MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: Should the United States set a firm deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq? Yes, says Democratic presidential candidate Senator Chris Dodd. No says possible Republican presidential candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Dodd and Gingrich square off in an old-fashioned, robust political debate.
Then a special MEET THE PRESS roundtable on the newly released Reagan diaries with the editor, historian Douglas Brinkley, and two longtime Reagan advisers, Michael Deaver and Ed Meese.
Welcome, Senator Chris Dodd, Speaker Newt Gingrich. Good to see you both.
FMR. REP. NEWT GINGRICH (R-GA): Good to be here.
SEN. CHRIS DODD (D-CT): Nice to see you.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Dodd, should the United States set a firm deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq?
SEN. DODD: I, I believe we should, Tim. I, I didn’t come to that decision a, a long time ago. It’s been an evolving situation here. It seems to me if you use the template of national security, of how secure are we today, this is something all of us have to be concerned about, what’s happening to us, I think most would agree today that we’re more isolated today, our, our moral standing in the world has suffered terribly, in my view, over the last number of years as a result of our involvement in Iraq. We’re feeling, I think, less secure, more vulnerable today. What’s happened to our military as well, you hear this not just from people in public life but retired generals and others talking about the condition of our National Guard, of the condition of our combat readiness of our troops. It seems to me here that the Iraqis really do have to assume this responsibility. I thought it was terribly reflective of what’s going on in Iraq when you had the parliament actually considering taking a two or three month vacation this year from their duties at a time when young men—American—and women are putting their lives on the line. And my view is there’s a greater likelihood, I think a greater likelihood that the Iraqis, if they understand that this is not an open-ended process here, there’s a beginning time and an end time for our military involvement here, and that we’re willing, over this next year, to do what we can to help on border security, to help on counterterrorism, to help train troops, but that, come March, the end of March, the first of April next year, our military participation is over with.
Now, let me quickly add that’s not enough of this debate. What are we—why aren’t we using state craft? What’s happened to the utilization of other tools available to us—our economic, our political, our diplomatic resources—which are significant in this country and are almost been neglected in this entire process in my view? So my view is, without the clarity here, the boldness of this, the directness of this, I deeply worry, by the hour, that our security’s going to be greater and greater in jeopardy as a result of this policy of refusing to set that time frame.
MR. RUSSERT: Speaker.
MR. GINGRICH: Well, I think you have to approach it from two different levels. I disagree deeply with, with Senator Dodd on two different levels. First of all, at the immediate human level this morning, there are young men and women risking their lives in uniform who, I think, are dramatically going to be demoralized by the idea of who’s the last person to die trying to win in Iraq. I mean, if, if, if we have to set a deadline, then let’s set it for next Tuesday. Let’s get out of there. Because I think the idea that we’re going to set a magic moment a year from now or 11 months from now or 10 months from now basically says we are prepared to accept defeat if that’s—if the, if the deadline’s real and we, and we can’t find a way to get to victory, then we will accept defeat, we will have legislated defeat. So, first of all, at the level of our young men and women in uniform, I think it’s very demoralizing. And Senator Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Democratic from Michigan, said something very similar in voting against a, a firm deadline.
But there’s a, there’s a bigger problem. Here I actually partially, partially agree with Senator Dodd. I, I am not comfortable either with the current situation in Iraq—and you’ve heard me on this show as early as December of 2003 talk about major mistakes—nor am I comfortable around the world with our extraordinarily limited use of state craft. And I think that point you’re making’s right. The North Koreans are cheating on their agreement now for over 30 days. They’ll have nuclear weapons. We still, after five and a half years do not have control of, of Warziristan in northwest Pakistan, and it is both the place Bin Laden’s probably hiding and it is the place the Taliban uses to attack Afghanistan. We have been told by the U.N. in the last few days that the Iranians are now produce—producing at least 1300 centrifuges, producing nuclear material, and that they almost certainly will have a nuclear weapon within a year. We see in Israel that Hamas rockets being fired from Gaza have led the Israelis to actually abandon a town. I mean, nobody’s covered this very much, but an entire town has been abandoned now because it’s indefensible under the current rules of engagement. The British just arrested—just sentenced to life in prison without parole five terrorists. And in New Jersey two weeks ago, we arrested six terrorists, three of whom had been in this country illegally for six years and had had 75 encounters with the police without anybody noticing they were illegal. If you take this worldwide pattern—and by then, lastly, Estonia has been under assault, probably by the Russians, in cyber warfare for three weeks now, as a member of NATO and as part of the European Union. I mean, you look around the world, the forces of freedom are on retreat, the forces that are anti-freedom, pro-dictatorship, and, in some cases, purely evil are on offense. I agree with Senator Dodd that we need a dramatically expanded ability to use state craft. But I think it’s—I think you got to make any Iraq decision within the framework of this larger maelstrom of dangers that are growing across the planet.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Dodd, if you withdrew American troops by a date certain, what happened if total chaos erupted, total civil war erupted, bloodshed, ethnic cleansing? What would you do?
