tv Panel Discussion on Ronald Reagan CSPAN July 16, 2016 4:30pm-5:31pm EDT
of history as opposed to shaping it. if getting off to a good start is important, then no one is more responsible for the 20th 20th century being an american century than teddy roosevelt. the guy who charged up san juan hill in 1898. sent the great white fleet around the world in 1907, and who really was the chief agitator for american involvement in world war1. he panted peace without victory, which would be i think quite difficult and would be a very different looking peace than what we have today. many ways the 20th century was an american century on the back of teddy roosevelt. >> you can watch this and other programs online at booktv.org. >> welcome to san antonio book
festival. this panel is called "reagan, life and fact and fission." i'm the a column is in for the san antonio express news and i'm excited to be part of the panel with two great writers who in very different ways look at the legacy of ronald reagan. before we get started want to let you know that both authors will be signing books in the reference area on the second floor right after the session, and a portion of the proceeds from the book sales benefit the san antonio public library foundation. also, this panel will air on c-span 2 on april 30th. we're going to devote the last 10, 15 minutes for questions so we'll do our best to give everyone a chance to ask questions. to my far left, h. w. brand. holds the -- university of texas at austin, and "the new york times" best selling author,
finalist for the pulitzer prize in biography for first american and traitor to his class, he as written on roosevelt, ulysses grant, andrew jackson, and his latest book is: "reagan the life" to my immediate left, thomas mallon. he is a frequent contributor to the "the new yorker," the "new york times" book review and "the atlantic" he received the waivered for process style and has been the literary editor of gq and his latest book, finale, look test reagan years by enter weaving fictional character with historical events and historical figures such as ron, nancy reagan, richard nixon, margaret thatcher and one of my personal favorite characters, merv griffin. so, i -- bill you write about
this sort of wall that reagan had that was kind of -- whether he -- this detachment or whatever you want to call it. nance where said she was the only person who could penetrate it and she could only go so far. thomas, you talked about how you have written about historical characters from their point of view men times, richard nixon, and nancy reagan, but that ronald reagan was very tough to do that with. so, i guess we'll start with bill, and talk about what you think accounts for that wall that so many people who met reagan talked about, and what kind of challenge it posed for you in writing your book. >> when i was working on the book i was actually doing a book tour for a previous book, and i was speaking on -- it was a radio show, based in chicago, and at the end of the hour, a question, the host asked a
question that comes up all the time, and this sort of context. he said what is your next project any said i was working on ronald reagan. and he put his hand over the mikeow phone and said after we get off the air there's something i need to tell you. thought, okay. and in the midwest, reagan grew up in illinois and maybe this guy's aunt dated ronald reagan or maybe there were love letters. maybe there's something there. so after we got off the air i waited to hear what he had to say. he said if you want to understand ronald reagan one thing you need to keep in mind. i'm waiting. and he said, ronald reagan was the son of an alcoholic father. and i wasn't quite sure what to make of this comment. i didn't know if he thought he was telling me something i didn't know, but the world knew that reagan's father was an alcoholic because reagan wrote two memoirs and described what it's like growing up as soon of an alcoholic father.
so i waited to hear what he had to say further, and so he said, i speak as a son of an alcoholic father. and i will tell you, he said, that when you grow up under those circumstances you develop a characteristic attitude toward the world, and you learn to keep your deepest emotions to yourself because the person only whom you most want to rely, the person that is your model for how to be an adult, the one who ought to be your pillar of emotional strength, is the most unreliable person in your universe. and one day he is your best friend. and he is telling you funny stories and he is throwing the baseball around with you in the back yard and taking you out for ice cream and you think he's your best friend. the next day, he's beating the living daylights assault of you, and every morning when you wake up you don't know which father you'll be dealing with.
so you learn to build a wall and develop a emotional self-sufficiency. this is what he told me. was halfway into the research about reagan itch thought this was his experience. and it's an interesting insight, so i'll be on the lookout to see if this tells me something about ronald reagan. i wasn't going to take his word for it. but i was alert, and one of the first things i came across again, sort of re-reading nancy reagan's memoir, and what bill just said, that nancy reagan said, and i think quite sincerely and accurately, that she knew reagan far better than anyone else did but there are times when this wall went up between the two of them, and even she didn't know what was going on in his head in his heart. so i thought if nancy reagan felt that, this at least corroborates to that extent what my radio host said. there's another moment and this -- from another bit offed and this comes from reagan's own memoirs. in which he is talking bat moment when he is 11 years old, living in dixon, illinois.
