Miller Center

Interview with Paul Laxalt

Introduction

Photo of Laxalt, Paul

Long considered one of Reagan's closest political allies and personal friends, Paul Laxalt tells the story of his nearly 30-year relationship with Reagan, from his years as a fellow governor in neighboring Nevada to his service in the United States Senate during the first six years of the administration. Laxalt details Reagan's rise to the White House, and his work on all three presidential campaigns, including his 1976 challenge to incumbent Republican Gerald Ford, where Laxalt broke party ranks to support Reagan. Most of the interview is devoted to a discussion of Reagan's Washington years, spanning such issues as the White House staff, the influence of the First Lady, and the major events of his first six years. As Reagan's strongest ally in the Senate, Laxalt also addressed the debate over key legislative issues during the administration—tax cuts, defense spending, Supreme Court nominations, Contra aid—from a congressional perspective.

Copyright 2005 The Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. Publicly released transcripts of the Ronald Reagan Oral History Project are freely available for non-commercial use according to the Fair Use provisions of the United States Copyright Code and International Copyright Law. Advance written permission is required for reproduction, redistribution, and extensive quotation or excerpting. Permission requests should be made to the Miller Center, P.O. Box 400406, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4406

Transcript

Young

This is a President Ronald Reagan Oral History Project interview with Senator Paul Laxalt, and we’re very grateful to you for this nice space, and for your willingness to spend time with us today. I’ve chatted with the Senator in advance about the ground rules, and we’ve discussed the procedures and the wishes that he may have for sharing the transcript with some folks in Nevada—the University of Nevada—and we certainly will accommodate his wishes. We all understand that what is said in this room does not go out of the room, and we all understand those strict rules of confidentiality.

I also mentioned to the Senator our particular interest in two broad subjects. One is the contributions that these interviews—and his interview in particular—can make to the fuller understanding of Ronald Reagan for the benefit of future generations, the full understanding of Ronald Reagan as a person, as a citizen and politician, and as a President. He was obviously an extraordinary President—there’s really not one like him. And the second thing is the Senator’s own unique role and relationship in association with Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan throughout the political career to which we haven’t found any historical parallel. So your role in itself is historically interesting and deserves to be even more fully recorded than you’ve already given us in this very informative book.

So with that, I have only one other chore to put on tape, and that is for us each to go around the table and say a few words so that the voice can be identified with the name on the tape. That makes our transcriber’s job a lot easier. I need say no more. So, Senator, if you want to say a few words just to identify yourself.

Laxalt

I’d be pleased to do it. First of all, on behalf of Tom [Loranger] and me, I might say that we’ve seen our fair share of briefing books over the years in all kinds of situations, but none more impressive than what you all did. Did you do it? It’s just excellent, how well it’s organized. I have to say, you refresh my recollection so much, on so many things that I’d entirely forgotten, that got submerged in my subconscious. I want to congratulate you for a job well done.

Morrisroe

Thank you.

Laxalt

Tom and I are delighted to join you for this. We’ve had occasion to be down at Charlottesville, and we’re all very impressed with UVA and have a lot of friends there. I’ve often told my grandson, who just graduated from Georgetown—he’s surveying the law school scene now— If you want to go anywhere in Virginia politics, you better go to UVA. It just seems like unless you’ve gone to UVA, the door isn’t quite as open.

Hargrove

I’m Erwin Hargrove, Emeritus Professor of Political Science just a year and a half. I’ve been messing around with the Presidency all my career.

Laxalt

Really, that’s wonderful. As a historian?

Hargrove

Political scientist.

Laxalt

As a political scientist—

Hargrove

But you’ve got to study the Presidents in context. You can’t leave the President out, so you study them across time—that’s the way we do it.

Laxalt

I would think it would be a very interesting avocation.

Hargrove

Oh, it’s fine.

Laxalt

I just finished reading [John] Adams, and I just had no idea. I was a political science major, too, in history at school, and I had a fair knowledge about him until I read the book. You really have to study it.

Hargrove

Oh, it’s marvelous.

Laxalt

Marvelous.

Hargrove

I’m very impressed with Mrs. [Abigail] Adams, too.

Laxalt

I guess. She reminded me of a certain First Lady that I knew reasonably well. I say, Abigail reborn.

Knott

My name is Steve Knott, and I’m an Assistant Professor and Research Fellow at the Miller Center. I came on board at the Miller Center on August 1st. Prior to that I was teaching at the Air Force Academy.

Laxalt

Congratulations.

Young

Specialist in covert operations.

Knott

It’s a pleasure to be here.

Loranger

My name is Tom Loranger, and I work here with Senator Laxalt. I worked with him on Capitol Hill, first as an intern, then a press secretary, then administrative assistant. When the Senator retired, I went with him into the private world, and I’ve been with him since.

Laxalt

We just celebrated his 20th anniversary. Isn’t that remarkable?

Hargrove

He looks too young.

Laxalt

Well, that’s really remarkable in this town.

Morrisroe

I’m Darby Morrisroe. I’m a doctoral student at the University of Virginia.

Laxalt

Congratulations again for the wonderful briefing book.

Morrisroe

Thank you. It was my pleasure to do it.

Young

Well, having heard what we think we’d like to get out of this interview for the historical record, I’m going to let you start it out in any way you think. We don’t have any lists of questions—just some topical areas of particular interest to us. If you would like to start out just by making a few observations on your experience, in your associations with Reagan, please do so.

Laxalt

Well, I’ve been in politics for much of my life, as the memoirs indicate, and trying to be as objective as I can, I found no one as interesting generally as Ronald Reagan. Right behind that would be one Nancy Reagan. But most politicians—and I say this affirmatively—have agendas. It is not all bad to have an agenda, but some are rather selfish in their approach. Pride is always there in whatever they do.

But of all these people, I don’t think I’ve ever found one quite so selfless as Ronald Reagan. He is a selfless human being. I can remember campaigning with him, remember him serving as President, and each of those pursuits can be aggravating as the very devil for a number of reasons, usually scheduling. Having been a candidate myself, I know that the biggest bane you have in life is the scheduler.

Occasionally I’d hear just a smidgen of a gripe in connection with his responsibilities, but nothing was ever heavy. He was quiet as he went about his work as a candidate, and he quietly went about his work as President. Despite the fact that during the time there were an awful lot of bad things that happened, I never heard him complain about it. He was just such a kind person, even in reference to his political enemies, and that’s because he wasn’t a political animal. He truly was not a political animal: He was the prototype of the citizen politician.

Hargrove

Could I ask you about that? You mention early on in the record that in Governors’ conferences he was not comfortable, and you shepherded him around a little bit. Now flesh that out a little bit: Why was he not comfortable?

Laxalt

Well originally, first of all, Ronald Reagan is a small-town boy. He never quite got Eureka, Illinois, out of his blood. He was a jock. He was basically an athlete. Not a terribly good one, as he would admit, sort of like Richard Nixon, in a way. Then, of course, he became a broadcaster in Iowa. Gosh, when I was with him there, even some of the old-timers still remembered Dutch—they called him Dutch Reagan. So he came out of that environment and, of course, eventually slipped into the Hollywood environment.

Until he became involved really in the [Barry] Goldwater campaign in ’64, he was apolitical in terms of elective office. He’d done some difficult work for the Screen Actors Guild, and I guess that’s about as tough as politics can get, but otherwise he was not familiar with the political scene. He was a student, and he knew the principal characters. But any time he got around them, he was very uncomfortable. Even when we were elected Governors together, people like Nelson Rockefeller to him were almost legendary people. Not that he was intimidated, but he was uncomfortable.

Hargrove

Was it because they were professional politicians?

Laxalt

Yes, I think so, and because they were famous people.

Hargrove

And he was. . .

Laxalt

He always sort of downgraded himself in terms of his own fame, and so when he ran into Presidents or prominent Governors, he was somewhat intimidated.

Hargrove

That’s interesting.

Laxalt

I would just tell him, as the old saying goes, they stick their pants on one leg at a time like everybody else. It took him some while to finally get to know these people. But even to the very end, he was never really comfortable with politicians.

Hargrove

Was that true with Senators and congressional politicians—

Laxalt

Yes, I think so. Eventually he developed a nice relationship with Howard Baker, but it wasn’t really until Howard went over as Chief of Staff. Otherwise, it was pretty much arm’s length. He wasn’t cold or hostile or anything, but there was always a little bitty shield there.

Hargrove

But he did have political ability. He could think strategically; he had a sense of timing. Where did all this come from?

Laxalt

I think instinctive, and the fact that his motive was just as pure as it could be. No outside agenda. He had a fundamental philosophy, which evolved during the General Electric days when he went all around the country as a spokesman for them. He was a vehicle, their vehicle, for private enterprise, extolling the benefits of private enterprise and all the evils of excessive government. He had had a very simple philosophy that he had developed, and that made it very easy for him wherever he went. He never really had to remember what he said last.

In fact, he used to tell some of those stories so often that we’d say, Oh no, do we have to listen to this again? He’d always remind us, as any good actor would, You’ve heard this before, many times—probably too many times, in your estimation—but that person in that group I’m talking to is hearing it for the first time.

So he was just instinctively a good politician. But in terms of a strategic planner politically? A craftsman? He wasn’t even in the same league as Richard Nixon. Richard Nixon could tell you a county chairman in New Mexico. Ronald Reagan would hardly know his national chairman. He just wasn’t tuned that way. He was just not a political animal in that sense. But in terms of having a message and communicating with the people? In my estimation, I’ve never seen anybody quite as effective as him. That’s admittedly a biased observation.

Hargrove

But he knew when to adapt, when to pull back, despite strong convictions.

Laxalt

Very flexible.

Hargrove

He had that sense.

Laxalt

Yes, he trimmed. He learned that from the Screen Actors days: You never get the whole pie. He had a great sense of timing, coming right down to the moment of truth. And then cut the deal, make the bargain. Part of a reasonably good bargain is better than none. And that’s fundamental, whether you’re President or not.

A lot of people find it hard. We’ve had Presidents who found it hard to deal. Jimmy Carter was technically a great President, but he really found it hard to compromise, and that’s part of the job, an essential part of the job. Bill Clinton, I think, was masterful. We’ll find out about George W. [Bush] here. Right now, he’s got everything going his way. It’s my way or the highway, guys, when you’ve got 87, 90 percent approval rating. So that’s still to be tested.

Young

And you think Reagan came by all this at the Screen Actors’ Guild?

Laxalt

That’s part of it. I think he acquired just an awful lot of valuable contacts in head-to-head negotiations with very difficult people. He went through all the days when a lot of people were blacklisted in Hollywood. While he was a staunch conservative, he deplored a lot of that.

Hargrove

I remember that, the hearings.

Laxalt

Yes. So, as I say, the beauty of Ronald Reagan, in my view, as a human being, was that he was and is a very gentle human being.

Hargrove

Couldn’t fire anybody.

