by Kitty Kelley
I picked up The President Will See You Now, a memoir by Peggy Grande of her 10 years with Ronald Reagan after he left the White House in 1989, with misgivings. Since that time, more than 500 biographies and staff memoirs of Reagan have been published, in addition to his own autobiography and 15 volumes of his Presidential Papers.
There is also the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, which works to place a monument or memorial to the former president in every state, and, to date, has established Reagan landmarks in 38 of them. The next stated goal is to place a public building named after Reagan in the 3,140 counties in the U.S., proving, if nothing else, a continuing commitment to the Gipper.
At one time, I, too, was fascinated by all things Reagan and researched the subject thoroughly to write Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography, a 1991 book featured on the covers of Time and Newsweek. Some people, particularly the Reagans, who held a press conference to denounce the book, felt it was too critical of the former first lady, although I gave her full marks for making possible all of her husband’s stunning success.
So,I did not come to Grande’s memoir without interest. Truth to tell, I was seduced by her rationale for writing the book. She said she couldn’t shake a passing comment from a colleague: “If there was a woman who sat outside Abraham Lincoln’s office every day for ten years, don’t you think we would want to know what she saw? And wouldn’t she owe that to history?”
I was all in and wanted to know about the last decade of Reagan’s life, when Alzheimer’s began robbing him of his golden ability to communicate.
The most poignant recollection in the book comes when the author, who writes worshipfully of her boss, recounts the first time she knew something was wrong. She had escorted a group of visitors in to see the former president in his Los Angeles office, and he began telling his pony story but could not remember the punchline.
Anyone familiar with Reagan lore knows about the pony. It was an old chestnut the president had polished to perfection and told so often that staffers knew every word by heart: A father had two sons — one exceedingly pessimistic, the other eternally optimistic. The father locks the pessimist in a room full of toys, convinced the youngster will jump for joy. Instead, the little boy cries because he says the toys will eventually break. The optimist is locked in a room piled high with horse manure, which the father feels sure will elicit yowls of complaint. But the youngster laughs with glee and starts digging. “With all this manure, there has to be a pony in here somewhere.”
Five years into his retirement, the former president could no longer find his pony. After he visited the Mayo Clinic and received his dreadful diagnosis, the buoyant man who always saw “Morning in America” announced that he was entering the dark shadows of the Alzheimer’s disease that would finally claim him in 2004.
Grande writes with knee-bending reverence for Reagan, but she circles Nancy with the kind of arms-length respect one reserves for a tiger. This is the point in her story where the author could have heaped praise on the former first lady as she began her campaign to expand stem-cell research into the disease that was taking her husband.
In 2004, Nancy Reagan put herself at odds with her own political party to publicly oppose President George W. Bush’s policies, which limited federal funding to stem-cell colonies created before August 2001. She joined Michael J. Fox and helped raise $2 million for stem-cell research into Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. She lobbied members of Congress to revive legislation to expand federal funding.
At the age of 86, looking frail but sounding firm, she continued speaking out. “There are so many diseases that can be cured or at least helped,” she said. In 2009, she praised President Obama for overturning the restrictive Bush policy. “We owe it to ourselves and our children to do everything in our power to find cures for these diseases.”
It’s puzzling not to applaud Mrs. Reagan’s efforts to find a cure for the disease that killed her husband, whom the author describes with all the genuflecting adjectives of an adoring acolyte. In another glaring omission, she writes that “the Reagans loved children,” and, trying to prove her point, she includes many photographs of her own children visiting the president and first lady at their home in Bel Air, where she tells us the president frequently wore a “striped matching pajama set and white monogrammed RWR robe with leather slippers.”
Yet her book, which purports to chronicle the president’s last years, makes no mention of the Reagans’ own children or grandchildren. She cites no visits, no phone calls, no letters, no emails. She does not even acknowledge the death of the president’s eldest child (with first wife Jane Wyman), Maureen Reagan, 60, in 2001, three years before the president died.
That the Reagans put their marriage before their children will come as no surprise, but that they substituted staff for family, as Grande writes, seems such a sad ending to a book that proposed to pay a debt to history.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books.
by Kitty Kelley
Political junkies will cartwheel into line to grab copies of The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency by Chris Whipple. They might not be as mesmerized as they were with The Making of the President by Theodore H. White or What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer, but they’ll have in hand a bible on presidential sons-of-bitches. (That’s how H.R. Haldeman defined the position before he had to resign and go to prison as one of 48 people who served time for serving Richard M. Nixon, the Watergate president.)
The White House chief of staff is considered the most powerful unelected person in Washington, DC, because he — there’s never been a she — controls access to the leader of the free world. As the president’s main adviser and closest confidante, the chief of staff determines the administration’s legislative agenda and communicates with Congress and the Cabinet. He is the spear-catcher who protects the president from all incoming flak.
“The White House chief of staff has more power than the Vice President,” said Dick Cheney, who should know. At 34, he served as chief of staff to Gerald Ford (1975-1977). By the time he turned 70, Cheney was vice president to George W. Bush and knew how to mow down both chiefs of staff Andrew Card (2001-2006) and Joshua Bolten (2006-2009). In fact, Cheney, known by some as “Darth Vader,” controlled foreign policy in the Bush years and seemed to assume as much power as “the decider” himself.
