Two years into his term, the President considers his “confinement” in the White House, riding, reading and a peg-legged pig
In 1982 President Ronald Reagan held eight press conferences and countless interviews in which he aired his views on the pressing issues of the day. When Patricia Ryan, PEOPLE’S managing editor, and Garry Clifford, the magazine’s Washington Bureau chief, interviewed Reagan on Dec. 9, they attempted instead to pose questions the President might be asked if he visited an average American family.
What is the nicest perquisite of being President?
Well, I suppose it would be travel—knowing that you don’t have to worry about rush hours and that someone will see that you get where you are supposed to go on time.
Is there any particular place you’d like to go?
Where would I like to go? About 40 minutes northwest of Santa Barbara there is a ranch. Given my druthers, I’d rather go there.
Would you be lost in this city if you ventured out alone?
Yes. I discovered that [was the case] even in Sacramento. It comes from riding in the back seat with someone else driving. You don’t bother to notice where you’re going. As many times as I’ve been to some hotels here to give speeches, if you suddenly put me at the wheel of a car and said, “Drive there,” I wouldn’t be able to do it.
Do you get a longing to make unadvertised trips around town so you could see what’s going on beyond the gates?
Yes, there is a feeling of confinement. That is why Camp David looms as such a promise on the free weekends. It is a normal-size house where you can go out the door and take a walk if you want to. Sometimes I look out there at Pennsylvania Avenue and see people bustling along, and it suddenly dawns on me that probably never again can I just say, “Hey, I’m going down to the drugstore to look at the magazines.” I’m not saying it depresses me greatly, but you find yourself remembering when you could do that and knowing that time has gone.
Have you ever adopted a disguise or had the Secret Service take you around Washington in an unmarked car?
No. I had an adventure in this town once while I was still Governor of California. It was at the time of the great riots at the death of Martin Luther King, and we were trapped in an automobile in a traffic jam just two blocks from our hotel, where I knew Nancy was waiting. Around us we could see the windows breaking and the rioting. We obviously couldn’t get there in a car and I insisted that we get out and go on foot. The head of my state security, very disturbed about this, finally agreed if I would wear his sunglasses. I said okay, and I put on his dark glasses. We got just to the curb, and a great big fellow stopped me and said, “Ronald Reagan, can I have your autograph?” I took the glasses off and gave them back. I haven’t tried a disguise since.
Do you ever look down from the upper floors of the White House, across to Lafayette Park where a soup kitchen is set up for the city’s hungry and homeless? Have you noticed those people?
I didn’t know that was going on. But I’ll make a point [of looking] now that you’ve told me. You see, the living quarters are on the opposite side of the White House so there is very little occasion to go [to the north side of the building] and look out. The one room I do use is the exercise room.
Your father received his unemployment slip on Christmas Eve. This Christmas 10.8 percent of Americans are unemployed. What would you say to them?
I know it doesn’t do much good to say “I understand,” and I know how much worse they feel at a time like this. What I’d rather say is to a lot of other people. For every one who is unemployed, there are 10 who aren’t. Those 10 ought to be looking around. They must know the people in their neighborhood, fellow union members, people in their churches who are in that plight. I think it is time for the 100 million or more to make sure that the 12 million, or nearly 12 million, do have a Christmas.
Do you think the press was unfair to your son Ron in reporting his seeking unemployment benefits?
This is one of the things that isn’t a perk—the knowledge that you’ve imposed some of this fishbowl existence on the family. We did call him and told him that we’d be, not worried about ourselves, but that he might be embarrassed doing this. But he wants his independence, and he said the rest of the group—all of them laid off—were doing the same thing. And no, he would rather do it on his own and go without the help. You have to have a grudging respect for that.
What does Mrs. Reagan mean to you as a helpmate living in this big old house?
I could sum it up in a few words: I can’t imagine life without her.
What is the best moment of your week?
Climbing on that helicopter to go to Camp David.
How often do you get to see movies, and of those you’ve seen this year, which did you think was the best?
When we go to Camp David, we run a movie, and we can also run them here in the White House. We have taken to showing some of the “golden oldies.” You see Carole Lombard and Cary Grant up there on the screen again. I know that some of the people in the industry are going to be very angry at me, but I’ll tell you, I think the dialogue was better. You don’t ever see anything that makes you squirm or embarrasses you as you do today.
