Fred Barnes Transcript
Taped February 18, 2015
Table of Contents
KRISTOL: Welcome back to CONVERSATIONS. I’m Bill Kristol, and I’m very pleased to be joined today by my friend and colleague, Fred Barnes. Fred, thanks for taking the time to do this.
BARNES: Well, glad to be here.
KRISTOL: So I came to Washington in 1985 but I had already read you for a decade before then covering the White House. How did that happen?
BARNES: Well, I was covering the White House for The New Republic magazine, which everyone knows now was a very, very liberal magazine. It wasn’t that liberal then. The owner was Marty Peretz, who was sort of, he’d come sort of halfway down the neoconservative trail, and Charles Krauthammer, of course, was the big foreign policy writer there. And so it was very congenial.
The New Republic had a column for a long time called “White House Watch,” and it was very good. It was written for years by a man named John Osborne, then he was replaced by Mort Kondracke, my friend, and, of course, you know, who was in 1985 was hired to be the bureau chief for Newsweek. So he left. And I had gotten to know a little bit Mike Kinsley, who was then the editor of The New Republic, and they hired me to come in and really write this “White House Watch” column, which I did, almost every week.
KRISTOL: You had been covering the White House already, obviously that’s why you were hired. Since when, when did you show up at the White House?
BARNES: Well, I showed up at the White House on August 9, 1974. You’ll remember that as a crucial date because that’s when Richard Nixon flew off in a helicopter out of the White House and Gerald Ford became President.
KRISTOL: Was that part of the deal? Nixon agreed to resign but only if Fred Barnes gets assigned to the White House? So who were you working for then?
BARNES: I was working for The Evening Star, Washington’s afternoon newspaper, which was a very good newspaper, it just had one problem – it was losing a lot of money and it ultimately folded in 1981. By then, I had gone to The Baltimore Sun, and of course, a few years after that, to The New Republic. And then when The Weekly Standard started in 1995, there I was, there you were.
KRISTOL: So you really have known, you’ve covered really and known to some degree every President since Gerald Ford?
BARNES: Well, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, and now Obama.
KRISTOL: Yeah, so, let’s talk about them. That’s an unusual perspective on history. And Gerald Ford.
BARNES: Gerald Ford was unlike any president, any of the other ones for one particular reason and that is he’d been in Congress. Now, if you’re in Congress, you have a different relationship with the press, in particular, because it’s sort of a chummy relationship, and it’s not adversarial like it is between the press and the White House at all.
KRISTOL: Especially back then, right. People really forget – I mean, Ford, what was he Minority Whip or –
BARNES: He’d been the Minority Leader.
KRISTOL: Leader, so he was the senior guy. But even so, someone like you could just show up in the Capitol and talk to him, right?
BARNES: Oh, sure. Very easy. It’s not that way at the White House. But Ford actually liked reporters. When they’d ask some really sharp leading question, he’d sort of chuckle. I remember Phil Jones of CBS would ask him and he’d say, “Oh, Phil,” at some question like that. And he was a very nice man.
Turned out to be a better President than I think he was credited for at the time, particularly after he pardoned Richard Nixon, which was a month into his Administration. But he really stabilized and settled the country, didn’t do anything really dramatic, but he really was the right guy at the right time. I liked him a lot.
And just unusual to see a President who actually on the – well, when he was Vice President, anyway, he’d come back on the plane and he’d have a drink and it’d be sloshing around and he’d come back and talk to reporters. He really liked them. He was a one of a kind and the last of those. I think he was the last President who really had friends in the media.
KRISTOL: And even as President, people had access to him to some degree?
BARNES: Well, a lot more than you have access to any President now. You particularly had some access to him on trips, and he would even have press conferences when he was on trips. I remember one in California.
KRISTOL: Oh, yeah, the trips. You should explain how they work. I mean, people don’t – so there’s Air Force One. But the press, some of the press, at least, is on the back part, right?
BARNES: Yeah, there’s a little pool on that, and it’s a little uncomfortable, and you’re in the back in the plane, and the President comes back sometimes. Ford came back a lot.
It’s much better on the press plane. The food is better; you can spread out more. It’s – but you have to get there earlier to be on the press plane. I mean, both the Air Force One and the press plane leaves out of Andrews Air Force Base out in Maryland. What is it, about 20 miles from the White House? And the president flies out in a helicopter. I had to drive. Get there at the crack of dawn.