Laxalt

He’s just a real, terrifically nice guy inside. I’ll never forget one time we went to New Jersey, and there’d been a big fight involving one of the New Jersey leaders up there. And we’re getting off the plane, and he said, Tell me, am I supposed to be mad at the chairman? He was just like a child, so funny.

Hargrove

Well, that leads me to—you hear contradictory things. One is, he did his homework, took it upstairs every night. The other is, but no, he left an awful lot to others.

Laxalt

He was a great delegator once he knocked off at five or six. You have a macho trip at that White House to see who is the last to turn off the lights and that garbage, and he stopped a lot of that. Because he shut that shop down essentially at five thirty or six, and he did it on the basis that he liked to do it himself, and he wanted these people home with their families. The White House, in terms of his priority for them, was secondary. That was refreshing.

Then you had Don Regan, who came in as Chief of Staff. Don came off Wall Street. After four o’clock was overtime for them. So they got along real well in that respect. Not in all respects, but in that one.

Hargrove

Have you read Lou Cannon’s book about Reagan?

Laxalt

I have read excerpts.

Hargrove

Well, in it he says, I have interviewed this guy 40-plus times; I know he’s smart, but I can’t figure out what kind of smarts he has. Then he draws on Howard Gardner at Harvard, who talks about multiple intelligences and says that Reagan has an inner, personal intelligence. He can read people. But how would you assess his intelligence, however one assesses it?

Laxalt

Well, he wasn’t an intellectual, if that’s where you’re going, hardly at all.

Hargrove

Nor curious—

Laxalt

He was bored with intellectuals, and that added to his charm among politicians. He wasn’t the least bit intimidated by the so-called Ivy League syndrome—excluding UVA, of course. But as far as he was concerned, he had terrifically good political instincts in terms of a philosophy, and that’s what you need. He spoke about the same stuff for 15 years after I first heard him in 1963, and he would hardly change a phrase. He fundamentally believed that stuff, and the people finally accepted it. He may be an actor, and he may not be an intellectual. He may not be overly energetic. But, damn it, he believes. Whether you agree with him or not, we know he is sincere. And I think that’s very valuable, and it certainly was for him.

Hargrove

I agree. They stuck with him because he knew who he was.

Laxalt

And that’s why the Iran-Contra thing was so disconcerting. Because in the vital area of whether the people trusted him—they might disagree with him on a policy matter, but on the matter of trust, he always scored well, extremely well. Then Iran-Contra happened, and that was clumsily handled. That’s where delegation was carried to an extreme, and he didn’t keep track of Ollie [North] in the basement.

When that happened, handled poorly, he appeared for the first time in his Presidency not to be telling the truth. He was supporting a premise that was not believable. And so when his numbers dropped, it was the only time I really saw him low. He said, I can’t understand why the people don’t believe me. That really hurt him. But he finally dug out of that, too.

Knott

Was there one particular time early on when you thought, This man has the potential to go all the way? Was there one particular event or anything?

Laxalt

Well, when I was Governor with him and we worked together, he was brand new in politics and the policy matters we had there. He was sure; he had a fundamental philosophy. When it came to what you were going to do with the degradation of Lake Tahoe or something, he was just lost. He constantly had to be briefed. I wasn’t, nor were any of my colleagues, very impressed with his substance, you know what I mean?

Hargrove

Um-hum.

Laxalt

But all of us were impressed as hell with his communication skills, which are vital. And so when I came back here in the Senate, I always believed that the answer at the Presidential level was really someone from here. We pretty much had the monopoly on the wisdom of the world. But the longer I was here, the less impressed I was with the so-called big shots here, particularly in the area of communications.

Then when Watergate hit and you had the resignation, and again—surveying the scene—it was apparent to me that, of all the ones I’d seen, Ronald Reagan had the greatest potential to be a great President, and was electable, as a conservative.

You’ve got to remember: A lot of us started—I started—as a young conservative with Barry Goldwater, and that’s when I had no particular philosophy. Nobody in my group did. We were a bunch of people who were pursuing our various professions and worried a hell of a lot more about our handicap than we did the state of the world. That’s just the way we were.

Then Goldwater came on the scene, and we were taken by him. He was very appealing to a lot of young people like me. We were independent, we came from nothing, the country had afforded our parents opportunities, and we sort of made it without any help or assistance from Washington, D.C., which was sort of a dirty word. When Goldwater came along, he was very, very credible as far as we were concerned. And I think probably Goldwater had a lot to do with Reagan’s developing a national interest, too.

I don’t know whether you remember, but during the Goldwater campaign, it was flagging badly. So a number of the Californians out there had seen Ron speak at various times and figured that he was just tremendous. And a lot had seen him in the G. E. [General Electric] days. You talk about a training course for a national candidate. What would be better than going on the G. E. circuit? They decided the Goldwater campaign needed a boost, and that’s when he cut that half-hour talk, which is one of the finest political talks you ever saw, particularly in the context of the time when he was out there all by himself supporting a sure loser. That gives some evidence to people who were not knowledgeable as to the character of the man.

Hargrove

He did come along as Governor and learn the ropes, and learn how to work with—

Laxalt

By the time he left as Governor, he was quite knowledgeable. And he became, during those years too, quite knowledgeable in reference to national matters. But he had the fundamentals in mind, too. He had real problems with the Soviet Union. He had real problems with the way they did business here. And being a former Governor, he believed, all things being equal, the job could be done better on the local level than back here.

Knott

Could you tell us some more? You mentioned the Tahoe—it was a cleanup effort in which he turned to you for help?

Laxalt

Actually, Tahoe was a ticking bomb that I don’t think any people—other than the environmentalists in the area—were aware of. And there was—I think his name was Goldman or Goodman or something like that. He was conducting tests for the University of California. He came with all these alarming levels about what was happening to Tahoe.

So when we were elected, a lot of this surfaced, and it was apparent that, unless we did something, Tahoe stood a real chance of turning gray on our watch. And that wasn’t very appealing. So we both dug into it, and we developed staffs of our own to deal with it, and we came to the conclusion that the scientists over in California were probably right. And if they were, we couldn’t hazard in any degree adding to the problem.

That’s when we finally decided to take all—there were any number of local governments involved in the decision-making process up there. So we finally decided, which was very unconservative, to go to a metro-type government. And that shocked a hell of a lot of people, too. We finally formed the Bi-State Agency, and that stopped an awful lot of development up there. And I think it contributed greatly to the fact that Tahoe probably is saved now.

Knott

Were there other joint endeavors that stand out in your mind?

Laxalt

Not of that magnitude, no. We had a lot of niggling matters going back—extraditions, things of that kind—but Tahoe occupied most of our time. Then we just became involved aside from issues, politically.

Young

What did you observe in Ronald Reagan as he learned how to be Governor? He came in with a lot of assets. But this was his first elected job as head of a sovereign state, and a lot of us who study Presidents and the Presidency have been impressed by the importance of examining, or understanding, the political experience that those Presidents who have been Governors got while they were in the gubernatorial office. I wonder if you could talk to us about the kind of Governor Reagan was, what his education was, and what his learning was, being a chief executive and a state leader.

Laxalt

I think the principal asset that he brought to that particular matter was the fact that he was a very fine executive, and a secure executive. He just wasn’t afraid to delegate at all. He understood his deficiencies in terms of people in a brand new world for him, and certainly with respect to the great issues that California faced.

We did have another substantive problem that I just sort of forgot about, conveniently: We both had free-spending administrations precede us. And when we finally came to submit our budgets, we came to the conclusion that while we could make some cuts, we needed more revenue. And that led to the startling conclusion that right out of the box two conservatives had to ask for a tax increase. [laughter]

I’ll never forget. First I told him, Ron, I’ve come to a real bad conclusion here, but I don’t think I can avoid it. I think we’re going to have to go for a tax increase. He said, You know, Paul, we’ve come to the same conclusion. So we both went for a tax increase, and we used to joke about it because the tax increase rejuvenated our respective economies, and the people who succeeded us as Governor had all the money in the world for years. But we bit that bullet.

Anyhow, his real strength was getting good people around him. I just think staff-wise he had outstanding people around him.

Hargrove

You mean [William] Clark, [Edwin] Meese—

Laxalt

Yes, Clark, Meese, and [Lyn] Nofziger. Those guys knew California inside out, and they just protected him. He was well capable of handling himself with the press—he was a natural there. But he had intense preparations for any press conference, and he became disciplined to the point that he just avoided the off-the-cuff remark. You look back in Reagan’s record, you won’t see many off-the-cuff remarks—which all of us do at times, to our great sorrow, usually. So he was quite disciplined there.

Then, of course, he played it to the hilt—Sam Donaldson and these guys always used to raise hell with me, saying, Just occasionally, we’d like to be able to ask him a question on the South Lawn when he’s leaving without the helicopter props going off. He thought that was intentional, but, of course, it wasn’t.

Young

But it was useful.

Laxalt

You wished you had helicopter props all the time at a press conference.

Hargrove

But he did learn to work with legislators in the California legislature.

Laxalt

Yes, he did.

Hargrove

He later said he was proud of the fact.

Laxalt

He did, and he worked on a bipartisan basis. Where that all started, obviously, was with the tax increase, which a lot of the Democrats supported and the Republicans religiously opposed. So when he came with that first bold move, I think it opened the Democrats’ eyes. And, of course, the Republicans were bound to him philosophically and politically, so that had the beginnings of a nice bipartisan coalition.

Young

Certainly that was a new experience, working within a legislative body.

Laxalt

Yes, and selling the Tahoe package, we each had a horrible job. And this is with our own. We had difficulty—certainly not with the moderates and liberals—we had difficulty with the conservatives. My people thought I’d gone off the side of the cliff or something, and Ron’s felt the same way about him. Here he is espousing what is tantamount to metro-government.

Hargrove

But if he’d have four or five politicians, legislative politicians, in a room, could he talk to them in a way that was persuasive, or was that not—?

Laxalt

We tried to avoid that type of situation.

Hargrove

You did?

Laxalt

We really did. He could handle it well, but we’d have our leadership meetings there in the Cabinet room, and he’d have his designated seat. He was protected so well by Jimmy Baker, who was an astounding Chief of Staff, just astounding. He just tended to be very protective, and he’d always work off those damn 3x5 cards, like he was afraid to make a spontaneous observation.

Hargrove

Baker was afraid he’d misstep.

Laxalt

Yes. He was inexperienced in the ways of Washington. I imagine Jimmy Carter had the same kind of advice from his people.

Hargrove

Exactly.

Laxalt

You know, You’re a great Governor, but this is a minefield here, and we’ve got to protect you from that.

Knott

Did you find that to be an appropriate strategy? Were there times when you thought maybe—

Laxalt

I thought, all things considered, it was. Then when I became chairman of the party and my chief function was to coordinate the various arms of the Republican party, I’d take the leadership—[Bob] Dole, and [Guy] VanderJagt, [Richard] Lugar, people like that who were in leadership—I’d take them up at five o’clock or so to the residence, and we’d have a belt or two. He’d loosen up a little bit, and he’d talk business for a while. We’d spend about ten minutes talking business, and maybe another fifty minutes talking Hollywood, which they loved.

