This weekend America will celebrate, with panoply and pyrotechnics, the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, that world-famous symbol of the nation’s ideals. It is altogether fitting that President Ronald Wilson Reagan should preside over the events for, to a degree few thought possible, he has given America a new confidence. He has turned the nation’s energies toward the realm it always has sought to conquer—the future. At 75, and showing a little gray in his hair now, he met with Managing Editor Pat Ryan and Washington Bureau Chief Garry Clifford for an exclusive interview.
Have you ever visited the Statue of Liberty?
I have never [actually] been to it, but my first sight of it was an experience I do remember. In 1948 I had gone to England to make a picture [The Hasty Heart], and I came back on the Queen Mary. It was an early morning arrival, and I made sure I was at the rail at 4 a.m. to see the Lady as we came into the harbor. I was surprised at my goose-bump feelings.
A Gallup poll shows you’ve never been more popular. Can a person be a successful President nowadays who cannot perform—in a show business sense—on TV in order to put his case directly to the people?
There is only one rule of show business that is employed in all of this, and anyone can do it. They don’t have to be a performer. When your face is up there on the screen in close-up, if you don’t believe the line you are speaking, the audience will know it and won’t believe it either.
Some politicians are better than others. The American public believes you when you get up there…
And I believe in them.
The majority of Americans say the U.S. government should not aid the Contras. Do you think the citizens sometimes don’t know what’s best for themselves—or are too faint of heart?
I think that the people of this country, in their wisdom, are the ones who are in charge. Thomas Jefferson said, “If the people have all the facts, the people will not make a mistake.” I have to say that the people do not have all the facts on Nicaragua. There has been a tremendously successful disinformation campaign, and, yes, it has been helped along in many instances by the media.
A lighter question. Your son’s name is on the masthead of Playboy. In the light of your Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, is Ron’s job a source of some embarrassment to you?
No. I read the first article that he did for that magazine, and I was gratified to find he has his own writing style and does very well. I don’t think he’ll be indulging in pornographic material. [Laughter] I could perhaps wish that he would find something more dignified.
You’ve obviously looked at a skin magazine since you’ve read his articles. Have you ever watched a blue movie? Have you found either repugnant?
I’ve never sought out movies that appear in those certain kinds of theaters. I’m not a prude or a bluenose, but I have to tell you I’ve not been proud of some of the legitimate things that Hollywood is turning out these days. For one thing, I object on the grounds that some of the rules of theater are being violated. The oldest rule is that you can’t do anything on the stage or screen that is as good as the audience’s imagination. Do you remember those wonderful scenes when the children could be at the movie with you and there would be an embrace? Suddenly the camera pans over to an open window with the curtain blowing and the moon glowing outside and the fade-out. Well, the audience takes care of that with its imagination. There is no embarrassment with the children.
Since the summit you have been tougher toward Mikhail Gorbachev. Do you have a new assessment of him? Do you believe he bears you or the U.S. ill will?
No. I think like so many in Russia he subscribes to some beliefs and propaganda about us and doesn’t understand our system. He has never seen our country. This was one of the reasons I hastened to invite him to the next summit here. I think he still does want such a meeting. He has said, and I accept his word, that he wants an eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. Well, this has been my goal since long before I got here. But then the proposals are made, and we put them in the hands of our negotiators in Geneva and nothing happens.
Maybe we were too optimistic about how quickly Gorbachev could come in—after these last several years of what they’ve been through—and establish a new administration.
Do you have a favorite photograph of yourself with Mrs. Reagan?
They’re all pretty pictures on account of her. I don’t add to them, she does. My favorite picture of Nancy [see below] is in my dressing room. Nancy is just about that high—just a little girl.
There have been more than 25 Americans arrested as spies in the U.S. since 1980. They have sold, for their own gain, our secrets, and technology worth billions. Should we stop treating these people as white-collar criminals, and start treating them as traitors as we did in the era of the Rosenbergs?
I think they are being prosecuted with tremendously heavy penalties if they are found guilty. I’m not a lawyer so I don’t know about asking for the death penalty. Maybe the difference is between spying in peacetime or during a war.
For a great many years we have had a kind of liberal philosophy in this country which did tend to coddle all kinds of criminals, and maybe this is part of it.
But you’ve been in office 5½ years now. Can’t you prevent federal judges from sending convicted spies to country club prisons?
Isn’t confinement really the punishment itself? Should we follow the [policy in the] Gulag and say that we are not only going to imprison them and keep them confined, that we are going to add discomfort and torture, denial of human rights on a larger scale?
Is there one particular thing you wanted that you may not achieve by the end of your term?
There are a couple of things where we’ve been headed off. One is a constitutional amendment that would ban deficit spending. Two is to give the President a prerogative that most governors in the country have—the right of line-item veto. Now a legislator can sneak something into a bill which he knows could not pass on its own—just because the President has to sign the rest of the bill. In California, in eight years, I vetoed such line-item things 994 times and never once could the legislature get the two-thirds majority to override my veto.
If the Constitution right now prevented deficits, how would you be running the government? What would you cut?
Some social reforms should be eliminated; others should not be eliminated but should be more properly aimed at people of true need instead of setting a minimum figure—saying everybody at this level is entitled to this level of government programs. I don’t think some programs are the proper province of the federal government. The government should not be running railroads and doing things of that kind in competition with the private sector.
How is your dog Lucky?
You’re giving me a chance to clear up something. Lucky was not exiled. Lucky was always intended to go to the ranch. There are five dogs, and she’s taken over. On the ranch she’s in dog heaven—688 acres of meadow-land, forest—and she’s running free. Now, Rex [the current White House dog] is entirely different. Rex, I think, is probably happier in the house than out.
Is he going to have to stay in Los Angeles when you end your term?
I think he will continue to be our home dog. The ranch is wild country. And Rex with bobcats, mountain lions? Every once in a while, we have a bear that moves in. That’s not for Rex.
We read that a psychic had written to you predicting the destruction of the space shuttle, even citing the defective rings. Do you think psychics often are correct? Have you ever used one?
No. But I have to tell you this, I’ve found it difficult to write them off entirely. The Scriptures say that there will be such people. I know of instances where police in our country have used psychics [successfully].
Do you ever feel like you need one?
I’ve often thought it would be awful handy if I was one sometimes.