Interview With Hugh Sidey of Time Magazine
August 12, 1987
Iran Arms and Contra Aid Controversy
Q. Number one, thanks a lot. I wanted to just talk today, if I could, about more of your personal feelings through a very tough time in your Presidency, and you know, this is kind of a demarcation point. How do you feel about it? Was this an embattled time especially, or -- --
The President. Well, naturally it wasn't the happiest of times, and sometimes I'd get annoyed at the interference with what I thought was getting on with the things that should be done. But, Hugh, I have to tell you, I never felt too upset, because I knew I'd told the truth and that the truth would have to come out -- and did.
Q. But how did you keep smiling, because a lot of people wouldn't believe you still? A lot of people question, you know, whether the -- or at least think that you haven't told everything, according to the polls.
The President. Yes, I did. And what used to make me smile a little bit was the fact that I was the first one to tell them about such things as that there was extra money and so forth. And good Lord, I appointed the first commission, and it came in long before this one started with a lot of the information that was new to me and that I had to hear for the first time.
Q. This was a pretty heavy siege, though. How did you keep your optimism? It was pretty sustained throughout that period.
The President. Well, as I say, I just had faith in the truth.
Q. I see. How tough was it, though, to see those close to you affected by this -- Mrs. Reagan or children or old colleagues?
The President. Well, I think that those that were close around me kind of took their cue from me. But I did hear from a great many friends who expressed, again, their faith and trust, and that was very pleasant.
Q. Was there a low point in this 8 months or so?
The President. No.
Q. Anything make you angry? I kept reading these stories about sometimes you got sore, here and there, at what people said.
The President. Yes, sometimes, and sometimes I got a little angry before all of this in finding out when I learned of things that I had not been told.
Q. Was there a period of discouragement at all?
The President. No.
Q. Never got down that far?
The President. Nope.
Q. You had every faith you were going to come out in the end?
The President. Yes.
Q. Do you think it's over with pretty much now?
The President. I think it is as far as the audience is concerned.
Q. Yes. A number of people have said that the thing that bothers you -- friends have told me that -- were these polls that said the people thought that you were holding back. Now, can you recover that? Do you fully expect to restore the credibility?
The President. Yes. Naturally no one's going to be overjoyed at seeing a poll that finds that people thought you weren't telling the truth. But then one other poll asked an added question, and that was a question of the people who said that they thought I wasn't telling the truth. They asked them, well, you know, what did they think about that? And the overwhelming majority of them thought, well, of course, there are always going to be things that a President shouldn't tell. And it threw a whole different aspect then on that first question and the answers to it.
Q. I see, yes. Did you end this period at all -- or how did you feel about the group of men that were involved in this that had been on your staff? How do you end this period now with your feelings about North and Poindexter and McFarlane?
The President. Well, I heard them out. I can understand why they did what they did and what their motives were, and certainly they weren't bad motives. And I'm just sorry that it turned out that way. The truth that I told the first time, once [Attorney General] Ed Meese came in here and said there was a piece of paper that indicated there was more money than the purchase price of the weapons and that somehow that money was in a Swiss bank account and so forth -- now, all I fall back on is: I am the one who went on the air and told the people that and told the press that in the press room, and that I had appointed a commission to find out what there was to know about this.
Q. What was your big mistake, or was there one in all of this? Do you pinpoint something you shouldn't have done or should have done that you didn't do?
The President. Well, you see, in a covert operation like that -- and the covert operation was a response by us to an appeal from this other group of individuals who wanted to discuss better relations with our country. And it had to be covert for their safety, because contrary to what some of the people have said, I was not doing business with the [Ayatollah] Khomeini. In fact, quite the contrary; these were people that were anticipating another government to follow him. And if you'll remember, at that particular time, almost every day there were reports of his failing health and that his days were very numbered and so forth. And they wanted to talk about a better relation than we have with the present government.
Q. How'd you get through those days when the hearings started, Mr. President? Did you read the papers as normal? Did you follow it closely in the papers?
The President. Actually, I didn't change my pattern or my schedule much at all. Occasionally, I might have a few minutes and step into the next room and turn on the TV just to see who was on and so forth. And I didn't have to depend on the press. Our legal counsel kept me informed with a summary.
Q. So, you had internal information -- --
The President. Yes.
Q. -- -- as well. Did you give up any reading at all? Did you try to avoid it at all, or was it just -- --
The President. No, no.
Q. I see. But you watched a little of it. Did you talk it over with Mrs. Reagan? Did she -- --
The President. Oh, yes. We used to -- --
Q. -- -- she kept an eye on it?
The President. Well, she probably didn't watch any more than I did.