Young

Would Nancy Reagan be with him at these gatherings in the residence at this time with the legislators?

Laxalt

Not these particular ones, but she was from time to time. Nancy was and is a very forceful personality. She tended just to intimidate the hell out of most of the legislators.

Hargrove

And White House staff.

Laxalt

Clearly staff.

Hargrove

How would you assess her influence on him?

Laxalt

Substantial.

Hargrove

About—

Laxalt

Positive. I’ve often felt, and I believe it to be the case, that if he hadn’t had Nancy, he never would have been President. I don’t think he really had the drive to take the steps to run for Governor, for openers, and then later to run for President. She was a hugely positive force.

Hargrove

And she would put in a little policy thought now and again, wouldn’t she?

Laxalt

Yes. She wasn’t hesitant about doing that occasionally, but she’d never sit around in a Cabinet meeting or a policy meeting.

Hargrove

No, no.

Laxalt

Where she would do it, if she had something she was nursing politically, there’d be a little dinner, and Cap [Caspar] Weinberger would be there. She was very smart and very substantive, and she’d tell him about her views for a strong national defense and to stand firm on the budget. Very good. I’d just watch her and say, Oh, boy. Cap would listen, of course. Not that he needed any prompting on the defense budget.

Hargrove

But then she turned around and thought it was overdone.

Laxalt

Yes.

Hargrove

And that had an influence on his actions, I think.

Laxalt

A little bit.

Young

What was?

Hargrove

Defense build up. Public opinion began to show that they thought they’d overdone it, but this is about the time we got together with [Mikhail] Gorbachev. As I remember, they came together and talked.

Young

I’d like to go back and hear more. You referred to Jimmy Baker as protecting him. Just to make the record clear, protecting him in what sense? Protecting Reagan in what sense?

Laxalt

Well, I don’t think he needed protection as a human being, but he did need protection as a politician.

Young

I see.

Laxalt

That was it. Because he was new to Washington, and he had no idea at all as to what made the wheels work here, the personalities—no real idea. That’s where Jim was very, very helpful. He was also the gatekeeper, and a very firm one.

Hargrove

Now, was his choice of Baker—that was his choice, was it?

Laxalt

Well, I don’t think so.

Hargrove

You don’t?

Laxalt

No.

Hargrove

Can you tell us that story?

Laxalt

It’s not very complicated. I think when he was elected, a lot of us felt that Ed Meese should be the Chief of Staff. We thought it was a natural, but Nancy felt otherwise. While she admired Ed, she felt he wasn’t organized as well as he should be, and also I have a sneaking suspicion she felt he was too damned conservative.

Hargrove

That’s interesting.

Laxalt

She’s tended to be to the middle on a lot of issues. So when it came time to make the designation, Mike Deaver, who was very close—and I guess Mike probably would never admit this—but I understand that he went to Nancy and said, We worked with Jim Baker, and he’s been very impressive and very effective— which he was— in the Presidential campaign. He knows this town inside out; the press love him. He’d make an ideal Chief of Staff.

And looking back, the recommendation was probably a sound one.

Hargrove

That’s interesting. So the President-elect just accepted it?

Laxalt

Yes. I think when the recommendation came, he just accepted it. He didn’t know Jim very well, but they got to be good friends and had a good personal relationship later. Jim is a very smart guy.

Hargrove

Oh, yes. It’s obvious. But then when he and [Donald] Regan swapped jobs, the President seemed to be, you know, Okay.

Laxalt

Oh, he got along beautifully with Don, the two Irishmen.

Hargrove

He didn’t see, he didn’t think through any implications of how it might not work or anything.

Laxalt

He didn’t think in those terms.

Hargrove

That’s what I’m trying to get at.

Laxalt

That was the beauty of the guy. He just didn’t sit around and second-guess. He didn’t sit around and say, Well, this scenario might be better than that one. He just didn’t indulge in that.

Young

He didn’t do any gaming, as they call it.

Laxalt

No. Richard Nixon, in contrast—everything was a scenario; everything was part of an overall strategic plan. Ron didn’t think in those terms. And that was a lot of his charm. The people around Ron Reagan—the women absolutely loved him, and I think the guys, to a person, really liked him. He was just a great human being. But they also knew that there was a line out there, and you better not cross it.

Hargrove

Of his conviction, you mean.

Laxalt

Yes. Don’t fool with him philosophically. Don’t make a whore out of him.

Knott

What did you see, for instance, in the ’76 campaign? Ronald Reagan as a campaigner both in ’76 and then in ’80, you saw him fairly up close and personal. Did he enjoy campaigning? Was he energized by campaigning?

Laxalt

Yes, I think he was. And if he wasn’t, he never bitched about it. You’d have to be very careful about not extending his campaign days too late, Nancy was very firm about that. Normally our last event might be at 7 or 8 o’clock at night, and he’d be down at 8 or 9. But he seemed to enjoy campaigning. Gosh, I remember in ’80 particularly, we did the campuses. As Governors, we would hardly go on a campus without a lot of security, so this was a brand new experience. The college students at that time absolutely loved him, and he loved talking to those kids, just loved it.

Knott

The challenge against President [Gerald] Ford in ’76 was sort of a gutsy, somewhat unprecedented thing. What was your advice to Ronald Reagan at that time?

Laxalt

He came here, and there had been some rumblings about the fact that Ford might be vulnerable. I, for one, never paid an awful lot of attention to it, but he came here, I think, fairly well armed in looking back, probably principally by Lyn Nofziger—maybe Bill Clark, to some extent—and Deaver, to really take a look at the Presidency. And Gerry Ford was a loyal Republican, a decent man, and the prospect of taking him on was not very appealing. So we had a dinner downtown, and that’s when he said he was looking at it and asked me what I thought.

I said, You shouldn’t be making any moves here unless you’re serious about it. Running for President is serious business. Running in California as Governor was serious, too, but this is a little bit more significant. So we developed a litmus test to do some surveys quietly to see whether there was political vulnerability on Ford’s part and how a Reagan candidacy would be viewed. The numbers were fairly positive. So when the process was concluded, he finally came to the conclusion that it would be worth a shot, and he wanted me to chair it. I agreed to go with him. That’s essentially how it started.

But I suspect every Governor of California in recent political history thought about being President. And it isn’t fanciful. You’ve got a basketful of electoral votes there, you’ve got a basketful of delegates. It’s like a hundred-yard dash, and if you get California, you start at about the 20-yard line.

Hargrove

Even in ’68 he made a little abortive—

Laxalt

That was foolish.

Hargrove

I agree.

Laxalt

That was just a little emotional shot. He went to the convention and didn’t have a potter’s chance in hell—except maybe if a couple of things had happened, he might have had—but it smacked of a—it really demonstrated at that time that he was really amateurish about Presidential politics. That’s something he shouldn’t have done.

Young

Who was with him in that decision? Was Lyn?

Laxalt

Lyn was there. Lyn was with him and Cliff White, who was a trusted old hand but had sort of run out of horses and was looking for one. I thought it was ill advised. Then he tried to suck me into it—into nominating him.

Young

He started out as a favorite son, was the idea.

Laxalt

Well, he called me, and he said, I’m thinking about being a favorite son. I said, Fine. He said it would improve his leverage. I agreed with that, obviously it would. He said, Would you nominate me for favorite son? and I said, Hell yes, no problem. I said, You know I’m committed to Nixon, which I was.

We get to Miami, for God’s sake, and suddenly the strategy is shifted. He becomes a serious candidate, and that leaves me with an outstanding commitment to nominate him. But when I presented the problem to him, even though Lyn didn’t like it much, he said, Hell, this commitment was given under one set of circumstances, circumstances have changed, so you’re—

That showed you the kind of person—A lot of other people say, Whoa, you should have understood that circumstances do change, a commitment’s a commitment. But he never even pressed that.

Hargrove

Interesting.

Young

You said it was politically amateurish. So he still had some room to go to get some political smarts?

Laxalt

Oh, yes, no doubt about it. And developing an organization. He didn’t have any of the strong horses, he had a few loyalists there from California.

Hargrove

He’d only been Governor a couple of years, hadn’t he?

Laxalt

It was premature. It was just an ego trip, not so much on Ron’s part, but the people around him.

Young

Do you suppose Nancy Reagan was approving of this?

Laxalt

I don’t know. I just never saw her tracks around at this time. I really didn’t. She wasn’t as prominent a presence at that time.

Young

Was she generally during the Governorship? Or did she come into that—

Laxalt

I only saw her socially in the Governor’s days. We’d see one another. We had various political events, the four of us would very often join together for those. But as far as substantive political discussions otherwise, I never saw Nancy become a player.

Young

So that changed as he became President and in the White House.

Laxalt

Yes, she just continued to develop an interest.

Hargrove

Now, I have the clear impression that as he entered the White House, the transition, the [David] Gergen-[Richard] Wirthlin memo, the strategy, [David] Stockman strategy—It was all very carefully thought through.

Laxalt

Transition?

Hargrove

Yes, and then what happened afterwards, following the Gergen-Wirthlin memo. Let’s just do domestic policy, let’s forget foreign policy, let’s not make Jimmy Carter’s mistake and overload.

Laxalt

You’ll have to refresh my recollection.

Hargrove

That was what Gergen and Wirthlin said.

Laxalt

The Gergen and Wirthlin memo—I probably saw it, but I don’t recall—

Hargrove

This is what they said: Carter made a mistake. He did too much across the board—

Young

He had micromanaged.

Hargrove

—and sent too much up. The cold war now is in such a situation that we can’t do anything about it. Let’s forget about it for a while, let’s focus on the economic program. Which is what they did. Then Stockman took off with a tear before the Cabinet officers even knew what he was doing. But it was all guided, I guess, by Baker, with Reagan’s support. But it was a strategically clear, decisive, thing to do—to go for the tax cuts, the budget cuts, and so on.

Laxalt

It was.

Hargrove

But this was all thought through.

Laxalt

Marty Anderson was very prominent, and [Arthur] Laffer was very active then. And when they mentioned supply-side economics, that was brand new language for this town.

Hargrove

How did it get into—was it Jack Kemp? Who brought it into Reagan’s ken? Because he was a budget balancer in his—

Laxalt

If the truth be known, probably through Ed Meese.

Hargrove

Oh really? He was in touch with—

Laxalt

Ed was right there in the White House. He didn’t get Chief of Staff, but on the substance side of it he was very, very, well respected by Ron, because he was totally trustworthy, loyal. So I suspect that Ed—and I don’t remember, frankly—but I suspect Ed had to be part of that.

Hargrove

And then Stockman went to town.

Laxalt

Well, Stockman went to the weeds.

