happen. In the main economic speech of his 1980 campaign, delivered to the International Business Council in Chicago on September 9, 1980, Reagan had promised to "move boldly, decisively and quickly to control the runaway growth of federal spending, to remove the tax disincentives that are throttling the economy, and to reform the regulatory web that is smothering it." Summing up what he saw as the goals of his presidency, he said, "We must balance the budget, reduce tax rates and restore our defenses."

    As candidate and as president, Reagan refused to acknowledge any contradiction in these goals or recognize that he had achieved the last two of them at the expense of the first. The national debt, $908.5 billion when Reagan gave his Chicago speech, had nearly tripled to $2.684.4 trillion by the time he left office. The trade deficit, the difference between what Americans spend for foreign goods and what foreigners spend for American exports, had increased more than fourfold, to $137.3 billion. Foreign investment had also quadrupled, to more than $60 billion. The United States of America, once the world's great creditor nation, had become a debtor on Reagan's watch. Reagan, a free-trader since college days when he was an ardent admirer of FDR, welcomed the foreign investment and was sanguine about the trade imbalance. But he refused to accept any responsibility for the budget deficit, which some economists saw as his most enduring domestic legacy. When the question was put to him, Reagan brushed aside the fact that he had never once submitted a budget proposing the revenues to pay for the programs he thought necessary, and blamed Congress for the deficit. His friend, the conservative writer George F. Will, calculated that the middle six budgets of the administration had produced deficits totaling $1.1 trillion and that Reagan proposed thirteen-fourteenths of that total. Congress had added a relatively insignificant $90 billion to the deficit, or $15 billion a year. "Americans are conservative," Will had said presciently at the onset of the administration. "What they want to conserve is the New Deal."

    Nevertheless, the deficit was beginning to take hold as a political issue when Reagan left town. Most Americans more or less shared Reagan's passionate conviction that new taxes were unnecessary, but they also were vaguely uneasy that the prosperity of the Reagan years had been purchased at the expense of their children and grandchildren. "He's been a good-time Charlie," complained history professor Walt Rostow of the University of Texas. "Nothing bad's going to happen on my watch. Screw the future." Reagan pollster Richard B. Wirthlin found that nearly one in five Americans cited the budget deficit as the issue on which they were least happy with Reagan's performance, putting it just behind the Iran-contra affair as a negative of the Reagan presidency. Democratic pollster Peter Hart, taking a national poll after the 1988 election, discovered that the deficit overwhelmed every other issue as a matter of public concern. But the pollsters also recognized that relatively few Americans were willing to make personal sacrifices to bring the deficit under control. Sacrifice was out of fashion during the Reagan years. Reagan had never asked Americans to sacrifice to make things right, even though he had predicted in the Chicago speech that his program would "require the most dedicated and concerted peacetime action ever taken by the American people for their country."

    What Reagan had asked Americans to do was to "dream heroic dreams" and discard what he considered the corrosive pessimism of the Carter years. In accepting the presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention in Detroit on July 17, 1980, and throughout his presidency Reagan scoffed at the notion "that the United States has had its day in the sun; that our nation has passed its zenith." Reagan believed that America's best days lay ahead. "The American people, the most generous on earth, who created the highest standard of living, are not going to accept the notion that we can only make a better world for others by moving backwards ourselves," he said in his acceptance speech.

    Reagan's message proved attractive to young voters, who gave him overwhelming majorities in both 1980 and 1984. It was also appealing to businessmen and entrepreneurs, who welcomed the relaxation of myriad government regulations intended to protect the health and safety of American consumers and to guarantee economic competition. One of the central tenets of Reaganism was that these regulations, though well intended, had hobbled American enterprise. Reagan did his best to get rid of them. While he fell short of his goal, the Reagan package of lower taxes, deregulation and unrelenting optimism had succeeded in spurring economic initiative. New businesses proliferated. Corporations were encouraged to expand and to take over other corporations. "The Reagan years have witnessed one of the greatest waves of mergers, takeovers, and corporate restructurings in history, with the tally standing at more than 25,000 deals worth $2 trillion and still rising," concluded one business writer near the end of the Reagan presidency. In 1980 there were 4,414 individual tax returns filed with the Internal Revenue Service listing adjusted gross income of more than a million dollars. By 1987, in the heyday of "Reaganomics," there were 34,944 such returns.

