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Interview With Paul Duke of WETA-TV on the President's Relations With Congress

July 16, 1982

Mr. Duke. Mr. President, you came to town, like Jimmy Carter, as an outsider, but the results have been vastly different. How do you explain your mastery of the legislative branch?

The President. Well, I don't know whether I'd have the nerve to use that word "mastery" as you did. But I had 8 years experience as Governor of California in which for about 7 of those 8 years both houses of the legislature were of the opposing party, and we managed to get a great many reforms in—the welfare reforms that were so tremendously successful, things of that kind. But I came here with the same idea, that we're coequal branches of the government.

They have got their problems, and it is a ease of common sense and consultation. And I've had 11 formal meetings with the leadership of the House and the Senate here. I've gone to the Hill 9 times myself, and I understand that for 18 months that's kind of a record.

Mr. Duke. Senator Baker, the Republican leader, said that you have an instinctive feel for how the legislative branch works, and others who've come down to the White House say that you've also capitalized on your charm and your personality and your persistence. And I am wondering, did acting give you the training and the skills to sell your program to Congress?

The President. Well, I suppose we're all the sum total of everything that's happened to us and all the experiences we've had in our lives. So, whether that contributed something or not, I don't know.

I must say this about getting along with the Legislature. I am deeply indebted to Senator Howard Baker and to Representative Bob Michel, the Minority Leader in the House, for the great cooperation and the help that I've had from them, the masterful job they've done in those two positions that they hold as leader of the Senate and Minority Leader of the House.

Also, when I say "consultation," I find that the job of keeping track of what's up there, of not pulling surprises, of letting them know—we have a group in the administration here that is appointed expressly for the purpose of legislative strategy, to keep track of our own proposals—and I try to remember that the President proposes and the Congress disposes—to keep track of these things. If there is something that we feel we'd have trouble with and, perhaps, have to find ourselves in a veto position, we see that they're aware of that and what it is that puts us in that position in advance, and then keep in constant touch. And it doesn't hurt, every once in a while in keeping in touch, to say some "thank you's."

Mr. Duke. Well, you go beyond that, though, Mr. President, because, when you talk to people on the Hill, there's a common refrain that comes through. They all say, we go down to the White House, and Ronald Reagan is a terribly charming man. Is there a politics of affability which has served you well? Is that a real skill in getting things done?

The President. Well, I don't know whether it's a skill or not, but I like people. And I certainly don't meet them with a chip on my shoulder. I think of it as the President is the only one in town who's elected to represent all the people. Their problems are that, as Senators, they are elected, yes, to represent the people of this country, but, also, to have in mind the particular interests of their State and the problems of their State. A Representative, again, represents all the people, but also has specific things that he's responsible for with regard to his congressional district.

So, I know that. And I know that they, too, have problems. And these problems have to be reconciled. And sometimes it's going to weigh on them that something that they might be able to feel might have some benefit nationwide, but would be at a cost to their district or their State, that they can't support, and so you try to reconcile all of those viewpoints.

Mr. Duke. And that's difficult, because we know that there's a great deal of hypocrisy which goes on at all times. I mean, we know that Members will get up on the floor, and they will do a great deal of grandstanding, and they'll talk about cutting Federal spending. And then they'll be running down to the White House or running to some of the agencies, demanding that "no cuts be made in my tobacco subsidies or my sugar subsidies," or the dam project that you want for back home, additionally. How do you deal with all that?

The President. Well, again, as I say, it's one in which you—I can understand their responsibilities for those particular areas or projects of their district or State. And then I have to weigh that against the advantage or disadvantage for the whole country. And if it's one in which they must lose, that the national benefit outweighs the local benefit, then it's just a case of presenting that to them. And you'd be surprised how many times they recognize that the overall national good has to come first.

Mr. Duke. So you see it, though, primarily as a matter of give and take on both sides, your side as well as their side.

The President. Yeah.

Mr. Duke. Mr. President, I think one of the things which surprised us a great deal in Washington was that you turned out to be a far better politician than a lot of us thought you would be. And people will tell me that you have a gritty, competitive side to your personality. Do you enjoy the attack and counterattack that characterizes so much of the warfare between Capitol Hill and the White House?

The President. Well, I haven't thought of it as warfare. There is a kind of competitive thing to this. But in the last analysis, you have to come down on the side of what you feel inside is right, and then you do your utmost to convince someone who's in an adversary position at the time why you feel you're right and why you feel you must take the position that you do and have what you've asked for.