Hargrove

Eventually. Once they got started, though, they wouldn’t pull back. They had the political leverage, and they were not going to lose it.

Laxalt

Well, soon as we could get Phil Gramm and the boll weevils aboard on the House side, we were in high cotton, as they say.

Knott

Your role as the President’s friend, the President’s man in the Senate, so to speak—could you talk a little bit about that, when that first came about that you were going to be this sort of unofficial presence for him up on the Hill?

Laxalt

It just gradually evolved. That’s an overused word, particularly in this town, but it did. My only role for him in the campaign was basically as his political friend, and in ’76 I was literally by myself. There were just a handful of us here in this town that supported him for President and campaigned with him. In ’76, I think I campaigned in every one of the states one time or other, very often all by myself. And then when he was elected President, the first thing you have to answer is whether you want to go to the White House. I made it clear to him and everybody else in the process that I just wanted to stay where I was. I’d just been reelected to the Senate, and I had a contract with my people. I wasn’t interested in going out of the Senate into a Cabinet position or anything else.

Then the press are the ones—in some of those early pieces, I became a creature of the press, I guess. Don’t you think so, Tom? They’re the ones—the first friend and all that stuff. That became a press sort of thing. But our relationship was just personal. We were just damn good friends, and the fact that he was President didn’t make a darn bit of difference. Except he tended to be a little—I’ll never forget the night he was elected. I said, Hell, do I have to call you Mr. President now? He said, Only in the presence of others.

I got the word early. Only in the presence of others. God!

Hargrove

What did you really do when you were one-on-one? Did you call him Mr. President?

Laxalt

Oh, no.

Hargrove

You called him Ron?

Laxalt

Oh, yes.

Hargrove

But you did begin to play a role of advisor and helper with the Senate?

Laxalt

I was brought in because of my presence in the Senate and because of my relationship with the President, because the press viewed me to be the guy, the go-to guy in the Senate, which was very awkward, because Howard Baker was the leader, and we had a clear understanding that I wasn’t going to infringe there. If I wanted to be leader, I could have run. I probably had a fair shot then on the heels of the Reagan victory.

But otherwise, because of my relationship with the President, I became the go-to guy, not only in terms of the Congress, but in terms of the White House. If they had a beef with the House or the Senate—which was frequent—they’d call me up. And, of course, the people on the Hill thought—they always think—the White House staffs are just an absolute disaster in every way. They can’t tolerate White House staffs. That game is probably being played right this very moment. So that’s how that all evolved.

Hargrove

But Baker, there were no problems with you and Baker?

Laxalt

Not a bit, not a bit. Total gentleman. We both recognized the situation, and, fortunately, it wasn’t a problem. When he first decided to run for leader, he asked me to nominate him. So the night of the election, he called and advised me that it looked like we were going to have control of the Senate. My first reaction was he got his nose into some of that Tennessee mash, because that couldn’t be. But, by God, we did have control of the Senate, to everybody’s surprise. So it was just not a matter of nominating him for leader; it was nominating him to be majority leader. He just asked me, Is our commitment still good? I said, Hell, yes. There’s nothing that’s happened to change that.

So I honored that commitment. What he did, which was unprecedented, he—I was the only one, probably, in the history of this town who was in the leadership who wasn’t elected. Never got one vote. Oh, I got one vote: Baker’s. So it was interesting, and everybody accepted it. I’d go to the leadership meeting, be sitting in the big cabinet room, be sitting right next to the Vice President. George Bush and I sat together there for years, and everybody accepted it. They all knew that I hadn’t received a single vote. Unusual. But a lot of decent people. Howard Baker is one of the most decent people in God’s world. Anybody else, it never would have worked.

Hargrove

I don’t believe there’s any precedent for this role before or since.

Laxalt

I was told at the time by some of the old Senate historians that we were breaking brand new ground in the relationships.

Hargrove

I think so.

Young

I think that’s right. You make it sound so natural, that it was the natural thing.

Laxalt

It evolved.

Young

But there were precedents being broken all over the place, political precedents that were being changed. I’m wondering, how much did Reagan rely on people like yourself, or were you really unique? That is, trusted friends to help him get along with and connect with the worlds of politics that he wasn’t really very familiar with. It seems to me that Nancy was a key.

Laxalt

She was key.

Young

That you were key.

Laxalt

Jim Baker was key because of his position, because he was a very skillful politician. Ed Meese certainly was key because, of the whole group, Ed Meese was the only one who really had conservative credibility. Jim Baker was always suspect. Mike Deaver was always suspect—among the conservatives. But they all had their power centers, so he leaned on all of them. I don’t think it was part of any real plan. He talked to them, what the hell. He knew what their strengths were, and their weaknesses. But Ed Meese was just—During a lot of those tough calls, invariably he’d look around, or he’d even ask me, So what does Ed think?

So Ed Meese, substantive. And as far as getting a read on the conservatives, conservatives are a pain in the ass. I’m one of them, but, God, they can be so righteous. So whenever we wanted to get a read on them, Ed was the go-to guy.

Hargrove

Now you mentioned several times about the conservatives in here, but you don’t name them. Who are the people you’re talking about generally?

Laxalt

You mean in the group?

Hargrove

Well, are you talking about conservatives out of the White House, in regions of the country, or in Washington?

Laxalt

Everywhere. Everywhere. They’re a very potent force. In the first couple of years in the Presidency, I spent most of my time with the conservative groups in California, trying to pacify them because neither Ronald Reagan nor anybody else in God’s world is ever conservative enough. I think [George W.] Bush is coming closer than anybody, but nobody was ever conservative enough. They didn’t think he was decisive enough on gun control, or decisive enough on abortion, and a lot of issues, which he glossed over very capably, I thought.

Hargrove

Yes, lip service. These are people in private life who have been supporting you.

Laxalt

Yes, but they were political animals. They’re the ones who can hurt you. They can be very aggravating because they’re very effective.

Hargrove

How about the religious conservatives?

Laxalt

At that time they weren’t that big a force. [Jerry] Falwell would come in from time to time, and [Pat] Robertson, of course, but their strength evolved later.

Hargrove

So it was conservative—

Laxalt

Then in town you get the freedom group—Paul Weyrich and that group, and they were very effective, very vocal, very effective.

Knott

Viguerie.

Laxalt

And Richard Viguerie.

Loranger

I remember in ’82 you wrote a point-counterpoint in the New York Times with John Lofton, and they were saying that Reagan had sold out conservatives, in ’82.

Laxalt

In two years.

Loranger

It shows you. So there were problems early on from the conservative side. I remember, you had them into the office from time to time, or you’d go meet them in the hideaway.

Laxalt

They were a squeaking wheel, aggravating, but boy, it’s great to have them on your side. It’s just like the left. I mean, the left, they’re the squeaking wheel, too, and I suppose a lot of the people like Carter and even Clinton probably said, Get rid of those lefties.

Hargrove

Oh yes, big problem.

Laxalt

They’re the extremes, but they’re the ones that get the job done. Very often make the difference, too. Very often you hear, Well, why worry about the abortion people? There aren’t enough of them. There may not be enough in numbers, but there sure as hell are in terms of effectiveness. And the gun control people the same way, NRA [National Rifle Association].

Hargrove

Was the original kitchen cabinet of any value? Justin Dart and—

Laxalt

Yes, I think they made a great contribution in terms of inducing him to run for Governor. They were the real fathers of that candidacy. Holmes Tuttle and that crowd.

Hargrove

But then, when he got to the White House, they also sat down in OMB [Office of Management and Budget] and tried to shape appointments.

Laxalt

Yes, Bill Wilson did, a few of them.

Hargrove

I don’t know how effective they were.

Laxalt

They were very helpful also in the formation of the cabinet. A lot of them made very helpful suggestions.

Hargrove

But sensible ones.

Laxalt

Yes, yes. But you had an awful lot of pretty good—Justin Dart was very vocal, and he could be difficult. He had a darn good political head on him, and he was very conversant with the business community and the athletic community. I mean, All-American at Northwestern, and he was a star in many ways. Holmes Tuttle was very effective as a fundraiser, and Charlie Wick was very effective.

Young

Did that group stay in close relationship with Reagan as the years in the White House—

Laxalt

Just socially. [Walter] Annenberg would have an annual New Year’s party, and that whole group would gather together, at least annually. And then the Los Angeles crowd, they’d have dinners, and they’d all include one another.

Hargrove

But they did affect some Cabinet appointments.

Laxalt

No doubt about it.

Hargrove

Vetoed some people, too.

Laxalt

Yes.

Hargrove

At least I know of one veto.

Laxalt

Who was that?

Hargrove

A guy named Chester [Checker] Finn, who was at the time at Brookings, who had worked for Pat Moynihan and had turned conservative, as Moynihan did for a while, you remember.

Laxalt

And continued to be. I think Pat always was a solid conservative in most areas.

Hargrove

That’s right. But anyway, Checker told me this story.

Young

What post was he for?

Hargrove

Education Department. Bennett later brought him in as Assistant Secretary. But the comment by Justin Dart or somebody was, No good. Moynihan, Brookings. That was the end of it.

Laxalt

It could be as simple as that.

Hargrove

That was the end of it. But he worked his way in.

Young

So again, I want to get back to this: One of the interesting and important things about Reagan’s success in Washington inside the beltway, for a person who was new to it. We get very interested in how an outsider who has not been steeped in the politics of the beltway, how he becomes effective in it, and the means by which he gets the connections and works effectively in a system that he has had no particular experience in—and may indeed have run against Washington. That was the context of my question to you. You were a key person in that.

Laxalt

Yes, but there’s no substitute in Washington—and maybe in other endeavors in life—for being a winner. When you end up with 49 states, it gets people’s attention. A lot of things flow from that. I think he was so enormously successful because he had the mandate of the people. He was always subtle about it, and he was never boorish about it—but he also knew that you better not fool with the Irishman, because he’d go to the people, and he could hurt you. Whether you were a Congressman in some isolated Texas district or elsewhere, he could hurt you because— They were frightened to death of him, with cause.

Hargrove

Yes, the Congress was cowed when they first came back. It was cowed. There was one dramatic speech he gave on the tax cuts that seemed to make a great deal of difference. I can’t remember. I think it was before he was shot. But it was directed particularly against southern audiences, boll weevils and so on. In other words, this kind of thing worked, and members of Congress knew it worked. Then, when he came back after being shot, he was unbeatable.

Laxalt

Yes, he was for a long while.

Hargrove

Now, you were involved, you say, in the ’82 tax increases. Tell us about that.

Laxalt

In the tax increases in ’82? When I spoke about tax increase, I was talking about our gubernatorial days.

Hargrove

Oh, are you sure?

Young

Yes.

Hargrove

I thought there was something in the book about this—you played a role.

Loranger

The Gang of 17. Is that what you’re talking about?

Laxalt

Oh, the Gang of 17. Is that what you mean?