he has been at the -- it's getting dark. the temperature is below freezing, snow on the ground, and coming home from the ymca and the walks down the street, walks along the sidewalk, turns into the path to get in the house and there's his father, passed out in the snow. and in reagan's telling, he paused for a moment and asked himself whether he should just walk on inside the house. now in the memoir, reagan doesn't tease out exactly what that means but the implication is, i'm going to let him die in the snow here. now in the next sentence, in memoir, he said i decided to bring him in here's an 11-year-old kid who is entertaining, at least for a moment, his worth might be better if his father were dead. to me that's a pretty heavy weight this kid is having to bear. so, i'm not going to say this explains everything about reagan.
i think it does explain a lot about his standoffishness. reagan was a person who seemed friendly from across the room but the close are your got to him, it was the cooler he got, and if -- i mean, one way to put it is if reagan hadn't been the president, and i suppose a long time ago, film star, nobody except nancy would have come to his funeral because he really did not have any friends. there was nancy -- i guess the kids would have come if that it didn't still feel alienated but his emotional universe encompassed nancy and himself and nearly everybody else was on the outside, including the kid for most of their lives. >> what kind of a challenge was it for you in approaching -- youor working in the novel form. did that open up some possibles for you as far as trying to understand him. >> the book i had written before
this was a book about and called watergate. don't know what it says about my character but i never felt uncomfortable writing nixon from the inside-out. what is called the close third person. technically third person narration but very heavily overlaid with his diction and thoughts. i was working on reagan for maybe two weeks before i decided that wasn't going to happen, and i completely got the jedwin morris problem. reagan is defeated any number of biographers. not bill but defeated morris, who resorted to instances of fictionalization. he didn't knee what to do with reagan. there are brilliant passages in his book but he is sort of in a way through up his hands. he was at it for many years and the remoteness in reagan, the warmly impersonal qualities of him, or the impersonality of his warmth, was very real.
george will woman, i know a little bit in washington, said i think this remoteness stuff is overblown, and he of course knew reagan and mrs. reagan as personal friends. but he said, this sort of genial irishman and what you see is what you got, and he said, his he had one friend and he married her. i thought, well, how normal is that? even nixon had two friends. and mrs. reagan understood the unusual quality of their self-containment, but i think that he had -- there were moments when i thought reagan was pre possess at the obviously sill -- silly and other moments when where he was big and deep, like the character in one of john updike's rabbit books in the '80s who thinked about reagan in this way, about that he seemed to know very little
but was like the old hedgehog versus the fox. i thing one of the keys to reagan is his film career. that doesn't go as far back as as deep psychologically as what bill is talking about but they asked him one time, how can an actor be president of the united states and he said i don't see how anyone who wasn't an actor could do this job. and i think that his acting career had paid him tremendous dividends on the whole. it allowed him to imagine things. sometimes very sentimentally, sometimes in a very kind of cheap hollywood way, but it enlarged him in a way and just wen one quick story. a lot of my book is about the reykjavik summits which is deemed failure. they get close to abolishing nuke clear weapons and then reagan decides not to do it. it comes to grief of the
strategic defense initiative or "star wars" but in the transcript of the summit -- the note taker is taking very detailed notes, almost verbatim, and when they get to this climatic session reagan says to gorbachev, in years from now, we can -- come back here, bury the last nuclear weapon and have a party for the whole world. and he says, i'll be a very old man at that time. you'll come up to me and say, ron, is that you? and i'll see, mikhail, it's good to see you, and he uses his first name which has not been common at the summit. and i realized he was seeing it as movie, a kind of ron and mike save the world. and i think in that sense, if you look at him compared to nixon, the geopolitical chess player, the tactician who studies up on the issues to an
sayston issuing greater degree that reagan ever did but nixon could not bring himself to a point where he could imagine a world without the soviet union. reagan could. and i think that made for the bigness of his presidency and he learned that in hollywood. >> talking about the reykjavik momentum and it's a central part of both books and your book is a major part of -- focused on the year of the submit. and starting -- the summit. that submit was perceived -- ended in disappoint and imthink wait was perceived as a failure. i think have a different perspective now. what do you think the importance was, not only to reagan's legacy but also to -- we look at the cold war. >> well, i will say that there was a large portion of the media in those people watching who thought it was a failure, except to say, most of them didn't realize what the talks eventually got to. reagan didn't go in saying, i'm going to abolish nuclear weapons.
