Video: Reagan aide sees great strength

By Tom Brokaw Correspondent
NBC News
updated 6/8/2004 5:36:48 PM ET 2004-06-08T21:36:48

Tom Brokaw:  Mr. Deaver, you talked to Nancy Reagan today, how’s she doing?

Michael Deaver: Well, you know, she’s holding up.  You know, like Ronald Reagan.  I think maybe Nancy was too.  Her—her strength through all this is pretty inspiring.

Brokaw: I think it probably has changed perceptions of a lot of people about who she is.  And if there was any question about her devotion to Ronald Reagan, that question has been put away now.

Deaver: Well, I know I think, you know, when the years passed, people used to talk about the gaze or the stare and sort of make fun of the fact that they were holding hands constantly and that there was this adoring wife which was in the ‘70s when the women’s liberation movement was blossoming.  But, you know, in the end it is that story of devotion and consistency and — for better or for worse, through sickness and in health.  Those are the values that—I think we see in both of them.

I remember during these past ten years talking to her at times and saying, “Nancy, I don’t know how you do this, you know.  Why don’t you get out of there and take a week off” or “No, I can’t do that.”

Brokaw:  She would never complain.  I talked to her as well.  And there was not even a hint of a complaint.

Deaver: Not about her.  There was a complaint about why — why does she have to go through this but never about—about her, never her complaints saying, “Oh, woe is me, poor me.”

Brokaw: You were present at the creation of the political Ronald Reagan in California.  The crowds that are going through the presidential library all night long, thousand, two thousand an hour, you must be impressed as well.

Deaver: I am.  And I’m impressed by all the young people that I see going through that —those lines.  Because some of them were barely—alive when he was — some of them — most of them weren’t alive when he was Governor certainly.  And few were alive of those young people when he was President.  So, it’s a testimony, you know, to his ideas and the consistency of those ideas as much as it is the man, I think.

Brokaw: When you were first involved in his race for Governor of California, did you think that he could go all the way?  At the end of the day, did you think to yourself or talk to your friends about, “We’re going to see this guy in the White House at some point.”

Deaver: I think a couple of years into the Governorship, I thought that. I — I certainly thought he had the capacity.  And I certainly—I never—I never talked to him about it.  I never said in the early years, “Do you want to be President?  Is that what we’re really doing here,” never.  But — there were sort of an always—underlying assumption I think on the part of the handful of us that had started with him, that someday he’d be there.

1968 presidential run
Well, in 1968 you did make sort of a stealth run at it.

Deaver: In 1968 there was a stealth run.  But nobody’s — I mean, there really wasn’t a full blown campaign — not even in his mind I think.  So — there was a wonderful story that came out of that too.  You know, Strom Thurmond was a big fan of Reagans.   But he had gone with Nixon.  You remember it was Reagan and Rockefeller and then Nixon.

And then Nixon got the nomination.  And Thurmond thought it was important that — that after the nomination that Reagan and Nixon sit down. And so he brought Reagan to Nixon’s suite.

And — Nixon said, “You know Ron,” he said, “Here young man, there’ll be another time for you.”  And Reagan got that little twinkle in his eye.  And he said, “Mr. Vice-President, I’m three years older than you.”

Brokaw: (Laughter) You, Stew Spencer, the pollster, Richard Rooklin—

Deaver:  Lynn Noffsinger

Brokaw: Lynn Noffsinger, you invented the modern campaign in many ways.  There had never been anything that was as well oiled as that one was.  No detail was too small.  And there was a kind of modern efficiency about it.  How involved was Ronald Reagan in the day to day operations of that campaign?

Deaver: Well, he was involved a great deal.  He would never — he would sometimes get involved in — in the logistics.  But you’ve got to remember that we had had — by the time ‘76 came around, (Laughter)we had ten years of oiling that machine and knowing his comfort with it.

So, you know, very few presidential campaigns start with a cadre of people who have had that kind of experience.  To me knowing his own instincts, knowing how he would — what he was comfortable with made it — made it work.  And he knew that too.  So, he wouldn’t question it.