Q. I see. But you felt current throughout the time? You felt you knew what was -- --
The President. Yes.
Q. -- -- what was happening? Yes. What is your feeling in general? Is this sort of thing inevitable in this office at some time or another in the Presidency? I've been through seven Presidents, and it seems to me every administration, at one time or another, has -- --
The President. -- -- has an investigation by the Congress of the President.
Q. Well, something goes sour, you know, or something goes off. What's your broad view of it? Is it -- --
The President. Well, Hugh, actually, all that I remember is, you know, for a half a century now, with only an exception of a few years, the Congress, both Houses, have been of one party. And I think if you check back, every President of the opposite party has been investigated for something or other. But I don't recall any investigations of the Presidents when the Presidents and the Legislature were of the same party.
Q. Yes, I see. Well, what you're suggesting, if I'm correct, is that there's a lot of politics in this. The Presidential election have much to do with it?
The President. Well, I'm not going to comment on that.
Q. You're not going to comment?
The President. No.
Q. You're going to stay out of that, I see.
The President. Maybe I shouldn't have said what I just said.
Q. Well, now, did you keep a diary throughout this time? Do you have some private thoughts?
The President. Well, I've kept a diary from the first day here. And actually, Hugh, the reason for that was one thing I learned after the 8 years as Governor -- that the schedules are such and the succession of things and the meetings -- that getting out of that 8-year experience as Governor, I suddenly realized that memory -- well, there were things that I could remember, but I couldn't tell you whether they were in the first or the second term. And then I realized there were a lot of things that I just could not, if I had to, recall, and it was a very busy 8 years there. And so, when faced with this job, Nancy and I both said this time -- --
Q. You're going to keep that record, huh?
The President. -- -- let's keep a record so that that won't happen.
Q. Through this particular stressful period, then, you've kept pretty good notes on -- --
The President. As a matter of fact, I made some of those diary notes available to the investigators.
Q. Yes, I knew that. Somebody told me you also kept your regular meetings with Edmund Morris [President's biographer]. He's working on the book.
The President. Yes.
Q. So that there is that. Any surprises when that comes out?
The President. I don't think so. Well, not to me.
Q. Oh, I see. I see, you know that. Did you expect when you became President, having seen, of course, what happened to Lyndon Johnson and Nixon and Truman and all of them, as you mentioned before, did you expect that anything like this would happen, that there would be an episode in your Presidency? Were you prepared for that possibility, I guess is what I'm saying.
The President. Well, Hugh, I think after the 8 years as Governor, also, you know that there's always a target painted on the Chief Executive's door. No, the big surprise, however, was exactly what we said. First of all, my reaction when our covert operation was exposed by that leak in Beirut and our press immediately went up with it, my reaction there -- it was just one of -- and I voiced it to the press at every opportunity, and then it was echoed by David Jacobsen, the hostage that came home at about the same time -- and that was, please, you can get some people killed by talking about this and asking about it. And I had in mind the people we were dealing with as well as our own hostages, because when Jacobsen came out, the word we had was that there were going to be a couple more in just a few days. And that was all that was on my mind.
Well, then when -- as I say, Ed Meese was the one who saw that one paper that indicated that there was somehow more money and in a Swiss bank account -- this was just the biggest surprise in the world, because we hadn't set out to trade hostages for -- or arms for hostages, even though I always feel a great responsibility to do everything possible to get back the hostages, except ransom. And I knew that the arms we sold were priced at $12 million, and we got our $12 million. That had come back before the exposure and all. And it was just such a surprise that first -- well, the very next morning -- he agreed with me that we had to make this known. And we called in the joint leadership of the Congress, both Houses and both parties, and told them. And then I went immediately into the press room and then, as you know, a short time later, went on the air.
Q. One of the points in this whole thing, Mr. President, was the failure or the fact that you didn't just summon Oliver North and say, you know, lay this all out for me. Was there some reason or some -- --
The President. Well, whether our thinking was right or wrong at that point -- and we were all agreed here that with this now exposed and my not having been told that they just had to leave the National Security Council, they could not continue. So, I thought of that before I thought any questions or anything, and I think they both felt the same way.
Q. And it got swept up in all the litigation or the process there.
The President. Yes.
Q. I see. But finally, how do you think history will deal with this, looking down the road? Do you think it's going to fade away in the minds of people the next few years or -- --
The President. Well, it is my hope that, once everything is settled and known, history will deal with it as the big investigation that finally discovered the President was telling the truth from the very beginning.
Q. I see. And will you still be in office when that's established, do you think?
The President. Well, I would like to see it established very quickly.
Q. I see. Is it getting tougher, in your judgment -- now you've been here 7 years -- tougher to run this place in this city? You invented the term ``inside the beltway,'' which implies a certain environment that doesn't reflect national sentiment. Has that become increasingly difficult to work in?
