Ronald Reagan picture

Interview With Johanna Neuman and Karen DeWitt of USA Today

July 02, 1986

Q. Mr. President, I wanted to open by asking you a question that one of my editors wanted us to ask you, but it may require some participation on your part. I mean, you may even have to stand up or something.

The President. What's that?

Q. You ready?

The President. Yes.

Q. How much cash have you got on you?

The President. How much cash do I have on me? Not a dime.

Q. You never carry money?

The President. Very rarely. It just seems no way to do it. It doesn't mean that I travel free. [Laughter] I mean, I get bills for things, but, no, there's no opportunity. I can't go shopping or anything like that so—

Q. Do you miss it at all—the feel of coin in your pocket?

The President. I make up for it, because every once in a while people will give me something like a good luck piece or something of that kind, and I put those in my pocket.

Immigration Bills

Q. Oh, okay. We wanted to ask you on the eve of this Liberty Weekend and your trip to New York to celebrate the Statue—a couple of questions about that. Do you think it's time for Lady Liberty to put up her hand and say "Stop" to immigration at the Mexican border?

The President. No. I think that—well, at any border. I mean, I just make it specific. I think that something very definite would go out of America if we ever forgot our heritage. That's sort of like—all of us came here from someplace else or by way of our ancestors-our parents, grandparents, and so forth—and that's a little like getting on board and once we're on board let's pull up the gangplank and not let anyone else on. So—

Q. Does that mean you wouldn't support the immigration bill that's now—

The President. Oh, I'm supporting the immigration bill because I think we have to have rules and regulations, and I think what that bill is meant to correct is some loss of control at our borders, where illegal immigration is threatening us now. No, we have to have control and have had; it's been traditional in our country for many years. And I agree with that, and I agree with the part of the legislation which says that some people—even if they did illegally enter the country in times past—have established themselves, have been law-abiding, raised children, and so forth here—that there should be a provision whereby their status can be made legal and permanent.

South Africa

Q. This weekend, which is a celebration of liberty and our 100th anniversary of our lady in the harbor, do you feel that South African blacks should have that same kind of liberation?

The President. Yes. And I've never yielded on that point. I know that it is a difficult situation, and we want to remain in contact and be able to help bring about a change. I don't think anyone can support the policy of apartheid morally. And I know that the present government has taken steps, wants to find a solution to this problem, is opposed by another faction that does not want to change, just as sometimes we're opposed here in our own country with political factions.

Q. What things do you point to that they—you say they want to find a solution and that they've arrested 3,000 people-leaders, black leaders, put them in jail; they've got a state of emergency. How does this balance out? I mean, what kind of things have they done?

The President. Well, we have expressed our displeasure with the state of emergency. What we believe is that there must come a meeting and negotiations between leaders of the various black elements and the present government as to the formation of a government. Now, they've taken such steps as single citizenship already. They've done some things about the onerous pass laws and all of that—the right of labor unions and so forth.

Q. They've arrested all the labor union leaders though, sir.

The President. I know, and this was part of, again, this emergency thing that we think should be done away with. But I think the complication that is overlooked too often is that it is not solidly a racial division between the white minority and the black majority. The black majority itself is divided, and there are tribal divisions that have a long time heritage there in Africa. And we've seen that in the violence between those groups now. So, what is really needed is a bringing together of the leaders of those factions to make sure that they recognize the responsibility that this must be worked out between all divisions and—

Q. Is there something the United States can do to bring that about?

The President. Well, we're continuing to try, and I think that we have a better chance by remaining in contact with that government than following the lead that's been suggested up on the Hill with some legislation in which we would walk totally away and then be on the outside with no contact at all. I think that we have a long history, a relationship between the two countries, and that this is what has enabled us to keep a hand in so far.

Drug Abuse and Trafficking

Q. Mr. President, may I switch subjects on you? Vice President Bush said a couple of weeks ago that the administration was considering use of the military on drug smuggling. In light of the recent deaths of some famous athletes, I wonder what thoughts you have, whether you've made a decision?