Brokaw: He was always in his own way an old-fashioned and courtly man.  How difficult were the ‘60s for him when you had the counter-revolution going on, the counter-culture going on, the campuses erupting, kid’s with long hair, defying their parents.  Did it drive him crazy?

Deaver: Well, I think it was very frustrating.  And I think it angered him in many ways.  Because it was an assault on the institutions that he respected and knew.  I think it was the first—sort of glimpse that Californians and Americans got — about the firmness of his beliefs and how far he would go and — and once staking, you know, out his position, he wouldn’t deviate that much from it.  And it was also for him, sort of a moral issue that he felt strongly about.

Brokaw: I remember vividly the wars that the press had with the campaign, the Californian press didn’t take him seriously at the beginning, very tough on him.  It seemed to just run off his back.

Deaver: Yeah, that sort of thing just never bothered Reagan.  I — I don’t think I’ve ever known anybody that was so comfortable in his beliefs, had settled everything by that time in his life.  You know, I — I know people who are in their ‘70s and ‘80s who haven’t settled who they are yet.

But—but there was just no question in Reagan’s mind.  And if people wanted to say those things about him, so — so be it.  “I’ll be judged by the people.”

Brokaw: I don’t know anybody politician who can resist looking at his or her press clips and reacting to them.  Are you saying he never came to…

Deaver: Oh, sure.

Brokaw:  What’s going on?”

Deaver: No, he would come in once and a while and say, “These guys have it all wrong.  This isn’t right.  You know that.”

But one of the things that I used to get a kick out of was riding around with him in those years, you know, where’d there be maybe a couple of — of media guys.  There’d be five of us, you know, who were traveling all over the United States.  And he’d get in the car.  And Dick Berkholtz at that time was with the Los Angeles Times.  And he was sort of a crusty old guy.

Brokaw: Never smiled.

Deaver: Never smiled and—and he’d be in the car waiting.  And we’d get in the paper—or get in the car.  And Reagan would look at the paper.  And he’d go first to the funnies.

And Berkholtz would look at me.  And we’d get out of the car.  And he’d say, “Does he—doesn’t he read the paper?”

And I said, “Of course, he does.”  “Well, he reads the funnies.”  And I said, “Oh yeah, that his favorite part of the paper.”  Reagan knew it.  He knew it was just driving Berkholtz crazy. (Laughter)

Brokaw:  Nancy on the other hand, did pay attention to the press coverage pretty—

Deaver: Oh yeah, well Nancy—Nancy, you know, her antennae for the—for the immediate was very good.  And—and she did that for him.  And he needed that.  Because, you know, his—his vision was way out in the future.

What was the headline in the today’s paper wasn’t important.  You know, it was—it were these values that he held and—and looking out into to—I mean, it was like Whitburg which—was the most painful thing I think—one of the most painful things for him and calling me in at midnight when I was going to go to Germany.  And he—and he said, “Now, I know you’re going to go over there.  And you’re going to try to talk Helmut Kohl—out of this.  And I don’t want you to do that.”

Brokaw: Really?  If you could turn all that back would you have him go to the graves of the SS officers?

Deaver: Well, let me just finish that.  Because he—I said—looked at him quizzically.  And he said, “You know, if we can’t do this now, if there can’t be reconciliation after 40 years, then what we fought for was a waste.  I’m going. And I’ll let history be the judge.”

I said, “Yes sir.”  And I turned around.  And—and that’s exactly where I was going and what I was going to try to do.  Would I have done it again?  Of course, not, I wouldn’t have.

But, you know, as we found out later, there wasn’t a military cemetery in Germany that they hadn’t buried SS troops in.  Edenour made the decision to spread them all over the country rather than have them in one spot.  So, I didn’t know that.

And—of course, there was snow on the ground that day.  And—when we first looked at it, we had no idea.  But at any rate, it was his—well, the point—I’m trying to make is that all of us were screaming and pulling our hair and—and thinking we’d ruined his presidency.  He was looking way off into the future.

Brokaw:  And did he have any better political advisor than Nancy?