The President. Well, I don't know whether it's any different than it's been for anyone else. I do know that for years back there has been a kind of friction between the executive branch and the Legislature and an attempt to erode the powers of the President, and -- --
Q. Has that gotten worse?
The President. I don't really know, because I came here with minus some powers that previously Presidents had had. Naturally, seeing it from the Executive Office side, I believe what's being attempted is a mistake. I think there are some things that just can't be run by a committee of 535 people. And when you stop to think back over history, we have been in my lifetime -- well, in the lifetime of the nation, I should say -- five declared wars. But history will reveal that Presidents have sent military forces of the United States into action 125 times, and without it being a declared war, and on the assumption of the executive branch that it was essential for the security of the United States to do that.
Q. Your feeling then is that in all the actions you took, to the extent you knew anyway, was perfectly legal.
The President. Yes.
Q. There wasn't any problem with the War Powers Act or your authority or any of that?
The President. No.
Q. I see. Going back to that one question, you do not see then any evil men involved in this on our side? I'm talking about your NSC, White House -- nobody that you would point to as a culprit or somebody -- --
The President. Well, this would get me into trying to comment on all that took place in these hearings and all, and I can't say that, not having seen them any more than that and getting summaries of them of the day that -- I just don't think that I should risk making such an assertion -- --
Q. Yes, okay.
The President. -- -- of all of the people that have been mentioned in the hearings.
Q. It's getting a rather lengthy roster, I guess.
The President. Yes.
Q. Take it from the other side then: Who was the most help throughout this period for you in terms of morale and guidance? Because, you know, it had to be somewhat of a burden added on to the normal job.
The President. Well, you mean outside of my wife.
Q. Number one -- she was, huh? Yes.
The President. Yes. But, no, from the very beginning, not only the people here in the White House and some outside but also friends and supporters that have gone out of their way from the very beginning to express their confidence in me -- and it was very heartwarming.
Q. Now, how does your wife buck you up? How did Mrs. Reagan -- --
The President. Well, because -- --
Q. -- -- get you through those days?
The President. -- -- she knew I'd told the truth, too.
The President's Health
Q. I see, I see. Well, you answered that. A lot of comment, Mr. President, that you seem older and look older -- how do you feel? I read the Wall Street Journal this morning. I suppose you did, too -- a long piece about it.
The President. No, I haven't read the Journal this morning.
Q. Whoops -- a summary.
The President. Which -- --
Mr. Fitzwater. We'll have to get a copy of that. I didn't read it all.
The President. Is there something in there about that?
Q. Well, it had that piece in column eight saying, you know, the President seemed to be losing steam and this, you know. It was one of those ambiguous pieces, to be true. But anyway, a lot of comment on the feeling that you are slowing down in these last months, not only because of the burden, but just because you're just older.
The President. I don't know about any slowing down. I do know that the -- other than my nose -- the last operation that I had I did without anesthetic, and got up off the table and went upstairs and put on my ranch clothes and went to Camp David -- it was a Friday -- --
Q. Oh, yes.
The President. -- -- and finished the day with a swim there and the next day with a horseback ride. And some doctors seem to be a little surprised that I could have done that. They didn't think it was ordinary. But, no, I feel just fine. And I haven't slowed down any; the pace is the same. And every night the schedule for the next day and the homework for the next day arrives, and that's my bedtime reading and so forth and -- --
Q. Well, the other part of that theory is that your friends said that you were going to be more combative than normal in these last 18 months.
The President. Well, that would have been true even without this other thing. And that has to be, because I think we've accomplished a great many things in these 6\1/2\ years. I think the fact that we're within 2 months of having the longest expansion period in the Nation's history -- economic expansion and all -- but I think there are things that I will regret all my life if we don't get them pinned down. Well, for one thing, the great problem that from the very beginning that has faced us -- the deficit -- that I had thought at one time we could get balanced. But that was during the campaign, and I had had a group of economists who were working on the plan that we followed. But no one's ever asked me, so I'll tell you. Before the election, those economists came to me and told me that the deterioration had now been so much greater than when they made their study that, no, there was no way that we were going to, in a few years, be able to balance the budget. But we put the plan into effect anyway, aimed at whenever it can happen.
