Ronald Reagan picture

Interview With Garry Clifford and Patricia Ryan of People Magazine

December 06, 1983

Q. Thank you very much for having us back. It's a great honor for us to be here.

The President. Well, it's a pleasure.

Views on the Presidency

Q. One of the things I wanted to ask you was I think that most Americans thought the job of being President was impossible when you took office, and I think things have changed, and they feel that you thrive on it. And I sort of wanted to ask you how you discipline yourself and how you plan your activities so that it won't overwhelm you?

The President. Well, maybe the 8 years as Governor gave me some advance training for this, because I do remember that when I first became Governor there was a period that I went through in which I thought the world had fallen on my head. And I guess I learned there.

Q. But isn't this more difficult? I mean—

The President. Oh, yes.

Q.— isn't there more people and more paper, and more—[inaudible]?

The President. Yes. And yet, I have to say hat I think that the Presidency—the nearest thing to it in the country is a governorship. You don't have a foreign policy, which does add some problems, but it is the same thing. And it used to be—if you'll look back at earlier days, in which our Presidents were mainly found among the Governors. And I think that is a better training place than, for instance, serving in the legislature or something.

Q. You'd still recommend it?

The President. Yes. But the other thing—

I've never felt better in my life, physically.

Q. You certainly look it, Mr. President.

The President. I have a little gym upstairs that I get to every afternoon before the day is over.

Q. Tell me, would you recommend the job to a friend?

The President. Yes. He might not be a friend afterwards— [laughter] —but, no, I have to say that for someone who really wants to do some things that he believes strongly in, this is the most fulfilling experience I've ever had in my life.

Q. Mr. President, we were curious. Many times in the last 6 weeks you've been awakened from a deep sleep with a world crisis. How do you get the news'? Who brings it to you? Do you have to have coffee? Do you stay up all night? Does Mrs. Reagan get up with you?

The President. No, I try to slip out without her, although—it's usually the phone.

Q. Is it a special phone?

The President. No, usually, just the bedside phone, that then—well, when we were—when it has happened—it happened at Atlanta, Georgia, when we were on that weekend there. Well, there were two such calls and two such issues. And one of them was the phone, and, simply, it was Bud McFarlane asking could I come up in the living room and meet the Secretary of State there. So, I whispered that I was just going out in the living room for a little bit, hoping that she'd go back to sleep, and I put on a robe and went out there. Then the second incident down there, one of the stewards, he just slipped in, tiptoed in and touched me on the shoulder and whispered to me, and I slid out and did the same thing again. But then you stay there and do what has to be done.

Q. Well, are you alert immediately? Do you need coffee or anything?

The President. No, I wake up easy. And then, more recently at Camp David, it was phone calls, not in the middle of the night in this case. I wasn't up yet, but it was—

Q. Do you get to dislike having the phone ring because you think there's a problem when it rings?

The President. Yes. I can't say that I pick it up with dread, because many times it's just a correction or some information on something or other. But it has to be faced.

Q. It's usually a problem, often a problem.

The President. Usually, yes.

Commitment of U.S. Armed Forces; Lebanon

Q. I wanted to ask you, do you think the American people are behind the commitment of troops for military action, and do you think—this is a more serious question-do you think that the number of casualties influences how they feel about something?

The President. Oh, it has to. This has to be the hardest thing in all of this job, and certainly in my life, and that is committing these splendid young men and women to tasks where you know there is that threat. I've never been so proud of anything as I am of the people in our Armed Forces.

A few years ago there was an entirely different situation. Everyone said the volunteer military wouldn't work. Well, it is working, and there is an esprit de corps, there's a pride out there among them. And this puts a lump in my throat. And then to—even one of them, to have a horrible accident or incident such as the one in Lebanon, there just is no way to make that easy.

But the thing is to try and—well, first of all, I think many people jump to events-not People—[inaudible]—such thing as the grassroots. But press and political figures that—on the Grenada rescue mission—that immediately jumped to the conclusion that this was some kind of a warlike thing that everyone would be angry at. It was kind of interesting to see so many of them have to try to crawl back in off the end of the limb when they found out that the American people understood very well what we were doing and supported it.

Now it's harder for them to understand Lebanon, because in Lebanon, they were not sent there to fight; that, hopefully, there would be no combat. We knew there was a risk because of the kind of violence that had been taking place in the streets over there for a long time. But the whole idea of the multinational force was in connection with our own peace proposal for the Middle East.