“Every president reveals himself by the presidential portraits he hangs in the Roosevelt Room,” said the historian Richard Norton Smith, “and by the person he picks as his chief of staff” (pp. 10-11).
By that definition, Whipple could’ve produced an intriguing analysis of Ronald Reagan, who chose the smooth-talking Texan James Baker III as his first chief of staff (1981-1985), followed by the bull-headed Donald Regan, who compared his job to the man in the circus, sweeping up elephant droppings.
Unmentioned by Whipple was John Roy Steelman, the first and longest-serving chief of staff (1946-1953), described in his New York Times obituary as a “onetime hobo from Arkansas.” Truman’s chief of staff was as basic as the man he served. Eschewing his powerful title, Steelman preferred to be called “the president’s chief chore boy.” His biggest chore was his role in ending a 52-day strike by steelworkers, one of the most damaging stoppages in U.S. history.
The Gatekeepers promises to offer “shrewd analysis and never-before-reported details,” but there appears to be little of either in the book. Perhaps Whipple was too grateful for his access to cast a critical eye and dig beneath the glossy surface.
All those interviewed protected their presidents from incriminating revelations, but each agreed being White House chief of staff was the toughest job he ever tackled. (The pressure is so great that few last beyond 18-24 months.) Yet despite the brutal demands, Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s first chief of staff (2009-2010), said: “I guarantee you every one of the chiefs would say, ‘I’d do it again,’ if asked.”
The major take-away from Whipple’s book is not unlike Cardinal Cushing’s advice to John F. Kennedy when he first ran for office in Massachusetts: “A little more Irish…a little less Harvard.”
The most successful sons-of-bitches are a little more staff…a little less chief. In fact, certain chiefs — Gov. Sherman Adams (Dwight Eisenhower, 1953-1958), Gov. John Sununu (George Herbert Walker Bush, 1985-1987), and the aforementioned Merrill Lynch CEO Don Regan (1985-1987) — harmed their presidents by their inability to shed their arrogant prerogatives of self-entitlement. All had previously held chief-executive positions, but each was fired from his role as White House chief of staff.
Usually an author writes a book and hopes to sell television rights after publication, but Whipple, an award-winning producer at CBS’s 60 Minutes and ABC’s Prime Time, did it the other way around. He provided the interviews for the four-hour documentary The Presidents’ Gatekeepers, which aired on the Discovery Channel in 2013. The New York Times judged the production a “tepid film…awe-struck and dull.” Whipple made the interviews he did with the 17 chiefs of staff alive at the time as the basis of The Gatekeepers, his first book.
For a writer, Whipple’s text hardly inspires, but his chapter notes pique interest. Many of those cited (again, mostly men) hiss and spit at each other like cats being hosed. Ed Meese III dumps on Jim Baker III for leaking to the press. Donald Rumsfeld, chief of staff to President Ford, disses the White House speechwriter Robert Hartmann as an alcoholic, and says Ford’s vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, “wasn’t qualified to be vice president of anything.”
Leon Panetta, Bill Clinton’s chief of staff from 1994-1997, confides the president wanted to fire George Stephanopoulos, which was seconded by Erskine Bowles, Clinton’s chief of staff from 1997-1998: “Of course, George was cut out by the President.” Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft slam Dick Cheney, who, in turn, stomps on the claim of CIA director George Tenet about bringing the danger of al Qaeda to White House attention. “I do not recall George coming in with his hair on fire…”
The most intriguing chapter note cites an interview with Stuart Spencer, the Republican political consultant closest to Ronald Reagan, who speculates about how the president might have unwittingly approved the Iran-Contra operation to secretly sell arms to Iran and funnel the money to support the Contras in Nicaragua:
I can see those three guys [Robert MacFarlane, National Security Advisor; Oliver North, Deputy Director of the National Security Council; and William J. Casey, CIA director, who was called “Mumbles” because, according to Spencer, “you couldn’t understand him, he couldn’t talk”]. They knew that Reagan was in favor of the contras; he was really upset about the American hostages; and they said, ‘We’ll take advantage of that.’ And they sent Mumbles over to tell him about it. And Reagan didn’t have his hearing aid on! I believe all this could have happened. (p. 319)
Stuart Spencer was extraordinarily close to the Reagans for years. He ran Reagan’s successful campaigns for governor of California in 1966 and 1970, as well as his campaigns for president in 1980 and 1984. He counseled both Ronald and Nancy Reagan throughout their eight years in Washington, and was one of the few people invited to accompany them on their return flight to California upon leaving the White House in 1985. So, his speculation about Iran-Contra deserves more scrutiny, especially because the first lady was terrified the matter would lead to her husband’s impeachment.
Did Whipple ask Spencer whether he discussed Iran-Contra with either Reagan? If he didn’t, why not? How did the subject of Iran-Contra come up in his interviews with Spencer? Did Spencer advise the Reagans about Iran-Contra? What was his recollection of how they coped with the matter personally? Did Spencer share his theory with the first lady or anyone else?
Note to Whipple: a little more time with Stu Spencer…a little less time with the chiefs.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books