But now with this deficit spending and our Economic Bill of Rights, as we call it -- that is based on some things that are just essential, and that is a balanced budget amendment. And it's a strange thing. When I heard some of the Congressmen talking about their obligation to the people and to do what the people want -- the polls show that 80 percent of the people want a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
Q. I see that. The new figures have come out on that, yes.
The President. And also what 43 Governors have and what I had as Governor -- and that is the right of line-item veto. I think those are essential tools. I would like to see those in place and a program in place. Well, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings program is dedicated to this also -- that is aiming at a point down here where the budget will be balanced and from then on have to stay balanced. Having had that in our Constitution -- I think about 44 States have that in their State constitutions; we had it in California. And I have to tell you, it is a guarantee when you know that as executive officer you are responsible that, when you come to the end of the budget year, the revenues have to have matched the outgo.
And of course, the answer to those people who think that, well, then let's just raise the revenues -- well, we've done that a few times, and if you want to look back in history, virtually every tax increase has led to lower revenues when the rates were higher because of the lack of incentive and the search by people to find tax shelters and so forth. And since our tax cuts have gone into effect, the revenues now are bigger.
And to those liberal-minded individuals who always want to aim at the top earners and say, ``Make them pay the heaviest load'' -- they do pay the heaviest load. And the truth of the matter is, the top earners today are paying a higher percentage of the total tax than they were before, even though their rates have been reduced. Now, that means that there is the proof that those people who are in brackets where they look for tax shelters and so forth, or didn't earn extra money because it wasn't worth it, now with a lower tax rate, the incentive is there for them to produce more, and as a result, they do pay a higher tax even though it's at a lower rate.
Q. One more -- --
Mr. Kuhn. Mr. President, you're three minutes late for your final appointment over in the Residence.
The President. Oh.
The President's Careers
Q. One more question here. You've had five careers: as a kid, as a sportscaster, as a movie actor, as a Governor and a President. Which has been the most fun?
The President. Well, I have to tell you something, I have been blessed; I've enjoyed every one of them. I am still very proud of seven summers as a lifeguard.
Q. I see, that ranks right up there.
The President. Yes, I had a log with 77 notches in it for the -- pulled out.
Q. I see.
The President. But then, sports announcing -- I thought that was my career. And yet I had always -- going through school, high school and college -- I'd always, in addition to athletics, I'd always been involved in the dramatic clubs and that sort of thing and the class plays. And when, out of the blue, literally, came an opportunity to switch from sports announcing to acting -- and I loved that.
And all I can tell you is I fought like a tiger against ever running for office. I thought that was for someone else, that I would do what I had done for other candidates, like my speeches for Barry Goldwater, that I would campaign for others. And when I was beset in 1965 by this group that insisted that I had to seek the governorship against the incumbent Governor then because the party was divided and all, I fought like a tiger not to. And finally, I couldn't sleep nights, and Nancy and I said yes. But then, I have to tell you, we'd only been there a few months and one night we looked at each other, sitting in the living room in Sacramento, and said this makes everything else we've ever done look as dull as dishwater.
Q. So, you went the distance?
The President. Yes.
The President's Future Plans
Q. Now, what are you going to do when you get out?
The President. Well, a lot more ranching than I get to do now. And I anticipate that; I look forward to that. But I have a hunch I will be back in the mashed-potato circuit, campaigning for things I believe in and people I believe in.
Q. What are you going to do on this vacation, Mr. President? You going to do some fence -- paper cutting and -- --
The President. Well, there will be some more pruning. And the pruning is also accompanied by -- out of it getting firewood, because there are two fireplaces, which is our only heat. And you'd be surprised at the extent of the woodpiles that we have there and yet how fast they go when you're there for several days in the cooler season and you have fires going in both fireplaces all day long. We'll be doing that, but every morning, we'll be riding.
Q. I see. I was up at Ralph Regula's office the other day, and he has pictures of you you sent to him making a fence out of telephone poles. Do you still do that?
The President. Well, did he explain to you why he's got the pictures?
The President. Because he's got some property and wanted a fence. And I tried to give him all the directions and write the directions that I could, and then I did -- or sent him pictures to show him.
Q. That's pretty good. Yes, you're running behind, I guess.
The President. Okay.
Q. Thank you. Well, you're on tonight. Have you got any butterflies? Are you up to this one?
The President. Well, I'll be sitting at the same desk so I can always duck.
Q. You've done that before?
The President. Yes.
Q. That's great.
The President. And I'm glad you got around to some of the future here, because that's what I'd expected to talk about, was what we are going to do for the next 17 months.
Note: The interview began at 4:06 p.m. in the Oval Office at the White House. The transcript was released by the Office of the Press Secretary on August 17. Marlin Fitzwater was Assistant to the President for Press Relations, and James F. Kuhn was Special Assistant to the President. Oliver North was a former member of the National Security Council staff, and John M. Poindexter and Robert C. McFarlane were former Assistants to the President for National Security Affairs. At the end of the interview, Mr. Sidey referred to the President's August 12 address to the Nation.