The President. Well, remember, right now we have some participation by military, and I don't think that he was talking about making policemen out of soldiers at all. We had a task force that we set up down when Florida was the great entry point. And it was probably the first, most successful working together of levels of law enforcement at local, State, and Federal, and the various agencies of all of those working together, plus help from the military with radar, Coast Guard—things of that kind. And it was so successful that we now have 12 of those task forces working because of the extensive borders and coastlines that we have. And we're always watching; if there are more opportunities for increasing that kind of cooperation, to deal with the problem of drugs coming into the country. Again, as I say, we want to draw the line at not saying that we're suddenly going to make our military have a police capability.

Q. But might you allow the military to use some of its assets, like radar—

The President. Well, yes, and, as I say, if increasing that will help, because we already have that at work. I might also add that the military, like every other facet of our society, had its own problem with drugs internally. And they have done a magnificent job. They have virtually reduced it almost to zero in the military. I think what we have to face is there is a limit to what success we can have with simply trying to shut off the inflow of drugs, to take the drugs away from the users.

I know that what Nancy's been engaged in is, I think, what ultimately must be the answer, and that is to take the user away from the drugs, to turn the users off. And I think the terrible tragedy of these two young men and what has happened to them—that maybe their lives would have had and will have a real meaning if we will, from them, move on to utilize all the resources we have.

Now, I know that Nancy has participated in movements all over the country that are showing remarkable success—the "Just Say No" movement among children is having a great effect and the way parents have suddenly moved forward to enter into this battle. But that's going to be the only way, eventually, that we'll resolve it—is when we, the people and as individuals and as groups, say we've had enough of this, and we're going to stop feeding the monsters money so they can continue their living in style at the cost of health and the life of our young people.

I would think that these two athletes, also—this could be a great example to the athletes in our country, the professionals who are such heroes to our young people and to children—for them to recognize their responsibility and for them to organize and take a position in this fight.

Soviet-U.S. Relations

Q. New subject: Soviet dancing of late seems that you are a madly-in-love suitor courting this coy woman over in the Kremlin sometimes. You two seem to be in your own little dance. Are you planning to write to him soon?

The President. Yes. We have an answer in which he has made additional proposals with regard to not only the subject of arms control but the other things we discussed at Geneva, which had to do with the regional conflicts going on in the world, had to do with human rights and emigration and so forth. And we have that letter in our possession, and we're putting together our own reply because, again, I think it opened additional doors that make me optimistic that we're not only going to have a summit but that we're going to have a summit where we can reach agreement on some of the things that we obviously—or the goals that we share. We have said from the very beginning that we would like a reduction of nuclear weapons, leading to the ultimate elimination of such weapons. Well, now they have said the same thing. And if we both want the same thing, we ought to be able to find a way to reach that goal.

Q. What will you tell him in this new letter?

The President. Well, as I say, this was quite an extensive letter that he sent.

Q. The one that you just got back?

The President. Yes.

Q. How long was it?

The President. I can't remember the exact number of pages, but it was quite a packet—and worthwhile. And so, we're studying that and our own reply, and, as I say, I hope that this will all become part of the agenda of a summit meeting.

Q. You don't have a Shultz-Shevardnadze meeting date, do you?

The President. No. That, as you know, they had called off earlier on when we thought it was going to be held in July. We believe that there was some reason for that because this is a new administration there, and maybe we had been overly optimistic as to how quickly they could get together and move forward. But now we have reason to believe that such a meeting is possible.

Q. This year?

The President. Yes.

Q. In November, you think?

The President. It could begin then as far as we're concerned, but no dates have been set.

President's Close Friends

Q. Besides your good lady, Mr. President, who is a good friend of yours; who is someone that you call up to talk about—those deep nights of the soul, when you have those kinds of questions? Or do you ever have those?

The President. What?

Q. When you have sort of questions or when you feel introspective—or perhaps you never do feel introspective. Who do you talk to besides Mrs. Reagan?

The President. Oh, my. Well, first of all, I'm surrounded here by some very remarkable people who made great sacrifices in order to come into government.

Q. Yes, but I mean your best friend. I mean one always has a best friend.

The President. Well, I have to say I'm very blessed with a number of friends, and I'm in frequent contact with many of them. And I don't know if I should go—if I start throwing names around, then I'm apt to miss one. But, no, I've been very blessed with a circle of friends that are very dear to me, and, as I say, we stay in contact.

Contact With Former Presidents

Q. On that line, how frequently do you talk to President Nixon, to Mr. Nixon?

The President. Well, as you know, we try to keep all former Presidents informed of things that are going on—check with them, get their thinking, and so forth. And he is one of those—and particularly has he been helpful in foreign affairs.

