President Numeiry of the Sudan had just left after a courtesy call, and some Midwestern Governors were about to gather in the Cabinet Room. Ronald Reagan, wearing a bold blue glen plaid suit, and his wife, Nancy, in a red dress, entered the Oval Office, He looked fit; she appeared nervous. For nearly an hour they answered questions from Richard B. Stolley, PEOPLE Managing Editor, and Garry Clifford, Washington Bureau Chief.
With the increased security since the assassination attempt and the reports of Libyan hit squads in the U.S., do you ever just want to get away?
RR: We have become used to it since I was Governor of California at the time of the great riots. After the Robert Kennedy tragedy, the Secret Service protected several public figures, including me, and I fell in love with them after a 1968 experience at our ranch. I’ve always liked to shoot, so we’d go down to the woods and set up some tin cans and plink away. I wanted to try hip shooting, so I went into a crouch and blazed away and didn’t hit the can. One of the agents stepped up, stood absolutely upright, shot from the hip and hit it. I said, “Well, you didn’t crouch.” He said, “We lose our rating if we crouch.” And the unit chief spoke up and said, “Governor, if we’re ever shooting at anyone, we’re between him and his target.” On March 30 you saw [Secret Service agent] Tim McCarthy doing exactly that. It was awfully heartwarming. I never argue or fight with them when they tell me there’s a certain precaution we have to take. I figure they know.
Have there been any physical aftereffects of the attack?
RR: I’m happy to say I have a complete cure: no aftereffects other than scars. I’ve never felt better.
How about emotional aftereffects? Do you feel more nervous in public?
RR: “Conscious” is more the word than nervous. I lay in the hospital and remembered the great crowds waiting outside wherever we went. I wondered, “Why didn’t it happen 100 times before, with all the opportunities?” I’m aware of how easy it is.
Mrs. Reagan, you have been quoted as saying that you worry every time the President leaves the White House. Is this still a problem?
NR: I’m not sure that “problem” is the word. I had thought with time that it would fade, but it doesn’t. When he went to New York [last month], I don’t think I breathed until he got home.
RR: It’s worse for her. I don’t think she got well as quickly as I did.
Mrs. Reagan, the polls say your popularity is lower than any other First Lady’s. Why do you think this is so?
NR: I’m not sure that it really is so.
RR: Can I answer that? I don’t believe those polls, and our own poll does not show that at all. It shows a great popularity. I believe there was a concerted campaign to create an entirely false image with regard to renovating the White House, trying to portray Nancy as living an extravagant jet-set life. Now, the last First Lady who did what Nancy’s been doing was Jackie Kennedy. There had been a great many years since any painting had taken place, since floors had been refinished. The plumbing was so old that a fellow here in town, at some considerable cost, had to hand-forge the replacement parts. All this was done at no expense to the taxpayers. Virtually everything has been contributed down through the years by Americans who wanted this to be the prettiest house in America. It belongs to America, not to the occupants, who are only temporary custodians.
Well, do you think that your wife has got a bum rap?
RR: Yes, I do, and they’ve ignored all the other things that she is devoted to, like the foster grandparents program and the drug programs.
Mrs. Reagan, have you considered holding press conferences to change that perception?
NR: Oh, never—I would die.
Is the criticism unjustified?
NR: This perception started even before I got to Washington with reports of things I supposedly said that I never said. It’s like water dropping on a stone—after a while, a certain number of people believe it.
How can you build the stone back up?
NR: I’ve done a little reading about past First Ladies, and they all had the same problem. I talked to one of them, and she told me to go ahead and be myself. I have enough faith in people that when the dust settles, the project of trying to refurbish the White House, and hopefully other things, will be seen in perspective.
Mr. President, you’ve been described as obsessively loyal and kind as an administrator. Do you think maybe you’ve been soft on David Stockman?
RR: No, I don’t. David Stockman was not doing the sinning—he was sinned against. He does believe in the program and never lost faith in it at all. He has done an expert job, and I think he was misused. What’s happened to the journalistic ethic? Stockman was betrayed by a longtime friend who distorted and misinterpreted things that had been said in complete confidence and the understanding that it was off the record. The author used his own interpretation and, very frankly, I liken it to another assassination attempt—which I hope will be as unsuccessful as the first.
What has surprised you—both of you—most about the Presidency?
RR: I could say March 30. But the biggest surprise is the extent of the leaks and stories that begin “Unnamed sources report…” and “They say…” It is disturbing to be in a closed meeting on a vital subject and that evening hear references to it on the news. It is frustrating to know the facts, and know that even though “their” remarks are wrong, you can’t answer them because you can’t tell what you know.
NR: My biggest surprise was that I didn’t expect to be as busy as I am. I always seem to be playing catch-up with myself. Everybody told me, but I don’t think I was prepared for the real lack of privacy, the scrutiny that everybody undergoes, even the children.
“They” say that you feel cut off and lonely in the White House. Are these reports true?