    Critics of the new prosperity managed to remain unimpressed by the longest sustained economic recovery since World War II and the steady advance of American living standards. They viewed the Reagan years as an enshrinement of American avarice, epitomized by the "greed is healthy" speech of convicted Wall Street financier Ivan Boesky. Throughout most of the Reagan presidency the complaints of these critics were drowned out by the clamor of the marketplace. But their voices became louder as the end of the decade neared. A poll of 1,001 American workers between the ages of twenty-five and forty-nine, taken by Chivas Regal and released a few weeks before Reagan left office, found that "three-quarters of the working public would like to see a return to a simpler society with less emphasis on material wealth."

    Reagan also often talked as if he preferred a simpler society. He was nostalgic about the past, remembering a boyhood in Dixon, Illinois, when "we didn't live on the wrong side of the tracks, but we lived so close to them we could hear the whistle real loud." His economic references were drawn from the Depression days of his youth, a bond he shared with Americans of his generation. He also shared an American enthusiasm for technological gadgets that made life easier and an American proclivity for endorsing progress in the same breath in which he celebrated memories of things past. He was at once old-fashioned and forward-looking, and frequently sounded as if he wanted to go back to the future. But there was no going back. The new prosperity was accompanied by new technologies that changed the lives of many Americans, carrying some of them along into an era of ease and convenience and leaving others hopelessly behind. When Reagan took office, one in six Americans owned a microwave oven and video cassette recorders were a novelty. By the end of his presidency, three out of four Americans owned a microwave and more than six out of ten owned a VCR. During the buying binge of the last six years of the Reagan administration, Americans purchased 105 million color television sets, 88 million cars and light trucks, 63 million VCRs, 62 million microwave ovens, 57 million washers and dryers, 46 million refrigerators and freezers, 31 million cordless phones and 30 million telephone answering machines. They also purchased sports equipment and machines and diet plans that promised shortcuts to body building, weight reduction and healthier living. Reagan saw the buying spree as a sign that the good life had become available to everyone. He hailed the new health consciousness, which was nothing new to him, and continued to do things the old way. Reagan kept his weight down the old-fashioned way, through disciplined eating and daily physical exercise. The elaborate menus at state dinners did not dim his preference for such simple fare as macaroni and cheese. Video cassette recorders abounded in the White House, but Reagan preferred old movies projected on old-fashioned screens that he and his guests watched while eating popcorn. In an age of airplanes and automobiles Reagan spoke wistfully of traveling by train and horseback. Apart from watching movies, his favorite recreations were horseback riding and clearing brush on his California ranch.

    Nancy Reagan was fond of saying that her husband had not changed at all in the nearly four decades she had known him. Some Americans thought this a most appealing quality, but the country had changed immensely during this time and even some of Reagan's admirers thought he had not quite kept up with the changes. His adversaries charged that he was insensitive to the needs of those who had not participated in the bounty of Reaganomics. "At his worst, Reagan made the denial of compassion respectable," said New York Governor Mario Cuomo at the end of Reagan's terms. In a nationally televised pre-Christmas interview a month before he left office Reagan dismissed the problem of the homeless by saying that "a large percentage" of them were "retarded" people who had voluntarily left institutions that would have cared for them. Meanwhile, gay and lesbian activists blamed Reagan for a tardy and inadequate response to the epidemic of acquired immune deficiency syndrome. There were only 199 reported cases of AIDS in 1981. Eight years later more than 55,000 persons had died from this new scourge, exceeding the total of U.S. combat deaths in either the Vietnam War or the Korean War. And the AIDS epidemic was spreading steadily.

