Interview With Thomas DeFrank and Eleanor Clift of Newsweek on the 1984 Presidential Election

January 27, 1984

The President's Candidacy

Mr. DeFrank. Obviously, Mr. President, we appreciate the chance to chat with you very much. Thank you.

It probably will come as no surprise that we asked to talk with you on the presumption that on Sunday night you'll be telling us that you're going to announce for reelection. Now, obviously, this is off the record until Monday, so before we get into this, we're hoping you might tell us, off the record, whether we're right about that.

The President. Well, I don't think so. I will do it on the supposition that you're interviewing me on the assumption that I am going to run, and I'll answer accordingly.

Mr. DeFrank. Fair enough, all right. On that basis -- --

Ms. Clift. You don't want to say the three little words, though?

The President. No.

Ms. Clift. No?

The President. No.

Mr. DeFrank. Okay.

Ms. Clift. Well, all right, we'll imagine that that is the -- that you have made a ``go'' decision, though. And I guess we want to ask you when you finally did make up your mind?

The President. Well, making up my mind as to what the decision would be was left to the latest possible moment. I've always believed, for one thing, that campaigns are too long. But I also -- in the event that the answer was to be yes -- I've always felt that it's too easy to find yourself making decisions on the basis of the political ramifications, rather than on what's right or wrong with the decision that has to be made. And if I'd informed -- when I was Governor of California I would not let a Cabinet discuss with me any political ramifications of any issue. I won't let my Cabinet now do that. We will only discuss things on the basis of are they, or are they not, good for the people.

But to nurse a decision, then, it's a little bit like having seen the other fellow's card in a cardgame. You may be the most honest person in the world, but you can't take it out of your mind that you know where that card is.

Ms. Clift. Right. But you must have, at some point, made an emotional commitment to running again. Was that, like, a month ago? Or just 2 days ago or a week ago? Is there any -- --

The President. Well, either way, it's an emotional commitment -- --

Ms. Clift. -- -- set point?

The President. -- -- as to whether you're going to walk away or whether you're going to keep on trying. I can only say it has been -- what I guess I'm trying to say is that I tried very definitely in my own mind to not even consider what that decision was going to be for as long as I could and until I finally had to with all the ramifications that go with it, as to whether other people have enough advance notice, what they may want to do and so forth, and then I did it. And it has been fairly recently.

Mr. DeFrank. When did you begin confiding with your staff, Mr. President, or with the Vice President, or other people in whom you've confided the decision? Some people say that happened over Christmas -- or began happening over Christmas.

The President. They had to come to me as to whether they were going to do the physical job of putting together an organization, and that was done without any declaration from me, one way or the other. And to this moment, none of them have ever been told what that decision is going to be.

Mr. DeFrank. Even now?

Ms. Clift. What about your wife? Have you -- --

The President. Yes, there -- --

Ms. Clift. -- -- told her what you're going to do?

The President. Yes, because whatever we do, it's ``we.'' It's always been that way with us, so obviously I would never make any important decision without her being very much a part of it.

Mr. DeFrank. Did she have any reservations, Mr. President?

The President. No. I think normal wifely concerns for my welfare. Other than that, what is it the -- there's a man, writer, some many years ago -- Robert Burton -- who wrote that ``there is no joy, there is no comfort, there is no pleasure like to that of a good wife.''

Mr. DeFrank. Was this decision ever a close call on your mind, Mr. President? Or did you always assume, more or less, that you would run unless something major intervened along the way?

The President. No, as I say, it was what I firmly believed, have always believed, that you get an indication from the people as to whether you should or not. And you can't get that too early at all.

Ms. Clift. Have you enjoyed the fact that you've been able to keep this air of mystery around this decision?

The President. I never thought of it much from a standpoint of pleasure. It hasn't been a game or anything with me. It's just been a deeply held conviction that, oh, stems from a lot of things. I think campaigns are too long. I would welcome a limitation on them. I think one of the reasons for the increasingly low turnout in voters is not a lack of interest; I think it's that we've bored them to death. They're never free of something political going on.

You couple that with the other things that I've told you already, about how I feel about not letting your mind dwell on those subjects, for fear it might affect your decisions on other things, and -- so it wasn't a game. No. I had enough on my desk without that.

Mr. DeFrank. Now that you have decided, Mr. President, what were the principal factors in deciding this?

The President. Well, on the assumption that you're going -- it would be, number one, I think I have heard some encouragement from the people. But it would be the desire to finish what I think is well started -- the economic recovery, to get this country back into a growth pattern. To stop having these recurrent recessions, which we've had eight times since World War II, where we just go from one and then, in a temporary cure that distorts the economy and sets the stage for another one even worse 2 or 3 years beyond -- to really have a solid recovery. And I think we have made a good start on that.