KRISTOL: But even if you were on the press plane, you were able to talk to the President on these trips sometimes or to his senior staff –
BARNES: Well, particularly if you were on his plane, but, yeah, you did. One press conference in California, he came out and talked. And for some reason, I had noticed – I don’t know why – that he didn’t use Richard Nixon’s name. He would say “my predecessor,” “the former president.” He’d have all these ways of referring to President Nixon but he didn’t use his name.
And this would have been the Fall of 1974 so he’d been in office a few months. And I asked him, “Mr. President, why don’t you refer to your predecessor as President Nixon or as Richard Nixon?” And Ford said – and I was amazed at this answer – he said, “I just can’t bring myself to do it.”
BARNES: Unusual for someone to say that.
KRISTOL: And then you covered – so he was President and then, of course, he got challenged by Reagan in ’76. And were you covering his side of that campaign or –
BARNES: Well, I covered both of them, but I covered Reagan in particular. I had never met Reagan. Of course, I had heard a lot about him and even seen a couple of his movies, and I’d watched “Death Valley Days” – remember when he was the guy who introduced the story on “Death Valley Days” on television?
But I covered him in the primary, and if you remember the 1976 Republican primary, the first, the Iowa caucuses didn’t amount to much then so New Hampshire was the first big event. Reagan was ahead in polls and was expected to win but Ford then narrowly won, which was a big deal.
And Reagan – I didn’t cover him then although I was later in 1980 in the Nashua debate but I guess we can get to that later – so Reagan then, then we went to – I think Florida came up later, actually soon after that – it rained the whole time down there. Ford would campaign out in the rain and getting all wet. I don’t think Reagan did.
Went to Illinois, and I remember that Reagan dropped all of his note cards. You know, that’s how he would give speeches – he wouldn’t have a text, he would have note cards. And they dropped on the floor and the poor guy was down there trying to pick them up. I think he got them out of order. Then, he continued his speech, which as I recall was in Joliet, Illinois.
And then a couple things happened that were really remarkable, which made it such a great campaign, by far the best primary campaign I’ve ever covered. Of course, I was younger then, and maybe I was just in awe. But we got to Texas. And you’ll remember – this was ’76 and one of the big issues was the Panama Canal Treaty, giving the Panama Canal to the Panamanians. And Reagan was fantastic on that – he opposed it, I didn’t even agree with him but it was so fun to watch –
KRISTOL: One forgets how much in the minority he was. Bill Buckley, The Wall Street Journal, everyone was saying, “Oh, come on, this is the time to do it,” but Reagan really made an issue of it.
BARNES: Oh, I think even Barry Goldwater, and yeah, sure. Oh, he made a huge issue of it. And I forget how he said it – you know, we bought, we all these things and we’re not going to give it up and we’re not going to sell it and so on.
But what struck me was – particularly in Texas – crowds would go berserk. Oh, they just loved it. I have never seen a President since then stir people the way Reagan did on that issue. And you could see – he’d smile, he enjoyed it, seeing the crowd go crazy. And then we got around –
KRISTOL: Texas, I think, was where he won like every – didn’t he win every delegate or something in what was considered an upset – I mean, didn’t Ford have John Tower, the only Republican statewide elected official of Texas who was going to deliver the state for him.
BARNES: This was probably my most embarrassing moment in journalism.
KRISTOL: Well, good, please tell, yeah.
BARNES: I had written a story for The Evening Star. I had been led astray by some of the Ford people, particularly the ones on the ground in Texas that Ford was going to surprise everybody in this very conservative state with conservative – the Republican Party being pretty conservative – and it was, I think, it came out the day before the primary, which was on a Saturday. And of course, Reagan won every delegate.
KRISTOL: And what was your piece? Your piece said Ford could do well, watch for a Ford upset?
BARNES: Yes. And so, of course, my friends in media all had copies of that. And I got teased about that for years. In fact, it’s only stopped recently. So anyway I may have left out North Carolina. I’m not sure whether it came before or after Texas. But in any case, Reagan – it was Reagan’s –
KRISTOL: Before, I think, I think that’s where he was sort of might have been knocked out of the race if he hadn’t –
BARNES: Yeah. Well, all the top – yeah – all the top Republicans were for Gerald Ford and if he won there, it would have been over. Reagan’s candidacy would have been finished. And amazingly, ads were put on the air of a Reagan speech in North Carolina in which he used his Panama Canal issue. It was tremendous, it really had some impact there. And it was actually Senator Jesse Helms who was the one who was behind him, and he drove up to Washington to get this thing, this video to come back and put on the air. It was amazing.
