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Remembering Reagan - David Gergen

David Gergen

Former Assistant to the President for Communications

Reagan Anecdotes

In the third year of his presidency, it was Reagan's turn to serve as host of the annual economic summit of industrialized nations. He chose Williamsburg, Virginia, as the site, and the leaders were lodged comfortably in colonial homes near the square. Their staffs were also well looked after - except for the French, whom we packed off to motels in East Nowhere in retaliation for their high-handedness toward the American delegation when they had been hosts a year earlier.

From our perspective, the G-7 summit posed a major test for Reagan. For the first time, he had to act as chair of the group, guiding intricate discussions of world economics and politics. As president, he was also expected to have one-on-one talks with each of the other leaders - "bilaterals," as they are called in the trade - a requirement shared by no other chief executive. The world press, skeptical of Reagan's grasp of world issues, would be digging in hard to see whether he could juggle so many conversations.

Midway through the summit, Reagan had a particularly rugged day ahead. There were to be plenary sessions, and bilaterals were on tap with Margaret Thatcher, Francois Mitterrand, Helmut Kohl, and perhaps one or two others. For each meeting, the staff of the National Security Council, the scheduling office, and others prepared lengthy background papers for the President to study the night before. Because there were such a large number of meetings, the briefing book looked like a telephone directory.

Here was the dilemma: when he was in Hollywood, Reagan made a practice of committing what he read to memory - he had a steel-trap mind for such things - but as a result, he also read very slowly. We had learned, just as his aides did when he was governor of California, not to give him too much to read at night because he would stay up too late. The next morning he would be exhausted - and worse, Nancy would be on the warpath. On the other hand, this summit would put him on display before the world. Surely, he had to walk into every single meeting stuffed to the gills with details. How could we not give him this monstrous briefing book?

With some trepidation, as I recall, chief of staff Jim Baker gave him the book: "Mr. President, try to go over this material quickly. Please, please don't stay up late reading it."

At our 7:30 a.m. staff breakfast the next day, Reagan walked in late and looked as if he had been run over by a Mack truck. His eyes were puffy, his gait slow. "My God," I thought to myself, "he stayed up half the night with that damn briefing book. Where is Nancy? This is going to be a horrible day."

About twenty minutes into his eggs, Reagan gave us that aw-shucks look and said, "Fellas, I've got a confession to make. Last night, I sat down with your briefing book, which was good. But around nine o'clock I turned on the TV, and The Sound of Music was playing. Well, that's one of my favorite movies, so I watched. It went on pretty late, and I'm sorry I never got through the briefing papers."

Instantly, Nancy disappeared from my thoughts. She couldn't blame us for his lack of sleep!

But fear shot up on the other side: how would he get through all these meetings? Where would he be without our elaborate staff briefings? Were we going to be murdered by the international press?

That's when the surprise came. Fortified with breakfast and a few laughs, Reagan was as good that day as he had ever been in meetings. He stayed above the forest of facts we had provided and focused on the larger goals he wanted to pursue. Though tired, he was also relaxed. His visitors enjoyed the easy flow of conversation. It was a boffo performance, and the other leaders - as well as the dragons of the press - were suitably persuaded. As for those of us on staff, it was a good warning not to take ourselves or our briefing papers so seriously.

Reagan wasn't just comfortable in his own skin. He was serene. And he had a clear sense of what he was trying to accomplish. Those were among his greatest strengths as leader. Nobody had to tell him those things. He knew where he wanted to go and how he might get there. Instead of trying to treat him like a marionette, as we did sometimes, the best thing we could do on staff was to help clear the obstacles from his path. .

Goodness knows, Reagan wasn't perfect. He could be so dreamy and inattentive to detail that he allowed dramatic mistakes to occur. He had less curiosity about public policy than any president since perhaps the 1920s. He depended too much on staff for day-to-day operations and that eventually landed him in deep trouble. . But fair-minded observers - even those who did not agree with all of his policies (and I was never as conservative as he was) - would have to agree that on balance, he was a highly effective president. In my view, he was the best leader in the White House since Franklin Roosevelt.

In April 1982, Reagan decided to deliver a prime time speech to the country in support of the economic programs he was sending to Congress. My role was to help with the choreography.