In the international area, to really carry forward the effort to achieve real reduction of weapons. To set the stage for real negotiations with the Soviet Union, leading to peace in the world. To complete something that I started early on in my administration with regard to our neighbors south of the border, that I don't think we've ever carried out properly, and that is a friendship and a pattern of partnership in all these countries of the Americas that are so unique in this hemisphere. All of these things that remain unfinished.

Ms. Clift. What is it that would have prevented you from running? Did you have a set of guidelines in your mind that you might -- --

The President. That would prevent it?

Ms. Clift. That would have prevented it.

The President. Well, suppose I came to the feeling that I could not accomplish these things that we were trying -- this recovery that has taken place, that it was beyond my capacity to get done? Suppose the people made it very evident that they didn't like the course that we were on?

Ms. Clift. Well, you're riding very high in the polls right now, so I guess you got the message that you wanted from the people. Did you seek anyone's counsel in making this decision, or was it totally a private -- --

The President. I thought it was something I had to do. Not counsel, but facts, such as polling and so forth.

Mr. DeFrank. I think we're going to move on to another category here, Mr. President. But before we do, it sounds like you really did not spend a lot of time struggling with this in your own mind. And it also sounds like you have more or less sensed the decision in your own mind for an awful long time. Are we wrong about that?

The President. Well, no, other than what I said about not having it in mind, or not playing with that in my mind until recently, because I felt that what we were doing was what my mind had to center on, not what effect it might have on someone.

Mr. DeFrank. Okay.

1984 Presidential Campaign

Ms. Clift. Going into a campaign, what do you see as your biggest political hurdle?

The President. Biggest political hurdle? Well, frankly, I have to say that some misperceptions that have been carefully crafted by a certain amount of demagoguery on the part of opponents of what we've been trying to do here. Issues that would have me uncaring for certain groups of our citizenry -- and they're not true at all. And they've probably been the most frustrating thing that I personally have felt. And yet they have -- the polls indicate -- they have been able to create this perception.

Let me take one. I won't get into the fairness thing or anything else, which I think is very unfair, that what they're talking about. But let's take the one of the polls showing that people have an image of me that I might recklessly get us into a war, I go for violence. I came here believing that one of the greatest challenges was to bring us closer to peace.

All through the campaign, it is true, I did not support agreements like SALT II, and I didn't support them because they were simply placing limits on how many more weapons could be built, that you could continue to expand militarily, but within certain limits. And what I said over and over again was the time has come to sit down and talk about reducing the number of weapons in the world.

Ms. Clift. But when you have troops in Lebanon and you have military involvement in Central America, how do you -- and you did go into Grenada, and while that was a success, how do you then dispel the impression that you are a warmonger, I guess is the phrase that's used?

The President. Well, because I've lived long enough to remember that there was a World War I. And after 4 years of trying to avoid it on the part of President Wilson -- what he called his policy of watchful waiting -- we found ourselves embroiled in that war and unprepared for it because someone on the other side, namely the Kaiser, over and over again expressed his belief that America wouldn't fight no matter what was done. And finally, they did those things to where there was no choice but to fight.

Now, you come to World War II, and the same thing was true again. I know that military men of ours, after the war was over, when they could talk to their counterparts in Japan and they could talk about and rehash things, and their question was, ``Why Pearl Harbor?'' Why would they have done that? And these officers said, ``Why not Pearl Harbor? You were holding military games in Louisiana, and your soldiers were carrying wooden guns, and you were using cardboard tanks to simulate armored warfare.''

Ms. Clift. Mr. President, you're not shy about mentioning your longevity, and you kid about your age. But do you think that your age is a potential political problem in the campaign?

The President. No. I think somebody tried to make it one 4 years ago, and it didn't work. And I've never heard it mentioned, or I don't -- most of the time now they don't even ask about it in the polls. And I've tried to start a rumor that I'm really not that old, that they mixed up the babies in the hospital. [Laughter]

Mr. DeFrank. Mr. President, your speech in Atlanta yesterday seemed to suggest, at least to us, that you think Walter Mondale might be your potential opponent in the fall. Is that a fair reading of some of the things you said yesterday?

The President. Well, you can't deny the fact and your understanding that he's out ahead. But I will tell you, I was most surprised when a number of you -- well, not you or any magazines, but a number in the daily press -- the media interpreted me at aiming a line at him. I hadn't even thought about it. I was talking about them as a group.

Ms. Clift. Oh, Democrats in general.

The President. Yes.

Mr. DeFrank. What do you think about Walter Mondale?