Total shock to the Ford people. They had no idea that Reagan had a chance of winning, and then he went on and won in Texas, so he was still viable, only 100 delegates behind when you got to the convention in Kansas City, he couldn’t – he couldn’t make it up but there was one final event and that was after Ford had been – won the nomination.
The last night when Ford was going to give his speech, and Ford invited Reagan who was down there sitting near him and invited Reagan to speak. Well, Ford was never a very good speaker, and Reagan always was a good one, but Ford gave a great speech that night. Reagan’s was better, and Reagan’s was interesting because one, he didn’t have a text, and, two, he talked about wiping out nuclear weapons from the face of the earth. Remember something that came up again in 1986 at Reykjavik in his Summit meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev? It was a dazzling speech. Ford’s was great, but Reagan’s was even better.
KRISTOL: I’ve seen the video of that Reagan speech but it must have been unbelievable to be there.
BARNES: Yeah, it was.
KRISTOL: So, where were you? On the floor –
BARNES: I was on the floor, yeah.
KRISTOL: Again, this was a different era, right? I mean, the media now tends to watch the conventions when I’ve been from a room elsewhere, you watch it on the video screens. A few of you go on the floor but it’s a pain and –
BARNES: It was a different era. And there was a lot less security then, among other things.
KRISTOL: Right, and they don’t let you go many places.
BARNES: So I think I was sitting with the Mississippi delegation, which was one of the crucial delegations there as it turned out. It was – it was easily the best convention I’ve ever covered, and now they’re just sort of Hollywood type shows. But that one really mattered. I mean, that was the last time the nomination was still in question.
KRISTOL: Yeah. Anything else about Gerald Ford? I mean, any other memories of covering him in the White House? In the general election, were you mostly with Ford or –
BARNES: Yeah, not with Carter. I did Carter a little. But mainly with Ford. Ford –
KRISTOL: Dick Cheney was the Chief of Staff, I guess.
BARNES: By then, yeah, Dick Cheney was the Chief of Staff. And Ford, I don’t know whether you remember the great line that Ford had, I don’t know if it was great but he said it a lot during the primary and as President. Remember this line, he said, “If the government is big enough to give you everything you want, it’s big enough to take away from you everything you have.” And a great conservative line, actually. And he said that a lot. And of course, reporters had heard it so much, and I was covering him, you know, we’d roll our eyes and chuckle and so on. A very nice man.
The other thing about Ford is Ford, you have to remember this. I remember this because of my dad who ran for the Virginia House of Delegates in 1963; he was a Republican, he got clobbered. And it really crushed him. You know, I mean, he had really no chance of winning. Virginia was a Democratic state then, and he lost. But it really did hurt him that he did.
The same with Gerald Ford to come from 25 points behind to only losing by a point or two. And we’ve heard this from other presidential candidates – if the campaign had only gone on a week more. That was Hubert Humphrey’s idea in 1968 that he would have beaten Nixon if the campaign – if the election had been in the middle of November rather than early in November. But Ford was crushed. It took him months and months to recover from losing that. I’ve always remembered that, and it was a good lesson for me to stay in journalism and not run for office.
KRISTOL: That’s true. And Jimmy Carter, had you met him once he –
BARNES: Well, I met him during the campaign. I had campaigned, I had gone out with him for about a week or something. And people forget because Carter was such a weak President – he was a very good candidate. By the time I got there, I hadn’t covered him, the reporters a lot of them had been with him all year in 1976, and they were so tired of him. But I hadn’t seen him much. I thought he was an awfully good candidate, and he really tailed off at the end.
Bush, rather Ford ran a great campaign. The ads were – you know, Ford had a jingle. I wish I could sing it. Tom DeFrank with Newsweek, a friend of mine, could, he could sing it to this day. But it was John Dierdorf and it was a Republican media consultant and his partner who had put these ads together, and they were very good. And they had the jingle on them. Anyway, Ford came close and just not close enough.
KRISTOL: Carter, especially if you’re a conservative, you don’t think much of his Presidency. And he, in any case, got clobbered by Reagan four years later. But, I mean, suppose it is the biggest upset victory in modern – I mean, Carter started with one percent in 1975 and ended up defeating a pretty formidable Democratic field.