there wasn't that standard that he -- striking and picking up on someone was saying about hollywood background being important for reagan in addition to enhancing his imagination, imagining coming back ten years later, envisioning himself in this role. hollywood also taught reagan how to be a celebrity, and how to comport himself in public. and one of the things i've concluded after studying very presidents is presidential success tends in very large part on the ability of the individuals who hold the office to perform the presidency. it's not enough simply to have good policies. not good enough to just simply understand how the government works. you have to perform aspects of the presidency that the public comes to expect, and so one of the speeches that reagan gave that is considered by some people one of the finest
speeches of the 20th century political rhetoric is the speech in the aftermath of the loss of the space shoutle challenger where he is basically the consoler in chief. this is something that most -- jimmy carter would have had a really hard time with thus because carter was much better than reagan on policy but he didn't understand almost the priestcraft of being president. you have to fulfill these roles. anyway, so, one thing that reagan learn from hollywood is, where the cameras were. it's really hard to find a bad picture of ronald reagan because he always presented his best side. but photographs of reagan and gorbachev out of the last session at reykjavik, he is dejected because he thought the could get to that point where he, mikhail, could rid the world of nuclear weapons and was disappointed it depend happen. very quickly he snapped out of it and was able to spin it as a
success. interestingly, there were some people who were thrilled that reagan had failed and gorbachev failed, and when reagan went off to reykjavik and the last two years of his presidency he was more regularly criticized from the right than from the left and conservatives in the united states, charles krauthammer, george will and others said heath goes to rick ya vic to sell away america's nuclear arsenal we have to present this happening. even if hi had come to del with gorbachev, he never would have gotten the deal through the senate, and quite possibly gore hoff choo not not gotten the deal through the pollitt politburo. and he delinks the intermediate nuclear weapons from. the strategic weapons and agreed
tee deal reagan wanted to eliminate the enter mideastat nuclear force in europe and got the deal the next year. >> in your book, the time lead upping to the summit, you have richard nixon in there getting advice -- giving advice to reagan how to handle things and there's one -- i was fascinated in the book so march research and i found myself wondering different his really happen? one thing mentioned is that nixon and reagan had conversed from time to time. is that something that -- >> yes. i have nixon sending rather crucial facts to iceland that never happened. that's me being a novelist. one thing i was struck by was the frequency with which reagan and nixon were on the telephone during reagan's presidency and the calls were initiated by both of them, and nixon was still on his long-standing quest for redemption and respectability
and he wanted his advice to be valued, and i think it was, even bill clinton valued it. hi was still giving it to him in '93 and '94. but i -- one thing i sorely missed, resource i had when i was wroting the watergate novel and did not have when if was writing the reagan book was the white house tapes. the tapes are nixon with the bark off, that's say. you can listen to him making phone calls at 10:00 at night. you can sometimes hear the ice cubes clinking in the glass, and he is very unguarded. but of course don't know what the substance of the conversations were. reagan's diary which is sometimes obliquely revealing. not a very directly reflective diary but does report things in a way that gives you some insight into him. frequently when he has to meet
with some political enemy, somebody who is tearing him apart in public, and as soon as the meeting is over the person tears him apart again in front of the press microphones outside the white house and reagan will write in his diary, think i made a friend. but he talks to nixon -- reagan geese to china once in 1984, and he talk to nixon, being the oldest china hand at that point, and -- of course we don't know what he says but you can imagine the advice nixon would give that would have a level of detail, the strategic quality of it, how you need to consider the relationship against the larger relationship of the soviet union. the only thing we really know is when reagan gets to china, the first banquet, he says greatet at individuals frock dix nixon who told me when the latters of
food come around, don't ask what anything is, just swallow it. so there's room for a novelist to fill it in. >> one of the things that was fascinating about your book is the detail about his -- reagan's testimony -- i think 1947 before the house committee on unamerican activities, which kind of anticipated what we think of as the mccarthy era. people wondered -- reagan was a new deal democrat in '30s and '40s, and obviously by the '60s he is a goldwater republican and where exactly did that transformation happen, and i thought that was a really interesting place to look at. what do you thing the significance was. >> the biggest -- one of the big questions about reagan is how could this guy who even through this presidency acknowledged, boasted, he had voted for times for franklin roosevelt, become the antithesis of roosevelt in
terms of political philosophy and i think the anxious was reagan was a legacy democrat. his father got a job for one of the new deal agencies at time when the reagan family needed the father to have a job. and so reagan was quite willing to go along and follow that path of his father. but he hadn't really thought about politics. he was not politically engaged as a high school student, as a college student. he had other roles. he adam biggss to go to hollywood. one -- ambitions to go to hollywood. one thing he admired about franklin roosevelt was roosevelt's ability to connect with the american people by radio, in fact, reagan was starting his radio career when franklin roosevelt was conducting his fireside chats over radio, and roosevelt was the model of how you could use radio to create this world for the listeners out there, and reagan appreciated that.