Hargrove

Yes, I think so. Tell that story. Was [Paul] Volcker involved in that? Tell the story.

Laxalt

No. Volcker wasn’t. He should have been, probably. But those were key people in the Congress as well as the White House. The reason for them was an attempt on a bipartisan basis to arrive at a budget framework and to come up with a budget that basically balanced out. We thought we had it worked out, except when we submitted it, Tip O’Neill, despite the fact he was represented at the sessions, turned on us, so that never got off the ground. And had we adopted that, we would have had a lot fewer budget woes in the years later. I was the President’s representative. Jimmy Baker and I were the representatives on the Gang of 17 for the President.

Hargrove

You anticipated deficits at this point out, and you were trying to prevent that?

Laxalt

Yes, we were trying to get it to a balanced-out position.

Hargrove

Why would O’Neill have been opposed to that?

Laxalt

He demagogued it. I loved him, but, boy, he demagogued the hell out of it. He thought we were just stepping on the old people, that old Social Security argument.

Hargrove

So it involved budget cuts.

Laxalt

Yes.

Hargrove

I see. But the President was never enthusiastic about submitting a balanced budget—never did it, did he? You complained about that.

Laxalt

Yes, I didn’t like that. A lot of us didn’t. A lot of the Stockmans of the world felt that they wouldn’t pay a whole lot of attention to his budget anyhow, so why take the bird politically? But I thought, if there was ever anybody who submitted a balanced budget regardless of the grief, it ought to be Ronald Reagan. But he never did. He could have submitted that balanced budget, and they still would have thrown it in the basket. Then he would have ensured his credibility among the conservatives, and that was his political family. But I could never get through to him on that particular point.

Young

Why not, do you suppose?

Laxalt

I really think that Nancy leaned on him heavily that he can’t be cast as this uncompassionate guy who doesn’t care about the needy and the little kids and all the rest of it. I think she was pretty strong. And Jim Baker had a view of the same sort.

Hargrove

So the deficits were not seen as a big problem then?

Laxalt

A lot of them felt that the deficits weren’t a problem at all. As Hubert Humphrey used to tell us all the time, Hell, don’t worry about it. We just owe it to ourselves. I loved him, but somehow I didn’t think that was true.

Knott

So would you have preferred that the President had pushed maybe for some defense cuts? You were not quite as taken—

Laxalt

No, no. I felt we couldn’t give on that, but there were a lot of areas where I felt he could reasonably have come with a balanced budget. It wasn’t that big a deal, frankly. But defense at that time, as you probably recall, was a sacred cow—for conservatives, particularly. You tinker with that, you’re in real trouble.

Knott

Can I ask for your recollections of some events from that very first year? The assassination was just mentioned in passing, but that was followed not too long after by the PATCO [Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization] strike. That seemed to sort of cement Reagan’s image as a man of decision and decisiveness.

Laxalt

I was so proud of him. We all were when he stood firm. It wasn’t really surprising. They defied authority, and he wasn’t about to let them get by with it, not on his watch.

Young

Was there early warning of that strike? Was this something that he was anticipating?

Laxalt

I think that Drew Lewis was working in it principally, and I think he came back with a reading that they could well strike and force his hand.

Young

So it didn’t take the President entirely by surprise.

Laxalt

No, not entirely. He wasn’t going to tolerate that. And I agree with you, I think that established him in the minds of an awful lot of people who aren’t that political as a guy who is going to stand up and be counted. Despite all the gloomy predictions that we had—the whole system would break down, we’d have crashes everywhere—all those spots where they portrayed Reagan as an evil person.

Knott

Did your colleagues in the Senate react in any discernible way that you recall? Did that impress them?

Laxalt

Well, it would all depend, obviously, on their politics. A lot of our Democratic colleagues with strong union leanings didn’t like it a bit because that didn’t send out a very decent message as far as the union supporters were concerned. Conservatives loved it, of course, and the moderates, depending, I guess, on their constituencies. But he just developed a hell of a lot of respect for standing up and being counted, in Harry Truman style. You know what I mean? Right now, I think from that point on, the power centers in this town figured, here’s a guy you better take seriously.

Young

Well, that on top of his big majority from the election.

Laxalt

That helped. That reinforced the big majority. I’ll never forget, early in the White House, we were on the Truman porch—which is a real treat—having a belt or two, looking out across the lawn at the Monument. And he said, Jesus, I’m starting to feel like a caged animal. I said, Well, you’ve got Camp David.

He said, I’m going to use that a lot, that’ll free me up. I said, What do they permit you to do here? And he said, Not a hell of a lot. I said, Well, Jesus. You know, the Secret Service types tend to get overly protective. You really ought to walk up Pennsylvania Avenue on a Sunday morning when there aren’t a hell of a lot of people in town, or maybe over to Lafayette Park. He thought that was a pretty good idea. It was a lousy idea. [laughter]. Lousy idea!

Knott

I don’t know if break is too strong a word, but I think you differed for a time with the president on the MX [missile, experimental] proposal. It would have had a tremendous impact on your home state.

Laxalt

It did, but he hadn’t arrived at a position. The position that was being enunciated basically was characterized as a Carter decision. The Carter people had come down strongly in favor of MX, and so did the whole Air Force crowd. But as far as MX was concerned, I don’t think he arrived at a position. Of course, Weinberger—we always sensed from the beginning—had misgivings about the feasibility of the MX system. Jake [Edwin Jacob] Garn and I, with our people, developed what we thought was a strong case that it didn’t make any sense because it could be overwhelmed. Statistically it didn’t take any nuclear genius to point that out. So we came with our white paper, making that basic point, and we had statistics to support it. When we submitted it to Weinberger, Weinberger agreed, and he so indicated to the President.

Loranger

Plus, didn’t President Reagan form the Townes Commission?

Laxalt

Yes, and they came with recommendations as well. But as far as MX was concerned, I don’t think he had a firm position on that at the onset.

Hargrove

Is it the case that Reagan had a firm belief that military expenditures would break the Soviets’ back? They would see they couldn’t compete.

Laxalt

Well, yes, I think what finally did it, of course, was star wars.

Hargrove

That’s the pièce de résistance.

Laxalt

Yes, I think that finally did it. In the minds, at least of the Soviets. I used to know the Soviet ambassador here pretty well—

Young

That was [Anatoly] Dobrynin?

Laxalt

Yes. For a while, it was one of my responsibilities—for the President to go over and meet with Dobrynin. And Dobrynin loved that, of course. He could report to the Kremlin that he was working with insiders. That all went fine until Reagan called the Soviets an Evil Empire. Jesus Christ! I could have just died, because that just reinforced the Kremlin view that he was just a wild-assed cowboy.

But anyhow, that was part of my responsibility then, to maintain contact with Dobrynin. But Dobrynin indicated to me along the way—When star wars started to develop, and it appeared that we were serious about it, we could fund it, implement it—he indicated that they figured there was no point in getting into that kind of war with us. Just strategically.

Hargrove

I’ve often wondered whether star wars was really taken seriously as technology, or was just a symbolic threat.

Laxalt

A little of both. Because even to this day you have a lot of doubts about whether star wars makes any sense.

Hargrove

That’s right.

Laxalt

Less so after the event. I don’t hear anybody taking potshots at star wars any longer, though. It will probably be accepted in George W’s Presidency.

[BREAK]
Laxalt

Well, a lot of that stuff I hadn’t thought about in years and years. I can hardly believe I’ve been out of the Senate for 15 years.

Hargrove

It’s been that long? I wanted ask you about the second year initiative on the swap with the Governors, the federal swap.

Laxalt

Federalism.

Hargrove

Yes, income maintenance programs to Washington, service programs out to the states. He came out to Tennessee to talk to the national legislature and launch this thing early in the second year.

Laxalt

Who did that?

Hargrove

Reagan.

Laxalt

Was that before we formed our federalism group?

Hargrove

I’m not sure what the planning was, but it was a clear overture to the Governors: Let’s do a swap. We’ll do what we can do, which is send checks.

Laxalt

Right.

Hargrove

And you guys can run programs. But it never really took off, and I was never clear why. Did you have any—

Laxalt

I was involved in the effort at the request of Jim Baker and Rich Williamson.

Hargrove

Yes, he was ongoing—

Laxalt

It was interesting. Seemingly, the locals would welcome the power coming their way, right? Not only Governors, but mayors and so forth. From the very beginning, I sensed that a lot of the locals, including the Governors, were very comfortable with the way we were doing business, and they didn’t want to fool with it. Now, I’ll never forget, when we had a particularly—I was going to say inspirational, but it wasn’t, spirited would be better—hearing. These were all off the record, and they were pretty evenly split about whether they wanted to pursue that type of course. Afterwards, Mayor [Edward] Koch came up to me, and he said, It’s nice to talk about removing the power centers and changing them as we’ve done here at several of these meetings. Now I’m speaking not only for myself as a mayor of New York, but for a hell of a lot of other elected officials around this country. We would a hell of a lot rather do business with Washington than Albany. [laughter]

I told Reagan, Jesus. We spent all this damn time, for Christ’s sake, trying to push the power back, and they don’t want it. That was a real eye-opener.

Hargrove

That’s wonderful. Well, the Governors didn’t think they were going to get enough money back, did they? They were promised the taxes would go back, but, well, it’s too bad it didn’t work out, I thought it made sense, myself.

Laxalt

Probably too much so, huh?

Hargrove

Yes, too rational. Yes, I think so.

Knott

Do you have some recollections from the AWACS [Airborne Early Warning & Control Systems] battle? It was a pretty pitched fight, to send this advanced aircraft to the Saudis.

Laxalt

Not really. It wasn’t part of my committee responsibility, and I really wasn’t part of the deliberations.

Knott

How about aid to the Contras?

Laxalt

Yes, that was always sort of a festering wound, and, of course, it’s eventually what got him in trouble with the Iran-Contra. I don’t know. It’s amazing how just a few people who are really interested in a cause, if they’re dedicated enough, can make a huge difference. The whole Contra thing was a clear example of that. The vast majority of us on the Hill, myself included, were never even down there. We didn’t know the personalities and the philosophical lines were a little hazy and confused, and Communist takeover of that part of the world wasn’t very momentous, as far as we were concerned. But you just had a handful of people who felt very strongly about that issue, and they were all conservatives. Ollie North was very forceful about that. He was only a staffer at the time.

Knott

Did you get the impression that this was important to the President?

Laxalt

Not really.

Hargrove

You remember the Tower Commission faulted the President for not making the NSC [National Security Council] system work.

Laxalt

Right.

Hargrove

Did he not understand how to use staff systems for his benefit?

Laxalt

No, I think he left that up to Jim.

Hargrove

In other words, he was ill served by that process, without any question.

Laxalt

I think there were just too many things going on that the President of the United States should have been aware of.

Hargrove

Right.

Laxalt

Ollie just became a power unto himself.