BARNES: But remember what the political climate was in 1976. It was still a Watergate – Republicans had lost overwhelmingly in the midterms in 1974 but there was still a hangover from Watergate. And Ford, of course, had been Vice President to Nixon for a year and a half or something like that. So, it would have been an upset if Ford had won.
KRISTOL: Right, but Carter barely hung on for the general –
BARNES: Yeah, I didn’t cover all of the Carter White House because I went off – because I had a fellowship at Harvard for a year, which was a lot of fun.
KRISTOL: Shaped your thinking, I’m sure.
BARNES: Saw a lot of Red Sox games, and it was a great time, cold but it was a great time. Then I came back, covered Carter some more.
But Carter – Carter just was a very weak President. The low point was that speech, of course, where he blamed the problem on the country, the problem is the American people, this was the malaise speech. That was a huge mistake.
And, you know, during his last year, they had, inflation was terrible. And almost every night on TV, they’d have reporters going around grocery stores and picking up things and then they’d show on the screen how much more they cost now than they had six months earlier or something like that. It was so I really didn’t cover Carter that much and was really looking forward to the 1980 campaign, and it was a remarkable campaign, too, and obviously, Reagan won the White House.
KRISTOL: And did you cover the primary much, the Carter-Kennedy primary or the Republican primary or which –
BARNES: Oh, yeah, no, I did. I covered the Carter-Kennedy primary. You know people forget Teddy Kennedy had come – Democrats had been trying to get him to run for president in ’72 and ’76, and he finally did challenged Carter in 1980. Hard to beat an incumbent. But Carter had a trick up his sleeve, and that was that he would, because of the hostages were being held in Iraq-Iran, what they lasted there a year and a half or something like that, ultimately. But he said he couldn’t go out and campaign, he had to be Washington and stay and be working on that.
And this is what became as the Rose Garden Strategy and other presidents – Gerald Ford tried it a little, had tried something like that earlier. But and he had a letter that was leaked to explaining why he had to do this and so on that was leaked to Jack Nelson of the L.A. Times and Jack Nelson took it seriously like this was a real problem and it wasn’t at all – it was a tactic in the campaign so he wouldn’t have to go out and campaign a lot and argue with Kennedy and so on and have debates against Kennedy, and he didn’t do that.
KRISTOL: There were no debates, right?
BARNES: There were no debates.
KRISTOL: In the primary.
BARNES: In the primary, and there was only one debate in the general election, you know, and that’s the one where Reagan famously said, “There you go again,” and then wound up with that great line about “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”
KRISTOL: Now, were you at the Reagan-Bush debate in that primary in 1980 in Nashua?
BARNES: Yeah, I was there.
KRISTOL: You guys, you just got to cover either campaign or something, I guess that’s how it worked.
BARNES: Well, look, by 1980, I was with The Baltimore Sun, and we had two political reporters, and we had two campaigns and we shared them. But the other reporter was Carl Leubsdorf, who’s a longtime AP reporter, covered many campaigns, ultimately went to The Dallas Morning News, was a great political reporter. Well, the Nashua debate, you know, this was the – I love tricks in politics that happen and the ones that aren’t illegal. And –
KRISTOL: Even some of the illegal ones –
BARNES: Well, yeah. So George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush had won in Iowa. Reagan had – he wasn’t saying much. Remember he came – his campaign was sort of built on some North-South, U.S.-Mexico, North-South alliance or agreement or something, it’s hazy in my mind. Ultimately, we wound up with NAFTA, the economic treaty between Canada, the U.S., and Mexico, but that was years later.
KRISTOL: I think the Reagan team thought he was the frontrunner, and he didn’t have to do much.
BARNES: He skipped the one big debate that’s put on by The Des Moines Register in Iowa, skipped it. That was a mistake, and people in Iowa, you know, they frown on you not at least appearing. So –
KRISTOL: And it fit into the narrative that he was too old to be in a debate, you know, and all that, right?
BARNES: Bush wanted to debate him one-on-one. So Bush put up the money for a debate in New Hampshire. I hope I have this right – it’s only been 35 years ago. The – or maybe it was Reagan who paid for the debate. Anyway, one of them. They went one-on-one, that’s the important thing.
The debate was – I don’t remember much that was said there but to have a one-on-one debate, that meant all the other candidates – remember you had this dazzling field among Republicans in 1980 – Howard Baker, Bob Dole, Phil Crane, John Connally, the former Treasury Secretary and Texas Governor. It was really a remarkable field but they were not in the debate.
