Douglas Brinkley: Interviewed on Meet the Press about the Reagan diaries

Historians in the News

MR. RUSSERT: And we are back with “The Reagan Diaries.”

Historian Doug Brinkley, you are the editor. What is the importance of “The Reagan Diaries”?

MR. DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: Well, it’s Ronald Reagan in real time. It’s—every day he was president, he would grab these maroon volumes, eight and a half by 11, and handwrite what he felt that day. He’d usually write them before he went to bed in the White House, occasionally bring them on Air Force One, Marine One. So we get to really see how Reagan really felt about people in his administration like Ed Meese and Mike Deaver, Al Haig, you know, George Shultz, on and on, but also, you know, the breakthrough diplomacy with Gorbachev, how he really dealt with Iran-Contra, on and on.

MR. RUSSERT: It is extraordinary how the president puts into paper and pen his innermost thoughts. The one thing that just leaps from the pages is his devotion, his even dependency on his wife Nancy. Here’s an entry from March 30th, 1981. “I pray I” “never face a day when she isn’t there. Of all the ways God has blessed me giving her to me is the greatest and beyond anything I can ever hope to deserve.”

MR. BRINKLEY: Well, exactly. She’s throughout the diaries. There’re even funny examples when he has to spend the night alone without her. He goes to Canada early in his administration, and there’s—he can’t sleep in the same bed with Nancy, and he’s very disturbed by this. They’re in separate wings of a, of a building. And then at the end here, he has to spend his first day ever in his life at the ranch, right as his presidency was winding down, a day in Santa Barbara in the San—you know, the Reagan Ranch, without Nancy Reagan. So it was a true codependency, and a very special marriage, and it sparkles throughout the book.

MR. RUSSERT: Mike Deaver, how important—what kind of role did Nancy Reagan play in the Reagan presidency?

MR. MICHAEL DEAVER: Well, I, I don’t think there would’ve been a Ronald Reagan without Nancy. I don’t think he’d have been Governor Reagan, I don’t think he’d have been President Reagan without her. And that prayer of his at the end where he said “I hope I never have to spend a day without her,” well, his prayer was answered.

MR. RUSSERT: Ed Meese?

MR. ED MEESE: Absolutely. She did not get involved in the policy things in the White House, as some president’s wives had, but she was a good wife to him and somebody he could talk with about things. I’m sure he talked every night over what, with her, over what was going on. She also had, had a pretty good feel for people—who was serving him well, who wasn’t—and she communicated that with him. So I think she was an invaluable helpmate, really, to, to the president, who had the—tremendous pressures. And I think being with her relieved those pressures, the fact he could talk frankly with her and also the fact that she was standing by his side and with him. And that was a—it was really a balancing act, the fact that—she was a balancing feature, as far as he was concerned.

MR. RUSSERT: She wasn’t shy, and she always had his back.

MR. MEESE: Absolutely. And then, of course, she took on things on her own, too, that were helpful. When she took on the anti-drug campaign and gave her, virtually, full-time attention to that for many years, that was a powerful emphasis in terms of the public seeing the first lady making that her number one priority. It was very important at that time. As attorney general, of course, that was a major interest of mine and was very grateful for the great work that she did in that regard.

MR. RUSSERT: It is interesting how candid the president is about his relationship with his children. It even suggests, in reading this, that perhaps the relationship, the tightness of Nancy and Ronald may have had some effect on the kids and their relationship with their parents. Here’s an entry from October 21st, 1982: “Ron,” their son, “arrived for a family pow-wow. He had been rude to Nancy on a phone call, and when I phoned him about it, he said he thought” he “needed to clear the air.”

April 7th: “This evening Ron called all exercised because” Secret Service “agents had gone into their apartment while they were in” California “to fix an alarm. I tried to reason with him. I told him quite firmly not to talk to me that way.” “He hung up on me. End of a not perfect day.”

February 1: Patti, his daughter, “screaming again about invasion of her privacy” and “last night she abused the Secret Service agents terribly. Insanity is hereditary—you catch it from your kids.”

Offscreen Voice: Exactly.

MR. RUSSERT: A little humor there. And then November 19: “One” “sour note on Thanksgiving had to do with Mike Reagan. He blew up at something on” “TV news based on an interview Nancy had given. He called me” and “when I tried to straighten him out he screamed at me about having been adopted” and “hung up on me.” That’s very blunt and very tough.