The President. Frankly, I think he has tried to be all things to all people, and I think he's made more promises than can probably -- can possibly be kept, because as soon as he keeps one promise he has made it impossible to keep another that he's made to someone else.

I've asked our people to do a little arithmetic here and find out, with all of his expressed concern about the deficit, which didn't seem to bother him in all those years he was voting on spending bills in the Senate, to see just how much they add up. And the figure's pretty high already that his promises, if all kept, would give us a budget that, as one of his opponents in the Democratic contest said of him, would make the deficits $400 billion.

Mr. DeFrank. He did come out with a proposed deficit reduction package yesterday, I think of about $60 billion. Have you had a chance to look at that?

The President. Only slightly. One thing that's been called to my attention is that we probably wouldn't have a military defense for our country if we cut what he wanted to cut.

Mr. DeFrank. Okay. Regardless of whether he is or isn't the nominee, are you prepared to debate a campaign opponent in the fall?

The President. I've always, in principle, supported that. I think it's too early to talk about or speculate as to terms of debate or any mechanics of that kind. But I have always supported the idea.

Ms. Clift. You've given the image of being somewhat of a reluctant candidate. And I'm wondering whether you're a reluctant campaigner, or are your juices starting to flow for another campaign?

The President. I don't know about those juices in a campaign. I don't know of anyone, really, that comes out of a campaign without being amazed that you could take it -- [laughing] -- that long.

I must say that it has been kind of pleasant to look at the news with regard to those candidates that have been out there for the better part of a year now and be kind of glad that you're not in it.

Ms. Clift. Do you dread it -- to -- --

The President. What?

Ms. Clift. Do you dread it somewhat?

The President. Oh, no. No. No, there's one part about it that you can't dread at all, and that is the opportunity to meet again the people of this country that I think are so wonderful. I love them.

Ms. Clift. Okay.

Views on the Presidency

Mr. DeFrank. We're going to switch back in another direction now. Somebody in this room -- we won't tell you who -- said that it might be useful to try a couple of introspective questions on you. So, we'll give that a shot.

One of the first things you said when you came to Washington was that -- you used to complain about living over the store -- --

The President. Yeah.

Mr. DeFrank. -- -- being a bird in a gilded cage. Have you made your peace with that?

The President. Oh, sure. You have to, or you'd be very unhappy about it. But I will say this -- and I think every President before me has found it this way -- that you really look forward to those weekends at Camp David. You know, the walk to here, the elevator up, and once you're there, you're there. And that's it until the weekend comes, and so you have those things to look forward to. So, you fit it all in.

And it's -- I must say -- the quarters are very comfortable. I have no quarrel with that.

Ms. Clift. Well, some people say that you seem to handle the burdens of the Presidency so well that you ought to teach a course in stress management. What is your secret? I mean, you do seem very at ease in the office.

The President. Well, maybe I learned it early on as Governor of California when, for a time, I found myself becoming a victim of stress. And then I just sat down with myself -- and it also had to do with this thing we talked about earlier, with regard to political considerations -- and I said that the best that I can do is get all the viewpoints and all the advice I can get from staff and Cabinet, and then make a decision on what I honestly believe in my own mind is the right thing to do for the people. And I found that I started sleeping better.

Mr. DeFrank. All the polls, Mr. President, for a very long time, have shown that your personal popularity has always exceeded your job rating. What is it about you that the American people seem to like?

The President. [Laughing] I don't know of anyone that can answer that -- a question like that. [Laughter]

Mr. DeFrank. That's why we're trying.

The President. No, I'll tell you. Maybe if there is anything, maybe they sense that I like people. I like them.

Ms. Clift. The public thinks of you as a very gregarious person, yet the people that work with you here say you're really quite private and reserved and that you don't reveal your feelings easily and that you don't have many close friends.

The President. I thought they were all my friends.

Ms. Clift. Well -- --

The President. No, I don't think that. Oh, I think there are certain things that you don't babble or blab about, but I think I'm gregarious. I like to be with people and with the group and to socialize.

Ms. Clift. I guess the fact that you've played ``I've Got a Secret'' so long with this decision made people realize that you were able to be more of a private person than people thought.

The President. Well, yes, that, of course, had to be kept private because of my desire not to let political thinking be an influence.

Mr. DeFrank. Second term.

Ms. Clift. Second term.

Mr. DeFrank. Just briefly on a second term: Do you worry at all that going into a second term you might become an immediate lameduck, or do you see some advantages to a second term that you didn't have this time around?

The President. Oh, yes, and based on experience, because, as I say, there's one thing -- I don't think there is any training for this job that is better than serving as a Governor. Granted, it is infinitely smaller in the whole thing, and it doesn't have a foreign relation -- --

Ms. Clift. That's what Jimmy Carter thought, too, though.

