Ronald Reagan picture

Excerpts From an Interview With Hugh Sidey of Time Magazine

July 25, 1985

The President's Health

Mr. Sidey. Well, listen, I just—a few questions here to—as you start in again. How do you feel? That's the first one.

The President. Feel fine. Really. Everyday I'm amazed at the improvement. Only a few days ago to bend in the middle, somebody had to help. Now I can get up all by myself.

Mr. Sidey. The sore spot's going away?

The President. Oh, yes.

Mr. Sidey. That sort of thing.

The President. There's an 11-inch line there that—

Mr. Sidey. I see. You don't plan to show your scar like Lyndon Johnson. [Laughter] So keep that quiet, huh?

The President. No, no.

Mr. Sidey. On a serious note, you've got another adversary now, cancer. How are you going to deal with that these next 3 1/2 years?

The President. I'm going to do exactly what they've told me to do. The thing is, Hugh, in this—one, the doctor himself was a little concerned because he'd used the term that I "have cancer." He says the proper thing is I "had cancer." And very-to a minor effect—that particular polyp, called adenoma type, is one that, if it is left, it begins to develop cancerous cells. Well, this one had. When they got it out, they found that there were a few of such cells, but it's gone, along with the surrounding tissue. It had not spread; no evidence of anything else. So, I am someone who does not have cancer. But, like everyone else, I'm apparently vulnerable to it. And, therefore, there will be a schedule of checkups for a period to see if it's going to return or if there was a cell that had escaped into the bloodstream or something.

Mr. Sidey. Will the fear of cancer intrude into your life, though?

The President. No. I've never been that way about things of that kind.

Mr. Sidey. Well, I must say, twice you've been brushed by death since you've been in this office, and you seem unfazed. You keep going; you keep your hope up. What is it?

The President. Well, I have a very real and deep faith. Probably, I'm indebted to my mother for that. And I figure that He will make a decision, and I can't doubt that whatever He decides will be the right decision.

Mr. Sidey. That's not going to affect your work?

The President. No.

Mr. Sidey. But, Mr. President, if cancer should show up and you had to undergo treatments, is there the possibility that you would resign, turn the job over to Mr. Bush?

The President. I can't foresee anything of that kind, and that is not just me talking, now. That's on the basis of all that I've been told by the doctors who were all involved in this. I can't see anything of that kind coming. But, as I said once when they were talking about my age before I was elected the first time, if I found myself ever physically incapacitated where I, in my own mind, knew I could not fulfill the requirements, I'd be the first one to say so and step down.

Mr. Sidey. When was the hardest moment in this whole episode for you?

The President. The hardest moment?

Mr. Sidey. Yes.

The President. Golly, that's pretty hard to say. The most difficulty I have is in that period in which time disappears and you're no longer a part of the world— [laughter] —under the anesthetic. The most difficult time I had was trying to reorient as to where I was and had I been operated on yet or not. [Laughter] And they said, "Oh, yes. It's all over."

Mr. Sidey. I see. Did you suspect you might have cancer before they told you?

The President. No. They've tried to make something of the scheduling of these things. The first polyp had been taken out, the knowledge that I had another one yet to come out, and it was the kind that, as they said, doesn't become cancerous. The schedule was set, and I went in there fully prepared on a Friday afternoon to have that one snipped out. Also, they were going to do this examination then of the intestine to make sure. And I went in with a little handbag, fully convinced that I would be on my way to Camp David the next morning, Saturday. And they came back in after having taken out the polyp and told me that they had found this other type. And they said, about this other type, that we have no evidence whether there are cancer cells, but it is the kind that can be cancerous. And they said, now, you're all prepped, you're here-and that prepping took a lot of imbibing of— [laughter] —certain fluids for hours before I went there. They said you can schedule this to come back, or they said, our advice is, you're all ready and you're here and why not now? And I said yes. I didn't want to get back on that fluid again— [laughter] —a week or two from now.

Mr. Sidey. I see, I see.

The President. So, I said yes. And then they told me that, yes, there had been a few cancer cells in it, but it had not penetrated the outer wall. It was confined; there was no trace of this going anyplace else. And, as the doctor said, therefore, all you can say is you had cancer.

Mr. Sidey. Yes.

The President. I've got too many friends—even my brother who—good Lord, he had very severe cancer of the larynx. He was a very heavy smoker, which I have never been. But that was, golly, I guess in the neighborhood of 20 years ago, and he's doing just fine. So, I'll take the checkups that they recommend for them to keep track.