And but at the beginning – and this was a trick by John Sears, who was a Reagan campaign manager – they were led out into – we had these two candidates sitting, and these candidates were led out and complaining that they should have been in the debate. So that’s how it started. And so that trick became the story. And of course, Reagan saying – you know, this why I figure Reagan, it must have been Reagan who paid for it – “I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green.” His name was Breen. But that’s all you remember about it because what they said didn’t amount to much.
KRISTOL: And so Reagan – what was that like in 1980 as a candidate? So he’s 69 years old already, right?
BARNES: Yeah, Reagan was a great candidate, and I didn’t really know him then. I had met him in the campaign but other than that, I got to know him when he was President. But I didn’t then.
And for once, the press turned against a Democratic presidential candidate for being mean. The press decided that all these things that Carter was saying about Reagan, that he was – that Reagan would take us back to the Stone Age and that he was stirring racial tension in the country and all these things and he was being mean. And so Carter had to have a press conference in which he said in effect, “I won’t be mean anymore.” It was not a good point in the campaign for Carter.
They had done – the Carter people were so optimistic about this because they had done all this negative research and they had all these statements that Reagan had made and what he’d said in radio broadcasts and in conservative speeches and so on. And they thought by just letting those out, that that was going to be enough for them to win easily. Well, Carter was in a lot of trouble, and Reagan turned out to be a more soothing campaign than you might have thought – a campaigner than you might have thought from hearing these things.
But it was a close campaign, and Reagan, of course, gained about 10 points in the last week or two and won by 10 points and they had one debate. Remember there was an earlier debate because Carter wanted – he said, “I’ll only debate Reagan.” But John Anderson, the Illinois Congressman, a Republican was running as well. And so Reagan debated Anderson. Yeah, debated Anderson in a debate that was obviously forgettable because I forget – I covered it but –
KRISTOL: But gutsy of Reagan in a way, some risk of having Anderson show him up, I mean.
BARNES: Early in the – earlier in the campaign, Reagan was so good in these things. Earlier in the campaign in the Illinois primary, which Anderson was running in at that time. It was Reagan and Anderson. And Anderson was flirting with the idea of naming, of getting Teddy Kennedy to run as his Vice Presidential running mate. He’d gone to meet Kennedy in the Senate Office Building in Washington. At one point, Reagan leans over to him and said, “John, would you really prefer Teddy Kennedy to me?” And Anderson got all flustered. It was a great moment.
KRISTOL: And Reagan as a candidate? I mean, the rumors or reports were he was very disciplined, didn’t work excessively long hours. Is that true?
BARNES: No, no. Well, one of the things that was great, I think it was in 1980 that when I was covering Reagan, I got to go see a twilight double-header at Comiskey Park in Chicago because Reagan would have an event in the morning and that would be the one for the press that they could, that’s what – if there was any news it was going to make, it would be then.
And then there might be, he’d go greet people or something and then he might speak in the evening but there wouldn’t be any news there. It was really designed for one, Reagan did not work very hard, and two, made it easy for reporters. So, we were staying at O’Hare somewhere and sure enough, I knew this twilight double-header was there, I got my story finished, and I got to the park in time to see the first pitch of the first game even and stayed the whole time. Haven’t seen a twilight double-header since then. I don’t think they exist anymore.
KRISTOL: I don’t know if they really exist.
BARNES: But Reagan was a wonderful candidate. We talked about the debate and brought a lot of people in with him. Remember, Republicans had 39 Senators going into that election and they won 12 seats. Remember Al D’Amato, Al D’Amato in New York and Paula Hawkins in Florida and Jeremiah Denton in Alabama and so on. It was – Reagan did have the ability to bring people in with him.
KRISTOL: I remember watching that night. I was an assistant professor at Penn, and they called the race for Reagan nationally, and I think and then they called – I can’t remember which – D’Amato and Specter, I think, it was winning what, I think, had been a Democratic seat. An open seat in any case in Pennsylvania. And I remember thinking, “Oh my God, Republicans are winning New York and Pennsylvania.” It was an exciting evening. Yeah.
BARNES: Yeah, there were a lot of unhappy reporters because most of them were Democratic, didn’t like Carter all that much but they liked him better than Reagan, for sure.
KRISTOL: Yeah. Well, did Reagan – people forget Reagan succeeded in an era when there was no Fox News, no talk radio, no Rush Limbaugh. No Weekly Standard. No Internet. No ability to go around the liberal mainstream media, and yet somehow he succeeded. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it.
