The Magazine

Reagan After Dark

Every evening, a summary of the day.

Jun 11, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 37 • By CRAIG SHIRLEY
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Reagan had several pet peeves. First, he despised it when conservatives accused him of not being loyal to conservatism, and he made no bones about naming names, including those of Richard Viguerie and Howard Phillips. Early in the administration, Viguerie, publisher of Conservative Digest, had produced a cover story accusing the Reagan administration of being taken over by big business interests associated with George H.W. Bush and James Baker. Reagan received a letter from Viguerie "with copy of Conservative Digest. He tried to write in sorrow, not anger about my betrayal of the conservative cause. He used crocodile tears for ink." Astonishingly, Reagan worried that he would not be well received at the 1982 Conservative Political Action Conference dinner because of Conservative Digest. But "I was interrupted a dozen times with applause and got a lengthy standing ovation," he wrote proudly.

Reagan had an ego, dispelling yet another myth. He was happy when he got good polling reports from Richard Wirthlin and was ecstatic when he felt he gave a particularly good speech or press conference. Reagan was asked by the ABC White House correspondent Sam Donaldson if he bore any blame for the bad economy of 1982, and replied: "Oh my yes. I share the responsibility. I was a Dem. for years." He rather enjoyed the repartee with Donaldson. Reagan gave a speech to the National Rifle Association that went over schedule by 15 minutes "because of applause including a standing ovation." When he performed badly he was his own worst critic. In any case, readers may be surprised to learn that Reagan either wrote his own speeches or often rewrote those drafted by speechwriters.

Other revelations: Jack Kemp sometimes got on his nerves: "Jack Kemp now knows I'm mad. He's against us on IMF increase but promised he wouldn't work against us. . . . I'm teed off with him." Robert Byrd and Tip O'Neill got on his nerves as well. The mythology in Washington is that O'Neill and Reagan were friends, but Reagan regarded O'Neill warily and thought he was far too partisan. (O'Neill betrayed his own mixed feelings about Reagan in his autobiography.)

Jimmy Carter is another personage Reagan could not warm to. Reagan had presented the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously to Robert F. Kennedy, and the entire Kennedy family returned to the White House for the ceremony. But the medal had been struck in 1978, and Reagan shook his head and wondered why President Carter had not awarded the medal himself: "It was voted by Cong. in 1978 and the former Pres. never presented it." Carter also failed to give a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal to Hubert Humphrey, but Reagan presented it to Humphrey's family: "I don't know what was with Pres. Carter--this Medal was voted by Congress in 1979."

Reagan liked new ideas and wrote that he was impressed with a concept of Newt Gingrich's to freeze the budget in 1983. He loved the idea of a space-based antinuclear weapons system. He could be droll: When his longtime political aide Stuart Spencer gave him a 1984 campaign book, Reagan commented that it was "a monster book (like an L.A. phone book). . . . I'm supposed to read it." Alexander Haig bothered Reagan. When Haig finally left the administration in 1982, Reagan sarcastically confided to his journal: "Actually, the only disagreement was over whether I made policy or the Secretary of State." But many conservatives Reagan genuinely liked. He appreciated one meeting organized by Paul Weyrich--although he called him "hard core"--and he admired Phyllis Schlafly: "She is darned effective."

Reagan was very sensitive to press coverage of both himself and people he liked, or who worked for him. When his controversial Environmental Protection Agency administrator ran afoul of the media, he wrote: "Most important event--the Press Conf. By the time I got to it I was mad as h--l. I'd watched the news and seen the witch hunt that is on for Anne Gorsuch at E.P.A. The media is a lynch mob that thinks it smells blood." Here's another entry: "Called Don Devine who withdrew his name from the Sen. Confirmation process. This was another lynching. He did just what I wanted him to do in his appointed position and he'll be greatly missed. He saved the govt. $6 Bil.--something his Senate critics have never done."

Reagan was equally protective of Interior Secretary James Watt, a liberal bête noire, and when the press or the Democrats on Capitol Hill went after his people--unfairly, he believed--Reagan often referred to a "lynching" or a "lynch mob." He called Bob Woodward a "liar" for claiming to have interviewed CIA director William Casey on his deathbed. (Doctors had told Reagan that Casey was unconscious, and in no condition to talk to anybody, while afflicted with terminal cancer.)