The President. Yeah. But it is that type of job. And I know in California that, really, the things that were completed and the great achievements were done in the second term. And I didn't find that there was any sense -- till right toward the very end and similar to the situation I'd been in for 3 years, although we have a majority in one House. There I had a majority of the other party in both houses. So, it was an 8-year struggle -- well, with the exception of 1 year, when we got a bare lead, due to a couple of special elections. But I found there it was the same struggle that you'd had in the first term.

And I don't think that -- as I say, toward the end, yes. Where it comes to ratification of appointees who may be for term appointments that will be longer, or judicial appointments -- then you find there are some people that want to take advantage of the fact that maybe they can hold out and stall until you're gone.

Ms. Clift. What's going to be different about a second Reagan term?

The President. I'm trying to think in terms of those memories of the other time. Well, for example, in the first term there, we had laid the groundwork for the great comprehensive welfare reforms that were unlike anything that had been done anyplace in this country before. I never mentioned them in the campaign for reelection, never made them an issue, never held them up as something to look forward to. I didn't want to politicize it. And immediately after the reelection, we went to work on them, and we achieved them. And they had a terrific impact.

Ms. Clift. Is there a comparable issue -- --

Mr. DeFrank. Is there a parallel here? Do you feel that, perhaps, in a second term you would be able to do something about the runaway cost of entitlements?

The President. I think that -- let me put it this way: I believe that there have to be some structural changes in our government, things that presently you can't get at. I would think that those would be -- you'd have a better opportunity in a second term. And this is part of the -- getting at the deficit problem over the long haul -- that I look forward to doing.

Ms. Clift. Some analysts think a second Reagan term would be more conservative and far less pragmatic than the first, particularly since you've pledged to fight hard on the social issues like abortion and school prayer. Is that a fair assessment?

The President. No. Let me say what everyone's calling ``pragmatic'' -- maybe I interpret pragmatic differently. I had this same run-in with some diehard people when I was Governor, and who thought, because I had compromised on something and settled for less than I'd asked for, they would have jumped off the cliff holding the flag. Well, you do that, and you're never around to get anything more. If this is pragmatic, then I'm pragmatic.

My belief is that in this democratic process, which entails compromise, you seek what you think should be done. And if you can only get half of it, three-quarters of it, whatever, and politically it is impossible to get beyond that, I don't think it makes any sense to dig in your heels and say then, ``I won't play.'' No, you take what you can get and tuck it away in your mind that you'll wait and come back another time and try to get the next bite.

And that hadn't been my interpretation of ``pragmatic.'' I know what the goal is. And suppose even at the very end you've only gotten 70 or 75 percent of the goal. Well, that's a lot better than being back where you started.

Mr. DeFrank. Do you think it's going to be a close election, Mr. President?

The President. I'm a pessimist about that. I've never been one of those fellows that says, ``I'll take him in the third round.'' No, I think you jinx yourself if you do that. I'm superstitious.

Mr. DeFrank. Yeah, but everybody calls you the designated optimist around here. This is something that we don't usually hear from you -- pessimism.

The President. Oh, I am on other things but that. But I always think that if you declare you're going to win -- maybe that comes from having been a sports announcer and in athletics, myself. You know, when I was a sports announcer broadcasting major league baseball and I'd be calling a game in which a pitcher has not given a hit and you're getting up there at the sixth or seventh, I never mentioned it, because there's an old superstition in baseball that if anyone mentions that he's pitching a no-hitter, you'll jinx him and he won't pitch the no-hitter.

So, I kind of feel the same way about campaigning. As I've said so many times, just take the advice of President Dewey: Don't get overconfident.

Ms. Clift. Right. You're in better shape politically than any President since Eisenhower in his second term. Do you consider yourself lucky, exceptionally lucky? Irish luck is something that a lot of people seem to tag you with. Is that something you've thought about?

The President. Well, luck is one name for it or not. Let me just say I think I've been blessed with good fortune in achieving some of the things that we have. When you stop to think that just 3 short years ago, there were an awful lot of people in this country that overwhelmingly believed that the good days for our land were over, that we would never again see the type of thing we'd had.

In fact, we had people in Washington before we got here who said that we should give up any dreams of future growth for America. And we have it -- the growth.

Mr. DeFrank. Mr. President, we appreciate the chance to chat very much. Thank you, sir. We'll see you out there on the trail, I suppose.

Ms. Clift. Right.

The President. All right.

Note: The interview began at 3:04 p.m. in the Oval Office at the White House.

The transcript of the interview was released by the Office of the Press Secretary on January 30.