Ronald Reagan Remembered

<b>Mike Wallace</b> Looks Back At His Interviews With The Reagans

Correspondent Mike Wallace has known Nancy Reagan for over half a century. First as a friend, later, as a reporter. He has talked with her and former President Ronald Reagan numerous times for 60 Minutes. He looks back at his interviews with the couple, including the former president's thoughts as he left public office and Mrs. Reagan on living with the president in his final years.



Their last years together were hardly golden ones. For the Reagans, Nancy said, the golden years were short, because her husband's disease robbed them of the opportunity to sit back and exchange memories.

And the memories were many, including the good times the Reagans shared on their California ranch, which Ronald Reagan called "Rancho Del Cielo" - or Ranch of Heaven. It was there that Correspondent Mike Wallace first interviewed them, just after Ronald Reagan announced his bid for the presidency. In an interview that first aired Sept. 25, 2002, Wallace showed Mrs. Reagan some of that footage.

In that 1975 interview, Wallace asked Mr. Reagan what would persuade him to leave the beauty of his ranch to run for office. "Someone once said, 'Life begins when you begin to serve,'" said Mr. Reagan. "Maybe if there's a feeling that you can be of service, you feel you have to do it."

Wallace asked the couple about their first encounter – when actress Nancy's name had mistakenly appeared on the mailing list of a Communist newspaper.

"I was doing a picture for Mervin Leroy and I complained to him about it," said Nancy. "And he said, 'I know Ronald Reagan. And he's the president of the Screen Actor's Guild and he'll be able to straighten out your problem.'"

"At that point, I just wanted to meet Ronald Reagan," she added. They ended up going out on a blind date.

"He called. And he said, 'You have a problem and – we - are you free for dinner tonight?' Yes, I was free for dinner," said Nancy, laughing. "And he said, 'Well, I have to make it a very early dinner, because I have a early morning call.' And I said, 'That's all right. I have an early morning call, too.' Neither one of us, of course, had an early morning call. So we went out to dinner."

And the rest is history. But before becoming a political couple, the Reagans were a Hollywood couple. They appeared in only one movie together -"Hellcats of the Navy."

"For all the years we've been married, it's been we, not you and I," said Ronald Reagan. "It would be inconceivable for me to go my own way on something without her. And I think it would be the same with her."

Wallace reminded Mrs. Reagan how she had once described herself in the 1975 interview: "My job is being Mrs. Ronald Reagan." Does she ever see herself as a separate person? "No, I never do. Always as Nancy Reagan. My life began with Ronnie."

Mr. Regan spoke to his reputation as a button-pusher: "Well, that's very simple to explain, I'm not a hardliner. No one who has, in my generation, who has lived through four wars and been a part of one of them, could ever want anything but peace. The greatest immorality is for a government to ask its young men to fight and die for their country if it isn't a cause that that country is willing to win."

Then came a surprising response from the former president. When asked to name the last American leader he had a good deal of faith in, Mr. Reagan cited Franklin Delano Roosevelt. "He took his case to the people," Mr. Regan said. "The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things."

Looking back at the interview, Mrs. Reagan said her husband lived up to his own definition. "He got them to believe in themselves once again," she said. "He got them to think about the whole country differently.

"Ronnie was always so optimistic. The glass was always half full. And he made people feel that way, which is wonderful."

Wallace asked her about being chided during her husband's presidency because of her frequent consultations with an astrologer.

"At that time, that was right after Ronnie had been shot. And I was talking to anybody and everybody who would give me some advice, some consolation," said Mrs. Reagan. "I worried terribly every time he went through the door."

"I don't think my heart started again until he came back. Because after you've been shot and you've lived through it, then your threats increase. And they say, 'Well, if he didn't get him, I will.' So I talked to a lot of people."
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Something else, however, has also dogged Mrs. Reagan over the years - reports that she was the driving force behind her husband's political ambitions.

"You were always political partners. Weren't you," asked Wallace. "He depended upon you."

"Well, that could be. But I wasn't a politician," said Nancy.

Meantime, at home and in the family, differences of opinion plagued the Reagans and their children down the years - and sometimes their difficulties were played out in public.

But now, the Cold War within the Reagan family has ended. Was it the president's illness that sparked the reconciliation?

"I suppose it helped. But then, as you grow older, you know, on their part, as they grew older," said Nancy. "It was a hard time. But things change. And you begin to remember just the good times and not the bad times."

Today, Patti, the Reagan's daughter, is often at her mother's side. She has written about her father's battle with Alzheimer's disease, and its effects on her mother: "My mother's eyes are frequently such deep wells that I have to look away."

"I think she means that when she looks at me, she sees a deep sadness," Nancy said.