Hargrove

Now Don Regan was shut out of that pretty much, wasn’t he? [John] Poindexter came up a separate line, so we can’t really blame Regan—or, I don’t know.

Laxalt

It was part of his responsibility as Chief of Staff. He should have disagreed with that violently, that he’d been co-opted, which probably is true. Isn’t that what you’re saying?

Hargrove

Yes, he let himself be co-opted. He shouldn’t have been. But then [Frank] Carlucci comes in—and Colin Powell—and you get a tighter staff, and the President is better served.

Laxalt

Yes.

Young

Well, Howard Baker comes in, too.

Hargrove

As Chief of Staff. Yes, and that’s really the origin of—

Young

That makes a big difference.

Laxalt

Howard’s coming in, I think, made a world of difference.

Young

In what specific respects?

Laxalt

Well, I think credibility, the credibility with the press and with the Congress.

Young

Was Reagan down when Baker came in?

Laxalt

Well, it was a pretty gloomy time. Then we had this internecine warfare between Don and Nancy, and you knew where the hell that was going. It was just a matter of time before it would be hasta la vista to Don.

Young

Had she opposed his appointment as Chief of Staff?

Laxalt

No, she rather liked him at the beginning.

Hargrove

But it went sour before the—

Laxalt

He just wouldn’t be deferential. He was a CEO. No one was going to tell him what to do except the President, which is not good strategy. Then when he didn’t take her phone calls a few times, that didn’t go well either.

Hargrove

And Deaver was gone to be a go-between.

Laxalt

The situation badly needed a mediator.

Young

I have no way of knowing, but just from the outside, it looks to me like one of the chief people—if not, perhaps, the only person around Reagan at that time in the White House who was interested in protecting him—this is before Howard Baker came in as Chief of Staff—was Nancy Reagan. It seemed to me. It seemed everybody else had other agendas. Who is out there helping the President in his moment of need? And I can just imagine that it really brought Nancy Reagan into a very concerned and forceful role.

Laxalt

No question.

Young: It came out as well, the astrology and all that aside—but there’s a question of here’s a person whose real strength had been credibility with the people, and that had been thrown into doubt, and a person who was really good at reaching out. And his scheduling and his management by his own staff didn’t appear to be all that much concerned with that.

Hargrove

Also remember that both Shultz and Weinberger distanced themselves on selling the missiles. They said, We don’t want to know any more about it, I believe.

Laxalt

A lot of CYA going on. And the Vice President’s role there is unclear.

Young

I’m trying to remember, and I’m just speaking about an impression from the outside, but you were in a position to observe this from the inside.

Laxalt

I didn’t participate in any of the discussions. I just watched the aftershock. Both of them, really, George and Cap to a certain degree, let it be known that they leaked, that their people leaked to the papers that they weren’t all in favor of the policy.

Hargrove

Right, right. Upfront they did. But they couldn’t get anywhere with the President.

Laxalt

Well, of course, he denied having been party to any of this anyhow. So it was a very confusing situation, to say the least.

Hargrove

Yes, yes.

Laxalt

That was a bad time because he was in the dumps for the reasons that I mentioned—that the people didn’t believe him. Then he was in between Nancy and Don Regan, and that wasn’t pleasant. It was a bad time.

Hargrove

He’s a man who’s dependent on the quality of his staff, isn’t he?

Laxalt

Oh yes. And that’s not critical of him, because—

Hargrove

Oh, no.

Laxalt

—because he is very dependent on staff, always has been.

Knott

Earlier, I asked you about the Contras, and you said that you didn’t get the impression that he was all that taken with the cause.

Laxalt

Just as he would in a lot of other matters.

Knott

I was wondering what those other matters would be.

Laxalt

That he was interested in?

Knott

Yes, the ones that you saw that he was really captivated by.

Laxalt

Well, he was very captivated by the whole Soviet thing, constantly. He genuinely felt that they were a menace, they were an Evil Empire, and it was his responsibility to step up and be counted. He didn’t feel his predecessors had. And, of course, he was constantly occupied by the fiscal situation.

Knott

What about the abortion issue?

Laxalt

They tried to make that front and center, but he never felt that was a high priority issue for a President, and I think he was absolutely right. I think the same applies to gun control. I think they’re strong issues, and they’re very important to a lot of conservatives, but I don’t think they ought to infect the Presidency to the point of moving that to the top of the pile.

Young

Goldwater had much the same view of that issue, did he not?

Hargrove

That’s true, yes.

Young

He didn’t believe it belonged—

Laxalt

He tended to get off the reservation frequently, like when he endorsed gay rights. Only Barry could get away with that. There goes Barry again.

Hargrove

I have just one little question. Do you think you made a mistake about James Watt?

Laxalt

No.

Hargrove

You don’t?

Laxalt

Um-um. I think that if Jim had just kept his mouth shut in dealing with the press—Talk about off-the-cuff remarks. That’s where he got in trouble. But at the time, you’ve got to remember again, in context, I bring to that problem a western perspective.

Hargrove

Oh, I understand.

Laxalt

I saw the sagebrush rebellion from its very beginnings, where those federal bureaucrats were stepping all over the ranchers and miners out there, and they were at the point of an insurrection. And so that was a very important appointment. It was the only thing I suggested to the President, as soon as he was elected. I said, I only want dibs on one appointment.

He said, I know what it is.

I tried to get Cliff Hansen to take it, but Cliff just had enough of it. He was tired and wasn’t well, wanted to go back to Wyoming. So I talked with a lot of the Governors, everybody out there, and they all had their political axes to grind. But he had an amazing amount of support among conservatives out there, elected officials and otherwise. They said, If you can, get Jim Watt— I didn’t know who the hell he was— If you can get Jim Watt, he’s the guy that we should have at this time.

So I arranged a meeting, and he and the President got along just famously, but he just tended to talk too much. Don had that problem too, talking too much. But as soon as Jim Watt came in and served, and for those who followed afterward in his cast, that almost completely quelled the sagebrush rebellion out there, don’t you think? You were out in Colorado at the time?

Knott

Not at that time, no. Just in the ’90s.

Laxalt

You just didn’t hear much about it. But that’s a key appointment for the West.

Hargrove

Oh, yes.

Laxalt

They couldn’t care less who’s Secretary of State, but they sure as hell want to know who is going to be running the BLM [Bureau of Land Management].

Knott

You served for a time as general chairman of the Republican Party.

Laxalt

Yes, I was drafted.

Knott

You were drafted.

Laxalt

I didn’t want to do that at all.

Young

That was another historical first, I think.

Laxalt

Yes, that’s true. They created the position.

Young

Yes, yes.

Laxalt

I did that. At the time, Dick Richards of Utah was chairman. I don’t know what happened, but he never seemed to really click. Jim Baker was concerned about it, and Deaver was. They said, Geez, we’ve just got to fill that hole. And the President became concerned about it. So they came to me and asked me if I would take it, and I said, No. And they said, Why not? I said, Because the rule requires it be full time, and I’m not going to resign as Senator to become chairman of the Republican party.

So that’s when they divined this general term. I wasn’t enthusiastic about that either, but then he and I had lunch together, and he was very persuasive. He said, I just don’t want to be worried about that political situation. You’ve just got to go in there and handle this for me. Which I did for four years.

Hargrove

Four years?

Laxalt

Yes.

Hargrove

As you know very well, there are lots of different theories about where the campaign ought to be run: White House or the Committee. What are the pros and cons of that, from your experience?

Laxalt

Well, I think if you have a sitting President, it ought to be run from the White House, and obviously, if you don’t have a sitting President, the Committee ought to do it. The lines are really—

[BREAK]
Young

I want to ask you a trivial question. Your first language was Basque? And they stem from things I’ve read in your book. You were in Bermuda with—I forget who with—you were playing golf there—

Laxalt

That was with Danny Quayle.

Young

Yes, Dan Quayle.

Laxalt

Malcolm Wallop.

Loranger

Korologos?

Laxalt

And [Max] Friedersdorf.

Young

Yes, Friedersdorf was U.S. counsel.

Laxalt

Why is it I remember those golf outings so clearly?

Young

You got a call, you said, from Reagan. And what you said in the book was that you knew this was bad news, because Reagan never called you just to chat. So I’m here reading this, and I’m saying to myself, is that really so? That you were a person he called when he had trouble? I mean, can you generalize?

Laxalt

No, no. He used to call about other things occasionally, and, of course, we’d visit over at the White House in the residence. Visited with him at Camp David, traveled with him a lot.

Young

But you were a troubleshooter. You used that word about yourself. I’m still trying to figure out what’s the right moniker for you.

Laxalt

Well, you probably can’t figure it out, because there is no right moniker.

Young

So then, what academics do in that circumstance is, they start naming all the hats you wear. You’re a Senator, you’re a Nevadan, which is a shorthand way of explaining that you had multiple jobs and assignments and things. We haven’t talked about your [Ferdinand] Marcos and your other trips, which also are quite extraordinary.

Hargrove

I’d like to hear about the Marcos. I just marked it.

Young

Well, to go beyond the Senator’s account already given in the book.

Laxalt

He was a master of understatement, like saying, I think we have a bit of a problem out in Beirut. And Quayle said, He said that?

Young

You wanted to ask about—

Hargrove

I’d like to hear about the Marcos story if you want to add more than what you’ve already said in your record.

Laxalt

Concerning what?

Hargrove

You went to see him, and then you came back, and then you called him.

Laxalt

Yes.

Hargrove

You got the assignment.

Laxalt

Right.

Young

And you devoted a considerable little section in your book to that, the outcome of that.

Hargrove

But two things I didn’t realize. You mentioned that there was a possibility of Communist insurgence. I hadn’t realized that, because what finally toppled him was a popular—

Laxalt

True, but he had a serious Communist insurgency, too. Mainly in the outlying islands, and our intelligence had revealed that. It was one of the reasons why they were afraid. That’s the last thing we needed there in the Philippines.

Hargrove: Did we realize how corrupt he was at the time?

Laxalt

Well, I think probably most of the insiders, at least, felt that he was fairly straight, but his wife was less so. He wasn’t the least bit materialistic, but she was. She loved to travel the world with an entourage, own jets, and shoes, and the whole bit.

Hargrove

So what were you sent out there to tell him?

Laxalt

Essentially, clean up your act. This is my language. But I was tipped off on that trip, curiously enough, on the Senate floor one day when Danny Inouye came up and said, We just had a very important meeting on the Philippines. I said, Where did that take place? He said, In the White House. I don’t know whether I should have done this, but I hope I didn’t take your name in vain. I said, What the hell did you do?

Well. They just pointed out that the Philippine problem was worse and becoming critical, and they needed someone to go out and talk to Marcos, and Marcos was just sick and tired of the State Department types. So Danny said, A guy like Marcos likes to be able to talk to the top, and he knows he can’t talk to the President, so I threw your name in. I said, Thanks one hell of a lot.