MR. BRINKLEY: It is, and when I encountered it, first read that in the diary, it made me feel good about the entire diaries. The question you always had, “Is somebody trying to write this just for history?” But when you see Reagan exposing himself, his personal life, his family life, difficulties with children, that he’s a dad and it’s not easy. Remember, two of those kids, Ron Jr. and Patti, were both sort of counterculture left. They viewed the world from a very different lens than he did. So you see them bucking horns quite a bit in the book.

MR. RUSSERT: At the funeral, the entire family came together, as America all witnessed. There’s the scene there, with Mrs. Reagan at the coffin, surrounded by her children, mourning the loss of the 40th president and their father.

Let me go to March 30th, 1981, because it was a such a critical day in the Reagan presidency and in our nation’s history. Little more than two months into the presidency, Ronald Reagan is shot. He had been attending a speech at the Washington Hilton on Connecticut Avenue here in Washington. This is what he wrote: “Left the hotel at the usual side entrance,” “headed for the car—suddenly there was a burst of gunfire from the left.” Secret service “agent pushed me onto the floor of the car” and “jumped on top. Then I began coughing up blood, which made both of us think—yes, I had a broken rib” and “it had punctured a lung.” The agent “switched orders from” going to the White House, go to George Washington University Hospital.

“By the time we arrived, I was having great trouble getting enough air. I walked into the emergency room and was hoisted onto a cart. It was then we learned I’d been shot” and “had a bullet in my lung. “Getting shot hurts. Still my fear was growing because no matter how hard I tried to breathe it seemed I was getting less and less air. I focused on that tile ceiling and prayed. But I realized I couldn’t ask for God’s help while at the same time I felt hatred for the mixed up young man who had shot me. Isn’t that the meaning of the lost sheep? We are all God’s children and therefore equally beloved by him. I began to pray for his soul and that he” could “find his way back to the fold. ... The days of therapy, transfusion, intravenous, etc.” had gone, “have gone by—now it is Saturday, April 11, and this morning I left the hospital.

“Whatever happens now I owe my life to God and will try to serve him in every way I can.”

Mike Deaver, tell us about that day.

MR. DEAVER: Well, it was just a day like any day, as he said, until we walked out of the Hilton hotel. And Hinckley actually shot over my left shoulder, so I was at the, at the foot of the car. And none of us knew what had happened because I couldn’t get in the limousine, I was in the control car, that second car behind the president. And I thought we were going back to, to the White House. But then we went across Connecticut to George Washington Hospital, and it was some time—I think Ed and Jim got to the hospital—but it was some time before we knew that he’d actually been shot. We didn’t know what it was.

One of the interesting things about the diaries to me, though, is how much pain he was actually in. When he talks about this pain, it was really something for him, knowing him, for him to be talking about pain. And the other thing is, at any point in his life, the first place he would turn would be to his God. It was a, a, a—the strength that made him who he was.

MR. MEESE: There’s another interesting and, I think, characteristic part of that was, as he was being wheeled from the emergency room to the surgery, he happened to see Mike and Jim Baker and myself all standing together, and that was the first time he’d seen us. And he looks at us, and he says, “Who’s minding the store?”

MR. DEAVER: Right.

MR. MEESE: And he was—he had a bit of humor even in those terrific circumstances.


MR. DEAVER: But also totally relaxed when he saw Nancy.

MR. MEESE: Yeah.

MR. RUSSERT: Two doctors there who had the firsthand account, this is so striking. He—the president kept saying I can’t catch my breath, his teeth stained with blood, gasping for air. He groaned, his knees buckled, he began to fall, he dropped to one knee. He then collapsed, carried to the trauma room. The president was much more badly hurt than, than we ever thought.

MR. BRINKLEY: Absolutely. I mean, he—it really was like being—he once said—being hit with a hammer. He was in great pain, and he was very near to dying. There are a couple little side bars in the diary that may be of interest. One is that he writes that—kind of mystically, in a, in a way—that he took his, his great wristwatch off and didn’t wear it that day. Put on an old beat up one, almost like a premonition. And second, he did forgive Hinckley. He found forgiveness in his heart for him. And Billy Graham had intervened—went and talked out in Colorado to Hinckley’s parents—that Reagan wrote in the diary, “I recognize this—this kid was insane, I have to forgive him. He’s—he has a deep mental illness problem.”

MR. RUSSERT: There’s references—continuous references to God in the diaries. This one was particularly intriguing to me. “It bothers me not to be in church on Sunday but don’t see how I can with the security problem. I’m a hazard to others. I hope” and realize “how much I feel that I am in a temple when I’m” not—out in this “beautiful forest and countryside, as we were this morning.” That’s almost his church in his mind.