SEN. DODD: Well, well, it’s—I don’t think you have to ask the question hypothetically, that’s what’s going on today. Sixty-thousand Iraqis have lost their lives over the last four years, two million have left the country, a million more displaced within the country. I don’t know what the paper said this morning, but how many more lost their lives yesterday? I’m talking about Iraqis in this particular case. So it seems to me the issue of chaos, it’s already upon us here. You’re looking at a, at a conflict—we always talk about the conflict in the Middle East being an Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What we fail to understand, there’s been significant conflict within the Muslim world for years; going back to 1632, in fact, when you trace, trace the history of the conflict between the Shias and Sunni populations.
We’re in the middle of a civil war. And this is the point where I think Newt and I really probably part ways on this, talking about winning or losing in Iraq. This is a civil war in the country. It is a civil war. We’re in the middle of a civil war. This is not the United States vs. some sole enemy in the place there. Yes, there are elements of al-Qaeda there, I know that. But the conflict is fundamentally one between Shias and Sunnis. Kurds are involved as well, but principally Shias and Sunnis. No one has ever suggested—none of our top military people have ever suggested from day one that there was a military solution to this. In fact, major military leaders have been highly critical of the Bush administration for embracing this notion that there was somehow going to be a military victory here. I don’t believe that. I don’t think most people do. There’s a political diplomatic solution to this, if we give it some space and an opportunity to succeed. I can’t guarantee it, Tim, that if we, if we adopt what I’m suggesting—and that is leaving within a year, militarily leaving within the year—that there won’t be problems that come afterwards. This much I do know: The status quo is doing great damage to that country and great damage to the United States. The moral authority’s been shot on this thing, terribly.
What Newt just said is absolutely correct, these other issues we’ve got to focus our attention on. Our military people tell us today, Lord forbid that we were faced with a major military challenge tonight, all of us agreed that the only legitimate response is a military one, we’d be hard pressed to respond to it. That’s public testimony of our senior military people in this country. That’s very, very dangerous, and this, this, this notion that we’re so wedded to be engaged in this civil conflict in Iraq is doing us great damage. That’s why I’m advocating this time certain.
MR. GINGRICH: But notice, there are two things there. First of all, even if you accept that this is a civil war, people have won civil wars. I devoted three novels about winning the American Civil War. And the fact is, civil wars are hard. But we also—I just did a novel on Pearl Harbor and the Second World War. The Second World War was hard. Guadalcanal was hard. If we’d had today’s Congress during Guadalcanal, the number of people who had said beating the Japanese is too hard, let’s find a negotiated peace, would have been amazing.
SEN. DODD: I disagree with that.
MR. GINGRICH: But there’s a course—we are, we are in a worldwide war, and, and I’m going to use a word that seems to be unfashionable in Washington. We need to think about winning this worldwide war. We need to understand that every week that goes by there are more young people recruited into al-Qaeda and into, into the various Iranian terrorist organizations. We just saw a video of a 12-year-old in Pakistan beheading a man.
So let me start with this, because here’s what happened, and this is what, frankly, the Congress does to people. You have a freely elected democratic government in, in Colombia waging a campaign, but it’s, it’s a tough campaign. So the president of Colombia, democratically elected president, becomes persona non grata. Al Gore won’t even appear with him on the same stage because the tone of the government’s inappropriate, OK? So if we were to pull out of Iraq, and you suddenly had the chaos that Tim described, the next battle cry would be cut off the funding because the pro-American side would end up doing things that were “inappropriate.” And then you’d say well, if only somebody perfect were in charge with a perfect government.