Lebanon was stalling that, if you remember. You had Israel and Syria both in. Israel had crossed the border because PLO terrorist units were attacking villages across their northern border from Lebanon. The Lebanon Government, as of several years ago, was virtually powerless in the face of what can only be termed warlords in their own country, of several factions, each with its own militia, fighting each other and fighting the Government. And you couldn't proceed with the peace mission until we resolved this problem.

So, we sent a force in with the idea that-well, first of all, they'd gotten some 10,000 PLO out; now the idea was that both Israel and Syria get out, then a stabilizing force there while the Lebanese Government reformed and created a military force in which it could then take over jurisdiction of its own territory.

Well, the first blow was that the Syrians, after saying, yes, they would get out, said, no, they wouldn't. The Israelis were prepared to get out. Both sides wanted—the idea was they would go out simultaneously. And so our force there is there for that purpose. And there wouldn't have been a shot fired by a marine or by our Navy or Air Force if they had not been shot at. And when that happened, I said wherever we send them, they're going to have the right to defend themselves and fire back.


Q. Mr. President, I'm curious. Your political godfather, or grandfather, if you will, Barry Goldwater, Senator Goldwater, is even calling for the boys to come back from Beirut. And I'm wondering, how far are you willing to commit troops, or how far are you willing to escalate?

The President. It isn't a case of whether we will escalate. That is up to the Syrians and to some of those rebel groups that are fighting the Lebanese military. But we have only fired back when we have been attacked. And I am hopeful that after this last exchange that the Syrians will decide that they don't want to go on on that path.

Q. But, Mr. President, if they remain recalcitrant, if they remain—the Israelis have been bombing them and strafing them and haven't really budged them. If they remain the same and they remain shooting at our reconnaissance flights and downing more fliers, what is the next step?

The President. Well, we're taking the next step right now. Don Rumsfeld1 is on his way back there, and we still are going to try for a political solution. We're going to try to negotiate with the Syrians and make them understand.

1 President's Personal Representative in the Middle East.

Q. But if they don't want to negotiate, if they find it in their best interests to be a thorn in your side, what do you do then?

The President. Well, that becomes a kind of a hypothetical question in which I almost have to wait and see what the circumstances are. Actually, the Lebanese military-which we have helped to train and have equipped and which is a very good military force—is supposed to be resolving the situation for themselves as we try to maintain a little stability in Beirut while they can go forward and do this.

Syria's Role in the Middle East

Q. Do you see a day, either in your own—in your next term, for instance, or in the very near future, where President Assad could be as, sort of, the dominant-the present day dominant force in the Arab world; where he could become something like what Anwar Sadat became to us? I mean, do you ever see that kind of relationship ever being able to develop?

The President. I don't see any reason why not. We've made great progress with the other Arab States, the more moderate states. I think that they are very ready for a negotiated settlement, continuing on with the Camp David accords and the U.N. resolutions. Syria is the big kid and the bad kid on the block, and the other Arab States have been trying, themselves, to persuade Syria to join in this effort and to withdraw. And now a new element has been introduced by Syria. They hadn't mentioned this before when earlier they said, oh, yes, they would get out, too. They now are not pretending that there is any assault on them or that they're in any danger and that's why they are staying there; they are now claiming that Lebanon properly is a part of a greater Syria. This is outright armed aggression now on their part, hoping to expand their territory at the expense of Lebanon and—they've even indicated—at the expense of Jordan.

The Film "The Day After"

Q. Mr. President, moving off of that People Magazine question, how did you assess the film "The Day After?" And do you think movies have a way of forming political opinion?

The President. Well, any motion picture or any drama or play is based on one thing: It isn't successful unless it has or evokes an emotional response. If the audience does not have an emotional experience, whether it's one of hating something or crying or having a lot of laughter, then you've got a failure out there.

Well, certainly there was an emotional response to this type of horror film. But apparently it has not had a lasting impact; I haven't seen very much reference to it any more. And maybe one of the reasons was because it was—[inaudible]—it was a horror film, showing you what I'm sure all of us all knew, that a nuclear war is unthinkable, it is sheer horror, it must not happen. But it left you with no idea or solution, no suggestion as to what to do about it.

And I think that my own reaction to it was, look, if anything, if this can add to what we can say about the fact that there must not be a nuclear war, then maybe the people will understand why we're trying so desperately to get a reduction in those weapons worldwide. And I hope that if we start down the reduction road that the other side will see the common sense in eliminating them totally. Not since 1946 has there been such a suggestion, and that was made by this country. And even then, when we were the only ones, really, with a stock of such weapons, the Soviet Union refused.

Q. Let me ask you this question: If Yuriy Andropov had been in the room with you watching the film that night, would you have said that very same thing to him? The President. Yes.