Patti also writes about the eyes of Alzheimer's patients: "In the early stages of Alzheimer's, the eyes have a weariness, a veil of fear. I used to see my father's eyes simultaneously plead and hold firm. Slowly, sometimes over months, sometimes over years, the eyes stop pleading … A resignation, an acceptance of distance, strangeness, a life far from home. You know the look when you see it. And the only mercy is that the fear seems to have subsided."

"It's true. It's true," said Nancy. "A whole different look in eyes. Whole different look. You know, it really, it's been said often, of course, and it's true. It really is the long, long goodbye."

These have been momentous years for the Reagan legacy -- and Mrs. Reagan has done her part.

In 1996, she addressed the Republican National Convention in San Diego. "That was the first time I'd ever gone to a convention without Ronnie. And so, they wanted me to say something. And I walked out there not prepared for the reception at all ... I started to cry, which, of course, is not too hard."

There was also a dedication of the USS Ronald Reagan, the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to both President and Mrs. Reagan, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mrs. Reagan.

The year we spoke to Mrs. Reagan marked a major milestone for the couple - a milestone void of celebration. March 4, 2002, was the couple's 50th wedding anniversary.

What did Nancy do that day? "Nothing," she said. "And how I'd love to be able to talk to him about it. And there were times when I had to catch myself, because I'd reach out and start to say, 'Honey, remember when …'"

But she said she is comforted by the letters President Reagan wrote to her over the years - letters that bring her husband back to her.

A love letter that he once wrote aboard Air Force One reads: "When you aren't there I'm no place, just lost in time and space. I more than love you, I'm not whole without you."

In 1989, just before they left the White House, Wallace once again interviewed the Reagans - and the president made clear how he felt about his lady.

"Nancy's power was the power of well, giving me a marriage that was like an adolescent's dream of what marriage should be," he said. "Clark Gable had some words once, when he said there is nothing more wonderful for a man than to know as he approaches his own doorstep that someone on the other side of that door is listening for the sound of his footsteps."

Mr. Reagan told us that way back in 1966, before he first ran for Governor of California, neither he nor Nancy had wanted to get into politics. He said, "We both were really pushed screaming and kicking our objections. Nobody ever mentioned could I be a good governor, they just kept saying I could win.

"I truly was happy with the industry that I was in. I had thought, never for me, but I always believed also that you had to pay your way. And being in show business, I could be helpful to a candidate, and fundraising and things of that kind. I'd make speeches and people would come up to me and start talking about why didn't I do this or that, and I came home-and pretty soon Nance and I, we couldn't sleep. We thought, 'Well you know, what if they're right and we'll live the rest of our lives saying we didn't do it, and let them down?' And finally, reluctantly, I said yes. And you know something? I have to confess –I hadn't thought beyond November. I thought well, I can do this and in November it'll all be over."

As we know, he was to spend sixteen years in public office, in the Governor's mansion and then the White House. But carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders never seemed a heavy burden for him, as we discovered in that 1989 interview.

Wallace: You read the comics in the morning?

Mr. Reagan: Yeah.

Wallace: Spiderman is your favorite - then the sports pages, and then you get to the serious stuff. True?

Mr. Reagan: No, it's really from the comics to the serious stuff without the sports pages in between. I haven't got time for those anymore. But I'm also a voracious reader, and never without a book, and to me the worst type of Hades that I could think of would be to be in a hotel room someplace for overnight and not have a book to read.

Wallace: What are you reading now?

Mr. Reagan: This time it's George Burns' story about Gracie.

Wallace: We've heard the presidency called the loneliest job in the world, a splendid misery, whatever, and I have never sensed that you have been the least bit miserable or the least bit lonely in this job? Why hasn't this job weighted as heavily on you as it has on some other occupants of this Oval Office?

Mr. Reagan: Well, Mike I don't know what the answer to that would be. Well, maybe none of then had a Nancy. But I came here with the belief that this country, the people were kind of hungering for a sort of spiritual revival. The whole thing of the '60s and the rioting and so forth and the disillusionment with Vietnam, it seemed that the people had kind of lost faith in the destiny of this country and all. And I came here with, as I say, plans and set out to implement them. No, we didn't get everything we asked for, but you don't fall back in defeat. You just lay low and wait for the next time you're going to attack.

Wallace: In just a few days George Bush is going to be sitting there. Ronald Reagan - he won't be irrelevant - but he's gone. And as the as an old actor, as a human being, aren't you going to miss the roar of the crowd, the spotlight, the front pages?

Mr. Reagan: No, not you know, we had a kind of a roar of the crowd and applause and sometimes boos back in the job or the career that I had before I entered public life, in show business. And the unfriendly reviews of some of your efforts and so forth. No, there will be things, of course, and I must say that the gracious living that is provided here in this historic old house, yes it's-Nancy is a nest-builder, it's really been a home.

Fifteen days after that interview, the Reagans left public life. It had been quite a run: two terms as governor, two as president, and more than 50 years together.

  • Tricia McDermott

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