IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

A day in the life of ‘The Great Communicator’

Richard Reeves recounts the everyday workings of a political icon in “President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination.” Read an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY

In “President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination,” Richard Reeves unveils a surprising and revealing portrait of one of the most important leaders of the twentieth century. He used newly declassified documents and hundreds of interviews to show a president at work day by day, sometimes minute by minute. Reeves visited “Today” to discuss his book. Here's an excerpt:

Chapter One: January 20, 1981
The thirty-ninth President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, had not slept for almost forty-eight hours when he telephoned the President-elect, Ronald Reagan, just before seven o'clock on the morning of January 20, 1981. “We have good news on the hostages,” he said to the Reagan assistant who answered the phone, Michael Deaver.

Carter had spent those sleepless hours in the Oval Office and in the subbasement Situation Room of the White House, personally supervising intricate negotiations between diplomats in Washington, Tehran, and Algiers, and bankers in New York and London, attempting to free fifty-two American hostages held in captivity in Iran for 444 days. The last step was a complex series of bank cash transfers releasing $12 billion in Iranian assets seized by the United States government after the diplomats, their staff, spies, and Marine guards were taken at the embassy in Tehran in November of 1979. At 6:47 a.m., the last transfer was done and planes were waiting on the runway of the Tehran airport to take the Americans out of Iran.

Reagan was sleeping just across Pennsylvania Avenue, in Blair House. Deaver told President Carter that Reagan had left orders that he was not to be disturbed unless the hostages were actually free, in the air and out of Iranian airspace. The former governor of California had left a wake-up call for eight o'clock, four hours before he would be sworn in as the fortieth President. At the appointed hour, Deaver knocked on the door. Reagan grunted and Deaver heard him roll over, so he knocked again, saying: “It's eight o'clock. You're going to be inaugurated as President in a few hours.”

Book: President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination Publisher: Simon & Schuster

“Do I have to?” Reagan called back. Then he laughed.

The President called again at 8:30. Reagan was up. Carter said that planes were still on the runway in Tehran. The takeoff was being delayed by the Iranians and it looked as if the planes would not be out of Iran before noon in Washington, the hour at which Reagan would become the fortieth President. Reagan said he was sorry about that and he meant it. The hostage crisis, along with soaring inflation and interest rates at home, had doomed the Carter presidency and the next President did not want it to take over his as well. He told the President what he had told his own men, that he did not want to say anything about the hostages in public until they were all safely out of Iranian airspace. “It's very close,” Carter said. Reagan was not unsympathetic to the man he had defeated in November. He thought Carter deserved both the blame and the credit for the Iranian crisis and resolution. The President-elect's major contribution to the negotiations were campaign statements designed to persuade the Iranians that he would be a tougher adversary than Carter, and they would be well advised to release the Americans before he took office. As the conversation wound down, Reagan asked the exhausted President if he would be willing to go to West Germany, to the United States Air Force base and hospital at Wiesbaden, to greet the hostages once they were finally released. Carter immediately said yes.

A couple of hours later the two men rode together side by side in a limousine, up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol for Reagan's inaugural. They did not much like each other and conversation was hard. Reagan took the initiative as he often did; entertainment after all had been his business for more than thirty years. Trying to make his beaten and bitter predecessor feel more comfortable, he rolled out old Hollywood stories, a couple of them about his days at Warner Brothers studios under Jack Warner.

“He kept talking about Jack Warner,” Carter said later to his communications director, Gerald Rafshoon. “Who's Jack Warner?”

The Presidents, old and new, shared only one moment of true personal communication. Reagan hoped to announce the release and credit Carter during his inaugural remarks. Just before noon, as he stood to take his oath of office, he turned to look at Carter, who shook his head slightly and whispered the words, “Not yet.” Back in the Situation Room, eighteen feet under the West Wing of the White House, Carter's chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, and Rafshoon were working, still on open phone lines back and forth to Algiers. As Reagan stood to deliver his inaugural address a mile away, a White House secretary came down and told them, a bit frantically, “You've got to get out of here. The Reagans will be on their way.” As the Carter men hustled up the stairs from the Situation Room, they realized that the photographs on the wall of the corridor leading to the press room had all been changed. Carter images were gone, the framed Reagans smiled at them now.