The most recent movie that we’ve seen was the result of Father Hesburgh of Notre Dame. He presented me with one of the two prints that is still intact of the Knute Rockne film in which I played the Gipper. A lot of older movies have been on television so often it is hard to get a print that hasn’t been hacked to pieces to get commercials in. I’m not going to say it was the best picture we’ve seen. I’m going to say I enjoyed it more than any other.
When you were running for President, you were of ten photographed in church. Do you still go frequently?
No. We did when we came here, and I miss it very much. But with the terrorist-type [Libyan] threat, that became an impossibility because that would be one of the places where I could represent a danger to many others.
Do you have any kind of worship service in the White House?
No. It’s been offered. I just feel He understands the situation. Maybe I talk to Him oftener than He likes. Whatever time is left to me, He’s got first claim.
How do you handle your anger?
The staff tells me I throw my glasses. I wasn’t aware of that but I heard one of them saying, “Watch out if he throws his glasses.” Now I’ve gotten kind of self-conscious about it. When I get angry, I usually try to swallow it so I won’t do anything I’ll be ashamed of for the rest of the day.
Is there something about Israel’s Menachem Begin that has struck you, which the press hasn’t captured?
There is a singlemindedness in his dedication and devotion to what he is trying to do that I think sometimes makes him intolerant of other views. I’ve read his autobiography. When you stop to think that here is a man who suffered the persecution under the Nazis, and then, when freed from that, found himself suffering the persecution under the Soviets. And finally, in a country where the people had known the Holocaust and his dedication to what he thinks is right for them…. Yes, we can have discussions and will have when we meet again, because sometimes, no matter how well-intentioned he is, I think that singlemindedness makes him unaware that you might be trying to help. If he would give you a little more leeway, you could be more helpful.
Speaking of biographies, what other books have you read recently?
I am a voracious reader. I could no more go to bed without reading myself to sleep than I could fly. I have loved every kind of reading from non-fiction to novels. I’ve got one book by the bed that is a history of the bloodlines of Ireland. Most nights—and last night was another one—I am interrupted by the ushers bringing in things that have to be read for the next day. I’ve got more books that are lying there with a piece of paper in them to [show] where I got to. Instead of saying goodnight to everybody when I leave [the Oval Office], I say, “Go home.” Evidently they don’t.
Carter, Johnson and Kennedy all aged noticeably in office but you haven’t aged a day. Why?
Part of the answer is that I have a great belief in some of the things I do. I work physically doing things. There is an old cavalry rule that there is nothing so good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse. Maybe that has something to do with it.
We see these pictures of you with other chiefs of state walking very sedately on your horses. On your own outings do you canter or gallop ? Do you jump fences ?
Mainly it is trail riding, which is a lot of walking, and that’s very pleasant on a horse. At Camp David, the trail is rather tough and uphill and down, so there are stretches where you can kick him into a canter. For years my riding was over fences. I miss it. I can still feel the sensation of going at one, but the years have gone by, and now I don’t have any jumpers. The last one, about 12 years ago, bowed a tendon and after that I felt I never could ask him to jump. I rode his mother, his half sister and then I had to say goodbye to him. I added it up the other day. I had [the family for] 36 years. What I have really been thinking about is the possibility that as the winter comes on here I might be able to go some afternoons to the enclosed riding hall of the park police, where they have jumpers. I’ve thought, “Now there would be the place to start again.” Under those nice circumstances, I could set up a jump and get my timing back and find out what it is like again.
You are known to be an irrepressible raconteur and collector of stories. What new story are you waiting for a chance to tell today?
I don’t know if there is one I haven’t told. I could tell you about a fellow who had a pig with a wooden leg. A man saw this and said, “What’s with the wooden leg on the pig?” And the fellow answered, “This is the most remarkable pig in the world. I was plowing one day, the plow tipped, and I was trapped under the tractor. This pig rooted the earth away and got me out and saved my life.” The other fellow said, “Yes, but what about the wooden leg?” The man said, “This pig, let me tell you—one night my wife and I were asleep and a coal from the fireplace fell out on the floor and set the house on fire. This pig came in, woke us up, rescued us, got us out and saved our lives.” The other fellow said, “Yes, but what about the wooden leg?”
“Well,” the farmer said, “you can’t eat a remarkable pig like this all at once.”