NR: “They” are wrong. I’m happy.
Former Defense Secretary Clark Clifford was reported to have referred to you at a party, Mr. President, as “an amiable dunce.” What was your reaction when you first read that?
RR: I’m really waiting to hear what Nancy says about that.
NR: I never mentioned it to him because I was hoping he hadn’t read it.
RR: Honey, even in the crowd I see the one fellow with the thumb down.
NR: Obviously Mr. Clifford doesn’t know my husband. I’ll get mad enough for both of us.
Are there some things you economize on in the White House?
NR: You bet.
Such as what?
NR: You just don’t buy as much. I mean, how else do you economize? In clothes, food—every area—we’ve never been extravagant people anyway, no matter what “they” say.
RR: It’s been a long time since either of us bought a luxurious gift for the other on Christmas—and it sometimes bothers me. A couple of years ago our gift to each other was a hydraulic log splitter for the ranch.
NR: Every girl wants one of those.
RR: Last year, redoing the living room at home was our present.
NR: That was more than Christmas.
RR: Yes, the way the bill came in, it was also both our birthday and anniversary gifts that year.
After NBC’s For Ladies Only, the television show about a male stripper in which your daughter Patti appeared, she said that the program of fended her. What was your reaction?
NR: We agreed with her.
RR: We’re proud she felt that way.
NR: We thought she was good.
RR: I thought she was the only breath of fresh air in a film that was unnecessarily obscene.
Obscenity was not a problem then, but do you look back at any of the roles that you played and wince?
RR: I don’t think there’s an actor that doesn’t. In those days, under the contract system, you made some pictures that the studio didn’t want good; it wanted them Thursday.
Before your daughter Maureen announced her Senate candidacy, you said you hoped she wouldn’t run. Why?
RR: Having been through a campaign, I was saying, “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.” It was taken wrong, but I have squared myself with her. Now I’m staying completely neutral.
There have been reports, Mrs. Reagan, that you and Maureen have had some friction. How is your relationship?
NR: Did “they” tell you that?
How do you feel about her running?
NR: Well, that’s up to Maureen. She’s a grown woman, and if she wants very much to do it, then she should do it. You wanted to ask me about the foster grandparent program, didn’t you?
Well, I did, particularly in view of the possibility of your having grandchildren. Do you yearn for your own grandchild?
NR: Oh, I’m dying for one.
Have Ron and Doria given any indication that they are going to fulfill your wish?
NR: They would like one, but he has more traveling to do in the company that he’s in, and it wouldn’t be the time now. It will have to wait a while.
RR: I’d just like to say one thing here—Nancy, in a sense, is a foster grandparent.
NR: That’s just what I was going to say. I have Cameron, Mike’s child.
RR: We’re 3,000 miles apart, so there isn’t much contact, except they tell us he recognizes us on television and calls us Grandpa. But when he sees us in the flesh, we’re not for real.
You have suggested that private charity can take up the slack in a lot of government spending. What private charities has the Reagan family contributed to?
RR: I have long tried to help Eureka College, the little college that made it possible for me to have an education in the depths of the Depression when I didn’t have a dime. Then there are routine things: contributions to the United Way and fund drives. My income tax report last year did not show me giving much away to charity, and the press picked that up. But we’ve given to individuals, particular cases, where you want to do something for someone. We’ve preferred things like that, which don’t show on a return because they’re not deductible.
Do you feel you are in touch with the average American?
RR: Well, that’s my own background and heritage. I don’t feel different now than I felt then. All the people we ever knew are still there, and we keep in touch. The people I went to school with and played football with in high school and college come to Washington and we get a chance to visit much more than when I was in Hollywood. The mail room sends certain types of letters to my desk, and I see them and answer them personally. There are the people around us, like those agents we were talking about before. And there’s contact when you leave here and get into the different world that exists 50 miles from Washington, and mingle with people. I’ve never felt any estrangement. I think I know what they’re feeling.
Mr. President, during the campaign you asked the American people if they were better off after four years of the Carter Administration. Are they better off after one year of yours?
RR: Yes, they are. We’re in a recession now, but inflation is lower than it was a year ago. Interest rates are lower. The only thing that has shown any surge at all is unemployment—and it is not too much higher than it was then. The program has just gone into effect, and the people can look forward over the next three years to a 25 percent income tax reduction, the elimination of the marriage penalty, and indexing at the end of three years so that they won’t get pushed into higher brackets. With all of these things, I think we are better off.
Will you run again in 1984?
RR: I’m going to wait for time to tell me. I don’t let myself think about it.
You have not ruled out the possibility of a second term because of age or any other reason?
RR: No, as I’ve said, I think they mixed up the babies in the hospital. I don’t feel that old.
How do you feel, Mrs. Reagan?
NR: Well, I’ll face that when it comes, me and Scarlett.
RR: It would be a shame to waste all that work you’ve done upstairs.