MR. MEESE: It was. And also Camp David was very important to him, to get away from the day-to-day activities of the White House and to be outdoors at Camp David. If he couldn’t be at the ranch, at least he would be out with trees and where he could ride horseback and walk and hike with Nancy as he did.

MR. RUSSERT: But organized religion was not as important to him as his direct relationship with God.

MR. DEAVER: Well, I—that’s true. But I think he missed the service of going to church, the whole formality of it, too. It was comforting to him.

But when Ed was talking about being out, I remember one Saturday going up to the White House, and Reagan was standing in the dining room looking out the window down towards 16th Street, all by himself. And I went up behind him and said, “A penny for your thoughts.” And he said, “Oh,” he said, “I was just sitting here thinking I will never be able to walk out there and just go through a bookstore again by myself.”

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to politics. He—President Reagan decided to run for re-election. The first debate was in Louisville, October 7th. It was not a good performance. Here’s part of Reagan’s presentation.

(Videotape, October 7, 1984)

PRES. RONALD REAGAN: The system is still where it was with regard to the—with regard to the, the progressivity, as I’ve said.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: And this is what the president wrote about his own performance. “Well the debate took place in Louisville and I have to say I lost. I guess I’d crammed so hard on facts and figures in view of the absolutely dishonest things Mondale’s been saying in the campaign, I guess I flattened out. Anyway I didn’t feel good about myself.”

MR. BRINKLEY: There is zero sense of flattery of himself in the diaries. Occasionally, he will lurch into his poll numbers and say, “Look, I’ve gone up from, you know, 49 percent to 59 percent on an issue.” But he’s very self-deprecating, and I think that’s one of the reasons Ronald Reagan had such an enduring appeal. And you see—he was able to watch himself like he would in Hollywood in the dailies, and he’d sit at night, watch himself on television on shows like MEET THE PRESS, and suddenly say, “Oh, I didn’t do very well. I got to do better.” And he constantly was working on the performance aspect of being president, and that, obviously, was a deep failure.

MR. RUSSERT: He would ask the White House switchboard operator, “What are the calls today? How are people lining up?”

MR. MEESE: Yeah.


MR. RUSSERT: Endlessly curious. The second debate he bounced back by saying to Walter Mondale, “He will not make his age or inexperience an issue in this campaign” and went on to an easy re-election.

MR. MEESE: But I think you put your finger on something there. If he did overprepare, if he tried to cram a lot of facts and figures, he had an almost photographic memory. And a lot of times the fact that he would—had been fed so much at the presss conference briefing, or at a briefing before a speech or something like this, and that was really counterproductive. If he was just natural, as he was in that second debate, and used his sense of humor—you know, his sense of humor also shows itself in the diary. One of the best lines I thought was when he says, “the Girl Scouts were in to see me today. They made me an honorary Girl Scout, and I didn’t have to go to Sweden for the operation.”

MR. RUSSERT: One of the more controversial aspects of the presidency, as we all know, was his visit to Bitburg...

Mr. DEAVER: Oh yes.

MR. RUSSERT: ...the German cemetery. Here’s his entry. “The press had a field day assailing me because I’ve accepted German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s invitation to visit a German military cemetery during our visit to Bonn.” Then, “The press continues to chew away on the German trip. They are really sucking blood. The evening TV news was again filled with my sinning against humanity by going” through “with the visit to the German” military “cemetery.” And then again, “The uproar about my trip to Germany and Bitburg cemetery was cover stuff in Newsweek and Time. They just won’t stop. Well I’m not going to cancel anything no matter how much the bastards scream.”

And on May 5th, there’s the president with Helmut Kohl laying a wreath at the Bitburg cemetery. He determined to go forward with that trip. But Mike Deaver, we have an indication of the president’s attitude towards the media.

Mr. DEAVER: Right, right. You know, the Bitburg thing, of course, was my fault. I’m the one that picked that cemetery on the advance trip, and I always felt badly about it. And I was going to Germany one night about midnight when he called me back to the White House and took me into the den and said—never asked me to sit down, he was in his pajamas—and said, “I know where you’re going. You’re going over there to see Kohl and have Kohl call me and turn this thing off. Well, I don’t care what you do,” he said, “but I’m not turning this off, I’m going. So you just go on your trip and do what you want to do, but I’m coming.”

MR. RUSSERT: On the press—let me share another one with you. “Dropped in on the min—on the TV anchor and men and women who were being briefed on tonight’s State of the Union address. I cannot conjure up one iota of respect for just about all of them.” He didn’t like the press.