    Reaganomics had also wrought changes. By 1989 the richest two-fifths of families had the highest share of national income (67.8 percent) and the poorest two-fifths the lowest share (15.4 percent) in the forty years the Census Bureau had been compiling such statistics. "In 1987, one out of five American children lived in poverty--a 24 percent increase over 1979--compared to one out of nine adults," a House committee reported. Many of these children were black. While the black middle class had become more prosperous and numerous during the Reagan years, a huge and largely black underclass, alienated and unattended, had become imbedded in the fabric of urban life. Overall, U.S. murder rates declined slightly during the Reagan years and such other measurements of violence as suicides and violent crime remained virtually unchanged. But it was a different story in the inner cities, where murder, drug addiction and inadequate child nutrition in 1988 conspired to lower black life expectancy for the second year in a row. The gleaming monuments and swaths of green over which the Marine helicopter carried the Reagans to Andrews Air Force Base concealed a war zone in the streets of Washington. "It's an indictment of us all," District of Columbia detective Billy Corby told The Washington Post on the last day of 1988. "There's easy access to guns. Everybody's got one. You disrespect someone and you're dead." A record 372 homicides were reported in the District in 1988, an 86 percent increase over the 200 murders that occurred in 1980. Sixty percent of the 1988 killings were drug related, a statistic the District did not even bother to keep in the year Reagan was elected president.

    The violence and the drug epidemic troubled the Reagans. Despite the scoffers who claimed she was image-making and the doubters who thought it wouldn't do any good, Nancy Reagan had persisted in her "just say no" campaign against drug use. Reagan called her "my secret weapon" in the fight to reduce drug dependency in America. She ran into opposition on all sides, and a group of determined residents in the small community of Lake View Terrace, twenty miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, ultimately forced her to withdraw plans for an advanced drug treatment center that would have been named in her honor. Her old, unforgiving foe from the White House, onetime chief of staff Donald T. Regan, bluntly concluded that "just say no" hadn't worked. But by the time the Reagans left office, educational efforts to persuade young people of the danger of cocaine and other drugs appeared to be one of the few things that was working in the nation's losing battle with the drug scourge. In 1988, one study found that only 39 percent of high school seniors reported using illicit drugs during the past year, down from 53 percent in 1980. Not everyone accepted this result as valid, but Reagan, as he always did when he found a favorable statistic, quoted it over and over again. His unquenchable optimism had once led him, during the recession of 1981-82, to pick out the only favorable statistic from a series of charts prepared by aides who were trying to change his policies by convincing him that the economy was going to hell in a handbasket. The attempt failed. Neither aides nor critics could succeed in getting Reagan down.

    This optimism was not a trivial or peripheral quality. It was the essential ingredient of an approach to life that had carried Reagan from the backwater of Dixon to fame as a sports announcer and then to the stages of Hollywood and of the world. And it was a fundamental component of his idealistic nationalism, expressed best in the phrase he expropriated from Abraham Lincoln that America is "the last best hope of man on earth." Reagan believed in the magic of individual freedom. He believed that the appeal of free markets and personal freedoms ultimately would prove irresistible to all peoples everywhere. He believed in spreading the gospel of freedom. He believed in the attainability of world peace and in the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons. He believed in himself. "Over time, he converted much of the country to his own views and values," wrote David Gergen, who had served as communications director in the Reagan White House and cautioned against measuring the Reagan legacy merely by statistics. "His more important legacy is how much he changed our minds."

    This legacy of optimism was especially important to the two million members of the U.S. armed forces, all of whom now were volunteers. Reagan made it a point to heap praise on these men and women, saying that they served for little pay and less respect "on the frontlines of freedom." In his 1980 campaign he had called the Vietnam War "a noble cause," and he recognized that the U.S. military establishment remained disaffected and disillusioned by the results and domestic unpopularity of that war. Reagan tried to restore national pride in the military "after a time during which it was shamefully fashionable to deride and even condemn service such as yours." The military responded by honoring Reagan. In a ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base eight days before he left office, Reagan received the grateful tributes of the nation's military leaders and said, in a hoarse voice, that serving as commander in chief was "the most sacred, most important task of the presidency."