Mr. Duke. But that's the motivating force as you see it.

The President. Yes.

Mr. Duke. When you get into battles with Congress, obviously there's a matter of timing—when do you call Senator X who's been wavering; when do you make the practical compromise; how do you decide that? How involved do you yourself get in the legislative strategy of the White House?

The President. Well, I must be honest and confess that it would be impossible with all that's on my plate to know the timing of things of that kind. And so, there I depend on, again, this group in the White House to tell me, because—in other words, is something coming up in committee; is it coming to the floor; is this the time now; and that it's the best time to make the call before something comes to a vote. So, I depend on them for that.

Mr. Duke. But do you feel that the experience you've gained as Governor of California, in dealing with the California Legislature, has enabled you to have this sense of timing, to know when to move, when to maneuver?

The President. Well, I think from experience, yes, you have some of that. You could do it too soon—and memories are short-and it's worn off by the time the vote comes.

Mr. Duke. But you also have to be constantly vigilant, always protecting your flanks, don't you?

The President. Well, yes.

Mr. Duke. It is not totally, 100-percent favorable from the Hill standpoint, Mr. President. While everybody does talk about your affability and the fact that they come down—they love to come down to see you, and they love the stories which you spin-you also get another side from some Members who say that you're not always strong on substance, that sometimes you're out of touch, and that sometimes you have too simplistic a view of things. How do you see yourself?

The President. Well, I know there are criticisms of that kind. I don't particularly admit that the criticisms are justified. I think now and then to use an anecdote saves a lot of words sometimes to be able to tell something that illustrates what it is we're trying to do. If you have some example, for example, of bureaucratic dillydallying or repetitive things that aren't needed and you can tell that example, it saves several paragraphs of just trying to reason with someone in explaining what it is that you're trying to correct.

And I find, though, it's not only that you come down at the moment of consultation-for example, something to do with foreign policy right now and the act that requires consultation with the Congress with regard to—well, my announcement recently of saying that in principle, if it was essential to bring peace to the Middle East and to Lebanon, the use of American troops in a multinational force. But the other day, I didn't wait—they hadn't been invited, so there is nothing to go to the Congress about—but since the word was out and was in the press and had been leaked that this had happened, I had a very fine meeting with the leadership of the Congress on this in explaining exactly where we were and so forth, in advance, a totally informal meeting that would precede, if the need arises, when I must go to them formally. And I understand that some of them from both parties went out and said it was one of the best meetings of that kind they'd ever had.

Mr. Duke. But would you concede, Mr. President, by nature that you are the kind of political leader who sees the broad, general picture and is not that interested in the specifics or the detail of a lot of legislative matters?

The President. No, I think I brought that from the experience in California, that I know the importance of the detail. My job, of course, is to sell—if there is a dispute there—is to sell the overall goal that we're trying to achieve. And so I center on that.

Mr. Duke. There are also complaints about the administration's managerial style, Mr. President. In talking with many Republicans at the Capitol in recent days, I find a common thread running through what they say. Most of them say we don't have that much quarrel with the President himself, but they do say that your agents and the administration's representatives on the Hill frequently are too arrogant, that they don't return phone calls, that they don't pay attention to the advice given from Capitol Hill, that they're insensitive to the political needs of Members of Congress. Are you aware of that?

The President. I don't think it's true. I think anyone can find some incident or some oversight or something and complain about it. But I have to again say that I became accustomed in the 8 years in California, and already here, that there is a tendency to invent a palace guard and pretend that the President is being protected from the palace guard, and therefore is not aware of these things. I know that in the hectic pace that now and then something can slip by. I have not heard anyone—if there is anyone on our side that's being arrogant, I certainly want to know about it. But I don't know of anyone that is, and I have not had that complaint come to me.

Now, I get the summary of all of the mail also, and it's a considerable reading problem, the congressional mail. And so that isn't ignored. And I see all those letters that are written—and some with an individual or particular problem or some with a group of Representatives or Senators—that's all put on my desk.

Mr. Duke. So, you don't feel that the ship may be run a little too loosely, that perhaps you've delegated too much authority?

The President. No.

Mr. Duke. Mr. President, there's also the matter of comity between the legislative and the executive branches—the bond of respect. And some of the Republicans at the Hill say there is a problem in that they will negotiate deals with the Democrats, and then White House officials and others will come along and undermine those deals. And this makes it much more difficult, that it affects their credibility at the Capitol.