While the speechwriters were preparing a draft, I suggested to him that he use an easel and charts, drawing a thick red line to show what would happen to the federal deficits if Congress did not enact his budget (little did we know what would happen if they did . ). He agreed. We set the speech for 9:00 p.m. Eastern.

Even an experienced speaker, I thought, would need some prep time. After all, he would have to be reading from a TelePrompTer while sitting at his desk in the Oval Office, and then, on cue, stand up, walk over to the easel, and draw his red line, still reading from the prompter. "Mr. President," I said, "would you mind coming over about fifteen minutes early so that we can practice that part of the speech?" "No, I'll be there."

The rehearsal went flawlessly, Reagan reading the lines, walking over to the easel, drawing the line with a red felt tip pen, returning to his desk without a hitch. We were set - or so I thought.

As the speech opened, Reagan sailed along until he got up and went over to the easel. With horror, we realized we had made a mistake: after the rehearsal, we had forgotten to put the cap back on the red felt tip pen. Under the hot klieg lights of television, it had gone bone dry.

"Our original cuts totaled $101 billion. They (pause) I can't make a big enough mark to show you," the President said, drawing the pen across the chart.

"Screeeccch!" That was all that could be heard or seen. No line. An awful silence.

I was standing on the other side of the Oval Office, just behind the cameras . mentally updating my resume.

Fortunately, our television producer, Mark Goode, had more foresight than I did. He had brought a second red pen with him, and as soon as he saw what was happening, he hit the floor and started crawling across the Oval Office. The Secret Service had conniptions, not knowing what to think about this man crawling toward the President. Reagan just looked puzzled.

Mark, dear Mark, made his way around the back of the desk to the Old Man's feet. He held up the second pen. A twinkle came into Reagan's eye. Reaching off camera and without missing a beat, he told his audience, "Now my pen is working." Magically, the line appeared. The night was saved!

I have long imagined that if Nixon had been giving that speech, he would have thrown us out the garden window, called off the speech, and had bombers flying over Hanoi the next morning.

I have told that story so many times, embroidering on a detail here and there, that I can no longer swear that's exactly what happened. That's certainly what I remember and, sadly, I can no longer check it with Mark because he died in 1998. But it captures Reagan. He was The Natural - a man always sat ease before a camera. That was one of the assets that made him an effective speaker.

Source: David Gergen, Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership Nixon to Clinton. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. pp. 213-215.

Reagan accepted an invitation from [John] Anderson for a one-on-one. It was to be the first debate of the fall season.

Anderson was a smart fellow who could be dangerous, so we took him seriously. We needed more than briefing books; we needed a good sparring partner. I had never met Congressman David Stockman, a rising young member of the House, but, through Karlyn Keene at the American Enterprise Institute, had been introduced to his writings and was impressed. Since David had also worked as a staff assistant to John Anderson, I thought he would be a perfect stand-in for Anderson and recommended him to Baker. Congressman Jack Kemp also weighed in on Stockman's behalf, advice that meant a lot to Baker.

Stockman showed up for the first practice debate primed for action. Reagan ambled in, stood at an opposite podium, and we posed mock questions. Stockman decked him. Reagan's answers were tentative and short, and Stockman pummeled him with endless facts and clever one-liners. I shuddered. Reagan wanted a rematch the next day, and by that time, he had studied up. Round two was a draw. Would Reagan now say he was ready? I wondered. Nope, he wanted round three. I still don't know what he did overnight, but this time he was in full command of his arguments and funny rejoinders. As strong as Stockman was, Reagan knocked him out of the ring. He clearly knew how to gear himself up when it counted.

As it turned out, Stockman was better at arguing the Anderson case than Anderson was himself. Reagan won the actual debate in a breeze. As for Stockman, he had won favor in Reagan's eyes: David was on his way to becoming budget director.

Soon after, Reagan engaged in a single debate with Carter that sealed his election victory. Stockman had returned as a sparring partner in the warm-ups, and Reagan had little trouble manhandling him. It was obvious that Reagan would perform well in the finals, once again upsetting a press corps that underrated his abilities (as I had earlier). Reagan pressed his case against Carter's stewardship with passion and clear arguments - skills that served him well in the presidency.