both as a radio guy but also as someone who eventually wanted to convey his vision to the american people. now, in fact, by the tame reagan came along the medium was television but the goal was still the same, and so to the end of his political career in fact in one of the last speeches he gave in 1988, reagan again cited franklin roosevelt as a model of not so much to what to do as president but how to be president. but in terms of the change in his philosophy, some of it was the fact he was never really a convinced liberal to begin with. that was part of it. so it was relatively easy to shake him from that. reagan tells the story that it was his awareness of communists in hollywood, and the threat they posed not simply to the movie industry but reagan himself. he found himself head of the
screen actors guild at a time of a bitter strike in hollywood, some of the behind the camera group. and there was a radical union that had a strong communist influence that was trying to carve out the turf of a more conservative existing union, and reagan as president of screen antibioticcors guild had to make a decision whether to advice he members of his union to across the picket line or not. and partly for reasons of pocketbook stuff, world war ii is over and the actors want to get back on their regular peacetime pay scale and partly because he was the screen actors -- they were the highest skilled of the unions, and they were as much on the side of the studio, of management, as they were of labor. anyway, reagan makes this decision that the jurisdictional dispute and therefore the actors can cross the picket line. for this reagan was physically threatened. so, the cold war came home to
reagan at that point, and reagan fights back at the moment when he began to rethink his liberal idea. he may have felt that easterly emotional live but doesn't wash politically because american liberals were as strongly opposed to communism -- in fact more strongly opposed to communism, and the cold war was harry harry truman's idea and not robert taft's idea. so that doesn't answer the question. part was simply that reagan had become a wealthy man and was making a lot of money at a time when the top marginallate on personal income tacks was 90% and you don't he to the a conservative to think that 90% is high and you's like to support those people that are going bring it down. so another part -- this is really important in reagan's political evolution and development, was that he got a job as a spokesman for the management of the general electric company, and they were paying his way for eight years
of his life between his hollywood career and his political career. and this was at a time when they were writing the check for him and reagan was used to basically playing the roles of whoever the screen writers were, and now he is sort of writing his own script, but he understands where the money is coming from. it didn't -- he didn't have to abdur any strongly held beliefs to gradually think the private enterprise system works pretty real and one of this job wases to convince the ge workers from unionizing against management going on strike. so there's some telling moments. he is beginning to believe that government is getting wasteful and he is citing various programs of government waste, and one of the programs that he is criticizing again and again is the tennessee valley authority, tva. turns out that the tva was one of the biggest customers of ge
equipment, and it became known to reagan this was causing problems for ge management. but reagan would say that he really valued the fact that the ge management did not censor him. they didn't have to because he censored himself. he in other words i can find other examples of waste and i don't have to pick on something that hurts the ge bottom line. so i was easy for him to gravitate across the political spectrum, partly because he didn't have deeply held beliefness the first place and essentially became a pocketbook republican before he became a philosophical republican. >> along those lines, reagan in 1976 ran insurgent presidential campaign. he attracted a lot of democratic crossover votes and his history of the democratic probably helped him convert people.
this year we're seeing donald trump leading the republican presidential field, giving -- looks like he is getting substantial democratic crossover vote. his message is make america great begin, we don't win anymore, and reagan in '76 was saying we're getting pushed around by the soviet union, we're giving away the panama canal, we don't win anymore. so big differences between their personalities and the political crime of that time, but i'm curious as far as -- get both of your perspectives on similarities and differences between what reagan was don -- doing in '76 and what we're saying with donald trump in 2016. >> i have politically wildly ambivalent feelings about reagan. think reagan accomplished some tremendous things, mostly in foreign sphere. domestically, i feel he was lacking in all kinds of ways.
and yet -- and it's always -- whether you're writing history or historical fiction -- to imagine what the long bed would say about current affairs as always sort of fool's errand. but i would venture out on this limb. i think reagan would be -- appalled at donald trump. i think we be-door what would bother him the most? >> his grotesque lack of manners. ronald reagan, even deep into alzheimer's, was courtly around women, would move aside when one of them was getting on the elevator in the office building in los angeles. he was not a loud mouth and not a shrieker, not notably punitive. he knew how to throw some hard moves and elbows but reagan's campaign in '76 was largely,
whether one liked it or not, largely an idea based campaign, and he had a -- by that time and i think a lot of what bill is saying is true in terms of his evolution but by that time he knew what he wanted to say, and he had positions. they may not have been me most nuanced positions but he had positions that didn't change within the space of two twitter cycles. the 1976 campaign was very bracing actually intellectually to watch. ...