Deaver: No, of course, not (laughter)and he knew it.  He knew it.  But, you know, even on these issues that I’m talking about because Nancy was—

Brokaw: The tough one.

Deaver: Was—was very—emotional about Whitburg, even on those if he thought he was right for the future, if—if he thought that the decision he was making was—the one that he’d become settled with, nobody could talk him out of it.  And she knew that.

Brokaw: How—how would he then deal with her if she had come to you and you went to him and he wanted to stay where he was what he was…

Deaver: He would say to her, “Honey,” or he’d say to me, “Mike—I—I just disagree.  I’m sorry.  I just disagree.”

Brokaw: And would he say that to her as well?

Deaver: Of course.

Brokaw: He’d lose his temper with you occasionally, right?

Deaver: Yes, he would lose his temper—very occasionally.  I mean, there were these explosions, 4 or 5 of them over the 20 years or so. But he would always—then come back and just feel very remorseful and, “I’m so sorry, you know.”  And—it was so rare that it was—made a quite impression on you.

Brokaw: Even in the best of marriages, there are disagreements and blow ups from time to time.  Did Ron Reagan and Nancy Reagan ever that kind of a blow up?

Deaver: Oh, I’m sure they must have had—arguments.  And—but it—you know, this—this—what marriage doesn’t.  But—there wasn’t a marriage that I’ve ever seen in my life like this.  I mean, if I was the only one in the room who was an old friend and they hadn’t seen each other for five hours, it was like he’d been on safari for 20 days. You know, I mean and you’d look at that and you’d say, “My God, I mean he’s been here in the building.” It was just an incredible relationship.

Brokaw: I asked Patty about that, whether it was… on the kids, because they seemed to be excluded from time to time.  And she said, “We did feel exclude—when we were adolescents.  Especially—“ but she said, “I look at it now and realize that you can have that kind of relationship.  And there’s more to life. And there’s something kind of reassuring about that.”  But it was tough on the children because they were so devoted to each other.

Deaver: I’m sure.  I mean, there was no question. And they made no bones about it that ea — to each other, they were the most important things in their lives.

Brokaw:  Why was there so much turmoil with the kids do you think?

Deaver: Well, I think—first of all, it was a difficult period.  As you mentioned, it — was the ‘60s and early ‘70s.  And—these kids were hearing a lot of things.

They disagreed with their father.  And—you know, that becomes public. Its one thing for you or me to — disagree with our parents or have our kids disagree with us.  Nobody’s really that interested, maybe more so with you.

But if you’re the President of the United States or the Governor of the state and you were taking strong positions and you’re pointing your finger at the — and saying, “Obey the rules or get out kind of stuff,” you know, the kids — the kids that was tough for them.  And I think he knew that.  And I think he tried to — to reason, tried to be there on those issues for them.  But even for his kids he wasn’t going to give up what he believed in.

Brokaw: Well, Patty also says that he was a mediator in her disputes with he mother, that he would write her notes or put his arm around her when she came to the White House and tried to patch things up constantly.

Deaver: Well, you know, he — he was, I think, much more forgiving. And—Nancy, you know, she thought that those some of those statements, I’m sure, hurt him that the kids were making.  And she couldn’t understand that.

Brokaw: Did he ever complain to you about the kids and what —

Deaver: Never, never, never, loved those kids.

Brokaw: I never fail to look at the assassination attempt, that footage yelling at you, to duck. (NOISE) You’re there in the forefront of the screen.  I mean, it’s just an instinct with me every time.  Can you look at that footage now?

Deaver: Oh, I can.  You know, it’s one of those things you — when you see it and when you — tart to talk about it again, it’s not something that’s with me except when I begin to talk about it.  And then it’s—this huge thing inside of me.  And I think it’s a couple of reasons.  One, I wasn’t ever shot at—or near somebody who’s being shot at before. So, that was —

Brokaw:  But you didn’t know that at the moment?

Deaver: I didn’t know it at the second.  Because, you know, see Hinkley was shooting over my shoulder or my right shoulder.  And — but by the time I got down behind the car, I knew it.