BARNES: It is pretty amazing. And he – you still did ads on television, of course – but I remember going around, I would, I had one of those little trash 80 Radio Shack computers but before I got one, I was still actually writing stories out in longhand and then would call them to a dictationist, read them to a dictationist. And it really seems like the Stone Age of political reporting and it was. It’s so much easier now. No question about it.
KRISTOL: Could a candidate do what Reagan did in ’80? The sort of one or two events, get your news straight, and not too frantic. I mean, I remember watching Romney in 2012 and six events a day, you just sort of wonder is that really necessary?
BARNES: Well, Reagan could do it again but another candidate couldn’t. You know, Reagan started with an enormous following. That’s one of the reasons why he was underrated going into the 1980 campaign because so many reporters didn’t realize he had a huge following in the Republican Party and not just a following because people had liked him a little bit – they liked him a lot. So he started with a base. And that got him the nomination and helped him in the general election.
KRISTOL: So, covering Reagan as President, you first with the Sun and then as you said, you went to The New Republic. You also began doing The McLaughlin Group. We’ll come back to that at some time.
So you were – I mean, I would say when I got here to Washington – not to flatter you – but you were an important, I think, figure, you know it mattered what you wrote, and I’m sure the White House cared about it. I could say –
BARNES: Flattery, I don’t mind.
KRISTOL: So how did it work? I’m just curious. So you’re there and you’re sort of mildly friendlier to Reagan than your average –
BARNES: Sure. I wasn’t the White House reporter for The Baltimore Sun but I wrote, I was the national political reporter so I wrote a lot about Reagan. Didn’t see that much of him in his first term that was – you know, he was very down in the beginning because we had a very deep recession. I mean, President Obama acts like he’s the only one who had a serious recession during his presidency but Reagan had a longer and deeper one which really didn’t – remember, he came in in early 1981, the recession didn’t lift until 1983. But when it lifted, whew, boy, it just boomed like crazy. Well, that’s before you got here but you could feel it everywhere. I mean, Reagan’s tax cuts had worked, and it was amazing.
Then we get around to his 1984 reelection, and he’s reelected. And Pat Buchanan is invited by the new White House Chief of Staff – remember, there had been a switch. Don Regan who had been Treasury Secretary became White House Chief of Staff, and Jim Baker who had been White House Chief of Staff became Treasury Secretary. Pat Buchanan became the Communications Director and so he invited me and Mort Kondracke who was then with Newsweek and Paul Harvey. Remember Paul Harvey? Yep. He invited us to lunch at the White House. This must have been with Reagan and Don Regan and Pat Buchanan. We were all there at this lunch in that little office off the Oval Office. And the – and it was a very nice lunch.
Reagan – this is when I discovered Reagan is so disciplined. Reagan, I thought – well, this is off the record, but I’ll learn so much, I can sort of scaffold this and not dishonestly but into stories, I can pursue stories. I didn’t get anything. I didn’t print anything. I learned that Reagan had one tactic that was very good when he didn’t want to tell you anything. He told you a lot of Hollywood stories. He told us one about Errol Flynn, and he said the movies liked, you know, the movies he would get shown at Camp David when he was up there on a weekend were ones that he described. He didn’t like the sex in modern movies. But he said, “Why can’t they do it the way a director did back in the 30s when a couple got married, they went in their hotel room and then a hand sticks out with a sign that says ‘Do not disturb’?” That was Reagan’s idea of how you handle sex in a movie.
Anyway, this lunch was Paul Harvey. I don’t know whether he got the rest of the story item out of it. Remember that on a radio show, which was very, very popular. Paul Harvey, you know, these – his deal was at the lunch was well, these guys, Kondracke and Barnes, they’re just reporters here in town, I represent the Middle West of the country, the heartland of the country. Anyway, I was glad to meet him, and my father was a big fan, listened to him every day.
But there was – when we got a picture of that lunch – if you saw it, I still have the picture – in the lower left-hand corner was a shoe sticking in there and I couldn’t figure out at first what it was and then I realized it was the shoe of Edmund Morris who was sitting in there. Remember the White House and Reagan had approved this, to have that he would be the first President to have an authorized biography with – and allow the author of it to spend all this at the White House talking to him, coming to a lunch at the – with reporters there and so on. And that was sitting in the corner, not saying anything, it was Edmund Morris.