>> and reagan said, no, people get tired of me on television, which i think was revealing for two reasons. one, it showed indisputably that he was planning on running again, old as he was. 69 was considered prohibit ty to be run -- prohibitive to be running for president by people in 1980. and it also shows he had some good instincts, and he was, and he said i'll do radio instead. and he did a lot of very short radio programs while carter was in the white house. i remember i had my first job in
texas. i lived in lubbock in 1978-'79, and i would hear ronald reagan on the radio in the morning, thanks for listening, this is ronald reagan. and he wrote his own scripts, and you could say, well, that's pretty simplistic, a one-minute radio script, but they were crisp and definite. as you can guess, i'm a very unhappy person politically right now. [laughter] >> i mean, you talk about the radio shows, and when i was growing up, people refer to reagan as the great communicator. i didn't necessarily get it. but in listening to those radio shows and becoming aware that he wrote those himself, i thought whether you agreed -- he was dealing with all the big issues of the day, and whether you agreed or not, these were really well put together five minute, i guess, radio -- >> it was even less than that. >> three minutes? >> yeah. >> i mean, they were really tightly scripted and well performed. and i thought, well, you know, this is, this is a really good communicator. >> well, i think this was essential to reagan's political
development. i mean, his intellectual development and his political development as well. he had to school himself on five different topics a week, and the depth that he wrote in was just right for a presidential candidate because when you're on the stump, you're not going to speak for 15 minutes on the latest epa regulation. you might seek for 30 seconds. and his two minute talks were just the right length. and it gave him a breadth. it really prepared him for political debates. but in terms of what reagan would think of the current state, my book was published last may. and when the book came out, i did the rounds of the talk shows especially the various fox news shows. and the question came -- i was hoping that there would be a desire to sort of grapple with reagan as this historical figure. but the first question, and it was almost immediately, so how would reagan fare today. or which of the candidates looks most like reagan. >> sure. >> and so in may, this is may
remember. so i was asked this question, and i said this is going to sound perhaps a little bit odd given the fact that the candidate that i'm going to tell you is most like reagan is not polling very well right now, but i think the candidate most like reagan is rick perry. and i said consider it, for example, long-term, successful big state governor, you know? conventionally a good looking guy, can give a speech, oh, and he also has a good sense of humor. well, five days later perry dropped out. [laughter] and the first thing i said, well, i guess that demonstrates that rick perry is no ronald reagan. but the more i thought about it and the more the campaign developed, i concluded that, no, the basic difference is that 2016 is not 1980. and, you know, first of all, donald trump in is 1980 would nt have become anything like the phenomenon he is for a variety of reasons. but comparing reagan most directly, the first thing that i sort of notice about the difference between reagan and trump is the immense respect
that reagan had for the office for which he was running. and so, you know, reagan entered poll -- politics in 1964 intending to run for president. but he understood that you don't run for president never having been elected to anything else. you have to show that you've got the chops. you show the respect for the highest office in the land by getting elected to lower offices. he didn't really want to be governor of california, he wanted to be president of the united states, but this was -- these were the farm be leagues x you work your way up. -- and you work your way up. and, of course, donald trump just jumps in at the top. the other thing was, and this was the fundamental difference. i'm saying this, i will admit that i'm less convinced of this than i was six months ago. but the basic difference is that reagan played to people's hopes, and donald trump plays on and to people's fears. and i, in my observation of the way americans vote, they might
get riled up by their fears, by their anger, but when it finally comes to it, i mean, those people who are motivated primarily by anger and fear have never in american history, the history of the american presidency elected anybody. the ones who get elected are the ones who play to people's hopes, who play to a convincing vision that, yes, indeed, america can be great. and not simply, you know, not simply mouth the words and not say that we're going to bully other countries around and we're going to build walls. but, in fact, appeals to voters' visions of the american dream, you know? the openness of american society. and the fact that the greatest thing this country has going for it is its ability to appeal to other countries. and reagan was that very unusual individual in recent american political history. and that is an optimistic conservative. conservatives by their nature tend to be pessimists. the reason you're a conservative is you think that change is
generally for the worse. well, reagan somehow managed to be a conservative but one who was optimistic. and part of this has to do with it touches on those radio scripts, those 120-second radio scripts which one might think give you a rather shallow view of things. and i will say that reagan had deeply felt but only shallowly thought out views on world. and the combination is magic in politics. [laughter] because if you think too deeply in politics, there's always another hand. on one hand, on the other. intellectuals do not move the political world. they comment on the political world, they often wring their hands at those i'm not going to call reagan an anti-intellectual. i would say he's a non-intellectual. and his simplified views of the world and of american history were those that resonated really well with what americans like to think about their country.
and so there was this very nice fit between the vision that reagan had for the country and the vision that most voters have for america. and it worked really well. donald trump is an entirely different story. and i hope i'm not going to have to explain five years from now -- [laughter] how trump came to be president of the united states. >> tom, your book has said or most of it has said that america was kind of at the height of the aids crisis, and i think one of the most enduring critiques of reagan's presidency is that he moved too slowly on, in dealing with the aids crisis. i'm curious to get both of your perspectives. do you think it's a fair critique, and if so, what do you think -- what was reagan's thinking at the time? >> he wasn't thinking at the time. [laughter] and he, it is a fair critique. the only person in the united states that seems to understand that ronald reagan's record on a aids was terrible who doesn't seem to understand that is
hillary clinton. who gave the single most bizarre interview of the political season if you don't count all of the interviews that donald trump has given -- [laughter] at nancy reagan's funeral to andrea mitchell where she said, oh, the reagans started a national conversation about a aids. they did no such thing. if reagan had -- the sole contribution reagan made to the aids crisis was having dr. koop as attorney general -- i'm sorry, as surgeon general. and that's not why dr. koop was appointed. but when the crisis was there, at least dr. koop had the realism to sit before a congressional committee and say that people should be using condoms to save their lives. this', that's his honorable act in history. it was not president reagan's. and it was a tremendous failing. i lived through the '80s. i mean, i think ambivalence is a good condition for writing fiction and poetry.