Mr. DEAVER: Well, actually he liked people. And he enjoyed, I think, the give and take. I think it would get—he would be angry when the facts were wrong, as far as he was concerned, but he—there wasn’t anybody that I know of that he hated, whether they were in the press or anyplace else. And...

MR. MEESE: No one.

Mr. DEAVER: know, the give and take with them every morning coming across through the Rose Garden was friendly and the combat I think he enjoyed.

MR. RUSSERT: And he watched and read a lot.

Mr. DEAVER: Yes, he did.

MR. MEESE: He watched television every night.

Mr. DEAVER: Yeah, he’d come in every morning.

MR. BRINKLEY: And there’s some, some reporters that he likes that he gives a kind of call-out in the diaries. Oh, Frank Reynolds of ABC and Walter Cronkite, who he, he admired a great deal. And there are about probably 10. Bill Plante of CBS, and he’d give them—he’d toss them a bone in history by saying that they were honest or did a better job.

MR. RUSSERT: In fact, after the second debate he listened to the commentary about how he’d won. And he said, “Even the TV bone-pickers think I did all right.”

MR. MEESE: And, you know, I think he got a kick out of jousting with Sam Donaldson and those trips...

MR. RUSSERT: Oh, yes.

MR. MEESE: ...from the White House to the helicopter when he’d, you know, act like he didn’t hear.

MR. RUSSERT: Right. Deaver turned the helicopter on.

Mr. DEAVER: Do you remember that wonderful line Sam shouted at him one morning coming over to work about 9:00. “Don’t you fell badly about working fewer hours than your predecessors?” And he said, “Well, Sam, you know, I hear hard work never killed anybody, but why give it a chance?”

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to Iran Contra, because there’s a lot in the book about it, and everybody here has, I think, a pretty good understanding. Here’s February—January 17, 1986: “Only thing waiting was” the National Security Council “wanting decisions on our effort to get our five hostages out of Lebanon. Involves selling TOW anti-tank missiles to Iran. I gave a go ahead.”

Then later that year, November, “This whole irresponsible press bilge about hostages” and “Iran has gotten totally out of hand. The media looks like it’s trying to create another Watergate. I laid down the law in the morning meetings—I want to go public personally” and “tell the people the truth.”

Then the next day: First “order of business—I will go on TV at 8 PM” tonight, “reply to the ridiculous falsehoods the media has been spawning for the last 10 days.”

The president went on TV and said this:

(Videotape, November 13, 1986)

PRES. REAGAN: We did not, repeat, did not trade weapons or anything else for hostages. Nor will we.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Eleven days later, here’s his entry:

“Ed” Meese and “Don” Regan, who was then chief of staff, “told me of a smoking gun. On one of the arms shipments, the Iranians paid Israel a higher purchase price than we were getting. The Israelis put the difference in a secret bank account. Then our” Colonel Oliver “North” of the National Security Council “gave the money to the ‘Contras.’ This was a violation of the law against giving the Contras money without” “authorization by Congress. North didn’t tell me about this. Worst of all, John Poindexter,” who headed the National Security Council, “found out about it” and “didn’t tell me. This may call for resignations.”

December 17th entry: “Late afternoon, Stu Spencer,” a longtime political consultant from California, “dropped by with Mike Deaver. They are good friends” and “honestly want to help me, but I can’t agree with their recommendation—that the answer to my Iran problem is to fire my people—top staff” and “even Cabinet.”

Tough time.

MR. MEESE: It was a tough time, and Ronald Reagan—what had happened, really, was you had the two controversial issues, the relationships with Iran and the seeking of a communications with them and their help in getting the hostages back, and then you had the freedom fighters in Nicaragua. Both very contentious issues, and when the funds for one were taken without authorization by Ollie North and transferred to the other, it was like putting the two things together, making one major issue out of it. Probably the worst time in the administration in terms of relationships with Congress. And the thing that bothered the president most was he had the feeling, as portrayed in the press, that the people didn’t believe him in what he was saying about it. That bothered him more than anything else. Because his integrity was absolutely the most important thing, and for the people not to believe—and he was absolutely right, having looked into that myself. He had—he knew nothing about this whatsoever. He was absolutely shocked when I brought him the news that we had discovered just the day before.

MR. RUSSERT: Mike Deaver, there’s an entry, January 22, 1987.

“Upstairs for lunch.” “Got out my diary” of ‘85 “to check on chronological layout of the Iran situation prepared by NSC. It sure is helping my memory.”