Because I could see them wrestling him down to the ground.  And then it was pandemonium and frightening.  And then when we finally — I didn’t — I could see him in the back of the car.  I mean, I was in the car right behind.

And we couldn’t use the radios.  And I could see him sitting up.  So, I thought he was all right.  And when he got out of the car — at the hospital—he did that thing that you’ve seen I’m sure many times, where he cinches up his pants, you know, and buttons his coat and kind of walks like this. And then as soon as we crossed the — as soon as he crossed the threshold of the hospital, he went down.

Brokaw: And what did you think then?

Deaver: Oh, well then I thought we had a serious problem obviously.

Brokaw: You didn’t know he’d been hit at that point?

Deaver: I didn’t know he’d been hit.  And they didn’t know he’d been hit for another 20 minutes until they rolled him over and found the bullet hole. So, then it became — it was frightening — not only because he was President but because he was my friend.

Brokaw:  How did that change him if at all?

Deaver: Oh, I think it did change him.  I think he — he was always — very spiritual.  He always—has believed in destiny that each of us has a destiny. And, in fact, he told me — ten days or so after the shooting that he was going to rely more on his own instincts that he believed he’d been saved for a reason.  And — and I saw that. I saw a stubbornness that came after the shooting that I hadn’t seen as strong as I did later.

Brokaw: And she became even more protective?

Deaver: Oh, she was terrified.

Brokaw: Was it a problem?

Deaver: No, it wasn’t a problem for me.  Because — I shared her feelings.  I —I  obviously didn’t — have the same thing as she did. But I was certainly much more — alert to security and worked — had the Secret Service in my office constantly on — on protection.

Brokaw: There are all these contradictions about Ronald Reagan.  I’ve never seen a man so at ease on the stump.  You put a microphone in front of him or get him in front of a crowd.  And he can go and go and go.  And its perfect cadence and syntax got a story for the moment.  And yet we also know those stories of being in the Oval Office and having to have a handful of index cards about who was coming in to say hello to him and where they were from.

Deaver: Yeah — that didn’t bother me. I don’t—

Brokaw: Do you think that’s been overstated?

Deaver: Yeah, I do. I mean — he had a lot…

Brokaw: Going on.

Deaver:Going on.  He was used to that sort of routine.  We had done it during the Governor’s years.  You know — I think those — were sort of — the way he wanted to get the information to jog his memory about what was — who was coming in each time.

But, you know, if you hadn’t ever given him a card he would have been just fine too.   I think it was sort of a little security for him that he wanted to look at that card and then put it in his pocket.  And then he’d take it from there.

Brokaw: Mitch McConnell, the well known Republican Senator from Kentucky was telling a story the other day, laughingly, about the President coming down to campaign for him and referring to him not as McConnell but as O’Donnell, your good friend.  And he said the water rolled right off his back.  The President greeted Sam Pierce who is his cabinet secretary for housing as a mayor he thought.  That didn’t affect him.  Did he ever kind of muse later and say, “Why’d I do something like that?”  Did it ever bother him?

Deaver: I don’t think it bothered him.  I mean, you know, you get a guy like Richard Nixon who knew ever precinct chairman in America by name. And Reagan had a difficulty with names.  But, you know, that wasn’t his strength.  So, it didn’t bother him that much.

He knew that — that communicating — to — hundreds of people — thousands of people was his strength.   But, you know, the other thing about Reagan and people to me, that I’ve always felt was—a real sign of who he was, is that he was absolutely the same.  He was talking to you, he was talking to the Queen of England, he was talking to the gardener or a Secret Service agent, there was no change.

Ken Adelmen talks—tells a story about giving a dinner party in the last months of the White House. And the Adelmens invited everybody important in town. And every—the President was coming. And he also invited his father who was a retired plumber.

And when they were cleaning up afterwards, he said to his wife, “Do you realize that the President was with my dad all night long?  He never talked to the Senators or the Supreme Court Justices.”  He was probably trying to find out from the old man about how he could plumb his ranch.