i'm not so sure, history, i don't know. but, you know, i had these tremendously mixed feelings about reagan. i admired a lot of what reagan was doing in the 1980s, particularly in foreign policy, and i was aghast at what was going on in my own world. i was burying my friends, and we were waiting to hear a kind word from reagan. and it was, it was a failing on his part. but people are, you know, they're made up of parts, and i think on the whole reagan's record is going to be judged pretty favorably by history. i personally, you know, one thing the democrats love to do and i think they do it at their political peril, they love telling the american people how complicated things are. it's too complicated. they're being too simplistic. and one of the reasons i think reagan was very effective in getting elected and then in accomplishing certain things
when he was elected was that he did have simple but firm views of certain things. the famous story about how the man who became his first national security adviser and is advising him on those issues during the campaign says to him, governor -- which he was still his title then -- let's start by me asking you what's your view of the cold war. and reagan says, we win, they lose. [laughter] and i think that people had been waiting for a long time to hear that. they didn't necessarily want to see another term of jimmy carter cowering in his cardigan sweater. and it was a -- i found that aspect of reagan electrifying. and surely, the man who could think that big could have done better by his fellow citizens in the middle of a, you know, terrible health crisis. one of the things, just one very fast story, that the little
things that you find out in researching books -- >> and by the way, and i'm sorry to interrupt you, but when you start something like this, does it all begin with the research and then, and the writing goes from there? >> yeah. and in fiction it's very often the little things you realize that's going to be -- >> right. >> -- a scene or a chapter or even a plot line. >> right. >> and one of the things that i was completely bowled over to discover was that in early 1987 reagan had the aids test which was newly reliable at that point. and dr. hutton, the white house physician, wanted him to have it because it was reliable, and he said that, you know, the chances that he had the virus were infinitesimal, but he had received an awful lot of transfused blood after the shooting in 1981. and the blood supply was not protected from hiv at that point. and so reagan had the test, and,
you know, of course, tested negatively. he would almost certainly have manifested symptoms of the disease in the six years. but, again, that was, that was another opportunity, what good he could have done by saying i actually fall into a category of person who ought to have this test. and i had it today. and, you know, he just didn't want to do that. and, but in the, it's a scene in the book when nancy, the doctor's daughter who was much more liberal than the president, i think, on a lot of social issues, you know, gets the recommendation. >> bill, what are your thoughts? the reagan administration's handling of the aids crisis. >> reagan, like many people -- particularly politicians -- was good at rationalizing things that were convenient for him. and as a way of rationalizing why he didn't speak out on the aids crisis, he could point out that he was the head of a
political party that was, well, that in those days that generally believed -- that, excuse me. there was a large faction in the republican party among social conservatives who believed that aids was god's judgment on homosexuals. and for the president of the united states to take a position on that would contradict this large part of the party. he could also say that we are funding aids research as much as we conveniently can, as much as we usefully can. he could, he could note that opinion was divided on what the appropriate public health measures were, and so what should he say? but that really was rationalization. reagan was made uncomfortable by much of the social agenda of conservatives. reagan was a conservative. but his conservativism was primarily conservativism of
politics and fiscal issues. he was opposed to abortion, but he almost never spoke out about it. when he did speak about it, he never did anything about it. social conservatives were very disappointed in reagan. he believed that there probably ought to be prayer in schools, but he took no action on behalf of that. and on the issues of gay rights, on aids and the like, he could say that that's not really my job. now, this was quite are in contradiction -- quite in contradiction to his willingness, eagerness to use the bully purple pulpit on a whole manner of other things. so this was simply a failing of reagan. i don't know that he would have admitted it was a failing. but then reagan almost rarely, almost never admitted that he failed in anything else, so it was something that made him uncomfortable. it would have made him personally uncomfortable. it would have made him politically uncomfortable. and he chose not to do it.
