This is the seventh in an occasional series of HUMAN EVENTS exclusives in which leading conservatives who served in the Reagan Administration explain how they believe the principles of Reagan conservatism ought to be applied today and in the coming years. This week we publish a conversation with Patrick J. Buchanan about the source of Reagan’s tremendous power as a communicator. Buchanan served as Reagan’s communications director.
During your time with President Reagan, do you remember a particular statement, speech or moment that was most emblematic of who he was as a communicator?
Patrick J. Buchanan: Reagan’s strength was his supreme confidence in the rectitude of what he was doing and what he believed.
I was skeptical of Gorbachev, but Reagan was fully confident in his ability to deal with guy at the beginning. There was no nervousness. When he went to the first summit in Geneva in 1985, I thought Reagan won it hands down. It was a great victory. The second summit at Reykjavik in 1986, I think, was really the emblematic moment.
I was with him at Reykjavik. I had written a speech on the success of the summit meeting, and then I went up to Hofdi House.
President Reagan was someone who clearly detested nuclear weapons. He wanted to be rid of them. He was almost a neo-Utopian in that sense. But he went downstairs to the first floor for the last meeting, which went on and on. We were on the second floor, which had a balcony around it. I was on that balcony when Reagan came out of the room where he had been meeting with Gorbachev, and his face was a mask of rage. I had never seen him that way, and the fellow beside me said, “I don’t like the body language.”
Gorbachev was walking stiffly, too.
I had to go out the side door to get to the car, and this fellow, Pete, who was a buddy of mine, he was a photographer, was up taking pictures right close to Reagan. I could see them because I was in the first or second car behind them.
Reagan got in. Then we took off. Pete came running and got into the front jump seat. And he said, “Gawd, you should of heard what they said.”
I said, “What did they say?”
He said, “Gorbachev said, ‘I don’t know what we could have done.’ And Reagan said, ‘You could have said, Yes.’” And that was it.
So, I said to Pete, “For heaven’s sake, go back and write down exactly what was said. This is really historical.”
You’ll like this: I get back to the embassy, and I have to rewrite this speech. But they say, “Gas up, we’re heading for Keflavik air base”—which is almost an hour away along a little thin road. So, we’re waiting there at the embassy, and the President’s upstairs. Then he comes out—and you know what he was enraged about? An editorial in HUMAN EVENTS. I’m not kidding. He was really enraged.
He got in his car, and I got in mine, in the front seat. I was writing out insert cards to put into the speech, to replace the core of the speech written earlier.
When Reagan walked out to speak at the air base, there were all these Air Force guys and their wives and their kids, who had been waiting there for six hours, and they went wild. It brought tears to your eyes. Reagan broke out in a big smile and cut loose with one of his patriotic speeches.
Meanwhile, George Shultz had one of his they-ran-over-my-dog press conferences. He was out there moping, and it was awful.
When [White House speechwriter] Tony Dolan and I got on the plane, I said, “Look, the President got up from the meeting, because he wouldn’t give up SDI. He blew up a summit rather than give up the defense of his country. If we can’t sell this to the American people, something is wrong with us.”
Guess who comes back in his jump suit? It’s Reagan. He’s smiling. “Hi, boys,” he says. “What’s up?” We laughed and told jokes.
This was a triumph. What you saw then was the character of this man. He hated nuclear weapons, but he believed in the defense of his country. He believed in SDI and he was willing to blow up a summit over it. But when it was done, he knew he had done what he believed was right.
To me, that was the moment that epitomized Reagan.
I told him then, “Mr. President, don’t worry, they are coming back for the INF [the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty]. They are going to be coming back for the medium-range missiles. They are scared to death of the Pershing and cruise missiles.”
But for me, that was the moment that said it about Reagan. It was his general serenity in his beliefs. His conviction that—as he used to say—as he would point to the ceiling, “The rest of time I’ve got”—after the shooting—“belongs to Him.”
I think fundamentally Reagan’s success was due to the fact that his beliefs and his principles were correct and they corresponded perfectly with the time he was in.
The idea of rebuilding America’s military strength, challenging the Soviet empire—frankly, not directly in Eastern Europe, where you had a danger of a conflict, but at the peripheries of empire, in Afghanistan, Angola and Nicaragua. Frankly, make their empire bleed, and put the psychological and political pressure on them through strong speeches and articulating our values. He just believed in the eventual victory of freedom and America. We were going to prevail.
He had the patriotism of the Greatest Generation. It was optimistic, and he believed it deeply.
The same was true about the tax cuts. The things he believed in turned out to be true, and they turned out to work. Through 1983, the tax cuts didn’t look like they were working, then all of a sudden we had 6% growth, and all these jobs were being created, and the Europeans couldn’t understand it.
I will say this: Supply-side economics and SDI showed that Reagan in his 70s was really open to new ideas. If he thought they would help the cause, he would seize upon them, and go out and sell them.
Other than HUMAN EVENTS, which hit him from the right at Reykjavik, Reagan obviously knew that by blowing up this summit with Gorbachev he was going to get hammered by the liberal press.
Buchanan: Reagan didn’t have any thought of giving up SDI. He just got up, and I think he thought: I dealt with this guy in good faith, and he pulled this stunt on me—after we waited here, kept the summit over, and had this meeting on a Sunday night. The world is waiting, and he’s trying to play me for a fool. No.
Reagan got up and walked out, and took the consequences. And Gorbachev went back with nothing. It was a great thing.
It was a great turning point in the Cold War.
The Cold War is clearly the greatest example of Reagan’s taking a position that the establishment press, in fact, the national establishment, was not for—and succeeding.
Buchanan: He succeeded, and frankly he was willing to uses phrases like “Evil Empire.”
Let me tell you a personal experience. It was during the battles over Contra aid. In the run-up to the vote, we would talk to journalists and try to get stories and columns written. Then a night or two before, the President would give a nationwide address to try to roll them. In the run-up to one of these votes, I decided I would do an op-ed myself in the Washington Post. The key line in it was: “It is time for Congress to choose between Ronald Reagan and the Contras or Daniel Ortega and the Communists.”
Democrats on the Hill went bananas. Then they said that all the support for Reagan was collapsing. But [then-Rep.] Dick Cheney came up and said he had done a whip count and that we hadn’t lost a single vote.
But this was considered just an awful thing to say. Then we had a Sperling Breakfast, and Jack Nelson from the Los Angeles Times said, “Mr. President, your communications director, Mr. Buchanan, said this is a choice between you and the Contras on the one side or Ortega and the Communists. He’s been accused of McCarthyism. What are your thoughts on that?”
Reagan said, “Well, isn’t that pretty much what the choice is.”
I had a huge grin on my face. How could they go after Buchanan—when he was just saying what Reagan believed? It showed that Reagan supported you when you were under fire.
On the right to life, Ann Higgins, who ran his correspondence office, would slip all these letters into a folder for him. Reagan would come to his senior staff meeting, where he knew most of the staff weren’t with him on this, and he would say, “I want to read you this.” It would be from this lovely woman in Arizona, whose husband left her after she had three kids and was pregnant with a fourth, and she was going to have an abortion. But she didn’t have it. Now, she’s in her 80s, and the child she didn’t abort has been taking care of her in her old age.
Reagan would read these beautiful letters. And some of these guys would say, “Where the hell does he get these letters?” They were coming from Ann Higgins in his correspondence shop.
Reagan was very much for that. He demanded in every State of the Union that he wanted something on right to life—in every one of them.
Frankly, Reagan was more concerned about what you guys said at HUMAN EVENTS and what they said in the Washington Times, than what they said in the New York Times.