Q. Do you mean to suggest that you talk to President Carter as well?

The President. Yes, and—

Q. Personally?

The President. I have personally, but mainly this is carried on by others in our NSC [National Security Council] group who keep them informed and—

Q. But our impression was that your relationship with Nixon was more in the manner of picking up the phone.

The President. I have done that, because he and I had a long friendship that, as fellow Californians, went back many years—long before either one of us, I think, ever thought we would be in the present position. And so there is, I think, a closer bond. My acquaintanceship with the most recent is very slight. I knew him slightly, or for a short time, when we were Governors together. And then my relationship with President Ford was much more recent than that.

Q. Has Nixon given you any advice during this recent Soviet dancing?

The President. No, no, there haven't been any—

American Hostages in Lebanon

Q. Mr. President, we had good news this morning in the release of an American in Beirut, not usually counted among the Americans held there. I wondered what your view is about whether that will improve the chances of the others.

The President. Well, I hope so. I didn't know about this. I've been in meetings all morning, so I haven't been informed of that. You're giving me the news now for the first time.

But, yes, that would—the only problem is there is such a variety of groups that what one group may do may not have an effect on the other. Now, we know, with those hostages that we've been working so long and so hard at, the four or five that are still there—we know that that particular group is the one known as the Hizballah. And there has never been a minute—contrary to what some people think—that we have not been working and following every lead we can that could lead to their release. And we've had some sharp disappointments when we thought maybe we were making some progress. But those disappointments don't stop us from continuing to try. So, I'll have to wait until I find out who this individual is and what group held him.

Mr. Speakes. It's an individual that was not a hostage, because he was not politically held. He was—something to do with drugs and—

The President. Oh.

Mr. Speakes.—I think he got involved there with a faction of something. He had been held since the fall. We hadn't been directly involved in it except to pass along the message that, to whoever we could, that we would like him freed.

The President. Well, that doesn't sound—

Q. In any event, do you have any news or hope on the other five?

The President. As I say, there isn't anything I can talk about except that we continue following every lead, every channel, that seems to offer an opening.

President Kurt Waldheim of Austria

Q. I wanted to ask you about Mr. Waldheim and whether you think he did anything wrong during World War II?

The President. Well, the evidence certainly has been inconclusive, and we know that he was a member of the military, but then so were a great many people. But so far, there seems to be great controversy over to what extent he might have participated in the terrible deeds that made up the Holocaust, and until we do know, why I think that we should hold our fire.

Q. So you would have no objection to meeting with him either there or abroad?

The President. Well, I have no plans for such a thing, but we continue to, again, listen. And I think some investigation is going forward in our own Justice Department to see if we can find out, because we do have some laws that are based on war crimes. And so we are trying to find out for ourselves legally what his position is.

Q. I—

The President. May I just top that with one thing, though? We must remember our relationship with Austria is a relationship between two nations, and Austria and the United States have had a friendly relationship and one which we hope will be maintained.

Space Shuttle Program

Q. The shuttle—any thought of—have you made a decision on whether to replace the shuttle and build a fourth orbiter?

The President. Well, my own personal desire would be that we can go forward with what had been a tremendously successful program. No decision has been made. We've turned over the Rogers report [on the Challenger accident] to NASA, to Jim Fletcher there for him to take action on the things that are called for in that. One of our problems is that this tragedy has brought about a backlog of satellites for transport into space, and this may call, in an effort to reduce that backlog, may call for some immediate emphasis on unmanned launchers. And all of this is in the mill right now, and no final decision has been made.

Q. Do you worry that the recent space disasters could impact the SDI program? Does it trouble you that there are articles being written, America can't get anything into the sky—how could we possibly have a defense shield?

The President. Well, I think before we get around to anything of that kind, we are still in such a state of research, although great progress is being made. I am amazed. But we still have some years of research ahead of us on this before—and I think the other problem will be taken care of long before there is any need for testing.

Views on the Presidency

Q. We also wanted to ask you some personal questions. You've been an actor and a President. Is there anything that you wish you had been that you haven't been?

The President. Well, maybe better at all of them.