And of course, his book turned out to be a fiasco, Dutch. You know, he said nobody could figure Reagan out. And I’ll have to admit it is hard to figure out Reagan. I think I’ve figured him now but it was hard for Edmund Morris who is a great biography of Teddy Roosevelt. He’s not the great biographer of Ronald Reagan. He had to inject fictional characters in the book. It was – I read 20 pages of it and could – I couldn’t figure out what was going on.
KRISTOL: So what is – what is your shorthand version of Reagan? I mean, you say you think sort of figured him out?
BARNES: You know, Marty Anderson, I’m told Marty Anderson who recently died who was a Domestic Policy Advisor for Reagan and Californian for years, wonderful guy. Then after the Reagan Presidency, went to the Hoover Institution and published a number of books about Reagan, he and his wife, Annelise. And I’m told he believed that Reagan when he was in elementary or junior high school figured out that the smartest guy in class is not the most popular guy in class, and Reagan realized he wanted to be the most popular guy. And so he, you know, that’s how he was student council president in high school, and I guess this was in Dixon, Illinois. And then he was – I don’t know whether he was – I mean, even in his first year, he was a leader of this student revolt at Eureka College and so on.
And Reagan really fashioned, I believe that Reagan fashioned this person who doesn’t appear that smart because he wanted to – but really a common man who really fit in with the American people and so on. It worked marvelously and got him elected.
There was an interesting story that happened that I think supports this. In Reagan’s second term when it was brought to him I think by Marlin Fitzwater, a Press Secretary, a very good one, and said, “Mr. President, I have this list of all the books you’ve been reading.” And these are serious books about politics and the world and so on, “And I’d like to release this to the press because you know a lot of the, those reporters they just think you’re not smart at all and you’re you know just sitting back, when you’re in public, you’re sitting back watching TV.” And Reagan said, “No. I don’t want you do to that.”
Reagan did not want to change and have people think that he’s some highfaluting guy reading books with a lot of footnotes and so on. And what shows you, the one thing if anybody wants to see the real Reagan, it’s to read, you have to read Reagan’s diaries. And you realize that he was so far ahead of his age. I mean, he could look around corners. He knew where he was going. He knew what he wanted. And they’re really revealing, I’d say even for me. And I was proud to be mentioned a couple times in there but that’s here nor there. It really shows that Reagan was so on top of everything in ways that even his staff didn’t recognized. And you remember Bud McFarlane, the National Security Advisor, his famous line was, “You know, Reagan knows so little and he accomplishes so much.” Well, the truth is Reagan knew a lot.
KRISTOL: Yeah, that’s so interesting. What was it like covering the Reagan White House? I mean, how does – like people would be interested. How does it work? You don’t just place calls to the Press Secretary, you place calls to Chiefs of Staff and Domestic Policy Advisors and –
BARNES: There’s something that’s lost in the, really, shutdown of reporters in the Obama White House. And there used to be something reporters would do when they covered the White House – they would develop sources outside the Press Office. You’d find people you could talk to, and you would have to build up a little trust that you weren’t going – if they told me something, you can’t quote me by name and then you quoted them by name, you weren’t going to last long. And there were a lot of them. There were a lot of people that would like to talk about Reagan. And so you had to develop them and that was true in other White Houses as well.
It looks now the reporters haven’t been able to develop any sources in the Obama White House, and stories that look like they have or stories that have been, what’s known as official leaks, in other words, they’re leaked and handed to reporters by White House officials.
I interviewed Reagan a couple times, and the last time was in 1987. This was after Iran Contra, and Reagan’s numbers had gone – if you remember Iran Contra, of course, it was the Reagan said what were they, they weren’t tanks, I guess it was artillery to the Iranians and they paid for them and the money wound up going to the Contras in Nicaragua and it was a mess, it was a scandal. And so I go in there. This was about three or four months afterwards.
And I took with me a picture that my mother had given me. Actually, it was a picture of Reagan at the Presidio of Monterrey in California when he was filming a movie called Sergeant Murphy. And Sergeant Murphy, I’ve seen the movie. Actually, it was Marty Anderson who sent me a copy of the movie. Sergeant Murphy was a B movie because they used to have double features, the main movie and then the second movie would be shorter. And Sergeant Murphy is about an hour. And Reagan, he’s wearing these riding clothes in the whole movie, and he’s there in this picture. And I asked him to autograph. And the amazing thing was Reagan remembered everything about the movie. It’s a movie that came out in 1938. And it was certainly – I think it was his third movie, the least of his movies probably. I mean it was not very good, and nobody would watch it now, except Ronald Reagan was in it. And he went on and on about being in the Presidio there and so on. My grandfather was a post commander at the time. So I think my grandmother was in the picture, and their daughter married a lieutenant in the cavalry there, my father. But I was just amazed at how Reagan – I had heard he had a photographic memory. Well, he certainly did about that.