Mr. Sidey There was some comment when you only spent 5 minutes with the doctors, when they told you that the specimen was cancerous that they took out, you know?

The President. Yes.

Mr. Sidey. But that was all you needed to spend with them?

The President. Yes. They were most reassuring.

Mr. Sidey. You're not unhappy with your medical advice?

The President. Oh, no, not at all.

Mr. Sidey. Why didn't you do it last year, in '84?

The President. Well, I think this is what has been misplayed somewhat. We didn't know about this new polyp. We knew at the time that there were two polyps—one much smaller than the other. And they had gotten one, and then, subsequently, we set a time later when I would go back in.

Mr. Sidey. Have any of your priorities changed because of this illness, as far as being President of the United States goes?

The President. No. If there was any change it was back in 1981, with the indication of mortality after the shooting, that I made up my mind that those things that I believed in doing, for whatever time I might have left.

Mr. Sidey. So, it's full speed ahead?

The President. Yes.

Mr. Sidey. Work is your answer, in a way.

The President. Yes.

Mr. Sidey. One of the things that's been commented on, Mr. President, is Mrs. Reagan, who was, as you said in your speech—she has been remarkable in this. Has she become more of the Presidency in these last couple of weeks, or are we just noticing it?.

The President. No, but Nancy is a mother hen. Let something happen to one of the family, and they become the chick. She's very concerned that there be no overdoing. And being a doctor's daughter, a surgeon's daughter, as a matter of fact, she is very insistent that no one's going to overwork me. And that includes me, because she knows that I tend to take such things a little lightly. And I think she reached her high point this morning. You know, she's on her way to Denison University in Ohio for a program on drugs. She'll be back today. But on the table by my side of the bed, there is one of those little cabbage-type dolls in a nurse's uniform. [Laughter] And she has named it Nancy and has put it there so that while she's gone, it is to remind me that- [laughter] —I'm to do all those things like rest, and so forth.

Mr. Sidey. Well, she's displayed great courage—

The President. Yes, she has.

Mr. Sidey.—you know, before the world, really, in that time.

The President. And it hasn't been easy because, as she herself admits, she is a worrier. And she has been through a lot, including a most traumatic experience, the death of her father. She was there and with him for a couple of weeks in the hospital, and both knew that he was dying. And then, to have what happened to me—I recovered far more quickly than she did from the shooting. And then, along comes a thing like this. She can't resolve her concern.

White House Staff

Mr. Sidey. There was a little comment, Mr. President, about your staff and whether Mr. Regan assumed too much power and—

The President. No. He was carrying out things that I said. And this whole mix-up, Hugh, whether George was shipped away or something—when I found out about the anesthetic, I designated, of course, automatically George Bush. But George had just come back from that very successful, but also very tiring trip. And knowing that this was just for the hours of an operation—and at this time, it was all going to be over on Friday afternoon—I said to Don, I said that I knew that George had gone—as I would have gone to the ranch after that trip—had gone up to Maine. I said, tell George, though, to stay where he is. There's no need—he's as much in contact there as he would be here. I said, "Tell him to stay there and not to break up his weekend simply because I'm going to have this little thing snipped."

So, this was my order. But then when the subsequent thing came along and it was going to be extended hours, it was George's decision to come back. And he just said he just felt that under the circumstances—and he was right—that it just would not look right in the eyes of anyone for me to be there and him to be up there in Maine. And so, he felt that it would be much more reassuring to the people and everything else if he came back. And that was all. I was the one from the very beginning who had said to him, "I don't want you to give up your weekend."

Mr. Sidey. And you think Don Regan's function as the coordinator in that was the way it should be?

The President. Yes, and with all the things here, Don's carrying out the things that I have said. I've witnessed no grabs for power on the part of anyone. Hugh, there seems to be a concerted effort, and has been for the last 4 1/2 years, to try and build feuds within the administration. I think they thrive on—some do—on combat, and there just isn't anything to it.

The White House

Mr. Sidey. You talked of "going home"—I was struck by it—in the hospital. You mentioned it two or three times, how you wanted to go home and get into your bed. I've never heard a President talk of the White House with such affection and warmth. Now, what's the change?

