The close of 1983 saw a man of stern stuff in the Oval Office, but the tug-of-war with Moscow and events in Grenada and Lebanon have darkened the President’s usually amiable mien. When Patricia Ryan, PEOPLE’S managing editor, and Garry Clifford, the magazine’s Washington Bureau chief, interviewed him Dec. 6, some 48 hours after U.S. Navy jets bombed Syrian antiaircraft nests in the mountains east of Beirut, they found the White House atmosphere tense and the President somber. He showed a bit more gray, but no less determination.
In the last several weeks you’ve been awakened with news of world crises. How do you get the reports? Does Mrs. Reagan get up with you?
No. I try to slip out without her. It’s usually the bedside phone that rings. When we were in Augusta that weekend, there were two such crises. Bud McFarlane [the National Security Adviser] called asking if I could come out to the living room and meet with the Secretary of State [about Grenada]. So I whispered to Nancy that I was just going out for a bit, hoping she’d go back to sleep. At the time of the Lebanon incident, one of the stewards just tiptoed in and touched me on the shoulder and whispered to me, and I slid out and did the same thing again.
How do you think the American people feel about committing troops to a military action?
The hardest thing in all my life is committing these splendid young men and women to tasks where you know there is that threat. I’ve never been so proud of anything as I have been of the Armed Forces. A few years ago everyone said the volunteer military wouldn’t work. Well, it is working. And there is a pride among them that just puts a lump in my throat. With a horrible incident such as the one in Lebanon, there just is no way to make that easy.
The press and many political figures immediately jumped to the conclusion that the rescue mission was some kind of a warlike thing that everyone would be angry at. It was interesting to see so many of them try to crawl back from the end of the stick when they found out that the American people understood very well what we were doing, and supported it.
Even your political godfather, Sen. Barry Gold water, is calling for the boys to come home from Beirut. How far are you willing to commit troops, to escalate?
It isn’t a case of whether we will escalate. That is up to the Syrians and to some of those rebel groups who are fighting the Lebanese military; we have only fired back when we have been attacked. And I am hopeful that after this last exchange, the Syrians will decide that they don’t want to go on that path. We are going to try for a political solution.
Do you see a day when President Assad of Syria could become a friend of the U.S. like Anwar Sadat?
I don’t see any reason why not. We’ve made great progress with the more moderate Arab states. I think that they are very ready for a negotiated settlement, building on the Camp David accords and the U.N. resolutions. Right now, Syria is the big kid, and the bad one, on the block.
How would you assess The Day After?
Any motion picture or drama or play isn’t successful unless it involves an emotional experience, whether it is hating or crying or laughter. Certainly there was an emotional response to this horror film, but apparently it has not had a lasting impact. My own reaction to it was, “Look, if this can add to what we’ve been saying, that there must not be a nuclear war, then maybe the people will understand why we are trying so desperately to get a reduction in those weapons worldwide.” I hope that the other side will see the common sense in eliminating them totally. Not since the late ’40s has there been such a suggestion, and that was made by this country. Even then, when we were really the only ones with a stock of such weapons, the Soviet Union refused.
If Yuri Andropov had been watching the film with you that night, would you have said that very thing to him?
And anything else?
Yes, I would have told him that the only way there can be a war is if they start it. We’re not going to start a war.
Do you have second thoughts about calling the USSR the “Evil Empire”?
No. I think that it was high time that we got some realism and got people thinking. For too long we have viewed them as a mirror image of ourselves and thought maybe we could appeal to their good nature, saying, well, if we unilaterally disarm, maybe they’ll see that we’re nice people, too, and maybe they’ll disarm. Well, they didn’t.
So you see them as a source of evil?
Yes. They believe they must support uprisings wherever they take place in the world to bring about a world Communist state. As a matter of fact, every Soviet leader up to Andropov—and he hasn’t had time yet—has publicly restated his commitment to world conquest.
In the Jerusalem Post you were quoted as saying that this generation may see Armageddon, that a lot of biblical prophecies are being played out today. Do you really believe that?
I’ve never said that publicly. I’ve talked here with my own people because theologians, quite a while ago, were telling me that never before has there been a time when so many prophecies were coming together. There have been times in the past when we thought the end of the world was coming, but never anything like this.
You’ve mused about this?
Not to the extent of throwing up my hands and saying, “Well, it’s all over.” No, I think whenever that time comes, the generation that is here will have to go on doing what they believe is right.
Do you think about dying?
You can’t help but be conscious of it because the security measures are so evident. If you mean do I go around fearful and look over my shoulder—no. I have confidence in the security people. I had one taste of that.
Is it something you talk about with Mrs. Reagan or your children?
It’s better left unsaid?
Yes, because I think it was harder for them when it did happen and much more difficult, for her especially, to get over. It is a lot easier to worry about yourself than someone else. I know what must go through her mind when I set out on public appearances. I wish it didn’t have to be.
Does your bulletproof vest hang in the family quarters?
No, no. And when the agents come in with it, they kind of come in flinching, because they know that I do not accept it with good grace.
What do you say when they put it on you?
Oh, even an occasional unprintable word. It’s uncomfortable. It’s bulky, and I work so hard in the gym up there, but I know everybody out there in the audience will say I’m getting fat.
Who do you think would be the easiest Democrat to beat in 1984?
If I answered that I might be helping them to choose from that octet they’ve got out there. Of course, I haven’t said yet that I’m running.
Polls show you have a problem with women voters. The GOP has hired your daughter Maureen to change that situation. What is her advice, and would you support her if she were to run for elective office?
I’d support Maureen for just about anything, although if she expressed interest in this job, I might have to think about that. We agree the problem is one of perception. That’s where Maureen is really helpful, getting this out. I don’t believe the so-called women’s agenda should be dictated by just a few who are very vocal.
You have not changed your long-held conservative beliefs. You often seem to go with your guts instead of facts or political advice. Is this why you succeed?
It’s my job to reject some of the well-intentioned advice I get. I try to think about the people beyond the Potomac. I weigh the facts carefully, but in the end it’s just you and what you think is best for the people who put you here.
How do you maintain the very obvious romance you have with Mrs. Reagan? Romance takes time, mood, not being harried.
We’ve always been very close and have developed over these 30-odd years little things that are kind of traditional or have a meaning to us. We leave notes for each other. It just depends—on a breakfast tray, and on certain occasions send cards.
What recent movie role would you have liked to play?
I’m not sure I would have been right for the lead in Reds or The Right Stuff. Casting has never been my strong suit. When I was running for governor, Jack Warner said, “No, no. Jimmy Stewart for governor. Ronald Reagan for best friend.”
When you took office, most Americans thought the job of being President was impossible. You seem to thrive on it. How do you manage?
Maybe the eight years as governor gave me some training for this, because I do remember when I first became governor I thought the world had fallen on my head. And I guess I learned there. In earlier days our Presidents were mainly found among the governors. I think that is a better training place than the legislatures.
Would you recommend the job to a friend?
Yes, but he might not be a friend afterward. For someone who wants to do things he believes strongly in, this is the most fulfilling experience.
Do you consider yourself lucky?
I do have some Irish blood, you know. But I look at it much as a football coach. If a team works long enough, after a while it’s going to make its own breaks. But in the long run it goes back to what we were discussing before. The point of reading the Bible is to realize that this world and our lives don’t really belong to us. What the Good Lord wants from each of us, and from this world, is up to Him, not you and me.