Q. And anything else?

The President. Yes, I would have told him that the only way there could be war is if they start it; we're not going to start a war.

U.S.-Soviet Relations

Q. Let me ask you this: Do you have any second thoughts about calling the Soviet Union an evil empire? I think you called the Soviet Union that once. Do you have second thoughts about that? Do you wish you hadn't done it?

The President. No. I think that it was high time that we got some realism and got people thinking that for too long we have kind of viewed them as just a mirror image of ourselves, and that maybe we could appeal to their good nature. And we've gone through the experience in a number of years past of saying, well, if we cancel weapons systems, if we unilaterally disarm, maybe they'll see that we're nice people, too, and they'll disarm. Well, they didn't. They just kept on increasing.

Q. So you see them as really a source of evil?

The President. Yes, because you have to look at the impact on what we were just talking about, with Lebanon. There they are with thousands of military advisers and technicians and so forth in Syria, have provided Syria with weapons that are not purely defense weapons—ground-to-ground missiles that can cover virtually every target from Syria in Israel. And they are the ones that seek, whether it's out of paranoia on their part—and, believe me, everyone's an enemy, and so they have to be aggressive-or whether it is the Marxist-Leninist theory, more than a theory—commitment-that was handed them, and that was that they must support uprisings wherever they take place in the world to bring about a one-world Communist state.

Now, no Russian leader has ever refuted that. As a matter of fact, he hasn't had time yet, but every Russian leader up to Andropov, at some time or other, has publicly restated his commitment to world conquest—world communizing.

Prophecies of Armageddon

Q. Let me ask you a question out of that. In the Jerusalem Post you were quoted-and I don't know if the quote was accurate-as saying that this generation might see Armageddon, that a lot of the Biblical prophecies are sort of being played out today, or could be—[inaudible].

The President. Where was that?

Q. In the Jerusalem Post. And I was going to say, is this really true? Do you believe that?

The President. I've never done that publicly. I have talked here, and then I wrote people, because some theologians quite some time ago were telling me, calling attention to the fact that theologians have been studying the ancient prophecies-What would portend the coming of Armageddon? —and have said that never, in the time between the prophecies up until now has there ever been a time in which so many of the prophecies are coming together. There have been times in the past when people thought the end of the world was coming, and so forth, but never anything like this.

And one of them, the first one who ever broached this to me—and I won't use his name; I don't have permission to. He probably would give it, but I'm not going to ask—had held a meeting with the then head of the German Government, years ago when the war was over, and did not know that his hobby was theology. And he asked this theologian what did he think was the next great news event, worldwide. And the theologian, very wisely, said, "Well, I think that you're asking that question in a case that you've had a thought along that line." And he did. It was about the prophecies and so forth.

So, no. I've talked conversationally about that.

Q. You've mused on it. You've considered it.

The President. [Laughing] Not to the extent of throwing up my hands and saying, "Well, it's all over." No. I think whichever generation and at whatever time, when the time comes, the generation that is there, I think will have to go on doing what they believe is right.

Q. Even if it comes?

The President. Yes.

Presidential Security

Q. To ask you a serious question which comes out of this, I see around—since my last visit here—many more signs that the government is worried about terrorism, that it's—[inaudible]. Do you, yourself, think about dying, think about the fear of the position you're in?

The President. Well, you can't help but be conscious, because the security measures are all so evident to you. But if you mean do I go around fearful and looking over my shoulder, no. I have confidence in the security people. I had one taste of—

Q. Yes, and a touch of another.

The President. And I never second guess the security people. When they tell me they're going to do something or change some way of doing things that we're doing, I accept that that's.

Q. Is this something that you talk about, for instance, to Mrs. Reagan or your children?

The President. No.

Q. Or is it something you just—it's better left unsaid?

The President. Yes, very much so, because I think it was harder for them when it did happen than it was for me, and much more difficult for her, especially to get over.

It's a lot easier to worry about someone else than it is to worry about yourself, and so I know what must go through her mind when I set out on some expedition or some public appearance or something. And I wish it didn't have to be.

Q. Does your bullet-proof shirt or jacket or coat or whatever hang in the family quarters? Or do they keep it someplace else?

The President. No, no. They keep it. And they come, having it in hand, and they kind of come in flinching, because they know that I—[laughing].

Q. What do you say?

The President. I do not accept it with good grace.

