With the passing of Ronald Reagan, many politicians, friends and family have come forward to share their memories of the former president. Ed Meese recently sat down with Deborah Norville to reflect on his relationship with Reagan. Meese served as Reagan’s chief policy advisor during his first term and attorney general during his last four years in office.
Meese currently holds the Ronald Reagan Chair in Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research and education institution. Excerpts of his interview are posted below:
On remembering the president
ED MEESE: I thought mostly of his leadership and his vision. He had accomplished so much, because he knew where he thought the country should be going, what he could do to bring better conditions in the world, particularly world peace, his steadfastness in pursuing his goals, and also at the same time, his ability to take half a loaf and if that’s all he could get and then keep going to get the rest of it.
He was pragmatic. At the same time, he had a continuing vision, and he was a man of principle.
He mixed principle and pragmatism to accomplish what I think at the beginning of his eight years nobody could have ever predicted, such as the end of the Cold War with the west winning, the tremendous economic expansion, the way out of that economic recession that we were in and the way in which he affected the spirit of the American people.
On his infamous “Tear down that wall” speech
MEESE: There was a lot of controversy within the White House and within some of the departments of the government about whether that would be too provocative, whether that wasn’t a diplomatic thing to do.
But Ronald Reagan had a better sense of what was appropriate, and this was at a time that he and Gorbachev were developing quite a relationship with each other.
He felt that that challenge was a very important part, not just for the principles involved, he and Gorbachev, but particularly to give hope and give confidence to the people that there was a better day coming.
On the Reagan revolution
MEESE: It was a change in the way people looked at the philosophy and the policies of the federal government. Reagan depended more on the people and not on the government to solve the problems of our nation. There was a political revolution in the sense that he made conservative policies and conservative philosophies the mainstream thinking of the American people.
When Reagan first entered office, the economic situation and energy situations were very bad. We were losing our position of world leadership. The Soviet Union was operating with impunity in its aggression and its expansion.
All of these things were happening and the previous president had said that the people were in a malaise.
Ronald Reagan said it’s not the people who have the malaise; it’s the leadership. That was the impetus for change, and he was the agent of change.
On Reagan's personality
MEESE: I don’t think anything rattled him in the sense that it threw him totally off stride. There was some things that were very sad.
When we lost 241 Marines in that terrorist attack in Lebanon, that was probably the low point of his entire eight years.
And obviously in the Iran-Contra situation, he was concerned there for a number of reasons. One is he didn’t that some people were impugning his credibility and his integrity when he knew absolutely nothing about it and had nothing to do with the misguided actions that took place there.
There were really very few of those that actually turned out to have any real wrongdoing and there were a lot of attacks on people.
When someone had done something wrong, like in the Iran-Contra situation, he was the first one to say this they had to be relieved of their position, even though it bothered him to do it.
The one thing that he held out for was absolutely the highest principles and the highest ethical standards of government.
On the Challenger tragedy
MEESE: It was a difficult day, obviously for everyone. But he felt a sense of duty to avoid undue panic or undue grief on the part of the people.
Mourning is appropriate and certainly was in that situation. Out of the mourning, he wanted to let people know there would be a brighter day and to show respect for those people who had perished in this terrible accident. He also wanted to let people know also that wasn’t the end and that we would continue in our efforts both in space and also generally as a nation.
It was that ability to provide that kind of leadership at a crucial time, which drew the people of the country together, and realized both the bravery of the people who had been in that tragic accident, but also that there would be a new day dawning
On being “The Great Communicator”
MEESE: He didn’t think he was a great communicator and often said that it was not his skill as a communicator. It was the great ideas that he was communicating. His ability to present those ideas allowed him to be thought of as such a great communicator.
He was the same man. He didn’t have one persona in private and another in public. And this tremendous sincerity was part of his ability to put across his ideas. The other thing was that he had a great knack for taking relatively complex situations or ideas and simplifying them in a way that people would not only understand, but be persuaded that was the right way to go.