    This view came from the heart. So, too, did the tributes Reagan received from military families whenever Air Force One landed at U.S. air bases throughout the country or abroad. When Reagan's campaign managers wanted to guarantee a favorable crowd during the low points of his presidency, they often held a rally at a military installation or in a community where military families were numerous. But on this last day of his presidency, the crowd of 1,500 at Andrews Air Force Base was somber, as if those who had come to see him off were saddened by the departure of a friend. Nancy Reagan shivered in the cold wind while her husband reviewed an honor guard for the final time. A sign in the crowd read "Air Force One Flies Once More for the Gipper." Reagan waved from the steps of the plane. Bush had been president for little more than an hour when the Reagans left for California.

    Despite the sign in the crowd, Air Force One was not Air Force One anymore. That designation is reserved for whatever plane the president is on, and Reagan was no longer president. The specially fitted Boeing 707 that on this day flew westward with the Reagans and a cadre of aides, guests, reporters and Nancy Reagan's hairdresser had been redesignated "Special Air Mission 27000." It was the same plane Reagan had flown throughout his presidency, stripped of its top-secret communications gear and without any military aides on board. Its special mission was to bring the Reagans home. And unlike the Oval Office now in use by Bush, the plane preserved the illusion of the Reagan presidency for an additional five hours. Color photos of the Reagans with world leaders, aides and congressmen decorated the walls of the plane. Air Force stewards served drinks and a lunch of chicken in lemon wine sauce, rice pilaf and broccoli florets.

    Throughout his presidency Reagan's news conferences had been carefully controlled, sometimes by himself, more often by zealous aides who feared that the president would reveal ignorance of his own policies or say something the press thought stupid. He almost never talked to reporters on the plane. But the final act of the Reagan presidency was designed for graciousness, and there were no longer any policy options to give away. Soon after he came aboard, Reagan took off his suit coat and donned a blue Air Force jacket with his name on the left pocket. Then he and Nancy, who was warm again and happy that the departure ceremonies were over, began working their way back to the reporters in the cramped rear compartment of the plane, stopping along the way for hugs and handshakes from their friends and aides. The reporters were happy to see them. Several of them had been White House correspondents throughout the presidency and would be reassigned after this last flight, which was also a turning point in their lives. They asked Reagan about his feelings when he turned the reins of government over to George Bush. Reagan told them he had long been ready for the moment when Bush would take the oath of office. "I was prepared and pleased to see him take it," Reagan said. When a reporter remarked that this didn't mean that Reagan had to like it, he replied, "He was the one I would rather see there doing this than anyone else."

    Nancy Reagan, who had suffered miserable press relations during the early days of the presidency but had learned to relax among reporters and give genuine answers to their questions, was also ready for this final news conference. When a reporter asked Reagan about the most important accomplishments of his administration, he gave a longish, set-piece answer centering on economic reforms. She answered the same question by simply murmuring, "A peaceful world." And when a reporter observed that she seemed to be battling tears as Bush praised her husband during the inaugural address, Nancy Reagan acknowledged it and said, "I was moved, I was moved." Reagan said he was happy, sad and relieved, all at the same time. A reporter told him that Bush had said the hardest thing he had to do that day was fight back the tears as the Reagans left. "Well, it's a time of tears for a great many people and certainly for us," Reagan said. "I appreciate it if he felt that way."

    But the tears were then put aside on SAM 27000. The reporters, no longer helped and burdened by a White House transcription team and a White House press office that drowned them with paper, set to work transcribing the rare airplane interview from their pocket tape recorders, working together and trying to get the quotes straight. Before they finished, the Reagans had called them back to the plane's center cabin to celebrate with bottles of Korbel Natural champagne and a yellow cake inscribed "The Reagan Years 1981-89." Reagan, still hampered by a bandage on his left hand after minor finger surgery, cut the first piece and had trouble balancing the cake and the champagne. He put the champagne down, as he always did if the choice was between an alcoholic beverage and dessert. Then he told stories of the presidency and of Hollywood and war movies. When I asked him if he had any regrets that he had not served in combat during World War II, he replied without embarrassment that he had not given any thought to it. His eyesight was so bad, he said, that he would not have been called up at all had he not been in the reserves. Nancy, who often stood guard over his answers, felt no need to monitor him this day. She sipped champagne and chatted with reporters about her book and her life in Washington. Soon it was time to land.