Q. But is there any other profession that you would like?

The President. No, I'll tell you again. The Lord has been very good to me. When I was a sports announcer, I loved that, and I believed that that would probably be my career on out and was very happy with it. And then the opportunity came to switch to what originally had been a love of mine-acting—and I enjoyed that very much. I was a reluctant entrant into public life. I never believed for one minute that I would ever be tempted to want to serve in public office. As I say, I was so happy in what I was doing. And I was really kind of dragged kicking and screaming into seeking the governorship and thought that what I was doing was kind of a very temporary thing, because it was put to me on the basis that, with our party very divided after the '64 campaign, at odds that I might be able to help bring the party together, and that I offered a chance for victory in that gubernatorial race. And I've often said that I think when I finally, grudgingly, said yes that I really thought no farther than the election. They kept stressing that so much that it wasn't until after I had said yes that I said, hey, if I win this it goes on beyond November.

But, again, we were blessed because it was only after a few months of the governorship that Nancy and I, one night sitting in the living room in Sacramento, looked at each other and decided what we were doing made everything else we'd been doing look dull as dishwater. [Laughter]

Q. Okay, now you're in the White House. How does that, you know, with the whir of choppers, the "Ruffles and Flourishes"—how does that make the governorship look and all the things in the past?

The President. Well, I'll tell you, I'm very grateful for that period there, because I think the closest thing to the Presidency in line of a job is being a Governor. There you sit at a desk in which the buck does stop when it gets there, and there's a great similarity. We are a federation of sovereign States, and so, the Governor sits closest to the salt in his State, above anyone except the President.

Q. Karen mentioned the whir of helicopters. I've often wondered how you feel when you come back from Camp David and the helicopter lands and the noise is horrendous and reporters are shouting questions at you—what goes through your mind when that happens?

The President. Of course, there is a difference in size and opulence and so forth of this office. But, as I say, you're prepared for some of the things. It wasn't the great surprise that it must be to some other people who had not previously sat there and known that every day someone was going to put a schedule in front of them of what they were going to be doing every 15 minutes. I will say this, however, it took me quite a while to not turn around and look behind me when they played "Ruffles and Flourishes"— [laughter] —I was still wondering who they were doing that for. And it, well, I guess I can only tell you that the way I accept this is that maybe some people become President—I don't know. I think the Presidency is an institution over which you have temporary custody.

Q. Speaking of that temporary custody, how would you like to be assessed, say, in 2050?

The President. How would I like to be assessed?

Q. Yes.

The President. I don't let myself think about that much. I just hope they spell my name right. [Laughter]

Q. How do you feel about your son going around in underwear? [Laughter]

The President. Well, now, you have to remember his earlier training as a dancer. He was pretty fully dressed in his viewpoint. But he also was doing a takeoff on a current movie.

Q. So, it's show business, huh?

The President. Yes. And I thought he did quite well. I was, as a matter of fact, a little surprised.

Q. Surprised—

The President. At that particular—the way he carried off that takeoff on the movie.

Q. Mrs. Reagan said, when I was with her in the Far East, that she travels with a photograph of you always. Do you travel with a photograph of her when you're away?

The President. No, because I don't carry a billfold and— [laughter] —

Q. Yes, we went over that. [Laughter] —

The President. She does carry a purse. But I'll tell you, anytime I travel I wear a particular pair of cuff links. They were given to me by Nancy, and they are made in the image of a page of a calendar in the month of March with a little stone on the 4th of March, which is our wedding anniversary.

Q. What is the stone?

The President. Amethyst, which is my birthstone. So, anytime that I'm getting aboard Air Force One now, I—and before, long before that, ever since I received them, my travels—I've always worn those.

Q. Did she give them to you?

The President. Yes.

Mr. Speakes. Mr. President, you're about out of time here.

Q. Okay.

The President. Oh.

Q. Well, I hear you bought a house in L.A. Is it near the old one?

The President. No, we're still looking.

Q. Oh, you are?

The President. Yes.

Q. False rumor, huh?

The President. Yes.

Note: The interview began at 11:37 a.m. in the Oval Office at the White House. The President's son, Ron, had recently hosted the NBC television show "Saturday Night Live." On the comedy show he did a takeoff of the film "Risky Business." Larry M. Speakes was Principal Deputy Press Secretary to the President. The interview was released by the Office of the Press Secretary on July 3.

Ronald Reagan, Interview With Johanna Neuman and Karen DeWitt of USA Today Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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