So that recommendation came from Danny. Then I went over and met with all of them at the White House. That’s when they pointed out to me that this was a very serious problem. Ron was very decent about it. He said, I know this is a tough assignment, and you needn’t go.

But Shultz and everybody chimed in then, and they felt that this was the right approach. If we just approached him directly, armed with a letter from the President, maybe we could get Marcos to straighten out his situation. Because they were all under the impression that he didn’t know what was going on. As it developed, I was convinced of that, too. They would tell him what he wanted to hear, and he had serious problems in connection with morale, even within the palace, and certainly in the military, as later evidenced.

Young

But you were, in effect, a back channel for the President.

Laxalt

Sort of a public back channel. They blew our security. Who was it? The Washington Times? One of our guys who was supposed to be—

Knott

National Security Council staff leaked it.

Laxalt

This was a complete graveyard trip. We were supposed to be treated that way, and we’re on the plane, and one of the NSC guys tells Tom [Loranger] that he tipped off one of his buddies on the Washington Times. So, hell, by the time we got there, it was public. We had this whole crowd of Philippine reporters there. They’re a pretty intimidating bunch, by the way.

Young

In what way?

Laxalt

Just menacing. They obviously didn’t like Marcos, and they wondered what the hell I was doing there, an outsider coming in.

Hargrove

So you sat down.

Laxalt

I had the feeling that I wasn’t overly welcome.

Hargrove

So you sat down with him in the palace.

Laxalt

Oh, yes. We had two or three meetings. We got along famously, just famously, but he had no idea what was going on. And he loved Reagan, it was a long-standing relationship. Reagan had originally met him and Mrs. [Imelda] Marcos when he was Governor of California. Went out on some mission for Nixon. They became very fast friends. Marcos was an engaging man.

Hargrove

Smart?

Laxalt

Smart as hell. But he had no idea what was going on. I told him the whole sad story, what our intelligence was revealing. I remember the last day I was there, he had [Fidel] Ramos, who later of course became President. God, how these people treat their military people just frosts me at times. Ramos was his Chief of Staff, and the day before, he had Ramos standing there about an hour and a half, during the length of this whole meeting when we were discussing the military aspects.

And the next day, for breakfast, I go there, and Ramos and his people had spent all night long preparing this briefing book to indicate that militarily they were in good shape, and the insurgency was under control. It was pap, it really was. But again, Marcos had this wonderful man standing there at attention like he was a potted plant. So Marcos was generally all right, but maybe that was true on the peer level, but maybe not otherwise. Not as far as staff was concerned. Now, I thought it was ironic later that Ramos became President.

Hargrove

He actually divided from him, didn’t he, and helped to lead this—

Laxalt

Yes, yes.

Hargrove

So then you came back. He was not responsive.

Laxalt

No, not really.

Hargrove

Then you came back, and you had occasion to call him. What prompted that, the call?

Laxalt

Well, I think somewhere along the line that I had talked with [William] Casey. Casey had talked with him before in some previous visit about the possibility of having a snap election. He was telling me how strong he was politically, and I suggested to him that maybe he ought to reconsider the snap election. If he’s as strong as he told me he was, hell, go through the election. That will solve a lot of your problems in Washington. They think most of the people are opposed to you. Then he said he was going to go on—what was it? The [David] Brinkley show. I said that would be a good dramatic time for you to announce that you’re going to go ahead with a snap election, and that was the reason for that call. Of course, then they went through the election, and there was talk about suspect.

Young

Yes. Right.

Hargrove

And then people—

Laxalt

He had one precinct in his home area. I’ll never forget when I talked to him about it, and he said, How are the elections being treated out there? I said, You’re pretty suspect, Mr. President. He said, Why? I said, Just one example: In one of your districts in your home area you got every vote. God damn. I couldn’t carry my own family with every vote. He said, Well, you Basques, you’re just too damn independent. Cute guy.

Loranger

He said, We tend to be more clannish.

Laxalt

Yes, more clannish.

Hargrove

Did the street get active then? People came out into the streets?

Laxalt

Yes, it started to come apart.

Hargrove

You then called and told him he had to fish or cut bait.

Laxalt

No, that was later.

Young

He called.

Laxalt

He called in panic and said that he thought that Weinberger had set the Marines loose, and they were coming down the river after him. I figured, well Jesus, gunboat diplomacy in Manila, for Christ’s sake. It was a little weird. So I called Weinberger. Weinberger thinks I’m about half nuts. Hell, no, he said. So I called Marcos back to reassure him that the Marines were not after him.

I guess the next step was that he wanted to talk to the President. The President, of course, couldn’t talk to him. So finally he calls. I think Shultz was giving us a senatorial briefing, and this staff person came in and announced to the group that President Marcos wanted to talk to Senator Laxalt. Jesus Christ. Shultz looked at me and wondered what the hell was going on. That’s when I gently suggested that the President couldn’t take a position on this, he really had to call his own shots. Then he asked me, Well, what would you do, Senator?

Oh Jesus. So I paused, just thinking this through in a hell of a hurry—the wrong response might lead to a hell of a lot of bloodshed. It was a critical moment. So I said, Mr. President, respectfully, I think it is— What was the phrase finally, Tom?

Loranger

Cut and cut clean.

Laxalt

Oh yes, I think it is time that you cut and cut cleanly. God, there was this awkward pause on the end of the line. He was just totally aghast; you could tell. He hadn’t expected that. And of course he finally got the hell out of there. And I really think they were awful close to civil war.

Hargrove

Oh, yes.

Laxalt

His people were all there. They were all in the streets, it was all ready.

Young

Were you in on any of the events, the meetings that Reagan had with Gorbachev?

Laxalt

No, I had nothing to do with any of that. That was strictly State and NSC. None of those. But he was always enthused after. I’d make it a point to call him and go down and talk to him after the Gorbachev meetings. He was always taken with Gorbachev.

Hargrove

This is after their very first meeting.

Laxalt

Yes. Right from the beginning he liked Gorbachev. And of course [Margaret] Thatcher portrayed Gorbachev as likable. I think she said that she thought she could do business with him.

Hargrove

That’s right, yes.

Laxalt

She laid a nice foundation for Ron, and it turned out they developed a great personal relationship.

Hargrove

Now, it’s been written that Reagan’s abhorrence of weaponry was even worse than his abhorrence of Communism. If he thought there was a chance for real disarmament, he would do it. Do you think that’s true?

Laxalt

Yes, I think it could well be true.

Young

That view was also associated with Nancy Reagan.

Laxalt

Nancy, clearly so. But Carter made noises in his inaugural speech, remember that? About disarmament. We thought he was just a naïve fool.

Hargrove

Well, it had to mature itself out, but Gorbachev made the difference, I think.

Laxalt

That’s right. Gorbachev bit the bullet, of course, and then like Churchill was sent out into the weeds. God. He’s still very unpopular, I gather. I wonder when they’ll get a decent perspective on his contribution, if ever.

Hargrove

I don’t know.

Laxalt

Who knows?

Hargrove

It was great, I think. Very great.

Knott

So you saw indications that President Reagan had this distaste that we’ve read about. I think [Edmund] Morris talks about this and some others about nuclear weapons, a desire to somehow get to the point where they were a thing of the past. He indicated this to you—

Laxalt

Well, he didn’t stress it, but I sensed all along that he felt, and I think most Presidents feel, if you ever get rid of the nukes, what greater contribution can you make? But I don’t think he ever—he never mentioned to me he thought it was realistic. That’s why he pushed star wars as strong as he did.

Hargrove

But even star wars was a partial vision of a world without offensive weapons. So he seemed to be moving in that direction, but he needed an invitation.

Young

Much was made in the press of the Shultz–Weinberger back-and-forth and conflict. It sort of at times took the place of what in the Carter years was the [Zbigniew] Brzezinski– [Cyrus] Vance dispute. Was this overdone? Was it not overdone? Did you have a chance to observe that? Did you get involved in it?

Laxalt

I think it is just endemic to the two positions, don’t you? Hell, there’s no love lost right now between Powell and [Donald] Rumsfeld. It’s not personal, it’s a turf thing. I don’t think it was the least bit different then.

Young

How did Reagan deal with something like that, when it came to—

Laxalt

You mean between the two of them?

Young

Conflicting advice.

Laxalt

Well, I don’t remember many instances where there were major problems addressed to him where a staff consensus hadn’t been developed.

Hargrove

He wanted that.

Laxalt

That’s really where Baker was so damn good. He was not going to take up a knotty problem, to make him choose sides. And I don’t remember any conflict of that kind, really, between the two of them. But they were both jealous of their prerogatives, both jealous of their relationships to Reagan. Weinberger went back to early California days. Shultz, of course, during those days was with Nixon. Then Shultz developed a very good relationship with Nancy. George can be a real charmer.

Hargrove

That was deliberate on his part.

Laxalt

He’s just a very social man.

Knott

Were there other occasions beyond the Marcos mission where you represented the President abroad?

Laxalt

Um-hum. No. One correction, when I met with the President of France. I went over, and I was on a personal visit to the Basque country, my home country.

Hargrove

Oh, there’s a photograph in your book of you and [François] Mitterrand.

Laxalt

Yes, so when I was down there, Mitterrand let word go by people he’d like to meet me, and that’s when I got hold of Reagan and asked him if he had any problems. He said, Hell no. I’d like to have you take the measure of the man.

So Mitterrand, instead of being this stiff-backed type he was portrayed to be, was just as gracious as he could be. Instead of a very short visit, we ended up visiting for well over an hour and a half.

Hargrove

Did you talk in French?

Laxalt

No. I told him at the beginning that my language skills were limited. He said his were too, so we were on even ground. But we had a good interpreter. He just wanted to know about Reagan, what kind of a person he was.

Young

He had not met Reagan?

Laxalt

No, no. He was a stranger to him. And I’m sure in his mind Reagan was some kind of wild man from the west, the cowboy image. So I came back and reported to him, I thought that Mitterrand—what the hell, he was a socialist and all that—but I had the sense that he was a very pragmatic man, difficult as the French are. But maybe they would get along, and they had a pretty good relationship, other than the one fly-over problem to Libya, remember.

So anyhow, Reagan said, What do you think of the guy? I said, Well, let me put it this way. We’re in a log cabin and could have just as well been in the Sierra Nevada mountains. On one wall he had a dozen cowboy hats. He can’t be all bad. [laughter] There were all these cowboy hats on a wall in this chateau in France.

Young

Do you suppose they had been long there?

Laxalt

I suspect they’d been there a long time.

Hargrove

That was his home there down in south central France somewhere?

Laxalt

In Soustance.

Hargrove

Where he’s buried, I think.

Laxalt

Yes, I think they buried him there.

Hargrove

What about Maggie? That relationship has been written about a lot.

Young

For the record, this is Prime Minister Thatcher that is being referred to.

Hargrove

What can you talk about there, the effect they had on each other?