Also to get out of the Iran Contra scandal, his staff had finally gotten him to say in public well, it wasn’t arms for hostages. You remember there were what five or six hostages that were being held mainly in Lebanon, I think, by terrorists or – And that he had actually sent this weaponry over there in order to get hostages out. And Reagan never believed it but they got him to say it. Well, I asked him about it in that interview there and a couple of Press Secretaries there – Marlin Fitzwater was one of them hovering over there, and Tommy Griscom, who had been Howard Baker’s Press Secretary, was there. And I asked Reagan about it. And he said it wasn’t about it, for hostages.
KRISTOL: Unraveling, the careful White House damage control strategy.
BARNES: Yeah, Reagan never believed it was. And so I looked at the Press Secretaries – they were stricken when they heard Reagan saying that. But it was – I mean, this is in the Oval Office, and that was – I don’t remember what else he said but it was I enjoyed that. Still have the picture framed. A good picture.
And Reagan, you know, Reagan was particularly great because he’d been an actor, and they thought – I mean, he thought speeches were serious. And he thought, you know, events where he would just walk or be somewhere, and he was really great doing that. The one I remember the most was being in Moscow when he went there in 1988 and gave that speech at Moscow University. Boy, don’t send your kids to Moscow University. It was an incredibly forbidding place. I mean, horrible, grim. And Reagan gets up and just his being there up at the podium at Moscow University, great picture. And he walked across Red Square, of course, with Gorbachev and so on, and then he gave this great speech, just a fantastic speech about democracy and so on. And he got great applause. And then students asked questions. It was – I mean, it was a tour de force. I don’t think anybody else could have done that. It was really remarkable. That’s why he was a great president. Yeah, one of the reasons, anyway.
If you had to rank the Presidents, I’d, of course, rank him the highest. I kind of look at them as Presidents, what’s the big thing they achieved. And, Reagan of course, basically won the Cold War. He wasn’t the only one who contributed to that but he certainly contributed more than anybody else. And I’d put – I’d put George Bush 43 second, not the first George Bush in the White House but the second and for this reason – and that’s the surge in Iraq. This was in 2007, and we were losing the Iraq War by that time very quickly. Remember, American troops had been sent in there in 2003. And Bush hadn’t given up, he still wanted to win and thought he could. And very few people at the White House were involved in this decision to get – what did he send, 60,000, 80,000 more troops?
KRISTOL: 40 or 50 but a lot. It strained the Army, extended deployments 15 months – that was one of the main objections to it, I remember.
BARNES: Everybody was against it. The State Department was against it. The generals at the Pentagon were against it. The press was against it. Most Republicans on Capitol Hill were against it, particularly after Republicans had been just slaughtered in the 2006 midterm election in which Democrats won both the House and the Senate. Just the Washington community was against it. You know they were sort of a Greek chorus and sound-off about the conventional wisdom. The foreign policy establishment was against it. Condi Rice, then the Secretary of State, really didn’t want to do it. Just about everybody was against except the President, the Vice President, Cheney, and about three or four people on the National Security Council staff, J.D. Crouch was the Deputy, he was one of the leaders, Steve Hadley was the National Security Advisor. And you get past that, there weren’t many people for it and yet Bush insisted because he thought they could win.
And naturally, and you know there’s a meeting in which he met before he ordered this with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in this room called the tank, you know, with no windows at the Pentagon, trying to persuade them that it was a good idea. He wasn’t ordering them to do it them but obviously they followed that order ultimately. And but he didn’t get very far. It was a couple hours. But then he went ahead and did it. And he didn’t just send a trickle of troops. He said he wanted it to be robust. One of his aides said – I wrote a story about this, I quoted one of his aides saying, “Look, if you’re going to be a bear, be a grisly.” And Bush was a grisly.
But it was against everybody, practically everybody was against it, and he did it and it was successful. Remember when we all but won the war, it wasn’t completely over but it had completely turned Iraq around and we were withdrawing troops ultimately. And then George W. Bush has the misfortune of being followed in office by Barack Obama, who wound up taking all the troops out – and now look at it.
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