Now, let me point out, this is a Democratic Congress, which has not passed a single one of Nancy Pelosi’s hundred day—hundred hour six items. Not a single one’s gone into law. It’s a Democratic Congress, which in its first four months has passed 26 bills, 12 of which are renaming federal buildings. And I think to set one standard for the Iraqi parliament and a totally lower standard for the American government after 225 years of practice is fundamentally flawed. Either we’re for our allies winning, we should do what it takes for our allies to win, we should actually be in the attitude of winning the war—which we did in less than four years in World War II—or we should recognize, after five and a half years from 9/11, we are, in fact, on a worldwide basis, slowly, gradually losing the fight against terrorism and the fight against dictatorship.
MR. RUSSERT: But specifically, how would you win the war in Iraq militarily?
MR. GINGRICH: First of all, you, you would empower General Petraeus. You’d pass the supplemental immediately. You’d give him the money. Second, you would encourage the Iraqis to triple the size of their regular army. Third, you would, you would encourage the development of a, of a military tribunal system to lock people up the way Abraham Lincoln would’ve done it. Fourth, you would establish a nationwide ID card with biometrics so you can actually track everybody in the country. Fifth, you would make sure that the State Department actually staffed the embassy with people in favor of winning the war and you actually had your fully, fully equipped intelligence and economic development teams. Six, you would say to the Iranians, “If you don’t cut off everything you’re doing, we’ll begin to bring enormous pressure to bear with you,” if necessary, blockading the flow of gasoline into Iran, which has to import 40 percent of its gasoline because it only has one refinery in the entire country.
So I would take—I would lean forward and say to the world, “We are, by George, going to make sure that the allies of America and the forces of freedom win, and we are the most powerful nation in history, and we have more than enough assets to do this.” And we ought to do what it takes to win, not tolerate legislating defeat.
SEN. DODD: Well, what you’re suggesting, first, is terribly naive to assume that all of these things are going to happen with a government that even, to this day, can’t even leave the green zone to get out and function. I just met with some soldiers at, at Walter Reed a few weeks ago, and, listening to them, young Americans coming back, and to quote them almost exactly, Tim, “We’ll go in, we’ll spend a month and a half securing an area out here.” And these are young men very proud of their service, by the way. “Go into an area, secure it, take a month and a half to do it.” And to quote him, “an hour and a half after we leave, an hour and a half after we leave, it’s right back where it was. And senator,” he said, “they know where the IEDs are, they know where the ammu-dumps are, and they won’t even tell us where they are today.” You’ve got almost 80 percent of the population of that country thinks we’re the source of their chaos. A majority in the parliament called for a date certain forced to leave. Two billion dollars a week, $8 billion a month, and exactly the point Newt is making I agree with here. The war on terror’s the legitimate war. We’re, we’re, we’re building an army of radicals and the generation coming along, as a result of the legitimacy of the effort engaged in Iraq. The former commandant of the Marine Corps made that point in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post last week here. We’re losing that particular area, Newt. You cannot continue here having this...
MR. GINGRICH: Well...
SEN. DODD: ...succeed here where these countries literally expanding their opportunities. We’re bogged down in this matter. The war on terror’s being neglected. We don’t have enough troops in Afghanistan, the Taliban is resurgent here, Pakistan seems to be weak on the issue here. All of our attention—president goes to Latin America, he almost has to hide out for a week and a half. He’s losing the public relations battle to Hugo Chavez. This is incredible to me. And literally, a lot of it has to do with the fact that there’s no willingness to consider alternatives in a different mission in Iraq. If we have a different mission, if you’d listen to your military commanders, listen to the diplomatic people, listen to Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton and their report—which I know you were highly critical of—but frankly, their suggestions make a lot of sense to people.
MR. GINGRICH: Look, there, there, there are two fundamental differences here. The first is the Baker-Hamilton Commission suggested that we engage Iran and Syria, who are our enemies in the region. The fact is the Iranians want us defeated. The Iranians are providing weapons, training and money to defeat us. The idea that the answer is—this would be like saying, “Why don’t we turn to Nazi Germany to help us manage fascist Italy?”
SEN. DODD: Well...
MR. GINGRICH: But let me...
SEN. DODD: All right.