The President. Well, yes. And, Hugh, I think again we go to—Nancy is a nest-builder. If we stop in a hotel for a couple of days, she can't be in a suite for 5 minutes until she's moving the furniture around— [laughter] —to make it more homelike. In the hospital there for only those several days, she brought pictures up and some large framed photos that we have of her trying to give the dog a bath and so forth, and hung them on the walls. And at first, I kept saying, "Honey, I'm going to be out of here in a few days. You're going to a lot of trouble." But I have to say, she was right. Suddenly, it was much more pleasant to look around. She had framed photos, family photos that she brought and were around the place. She does that, and the same here with the White House.

Mr. Sidey. So, it has become home despite living over the store and the isolation and all the problems?

The President. Yes, the living quarters there—our own furniture in there. And I just always have had a tendency to settle in. Mr. Sidey. Maybe you want a third term? The President. [Laughter] I think that's not permitted, but I have to say it is home. And she's done the same with the house at Camp David. That's similar to when we had a house in Los Angeles and the ranch.

The President's Health

Mr. Sidey. One final question, Mr. President, here. What's your favorite joke about your operation?

The President. [Laughter] Oh, Lord! Oh, well. Yes, there was a cartoon that came out— [laughter]—and somebody brought me a copy of it. I guess it was in the Washington Times. I called him to thank him for it, but also to give him a little warning. It's a cartoon that appeared in the paper. It was of the hospital. Up here in a window was a nurse and a man. The nurse was very angry, and she was pointing down out of sight, below the cartoon. And she was saying, "That crazy clown down there chopping wood, he'll wake the President!" And the man, looking down, says, "That fellow chopping wood is the President!"

Mr. Sidey. I see. [Laughter]

The President. And so, I showed it to everyone, but he had quite a cartoon figure for the nurse. And these nurses were all very trim and nice people and all, and they were a little disturbed by the image of a Bethesda nurse. So, when I left the hospital up there, I told all of them—that's what I was saying when I turned my back and was talking to them—I was telling them that I was going to do my utmost to see that the image as portrayed was corrected in the cartoon industry and that they were not properly portrayed. So, I told him that when I called him.

Administration Goals

Mr. Sidey. Now, I guess one final thing. Your purposes in the Presidency, your priorities, basically have not changed?

The President. No, no, they haven't.

Mr. Sidey. Budget, tax reform—

The President. Peace.

Mr. Sidey.—strength abroad?

The President. Yes.

Mr. Sidey. You'll go to see Mr. Gorbachev—

The President. Yes.

Mr. Sidey.—as far as you know?

The President. Yes, yes, all of those things. The view I felt for a long time, that, even if there were no deficit, the Federal Government, out of a number of things and with the best of intentions, embarked on all kinds of programs, some of which are just not the proper function of government, things government shouldn't be doing, and some of which, even if it's doing them, they're not cost-effective at all. Job training programs in which the training was given, but the placement rate of people in jobs was extremely low. And for the cost of training, that was enough to send them to the finest university in the land. Things of that kind, things that we discovered in our own welfare reform.

And part of it—the advantage you see in it, from that State level out there as Governor-the Federal programs mandated on local and State government. And even if you were given some say in the administration of those programs, you were so bound and restricted by regulations and red tape that time after time you found yourself saying we could do this program twice as well and at half the price if we weren't bound by these restrictions. And yet it was the Government saying, you can't change, you've got to do these things this way.

Well, I made up my mind when I came here that we'd done what we could at the State level—our welfare reform in California was tremendously successful, and it didn't throw people out into the snowdrifts or take away from those who had real need at all under some of those programs. We found people that were, say, 21/2 times their income—outside income—above the poverty rate, and they were eligible for as many as four Federal aid programs. You said, "We don't think this is what was intended."

I want to see government to where it should be. And a President said it before me. In 1932 Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in campaigning, said one of his purposes would be to restore to the States and local communities, and to the people, authority and autonomy that had been unjustly seized by the Federal Government.

Mr. Sidey. Well now, Mr. Gorbachev—are you up to him?

The President. Yes, looking forward to it.

Mr. Sidey. He's a young fellow and quite vigorous.

The President. Yes, but I'll try not to take advantage of him. [Laughter]

Mr. Sidey. Thank you, Mr. President.

Note: The interview began at 11:11 a.m. in the Oval Office at the White House. A tape was not available for verification of the content of this interview, which was released by the Office of the Press Secretary on July 28.

Ronald Reagan, Excerpts From an Interview With Hugh Sidey of Time Magazine Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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