Q. What do you say, though, when they put it on you?

The President. Oh, even an occasional unprintable word. [Laughter]

But I also know that they would not be bringing it in unless they felt there was a reason for it. But it isn't a pleasant—it's uncomfortable. [Laughter] That's the main—

Q. Is it bulky, or is it heavy, or what? The President. Well, it's bulky. And I work so hard in that gym up there. And they say everybody out there in the audience will think I'm getting fat. [Laughter]

Lie Detector Tests

Q. Mr. President, away from Armageddon and all this talk of dying, and back to 1984. Did you cringe when you had to sign the order to have your own aides take a lie detector test? And I'm curious: Have you ever taken one? And how did you feel?

The President. No, I never have. But I didn't sign an order for them to take it. This has been misconstrued, and I bless you for giving me a chance to explain it.

We had a meeting that came up on national security—rules and regulations of the security of the information there. And there was a leak. And it was a leak which could have cost some Americans their lives. And this is a criminal act when there's a violation of national security. And I called the Justice Department on this—I thought it was serious enough—and I said I want an investigation of how this happened, to guard against it in the future.

Now, such an investigation, without my designating it as such—if it is a violation of national security, it is a criminal investigation. If it is a criminal investigation, the FBI has the right to ask for lie detector tests. But, being a criminal investigation, the individual has the right to refuse them, and that's all. But that's been distorted—that I suddenly.—

Q. Well, have you ever taken one?

The President. No.

Q. No. Okay. Did your aides—[inaudible]? I mean did they take them-

The President. I don't know. I don't even know whether the FBI even asked for them or not. They determine that, and that is within the law. And then if somebody says no, they report that also in their investigating report that they asked and it was refused. But I don't know whether any had been given or any had been asked for.

Democratic Presidential Opponents

Q. Mr. President, who do you think the easiest Democrat would be to beat in 1984?

The President. If I answered that question I might be helping them to choose out of that octet they've got out there, and I'm not going to help them in their choice.

Q. But there's not one you'd rather-you're relishing running against?

The President. [Laughing] Oh, there may be, but I haven't said yet that I'm running.

Mrs. Reagan

Q. I have two questions that I would—not till Christmas. I'd like to ask two questions. What I was thinking, in this year of living dangerously, I wondered how in the world can you maintain the very obvious romance you have with Mrs. Reagan? I mean romance takes time, and it takes mood, and it takes not being harried. And what sort of special things do you do to maintain this togetherness in these tough times?

The President. Well, I don't know. We've always been very close, and there developed, as there would in 30-odd years, little things that kind of—traditional, or that have a meaning to us from times back.

Q. Can you cite any of them that—I mean, I think especially in your article in Parade, you showed how much you loved her and how much the romance continues and whatever. I just wondered if there's sort of small things you do to keep this touchingness together?

The President. Well, there are certain occasions when we leave notes for each other and things of that kind that we still do.

Q. Is there a special place you leave them, or

The President. Oh, no, it just depends on where—well, things like on the breakfast tray and, on certain occasions, cards—I always remember.

Q. Could I ask one more question for my mother, who you gave a story to last year, and we kept hearing from our readers about the peg-legged pig. Do you remember the story you told about the pig with the wooden leg?

The President. Oh—

Q. We thought that this has become a tradition for the magazine, and we wondered, do you have a good story to tell the readers and, indeed, my mother, who is now 84 this year—a very good story?

The President. Well, I can't repeat that because I've done that story. Yes, I have one that I've told in a couple of speeches lately that I kind of enjoy, and that is a young fellow from a small town, and he would make a very good living selling fish to the local restaurants. But the Fish and Game people got a little curious as to where he was coming up with all these fish. And his uncle happened to be the sheriff, so he said, "Why don't you ask your nephew if you can go fishing with him some day, and I'd like to know where he's getting these fish?" So the uncle did. And they were out in the middle of the lake, and the uncle started to put his line in the water. The nephew reached in the tackle box, pulled out a stick of dynamite, lit it, threw it in-the explosion, and belly up came all the fish. And he started pulling them in. And his uncle said, "Nephew Elmer," he says, "do you realize you've just created a felony?" Elmer reached in the tackle box and came up with another stick of dynamite and lit the fuse and handed it to the sheriff and says, "Did you come out here to fish or to talk?" [Laughter]

Q. Very good, Mr. President.

Q. Mr. President, thank you very, very much, once again. I hope you and the First Lady have a merry Christmas.

The President. Well, thank you. The same to you.

Q. We certainly appreciate it.

Note: The interview was conducted in the Oval Office at the White House.

The transcript of the interview was released by the Office of the Press Secretary on December 19.

Ronald Reagan, Interview With Garry Clifford and Patricia Ryan of People Magazine Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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