MR. GINGRICH: ...say a second thing. I reject totally the idea that the Iraqi campaign is at the heart of the war on terror. The Iranians killed American Marines in Lebanon when we weren’t in Iraq. The, the Iranians killed Americans in Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia when we weren’t in Iraq. Al-Qaeda killed, bombed two U.S. embassies when we weren’t in Iraq. Al-Qaeda bombed Yemen when we weren’t in Iraq. Al-Qaeda bombed New York City when we weren’t in Iraq. We’re in a war against people both on the Shia side, funded by the Iranians, and the Sunni side, largely funded by the Saudis, who are determined to destroy freedom as we know it. We have yet to come to engage in how serious this is. We have yet to mobilize—we...
I want to repeat this. We won the entire Second World War in less than four years after Pearl Harbor. We’re now five and a half years into this war. We are rope-a-doping. We are playing domestic political games. We have—and I’m not, I’m not in any way defending the Bush administration. We have no grand strategy. We have no sense of a mobilization of national will. And I think someplace down the road we are in grave danger of losing one or more American cities to a nuclear or biological attack. And we ought to, we ought to take it seriously now, not afterwards.
SEN. DODD: Well, I agree with that. No, listen, I’m taking it seriously. And, and, and part of this is sort of labeling people, that, that we don’t concern about the security of the country because we’re willing to accept there’s a, there’s a winner or a loser. There is a winner or a loser in the war on terror. I agree with that totally. And we have an obligation in this generation to do everything in our possible. It’s a, it’s an, it’s a, it’s an international, multinational problem here—London, Madrid, Seoul, Tokyo...
MR. GINGRICH: Right.
SEN. DODD: ...where these bombs go off. It’s global in perspective. It requires cooperation. The idea that we’ll have no talks with people we disagree with—Ronald Reagan, who you’ll be talking about in a few moments here, he would call the Soviet Union “the evil Empire.” He’d meet in Reykjavik to talk about arms control. Richard Nixon, certainly as strong an anti-communist as existed in the latter half of the 20th century, would meet with Mao Tse Tung, not because of the end in itself, but to explore and to examine whether or not we can reach some commonalty of common interest here. The idea we don’t talk to the Syrians, we don’t talk to the Iranians in a moment like this, I think, is terribly naive and dangerous for the country, in my view.
MR. GINGRICH: First of all, I’m perfectly happy to talk to Syrians and the Iranians. We’ve had a number of secretaries of state who’ve gone to Damascus, several of whom have been snubbed. Our secretary of state was snubbed the other day by the Iranians. I just want us to understand who we’re talking about. Reagan had no doubt that the Soviet Union was an evil empire. He had a clear vision of the Cold War. He said, “We win, they lose.” He had—and here’s what he did what you’re calling for. He had a grand strategy that involved the pope and the prime minister. They, they unraveled the Soviet empire, starting in Poland, largely without firing a shot, except for the Afghan campaign.
But, but there’s, there’s a step deeper here. President Uribe is our ally against terrorism and against narcotrafficantes in Colombia, but the Democratic Congress finds him inappropriate. Prime Minister Maliki is doing the best he can in a chaotic environment, and he’s not a very strong person, but if—imagine we were the French in the 1700s, debating the American Continental Congress and saying, “Well, should we really send aid to these guys? I mean, they can’t even hold—you know, they’ve retreated to Lancaster. They’re not even in Philadelphia. They’ve lost New York. George Washington’s lost all these campaigns. This guy Washington has no major victories. I mean, why are we sending money over there? This is just bad money after good.”
SEN. DODD: But, but, but equating, equating the American Revolution with a civil war in Iraq today, please, with all due respect.
MR. GINGRICH: No, it’s exactly the same point.
SEN. DODD: This is—no, no. It’s very different circumstances entirely here. And, again, I’ll come back to the point earlier, this is, this is where Iraqis have got to make a decision. They have to decide whether they want to be a country or not. And it’s a legitimate issue about whether or not they want to. They’re talking about separating off of the three different federal zones: the Kurdish, a Shia, Sunni zone. They—they’re uncertain themselves as to whether or not they want to be a nation.
MR. GINGRICH: We went...
SEN. DODD: Here they’re asking us to decide that for them, Newt, in a sense.
They have to make that decision.