Brokaw: (Laughter)He also had that great expression, they say that hard work never killed anyone (Laughter)and I don’t want to take a chance —

Deaver:  Right.

Brokaw: He did have a very measured schedule for the most part.

Deaver: Right, and it didn’t seem to—to bother the outcome any — you know.  He — that was — the way he wanted it to work. I remember one morning when he — he used to have dogs.  You know, people kept giving him dogs.

And he’d have them in the White House.  And the White House is absolutely the wrong place for a dog.  And this dog was wild, big wooly thing.  And it came into the office with him, running around, running around.

George Schultz and Bud McFarlane and we were there waiting for something.  And finally, I said, “Mr. President, you know, we have to get going.”  And he paid no attention.  He was playing with the dog.

And I sat down in the chair.  And I said, “You know, one of these days that dog is going to pee on your desk.”  And he turned and looked at me and said, “Well, why not?  Everybody else does.” (Laughter)

Didn’t pay any attention.  Finally, sat down, the dog went.  And we got to business.

Brokaw: There are so many Ronald Reagan lines.  How many of them were his—saying to Jimmy Carter, “There you go again,” or, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall,” that kind of thing.

Deaver: Well, the, “There you go again,” was his.  The—I think the, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” was written by a speechwriter.  But—there was a lot of controversy about the line.  And he’s the guy that said, “I’m going to use that.  That’s exactly what I want.”

So, you know, when you have to make—that many speeches, obviously some of the lines are going to be given to you.  Although, it was my experience that any major speech he wrote himself.  You know, I mean, he might take drafts.  But it would end up with him working in long hand on that yellow legal pad writing the speech.

Lifetime achievement
Brokaw: Was he disappointed that he was never taken as seriously as he felt that he should have been as a Hollywood star?  He would often talk about that.

Deaver: Oh, I don’t know. I think he—you know, there’s no question he loved Hollywood.  He loved that experience.  He loved films.

And as you know—he would talk about it at the drop of a hat.  I’ve always thought one of—one of the disappointments was, not for him necessarily, but for all of us that—why the Academy couldn’t have given him an—a special achievement… I mean, after all was—is anybody else in their profession ever achieved what he achieved.

Brokaw: The lifetime achievement award.

Deaver: Yeah, absolutely.

Brokaw: That would have meant a lot to him?

Deaver:  Yes.

Brokaw: To turn President of the United States - Governor of the California but he would have loved to have a lifetime achievement award —

Deaver: I’m sure.

Brokaw: From the American Academy?  The morning that he is to be inaugurated you have the daunting assignment of going in and waking him up and getting him going?

Deaver: Right -- (Laughter)I went over to Blair House.  And Nancy was getting ready. And — I said to her, “Where is the Governor?”  And she said, “Well, I think he’s still in the bedroom.”

I said, “Well, you know, it’s getting late.  What’s he doing?”  She said, “I don’t know.  Go see.”  So, I knocked on the door, no answer, opened it a crack.  And it was black.  And I opened it more.  And there was this mound of — on the bed, covers —and I said, “Governor, it’s nine o’clock.  You know, in another two hours you’re going to be inaugurated as the 40th President of the United States.  You’d better get up.”  And he threw the covers back and looked at me and said, “Do I have to?”  (Laughter) I’m sure it was in —i n his mind a joke.

Brokaw: But he relished the idea of being President of the United States?

Deaver: He loved it.  He loved it, you know.  People over these past few days have asked me my favorite recollection.  And there are so many. But I think it was that day in January of 1981 when we came off the inaugural stand.  And we still had our cut away on.

And we went into the Oval Office and just the two of us.  And he sat behind the desk and put his hands on top of the desk.  And he looked over at me and he said, “Have you got goose bumps?”  I mean, he knew where he’d come from.  And he knew how sacred this spot was to him.

Brokaw: And that reaction was probably a good measure of the reason for his success as a politician. He could still get goose bumps and convey that feeling to the American people in a way that very few other politicians could as successfully as he did.