    The Secret Service was taking no chances on this last day of the Reagan presidency. They had almost lost Reagan outside the Washington Hilton on March 30, 1981, and they were determined to bring him safely home to the new Reagan mansion in Bel-Air. Secret Service agent Timothy J. McCarthy, who had been wounded during the assassination attempt, was Nancy Reagan's lead agent aboard this final flight. Security precautions at Los Angeles International Airport were so strict that the Reagans had been brought in at a location designated as "remote terminal ramp" near the southwest corner of the sprawling terminal. The site was far away from the main terminal and the published information about Reagan's arrival was so deliberately sketchy that only seven hundred supporters had found their way to the welcome-home rally organized by the advance office of the Reagan White House staff. All of the welcomers, including the Salvation Army Tournament of Roses band and the University of Southern California marching band, had passed through magnetometers on their way out onto the tarmac.

    The ceremony was supposed to be brief J was on deadline with my story of the flight for The Washington Post and had asked Duberstein and Spencer if Reagan planned anything special in his arrival speech. "Don't worry, he isn't going to say anything," Spencer said. Scrawled on the four-by-six cards that Reagan used for nearly every speech were only the names of welcoming dignitaries, the band and a brief note about the joy of coming home. But Reagan by now was almost jubilant. He delighted in the summery, mid-70s weather that contrasted with the chill of Washington. He was stirred by the bands playing "California Here I Come" and the warm greetings of Mayor Tom Bradley, comedian Rich Little, actor Robert Stack and William French Smith, his first attorney general. "You are an example of the true American success story," Stack said to Reagan, a friend of many years. "You changed the course of history." By the time I had filed my story and returned to the platform area, Reagan was still speaking. "He's thrown away the cards, what can I tell you?" Spencer said. The roar of the crowd, which made up in enthusiasm what it lacked in size, had aroused the old actor and confirmed his view that he was back where he belonged. "When you have to stay eight years away from California, you live in a perpetual state of homesickness," he said. He quipped that he had been asked to appear in a remake of his 1951 film Bedtime for Bonzo , but said that this time he had been asked to portray the chimpanzee. He promised that he would continue "campaigning out on the mashed-potato circuit for some of the things we didn't get done," including repeal of the Twenty-second Amendment limiting a president to two terms. The crowd responded with the chant "Four more years."

    The motorcade that bore the Reagans to Bel-Air was insignificant by presidential standards. Gone were the "wire cars" that carried the wire service correspondents and a pool of reporters. Gone were the television camera cars from which cameramen dangled at personal risk to be in position for the best pictures if anything happened during the motorcade. Gone was the ambulance and the extra limousine in which Secret Service agents rode to fool potential assassins. Gone were the many cars for the local politicians who attach themselves to presidents. What remained was a limousine for the president, a sharply reduced two-car Secret Service detail and two staff cars. Kuhn, remembering the crowds in the streets the day Reagan departed for Washington eight years earlier, was disappointed that the White House staff and the Secret Service had kept the motorcade route a secret. He had wanted a big crowd for the arrival and crowds on the streets, but there was almost no one on the sidewalks of Sepulveda Boulevard as the Reagan motorcade hurtled toward Bel-Air. But at the house some thirty neighbors had gathered and Kuhn remarked, "At least they heard about it." The Reagans waved to the neighbors and went inside the house. Reagan's first act of homecoming was to take their dog Rex, who had been cooped up on the plane and in the motorcade for six hours, out in the backyard to relieve himself. "Welcome to the real world," thought Kuhn, but Reagan saw nothing special in it. He was at home.