MR. GINGRICH: We went—wait a second, we went from 1775 with the first Continental Congress to 1789 when we adopted the Constitution. We had 14 years of confusion. Now, if you were advising the French how—in late 1776, Washington has been defeated in New York, he’s been defeated in Brooklyn Heights, he’s been defeated crossing—all, all the way across New Jersey, what would you have said then? Why would you have said, magically, the Americans are better?
SEN. DODD: Well, the fundamental issue, I’ve got George Washington, not Prime Minister Maliki, and I’ll go with Washington every day of the week. Now, we’ve got a lot of other people sitting around, people in Massachusetts, Connecticut and elsewhere, in Georgia, who are sitting there who knew what they wanted in the end. The Iraqis don’t apparently at this point.
MR. GINGRICH: But that’s the...
SEN. DODD: And they’re asking us to do it for them.
MR. RUSSERT: Another, I think, concern Americans have is that four years into the war, there are only 6,000 Iraqi troops...
MR. GINGRICH: Ready to right.
MR. RUSSERT: ...who are fully trained...
MR. GINGRICH: Yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: ...independent outside of American support. And people question why is that? Why are the Iraqis apparently unwilling to step up and shed blood...
MR. GINGRICH: It’s just—look, we, we have these stunningly self-destructive reporting systems where you say what is an American quality brigade and could this brigade operate with no support, no communications, no logistics? And so some guy checks a box. The fact is there are about 139,000 Iraqi troops who are out on patrol with Americans who are risking their lives. The fact is the Iraqis are taking a lot more casualties than we are. And there’s something wrong—and again this goes back to Colombia as a totally different place that has the same problem. People in local countries with relatively weak governments, with dramatically lower standards than the U.S., people who are standing next to us getting killed are dishonored. We say, “Oh, that’s not really good enough.” There are—look at all the Iraqis who walked to vote risking death. Look at all the Iraqis who have now twice voted, including Iraqi women who were engaged. Look, all these people—the same thing in Afghanistan where women knew the Taliban was going to target to kill them. I think sometimes we got to honor our—imagine the Second World War. You say, “Well what have the British done recently? Why are we helping Great Britain, or what, what have the Greeks done or the Poles done or the Belgians done?”
SEN. DODD: But the distinction—the distinction...
MR. GINGRICH: I mean, I just...
SEN. DODD: The distinction, you know—the survey done, I think, by NBC and The Wall Street Journal, over 50 percent of Iraqis thinks it’s all right to kill Americans serving there. I don’t—if we go back to the American Revolution I doubt you would have had 51 percent of the Americans saying it’s all right to kill the French coming here. The distinctions—and let me mention the Uribe issue, because I’ve been deeply involved in that one for a long time, and I happen to like President Uribe. I’ve known him for a long time.
But we discovered recently that a lot of our funds are going in are supporting operations that are deeply engaged in the drug trafficking. Part of the, the military that have gone off and formed these death squads down there that are causing more difficulty and expanding the ranks of the FARC in many ways. So the question’s being raised about how U.S. dollars are being used in Colombia is not illegitimate questions here when it comes to these kind of activities. I want the FARC to be defeated. I want that country to be whole again. Colombians have been through a dreadful decades of hard work. But the idea that you don’t raise a concern about how dollars are being spent in these areas I think is something that needs to be addressed.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me go back to Iraq and give each of you a chance, in the closing minutes.
Speaker Gingrich, if we set a firm date for withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq, what happens?
MR. GINGRICH: I believe we send a signal to enemies to wait patiently and destroy the country as soon as we leave. I believe we send a signal to our own troops to cease patrolling and do everything you can not to be the last person killed on behalf of something that Congress has decried will be a defeat. I think we send a signal to our allies around the world that we’re unreliable. And I think that we have dramatically expanded the excitement and incentives of the terrorists, both in the Iranian-funded Shia wing and in the Saudi-funded Sunni wing of al-Qaeda. And I think you’ll see a dramatic upsurge. And a simple way to measure this, watch what our enemies say. If this Congress passes a definitive end of American involvement, every enemy we have on the planet will exalt, and every terrorist group on the planet will claim it’s an enormous victory, and they will increase their recruiting. And as New Jersey should just have taught us, they don’t plan to stop in Baghdad. They are coming here as soon as they can get here.