>> well, you talk about him being unwilling to admit failings, and i apologize for pushing donald trump connection too much, but that's, i think, a common criticism of trump, he'll never admit that he was wrong. do you think reagan was somewhat more willing at times in his political life to -- >> i'm not going to compare reagan to -- >> i guess iran contra might be an example. >> yeah. well, so here's a very interesting thing about reagan and iran contra. so in reagan's diary, which i agree with tom, was not particularly reflective. although reagan wrote the first entry in his diary on the day he was inaugurated in 1981. the last entry was his last day as president in 1989. so very clearly he's writing this for the presidential memoir that he's going to write. and he's aware that nosey people like me and tom are going to be reading over his shoulder at some point. so at least early on, you get the sense that this is written for the historians. okay? and it reads that way. but like a lot of people who
start diaries like, and maybe you've encountered this, when you do interviews with people, especially if you have a tape recorder going, at first they're quite aware that the tape recorder is going, and you can almost see them carefully pick their words. but gradually they forget that the tape recorder's there, and they just start talking. and at moments reagan's diary reads that way. now, he was not a self-reflective person, so he doesn't get deeply into his own soul. but he does say more about his reactions to other people. and one of the things that comes out very clearly in his diary is he's fully aware from the beginning that the iran side of the iran contra story is about we send them weapons, they release hostages. it was weapons for hostages. again and again in his diary. he says that, okay, we're going to send them a new shipment of antitank missiles, and they're going to release two more hostages. now, in fact, they don't release
the hostages, but it's clear that he understands the linkage. so when the story breaks and he stands up in public and says this was not arms for hostages, i'm trying to figure out what to make of this. these days with youtube you can go watch the video, you could watch it again and again. and so, first of all, i'm thinking, okay, he was an actor, all right? so is he just acting a part here? and, you know, i don't think so. because, frankly, i don't think he was that good an actor. [laughter] i think if he'd been a better actor, he wouldn't have gone into politics. [laughter] but reagan had this ability, and i've seen it in other political figures, and you've probably seen it in other people, to convince yourself of things that are necessary for you to believe. even if there's a body of facts that contradicts what you're saying. now, reagan did have the fig leaf whereby the weapons were going to tehran, and the
hostages were held in lebanon. so technically, it wasn't the hostage holders who were getting the arms. but if any of reagan's political opponents had tried this argument on him -- >> sure. >> -- he would have ridiculed them. >> yeah. >> but -- oh, there's one other aspect of this one on this particular issue, and that is this is deep into reagan's second term: this is deep into reagan's eighth decade of life. when i was interviewing people for this, i was talking to john poindexter who was reagan's national security adviser on the time the iran contra scandal broke. and he said that he thought that part of the reason that reagan could say what he did after having done what he did was he was beginning to become forgetful. and he could forget the details. and i will give, i will cut presidents slack on this, because as a historian, i've got that written record in front of me. and i can go down almost any day
of reagan's presidency, and he was doing this at 10:00, he was doing this at 1:00, this at 1:30 and all this. well, you're a president. you're a busy guy. and the meetings where he was told about the arms for hostages, they were meetings that might last ten minutes. >> right. >> and then he was on to the next thing. and in the middle of all of this stuff, do you remember exactly what you said, exactly what you were told? so if you're also becoming forgetful anyway, and so poindexter thought that the fact that he was forgetting stuff allowed him to say what he said. >> right. >> with a straight face. >> well, we've got a few minutes left, we're going to try to take some questions from audience, is and we have someone who's going to be passing a microphone around. so wait for the microphone to get to you, and if anyone has any questions -- any questions? here's one. david? >> with regards to the collapse of communism, a lot has been
said about president reagan's role. and i think there's three others that have that same impact which is alexander mason, winston churchill and pope john paul who was very close to ronald reagan. my question's for whoever. do you think that his role in the collapse of newspaperism is as great as -- communism is as great as we think it is? >> i think finally you have to put reagan at the head of this parade, and he did inherit the anti-communism, i mean, as bill was saying, of american liberal presidents. but one of the things that reagan felt -- and, again, felt deeply, i think -- was that by the '70s, by and large the democratic party wanted to walk away from the cold war.