Deaver: Yeah, he never forgot who he was, you know.  His — favorite dish was macaroni and cheese and favorite ice —f avorite desert was ice cream.  And that was about as American as you could get.  And that’s what he was.  And he had this optimism that was old-fashioned Americanism that — that — radiated.  And it was what we needed.

In retrospect
In the retrospectives, Mike, as you know there are — the analyses of his policies and his own attitudes towards other parts of society, that he was not nearly as sensitive to the disenfranchised in America, the poor people, especially African-Americans.  Did he ever talk to you about that?

Deaver: It was very frustrating.  If you talk about something that was frustrating to him, I think that was probably the most frustrating.  He thought of himself as a — a fair person.  If you ask him about his own personal experiences with African-Americans he could — tell you the stories in high school and in college and then throughout his life — in the industry — movie industry.  So, he never could understand it that — he was looked at — I think, if you talk about anger in Reagan or blowing up, it would be if you called him a racist or if you said he wasn’t fair.  Those were the things that would —

Brokaw: But do you think that there was a possibility that he had a kind of anachronistic view of what had happened with race relations in America.

Deaver: Could be, sure, for him, you know, he said — “I helped get Jackie Robinson into baseball as a sports announcer.”  And that was where it was for him pretty much.  So, yes, I think that—that he didn’ t— really see this sort of feeling of the…

Brokaw:  The seismic shift that was going on?

Deaver: Right, right but, you know, he was also — he also thought in economic terms.  And he thought what he was going to be doing, what he wanted to do would eventually help everyone.  That was his philosophy, you know.  And that’s been much debated and will be forever probably. But he believed it.

Surprise decisions
How did Ronald Reagan surprise you when he was president, or when he was governor?  When — he’d catch you unaware with something that he would say or do.  Because so many people, he seemed like a guy who was programmed in the morning and got through the day hitting the marks that he was supposed to.

Deaver: Well, I think — let me you give ya an example.  When the — Soviets shut — shot down that Korean jet, and — he was at the ranch, and I called him and said, “We’re gonna have to go back to D.C.” and he was very angry ‘cause he said, you know, “I’m president wherever I am,” he always used to say that about the ranch.  Anyway, we flew back.  We went into the national security briefing room downstairs and we ha — heard from the CIA and the joint chiefs and the secretaries of defense and treasury and state and so forth.  It lasted about an hour and a half. Reagan never said a word.

I was sitting behind him.  And he leaned forward, he still had his cowboy clothes on.  He said, “Fellas, I’ve heard all of this.  But let me tell ya, we’re not gonna do anything.”  And I was stunned.  Here was a guy who had the best chance in 40 years to do whatever he wanted to do to the Soviets.

Brokaw: Called it the evil empire.

Deaver: And then he said, “The world’s gonna make a judgment about them.  We don’t have to.  What we have to do is keep our long term interest in mind here.”  And you know, he took a rash of criticism from the right for not doing anything.

But he knew where he was goin’.  He knew exactly where he was goin’.  He wanted to sit down with these guys.  And if he went out there or went on second stage alert or put the fleet into the Pacific or whatever we could have done — economic sanctions, he wanted to sit down with these guys.  To me that was surprising, ‘cause I thought he would say, “Do it.”

Brokaw: Go get ‘em.

Deaver: Go get ‘em.

Brokaw: Make my day.

Deaver: (Laugh) Right.  But he didn’t.

Brokaw: What’s the one Ronald Reagan memory that you’ll treasure the most?

Deaver: Well, you know — when I left the White House, I went in to see him that last day.  And he was standing in front of his desk, which was kind of unusual anyway.  He kinda had his hands behind him.  And years before, I’d gone with him to a speech in San Francisco where they had given him a bronze African lion.  And I was a big Africa fan.  I’d been to Kenya and Tanzania on a safari — years before.  And I said something to him about that lion.

And he said to me, “You know, I’ve thought and thought about what I could possibly give to you—as a reflection of my gratitude.”   He reached around behind him and pulled out this lion.  I’d forgotten about the lion but he hadn’t.  I have it in my den.  It’ll always be his lion.

Transcript was edited for continuity.

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