MR. RUSSERT: Can you respond to that?
SEN. DODD: Yeah, I—in fact, I think just the opposite. I think the very things you’re talking about, you have the opposite reaction here. I think the world is waiting for the United States to lead again with bold leadership in the country. It’s deeply worried about security, deeply worried about global terrorism, and looks on—over this landscape of the world, says only one country can lead, it’s the United States. The Chinese aren’t going to do it, the Russians aren’t going to do it, the Indians aren’t going to do it, not in the foreseeable future. It’s going to be the United States.
We’re bogged down in a situation here where we’re losing credibility, we’re losing our moral value. The great moral reputation of the United States has suffered terribly as a result of this. That’s a critical element and was critical in building the relationships that allowed us to develop the kind of international cooperation absolutely essential if you’re going to deal with global terrorism. So my view is here, it’s time for us to say that there’s a new mission here, a new direction, a change in course here that will allow, I think, the possibility of Iraqis to decide they want to be a country. Allow us to encourage the moderate Arab states in the region to assume greater responsibility for their neighborhood than they presently are. I think the real opportunity, if you engage not as a—not as an end, but as a means to deal with the Iranian-Syrian issue, as we finally did in North Korea, you open up the, the perspective here—the prospects, rather, of a wider, better set of alternatives for the United States and our allies around the world. That, at least, is a real opportunity. The status quo and escalating this conflict in Iraq on the assumption there’s a military solution, I think has been disproven and discredited by most major people who’ve looked at this, and I think they’re right.
MR. RUSSERT: Thank you both for making your views intelligently and passionately and in a civil environment. We appreciate it very much.
Speaker Gingrich, before you go, your new book, you co-authored “Pearl Harbor.” We know you’re an accomplished author. But we’re curious about whether you’re a candidate. Let me show you what you said here, and this—trace trace this very quickly. In ‘03, December, “I doubt it very much,” running for president. Then in May of ‘06, “I doubt it.” Then in December of ‘06, “Of course I’m thinking about it.” And last week, “It is a great possibility.”
As we sit on this day, May 20th, 2007, will Newt Gingrich run for president?
SEN. DODD: Two white—two white-haired candidates.
MR. GINGRICH: I, I am studying—I am studying Chris’ campaign. If there’s a big enough market among Republicans for a really white-haired candidate...
SEN. DODD: We got it.
MR. GINGRICH: ...then I may, I may...
SEN. DODD: How about a ticket?
MR. GINGRICH: I’ll—I did—we did talk earlier about the idea of the nine dialogues of 90 minutes each from Labor Day to the election, and I think we may have at least one guy over here who...
SEN. DODD: I think it’s a great idea.
MR. GINGRICH: ...leans towards that idea.
SEN. DODD: No moderator, Tim, though. We don’t want to exclude you, but the idea of having two of us have a conversation about national issues in separate one hour discussions through nine weeks between September and November, an intelligent, thoughtful debate where we listen to each other, might be an interesting idea.
MR. GINGRICH: But if—I promise, if after the September 27th American Solutions workshop, I do decide to run, I will come back and be on MEET THE PRESS.
MR. RUSSERT: So you’re thinking about running?
MR. GINGRICH: Well, I’m thinking about thinking about running. But I’m—I won’t do anything at all about the possibility of running until after September 29th when we have our second workshop.
MR. RUSSERT: So by October you should have a decision?
MR. GINGRICH: By, by October I’m confident that we’ll be chatting.
MR. RUSSERT: We’ll see you here.
MR. GINGRICH: Thank you.
MR. RUSSERT: Newt Gingrich, Chris Dodd, thanks very much.
SEN. DODD: Thank you very much, yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: Coming next, Ronald Reagan, one of only four presidents to keep a consistent diary while in the White House. What can we learn about his life and his legacy from his own words? Historian Douglas Brinkley and Reagan advisers Michael Deaver and Ed Meese are next only on MEET THE PRESS.
MR. RUSSERT: The life and legacy of Ronald Reagan through this newly-released White House diaries, after this station break.
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. RUSSERT: Yeah.
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.
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. BRINKLEY: 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: ...you 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.
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.”
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. BRINKLEY: Yeah.
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.
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, mtp.msnbc.com. 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.