Reagan, who took pride in the fact that he wrote or at least carefully edited most of his own speeches before and after he became a politician, had begun working on his inaugural speech the day after he defeated Carter. Actually he had been working on it for twenty-five years, beginning on the day in 1954 when he was hired by General Electric to translate his fading fame as a movie star into being the company's traveling spokesman and morale booster, speaking to more than 250,000 GE employees at 139 plants. That experience catapulted him into politics at the highest levels when he adapted his standard GE speech into a half-hour 1964 fund-raising speech for the Republican presidential candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Goldwater was crushed in that election, but Reagan soared, replacing Goldwater as the public voice of American conservatism and becoming governor of California within two years. It was a wonderful voice, husky and honeyed, but not greatly respected. In one of his first presidential campaign memos, Reagan's pollster, Richard Wirthlin, told him:

We can expect Ronald Reagan to be pictured as a simplistic and untried lightweight (Dumb), a person who consciously misuses facts to overblow his own record (Deceptive) and, if president, one who would be too anxious to engage our country in a nuclear holocaust (Dangerous).

When Reagan won the Republican nomination in 1980 on his third try — he lost to Richard Nixon in 1968 and to President Gerald Ford in 1976 — it marked a peak for movement conservatives but still frightened many Republicans who more or less agreed with the premises of the Wirthlin memo. Led by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the party's elders came within minutes of persuading Reagan to take Ford as his running mate, not so much as Vice President but as a kind of co-president in charge of foreign affairs and budgetary matters. A joke, which took notice of Reagan's supposed laziness, made the rounds on the floor of the Republican convention: “Ford will be president before nine, after five, and on weekends.”

In the weeks before his inaugural, with staff and press concentrating on who would man the new government, the President-elect spent his own time outlining the inaugural address. To him, the words were more important than the men who served him, aides he usually just called “the fellas,” often because he could not remember all their names. He was helped this time by a fellow named Ken Khachigian, a Los Angeles lawyer who had written for President Nixon and done a good deal of the heavy word-lifting on the 1980 campaign speeches. As he always did, Reagan began by chatting for twenty minutes or so about his ideas and gave Khachigian a six-inch pile of the four-by-six index cards he had used and edited for speeches over the years. In his transition meetings with Carter, Reagan had not taken a note nor made a serious comment during the President's long and complicated issue briefings, but at the end of the first and most important session — use of nuclear weapons was one topic — he noticed that Carter used three-by-five cards listing the subjects of the hour-long talk. “Can I get copies of those?” Reagan asked as he stood up to leave.

With his writer taking notes, Reagan began dictating themes:

The system: everything we need is here. It is the people. This ceremony itself is evidence that government belongs to the people .... Under that system: our nation went from peace to war on a single morning, we had the depression etc. ... We showed that they, the people, have all the power to solve things .... Want optimism and hope, but not “goody-goody.” ... There's no reason not to believe that we have the answer to things that are wrong.

He also told Khachigian to find the script of a World War II movie. “It was about Bataan,” he said. An actor named Frank McHugh, Reagan remembered, said something like: “We're Americans. What's happening to us?” The writer found the line, which was somewhat different from what Reagan recalled, and used it as a finale in the first draft of the speech he brought to the President-elect on January 4: “We have great deeds to do .... But do them we will. We are after all Americans.”

The new President, unlike most of his predecessors, wanted to give his inaugural address from the back of the Capitol, facing west toward the monuments to Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln — and toward Arlington National Cemetery, the final resting place of many American heroes. He told Khachigian that a friend from California had written him a letter about a soldier buried there, a World War I battlefield courier named Martin Treptow, a boy from Wisconsin killed in action in France in 1917. Treptow had kept a diary, Reagan said, with this on the flyleaf: “My Pledge: America must win this war. Therefore I will work. I will save, I will sacrifice, I will endure, I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost, as if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me alone.”

“Can I see the letter?” asked Khachigian. “We have to check this out.”

Reagan looked hurt, at least that's what Khachigian thought.

The writer met again with Governor Reagan on January 18, two days before the inauguration. It was a Sunday. The President-elect had already been to church and was sitting in bed, under the covers. He had hung up his pants — so they wouldn't wrinkle, Khachigian thought — and was having coffee and toast with honey. Reagan immediately noticed that the Treptow story was not in the final draft of his speech. Why? Khachigian nervously said that researchers could not find a diary and the soldier was not buried at Arlington but in his hometown, Boomer, Wisconsin.

“Put it back in,” Reagan said.

Excerpted from “President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination” by Richard Reeves. Copyright © 2006, Richard Reeves. All rights reserved. Published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.