MR. RUSSERT: Was there any indication at the time the president was beginning to develop symptoms of Alzheimer’s or anything like that?

MR. DEAVER: No, not, not to me. I never saw that. The only way that he changed as a result of the shooting was that he got more stubborn. When he says in the entry there, you know, “The rest of my life belongs to God,” that means, “It doesn’t belong to Ed Meese and Mike Deaver and the rest of the staffers that’re always telling me stuff, I’m going to make up my own mind.” So that’s the only thing I ever saw.

MR. BRINKLEY: But, remember, he also had to deal with colon cancer, which he had dealt with.

MR. DEAVER: Right.

MR. BRINKLEY: And then he had always a lot of little medical problems. He was always taking what he called sneeze shots. I see them as being—the last two years in the diaries are as vigorous as ever in the writing, but he does get forgetful. He’ll sometimes say, “I’m flying in a helicopter. What’s the name of that canyon? Oh, it’s Topanga Canyon. Why aren’t I remembering it?” There are a couple of things. But I don’t think it’s Alzheimer’s. It’s just some memory due to maybe age, some of you might want to call it.

MR. MEESE: And the tremendous amount of information he was getting every day. You know, I used to say to businessmen, for example, “How many tough decisions do you make in a month?” And they would say, “Well, maybe five.” I said, “The president makes that many every day.”


MR. DEAVER: Made after you’re 70 years old.

MR. MEESE: Right. Although that’s not so old.

MR. RUSSERT: Here’s a speech on May—March 4th, excuse me, 1987, when the president did acknowledge Iran-Contra mistakes. Let’s listen to his words.

(Videotape, March 4, 1987)

PRES. REAGAN: A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true. But the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Classic Reagan. “My heart and my best intentions tell me that’s still true, but the evidence says otherwise.”

MR. MEESE: Yeah. And in many ways, it was true. Because we weren’t dealing with the hostage takers, we were dealing with the Iranians, who in turn had influence with the hostage takers. But he felt that the thing had gotten so confused, the only way to straighten it out was to make that speech, which he did.

MR. DEAVER: It’s a great lesson for presidents, that particular speech. Because the impression that that gave to the American public was that Reagan was admitting that he had been wrong. And it then was behind him. And he had been honest with us.

MR. RUSSERT: There was talk of impeachment in Congress. After that speech, it evaporated.

MR. DEAVER: That’s right.

MR. BRINKLEY: And he’s a loyalist. I mean, anybody who works for him—and you guys know it—he really pulled for you. And you see in the diaries all the time, if somebody’s being smeared in the press, it really bothers him. And he defends all those people in his Cabinet to the very last minute. If he can’t defend them, he can’t. He refused at the end to offer pardons, for example, to Ollie North and some others. He said no way, I’m not doing it. But he, he was true blue most of the time.

MR. RUSSERT: The president was a man of exquisite judgment, as I found out by reading this entry, Sunday, January 31st, 1988, when he said, “A late breakfast, then our date with MEET THE PRESS and ‘This Week.’ They’ve become standard TV viewing for” all of “us.” Thank you, Mr. President.

Your last—final memory of Ronald Reagan?

MR. DEAVER: My final memory of Ronald Reagan was actually the first day in the White House, when—the first day in the Oval Office, right off the reviewing stand, when he sat behind that desk and looked at me and said, “Have you got goosebumps?”

MR. MEESE: Mine was, things were pretty tough, there was a lot of press attacks against me. And as we were leaving the, the press room, press briefing room, he just put his arm around me and walked out that way to let the press know he was fully behind me. It was a great gesture.

MR. RUSSERT: You want to go back as attorney general and replace Mr.


MR. MEESE: I think I’ve done my bit, thank you.

MR. RUSSERT: Douglas Brinkley, the editor, thanks very much.

MR. BRINKLEY: Thanks, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT: Ed Meese, Mike Deaver, thank you all.

And speaking of MEET THE PRESS, Ronald Reagan appeared on MEET THE PRESS seven

times during his political career. If you’d like to see the highlights from his very first appearance, days after he announced his candidacy for governor of California in 1966, check out this week’s Take Two Web extra. Our Web site, And we’ll be right back.


MR. RUSSERT: Tomorrow on the “Today” program, former President Jimmy Carter.

That’s all for us. We’ll be back next week with another installment of our 2008 Meet the Candidates series, an in-depth interview with Democratic candidate, now governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson. That’s next Sunday, right here. Because if it’s Sunday, it is MEET THE PRESS.

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