that's what he was feeling. that after kennedy and johnson who had had, you know, a tremendous anti-communist policy, then misadventures in the case of vietnam, he felt that the detente of nixon, the republicans as well from his point of view were walking away from the cold war. and the soviet union was on the march in africa, it was on the march in central america. and i think combination of personalities and policies were what brought it about. but ultimately, he was the man holding and dealing the biggest cards. the other person i would add to that would be mrs. thatcher who had a good deal to do with things and who is furious when he comes home from reykjavik. and when she, you know, realizes that he was almost willing to make this deal to give away, from her point of view, give away nuclear weapons, abolish
them, she takes him to the wood shed. >> i have to say one of the things i liked in the book, nixon is suggesting, have it in reykjavik and not in london, isn't that right? because you don't want margaret thatcher finish. >> yes. when they got the offer, it was supposed to be a mini summit basically to lay the groundwork for the next summit, but the soviets said reykjavik or london, and they chose reykjavik. and i think that some of reagan's advisers -- this is fiction, but it's reasonable inference, i think -- that they didn't want this to be taking place on mrs. thatcher's home turf because she was in many ways minute people might have wanted instead of reagan to be the negotiator. but she, you know, her firm belief was that nuclear weapons had can kept the peace in europe and that if nuclear weapons were gotten rid of, the soviets would roll over western europe with conventional forces and that what he was proposing was very dangerous. the other thing is if the deal
had been struck at reykjavik, you have to ask yourself, i think, would the soviet union have survived if there had been, you know, a dramatic lessening of military spending by both sides? would soviet union have been able to hold itself together longer? and so the fact is by not making the deal, reagan really and up expectedly got his heart's -- unexpectedly got his heart's desire. >> how much credit reagan deserves. >> i would add mikhail gorbachev. inadvertently. by opening the lid on dissent and by allowing the soviets to look at what was wrong, he basically released the genie that led to the demise of the soviet union. reagan, the way i put it is that of all american presidents, reagan probably deserves the most credit. but great things like the demise of a large empire or are far beyond the work of any one person. timing is everything. if leonid brezhnev, for example,
had lived another six years, i think reagan would have gone out of office, and there wouldn't have been any change. it required somebody on the soviet side to say we need to change some stuff. and when they sort of started remodeling the house, they realized how rotten it was. one of the reasons reagan gets credit is because he's the one who said, mr. gorbachev, tear down this wall. now, it's important to note that when reagan left office, the wall was still securely standing. and it wasn't until the end of 1989 that the wall, metaphorically, was breached. but it is worth note, and this is where i think reagan's influence was at least as great as putting the spending pressure on the russians. so if when people who talked to the folks who actually did bring down the wall, those east germans who demanded an opening of the gates, the ones who actually put their lives on the line, asked about this afterwards, you know, they said that they thought in some cases almost literally had heard but certainly metaphorically had
heard reagan say tear down this wall. and they knew that they had a sponsor on the other side of the wall. richard nixon didn't say that, jimmy carter didn't say that, so they knew they had moral support from the other side, and that meant a whole lot to them. it meant a lot to the folks in poland, in east germany, to the folks in the soviet union. i'd adjust one last thing. people associated with the george h.w. bush administration say we had a lot to do with this too, and we don't get credit for it. and i agree with them. >> well, we've got a few minutes left. any other questions? yes, sir. wait until we get a microphone to you. i think we've got about five minutes left, so -- >> hi. just simply because you're both such wonderful historians, could you take a moment and just talk about the lack of political discourse because of the media and the twitter mentality we're living in and the effects that it's going to have or is having? >> good question. tom?
>> you know, one of the things that i don't think has been much remarked upon in this cycle, as they say, this election year is the decline of the speech writer. i have a lot of speech writer friends in washington, and a lot of them are making a lot less and doing a lot less than they used to because the age of big speech -- you remember you would also hear, well, whatever the candidate was, will be giving a big foreign policy address today, will be giving a big education address today. that's not what moves the news these days. it's twitter and, you know, these, you know, tweet writers, because they don't -- these politicians, most of them don't even know how to do 140 characters. [laughter] they, somebody, you know, tweets for them, and it's back and forth, and it's sped up. and there is something, i think, rhetorically infantile about it.
i mean, reagan's, you know, two minute radio addresses by comparison looked like the decline and fall of the roman empire, you know, in terms of breadth and so forth. so i do think that has been one more thing that's wrong with politics, this instand tape yous -- instantaneous nonsense communication. >> i think one of the biggest appeals of the rise of social media is that it allows the candidates or their tweet writers to communicate with their supporters without the filter of editors, without the filter of tv shows and all this stuff. can and it's very appealing in that regard. one of the things that i think is really an interesting question for historians like me is have things really changed, or is donald trump unique? and the rules were different until trump came along. it was expected that people would have these speeches.
they would talk about domestic issues, they'd talk about foreign policy. trump seems to have changed the rules, and he's established this set of ground rules at least that other candidates are playing by. if trump should find his way to the white house, then that would be the model that is shown to work. if trump doesn't find his way to the white house, then maybe things haven't gone so far as they seem to have right now. so maybe next go around we'll be back to where we were four years ago. >> i think we're going to have to wrap it up there, and i know we probably have a lot more questions that we could get to, but i want to thank all of you for coming, and please join me in thank our great authors, thomas mallon and h.w. brand. thank you so much. enjoy the rest of the festival. [applause]
[inaudible conversations] >> here's a look at some books that are being published this week. author and filmmaker dinesh d'souza asserts that another clinton presidency will fundamentally change the country for the worse in "hillary's america." in "head in the cloud," william poundstone considers how the ease of finding information on the internet affects how people think. frieda cauliffe tells her personal story of being captured and enslaved by isis in 2014 and her escape in "the girl who escaped isis." this in sam polk's "for the love of money," he describes his time working at a wall street hedge fund and what caused him to decide to leave. ..