    However, Nancy Reagan was not quite ready to let go. Her world had changed too quickly in six hours, and the friends and trappings of her former life meant too much to her. The Dubersteins and the Kuhns came inside at her urging and she gave Sydney Duberstein and Carole Kuhn a tour of the house while Reagan talked to their husbands. When Secret Service agent McCarthy turned to leave, explaining that the shift was changing and that security for the Reagans had now passed from the Washington office to the Los Angeles office, Nancy Reagan said, "Tim, you can't go." Duberstein tried to make a joke of it, saying that the last presidential act signed by Reagan had transferred McCarthy to Los Angeles. She went along with the gag, smiling through her tears.

    Now came the time that Kuhn, who had been so eager to leave the Oval Office that morning, had dreaded throughout the long flight west. He had been worrying how it would be when he said goodbye and was unaccountably nervous in Reagan's presence, the way he had been the first time he met him in 1975 and never since. He just did not know how to say goodbye to the man who would always be his president. He had been brought up not to cry, and he was full of emotion that he could not express. I should be as composed as he is, Kuhn thought, but he was not. He remembered that on the plane Reagan's old friend and strategist Stu Spencer had dealt lightly with the farewells, saying he would see Reagan many times again. Kuhn tried to do the same thing. Reagan then did something that Kuhn had never seen him do before. What Reagan usually did was to speak to everyone in the room as if he were talking to a single audience. He did not do that today, and Kuhn did not know what to make of it. "See you again, Mr. President," Kuhn said. Reagan nodded and, with Nancy standing at his side with tears in her eyes, saw them to the door. He shook hands with each of them. Duberstein was the last to go, and he, too, refused to say goodbye. "See you soon, Mr. President," he said. "We love you, Ken," Reagan said. Then he closed the door and left the judgments to history.

Copyright © 1991 Lou Cannon. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Library Journal on 1991-04-15:
No journalist enjoys a closer working relationship with Ronald Reagan, his friends, and advisors than Cannon, who has covered the Reagan beat for a quarter of a century. Combining scores of interviews, including three with Reagan, with authoritative journalism, Cannon has written what may be the best contemporary political history of the Reagan years. Unlike most modern presidents whose frame of reference is analytical and political, Cannon reveals how Reagan was shaped by his acting career. Far from being a Hollywood refugee, Reagan is credited with reviving national confidence and not being the demagogue that his opponents perceived him to be. While Reagan succeeded at establishing the national agenda, numerous ethical scandals, the savings and loan debacle, and the unraveling of foreign policy proved the presidency to be beyond Reagan's abilities. Transcending the many self-serving kick-and-tell potboilers, Cannon's absorbing, informative account will be the basis for all future studies. Highly recommended for most public and academic libraries.-- Karl Helicher, Upper Marion Township Lib., King of Prussia, Pa.
This item was reviewed in:
Kirkus Reviews,
Library Journal, April 1991
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Table of Contents
Preface to the 1991 Editionp. ix
Preface to the 2000 Editionp. xi
Back to the Futurep. 1
A Reagan Portraitp. 16
The Acting Politicianp. 20
The Acting Presidentp. 31
Offstage Influencesp. 45
Heroic Dreamsp. 66
Halcyon Daysp. 78
Kidding on the Squarep. 95
Hail to the Chiefp. 115
Passive Presidentp. 141
The Lonerp. 172
Staying the Coursep. 196
Focus of Evilp. 240
Freedom Fightersp. 289
Lost in Lebanonp. 339
An Actor Abroadp. 402
Morning Again in Americap. 434
Turning Pointp. 488
Darkness at Noonp. 521
Struggles at Twilightp. 580
The New Erap. 663
Visions and Legaciesp. 711
Notesp. 765
Bibliographyp. 820
Acknowledgmentsp. 835
Indexp. 842
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

This information is provided by a service that aggregates data from review sources and other sources that are often consulted by libraries, and readers. The University does not edit this information and merely includes it as a convenience for users. It does not warrant that reviews are accurate. As with any review users should approach reviews critically and where deemed necessary should consult multiple review sources. Any concerns or questions about particular reviews should be directed to the reviewer and/or publisher.

  link to old catalogue

Report a problem