The President. That, I think, is a part of the whole process that goes on. Let's take the economic program a year ago in the combination of the tax program and the budget reductions. We didn't get all we wanted, and we had to—in addition to not getting everything we asked for, we also had to take some things that we hadn't asked for. Now, that's a case of in the give and take in the legislature, of what they can get. Well, then, still I'm a party to that also, and I have to speak up, or my representatives, if there is a price that we feel is too high. I can't accept something that is totally contrary to the principle that we're trying to obtain in that program.

And the same was true of this most recent budget bill. That was not the bill that I would have submitted—and there were seven versions on the floor at one time, most of which were unacceptable, because they wouldn't do the job, and they wouldn't come close to the goal we're trying to achieve. But they did evolve one that I could call back and say, yes, this one I support.

Now, I'm sure that someone, say, on our side who has negotiated something and been willing to give to get something in there, can be a little irked if I don't agree that he was paying the right price.

Mr. Duke. Mr. President, you've started to veto some of these bills now. Can we expect a lot more vetos in coming weeks and months?

The President. If they're budget-busters, yes. I said that. They've passed a resolution, a budget resolution. I realize that that must be followed by appropriation bills. If they ignore the ceilings that have been put in the budget resolution, which they can do, send an appropriation that would, if passed, have the budget go way beyond the bounds that were set, then I have to veto it.

Mr. Duke. We're also into an election campaign, and it may be a tough year for the Republicans. Some of the polls indicate that. If the Democrats, for example, pick up 10, 20, or 30 seats in the House of Representatives, what happens to your conservative majority? How will that affect your program?

The President. Well—in the House, you say?

Mr. Duke. In the House.

The President. Well, if they only pick up 10, then we've won a great victory, because if you look back in history, the first off-year election the party that is out of power in the White House normally picks up about 40 seats. That's just been traditional. And so you start from behind with this bielection that is coming up. And I'm just—I'd like to pick up some more. I'd like to have more Representatives in there than we have. But I understand I would be bucking tradition and history. So, when you use that figure 10, that would be only about a fourth as many as traditionally you're supposed to lose.

Mr. Duke. Tip O'Neill—you and Tip O'Neill have mixed it up a bit. He says he likes the Irish side of you, that he wishes you were a little more Irish and a little less Republican.

The President. [Laughing] I'll tell you, Tip and I, we get along fine. There's nothing personal in our contest. And, actually, there's nothing really political. It is philosophical. Tip really and sincerely and honestly believes in the philosophy—which I once believed in and found I could no longer follow—of taxing and spending and government trying to do things that I think are beyond government's proper province. And he sincerely believes that. So, it's a battle of philosophies between us. But, as Tip said, come 6 o'clock, we're friends. Mr. Duke. And you're still friends?

The President. Yes.

Mr. Duke. Mr. President, as you sit here every day grappling with the affairs of state, do you ever wish that you had run for the Senate from California as you once considered? Do you ever wish that you were up there instead of being here?

The President. No, I never considered running for the Senate. I was asked once to run for the Congress when I was a Democrat and—by fellow party members—and said, no, I liked the career I had. I never in my life intended or believed that I would ever have a desire to run for office. And it was in 1965, after the 1964 election, when our party in California was badly shattered, that people began pressing me to run for the Governorship. And it got to the place that neither Nancy or I could sleep. They kept emphasizing that they felt that this was the only way that we could pull the party together and that I could win.

And I have to confess something. I honestly believe that when I finally gave in, very reluctantly, and said yes, I really hadn't thought beyond winning the election. And it dawned on me after I'd said yes that if I won the election, I was going to have a job for several years.

No, I was never tempted to seek a legislative position, certainly not after serving as Governor.

Mr. Duke. Anyway, you prefer being President to being a Senator.

The President. Yes.

Mr. Duke. I want to thank you very much for the visit here, Mr. President.

The President. Well, it's been my pleasure.

Note: The interview began at 2:30 p.m. in the Library at the White House. It was taped for later broadcast on the Public Broadcasting Service program "The Lawmakers."

The transcript of the interview was released by the Office of the Press Secretarial on July 21.

Ronald Reagan, Interview With Paul Duke of WETA-TV on the President's Relations With Congress Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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