Laxalt

Oh, I just think they literally loved one another, politically as well as otherwise. They had a great relationship. She just adored Ron in every way, and he thought she was the lady. This was not only political, it was personal.

Hargrove

Did she give him advice?

Laxalt

Yes, regularly.

Hargrove

She gave everybody advice.

Laxalt

She’s not exactly a shy person. He respected her. But as I say, she framed the relationship with Gorbachev probably more so than any other single person. If she had told him, This guy is bad news, I think you’d have had a wholly different situation. Then Ron would have thrown all of his defenses up, and Gorbachev would have sensed that.

Young

So she was a politician, too.

Laxalt

Oh, I guess. Skilled, too.

Young

But Reagan was not uncomfortable with her.

Laxalt

No, not at all. Not at all. When you look at the issues, they’re on all fours with one another.

Hargrove

Yes, they coincided at the time.

Laxalt

They did. Now you’ve got [Tony] Blair and Bush.

Hargrove

Or you can go back to—

Laxalt

And that’s becoming a nice relationship.

Hargrove

[James] Callahan and Carter, Reagan and Thatcher, [John] Major and [George H. W.] Bush, and now Blair and [George W.] Bush. Yes, the matches are very good.

Laxalt

Off point just a little, didn’t you think Blair’s speech to the Labor Party was almost Churchillian? God, that was a stirring speech. Did you hear it?

Young

Yes, I did.

Laxalt

Did you?

Hargrove

Yes.

Laxalt

It was marvelous.

Hargrove

I wondered if he was running for President.

Laxalt

I don’t know. It sure sounded like it. Don’t you love that clipped British accent? God, it’s effective. I wonder if they like our accent as well?

Hargrove

No, no.

Laxalt

Not at all?

Hargrove

No question about it.

Knott

Since we’re talking about foreign policy, do you have any special recollections or observations from some of the more tense situations, the Grenada invasion, the Libya bombing, the extent to which you might have been involved in those decisions?

Laxalt

Grenada I knew nothing about until he hauled us all in, together, the leadership group, into the White House and told us that morning what was happening. I don’t know that any of us agreed with the necessity or what was going on. Garn thought—Jake Garn was my seatmate, and he was invited because he was very active in matters of that kind at the time. He really thought that this was a very ill-advised decision on Reagan’s part. But it went so well they all finally accepted it.

We have a group, and we called the dinner the Lamb Fry. We have lamb—excuse—testicles sent out from the West once a year, and we go in black tie and boots, and we enjoy the lamb fry. Reagan went religiously every year, but suddenly this one night he isn’t there. I thought, Jesus maybe something happened to him. Maybe he’s not well or something.

We get barely into it, and at that moment Jim Baker stands up and dramatically indicates that the bombing of [Muammar] Khadafy was under way. So he was excused for the evening. That was the only one he missed, wasn’t it, Tom?

Loranger

He called in afterwards to apologize.

Laxalt

Yes, he did. But otherwise no, uh-uh.

Young

What about the Stockman problem?

Laxalt

Well, many of us felt that the one thing that any staffer owes a sitting President is undivided, unquestioned loyalty, and particularly your budget guy. For him to be ostensibly embracing the Reagan doctrine and then talking with the Atlantic Monthly was reprehensible. We all felt solidly that he shouldn’t just be taken to the woodshed, that Dave ought to be fired on the spot.

But Ron wanted to give him another chance. Ron just could not fire anybody. William French Smith used to say that he was his lawyer, so he was the heavy. He said, God, they used to run through more maids than you ever saw. Ron never had courage enough to fire the maid, he’d call me to do it. So that was Ron. Ron was not a heavy, just too soft-hearted.

Young

But somebody else could have done it, couldn’t they? Couldn’t somebody else have carried the message?

Laxalt

Oh, easily and happily.

Young

Yes, but he didn’t want to give the message.

Laxalt

No he didn’t want to. I think he liked Stockman, and he loved Stockman’s mind. Say what you will about Dave, he’s an absolute genius when it came to that budget, absolute. It was like talking to a computer.

Hargrove

But once the White House, or Baker, learned that they were going to have a deficit problem, Stockman was accurate on that, going out the years—

Laxalt

Well, that didn’t take any genius either.

Hargrove

No, but they decided to go ahead because they had an advantage they didn’t want to lose, I guess. Was that inevitable?

Laxalt

I guess so. He just couldn’t bring himself to—You’re talking about Dave?

Hargrove

No. About Baker and Reagan who decided not to pull the brakes but to push on since they had the political advantage.

Laxalt

I think that’s probably true.

Hargrove

Irresistible to do it and then worry about it later.

Laxalt

Well, those were tense days in the White House. When you have your budget guy get off the reservation and learn on the front page of the Post the whole story had leaked, and Stockman didn’t believe in the Reagan doctrine. That was a bit much. I mean, talk about Judas!

Hargrove

But they never recouped from that. That was a problem for them.

Laxalt

No question.

Hargrove

And I think there were people like Dole and [Peter] Domenici, who were ready to try, and do it.

Laxalt

Well, I’ll never forget when I was first in the Senate, and we heard this constant recurring deficit problem and Jude Wanniski— You know Jude.

Hargrove

Oh, yes.

Laxalt

He was part of this whole combine, and I knew him because he’d been a political reporter for one of the Las Vegas newspapers, and we got along well. So he comes over and has lunch with me, and the traditional way in those days that you approached the deficit problem was to trim the expense and tax it. Just like Reagan and I did. That’s the traditional way. Well, he came up with this idea, he said, You people in this government have been doing this the wrong way all along. The way to take care of a deficit problem is to cut taxes.

I said, How the hell do you justify that? It just blew my mind that that’s how you approach a deficit problem. He was pushing it then and eventually sold it.

Hargrove

Well, the theory is, of course—

Laxalt

We saw the wisdom in that it would be the stimulus that arises from the cut—

Hargrove

And the growth would come back—

Laxalt

Yes.

Hargrove

But it didn’t ever happen.

Knott

You became a convert? You became a supply-sider?

Laxalt

Later, yes, later. But it has to be part of an overall framework where you have the commensurate cuts. And Reagan really thought Congress didn’t honor their commitments on the cuts, and he was resentful of that. So I don’t know what happened there.

Hargrove

I don’t know how much of that was politically realistic to think that people were going to cut the budget drastically.

Laxalt

I think that’s probably—

Hargrove

Not sure.

Laxalt

Well, we know there’re a couple of sacred areas that they’re not going to touch, at least then. You don’t fool with Social Security, and you sure as hell don’t fool with defense. Both were sacred cows.

Hargrove

However you measure it, if you look at pork barrel across the board, Republican and Democratic, it doesn’t add up to a lot, does it?

Laxalt

You mean the discretionary spending?

Hargrove

Yes, yes, the discretionary spending.

Laxalt

I don’t know the percentage, but even then it wasn’t a hell of a lot. We used to fight so much in appropriations over discretionary, and the entitlements ate up the whole budget. I don’t know, what’s the level now? Eighty to eighty-five percent, maybe, are the entitlements? Built in? Probably, maybe more now with Medicare, Medicaid.

Young

Can we go back to campaign events. That was the first debate with [Walter] Mondale that Reagan had that did not go well.

Laxalt

To say the least.

Young

For Reagan. You said he’d been brutalized in a briefing or something like that. Over-briefed.

Laxalt

Press conference, yes.

Young

Over-briefed. How did that happen that he would make such a misstep as to—

Laxalt

Well, initially he was easily led, particularly when it came to political strategy. They had those sessions over in OMB [Office of Management and Budget], and [Richard] Darman and his group of wreckers just worked him over. They just wanted to make sure that he was fully briefed. He couldn’t say that he didn’t know all the facts; hell, he’d been President for four years! So they put him through an exercise—which appeared to be justified so he’d be fully aware, almost on a fingertip basis, as to what all the issues were. Instead of that, they poured so many figures in him that he didn’t know where the hell he was. He was punchy, and it showed. He was just over-trained.

Young

So the nature of his briefing had changed.

Laxalt

Yes, they had the format—

Young

Because there were other debates he had with Carter, which were very effective.

Laxalt

Yes, that was four years before.

Young

So the Darmans weren’t briefing him then.

Laxalt

No, the circuits weren’t overcharged.

Young

Yes, yes.

Laxalt

But the format, what they did was set up a simulated debate.

Knott

Of course, that debate prompted speculation at the time that the President was getting old.

Laxalt

That was our biggest problem.

Knott

Perhaps losing an edge.

Laxalt

That reinforced that.

Knott

Had you seen any signs of that?

Laxalt

No, not at all. Because I knew as soon as I saw that response that night exactly what had happened. It was the debate preparation that killed him. He just wasn’t in sync.

Young

How did Darman get the role of the principal briefer in this matter?

Laxalt

Insider and brilliant. Stockman had been run out of town by now. Stockman used to handle that sort of thing and do it very well. But Darman is a very brilliant guy. So they figured he would be an ideal prototype for Mondale. But they just approached it the wrong way. We’d all be smarter afterward. Reagan doesn’t respond well to that sort of briefing at all, not at all. He is not a detail, micromanaging type. He thinks in concepts, broad principles.

Young

There is a phrase, Darmanizing.

Laxalt

Duly Darmanized.

Young

It can mean several things—

Laxalt

Of course, Jesus, Nancy Reagan was so unhappy. Oh, God. And she had flown by herself. I’d flown, I forget how I got there. Someone had to fly back to Washington with Nancy, and none of these guys would. They all went to the weeds and said, Hell, no. So finally, I just decided I’d bite the bullet. I went back with Nancy and heard for two or three hours how this debate had been screwed up. Age problem was back on the table. By God, it’s going to be different, the preparation is going to be different next time. And she was right: It was.

Hargrove

Who managed it the next time? Do you remember who managed it?

Laxalt

No, but the debate was just done on a very simplistic basis.

Hargrove

I think very well.

Laxalt

Who took over, Tom, do you remember at all? Was it Lyn? Did Lyn get back in?

Loranger

I can’t remember. I just don’t remember. It was handled a lot differently. Instead of brutalizing him, they just kept him in the thematic area and made sure that his confidence level was up here instead of down here.

Young

Maybe my impression is wrong, but I saw a little bit of that evidence, it looked to me, of being over-briefed, as being given too many facts and figures. You know it can make anybody dizzy.

Laxalt

Unless you’ve got an accountant’s framework, that type of mind—and very few people have—stay away from that. That will kill a candidate.

Young

But I saw a little bit of that; I think it was the first major economic speech that Reagan gave. If maybe not the first, maybe it was another.

Laxalt

Detroit?

Young

No, I don’t think so. I think this was an Oval Office speech, because he had all these props. He had graphs and a pointer, and I remember he had a rubber dollar or something.

Laxalt

I don’t remember that.

Young

That he could stretch.

Laxalt

I must have buried that.

Young

And he was clearly—

Laxalt

The rubber dollar I remember vaguely. That was pretty bad, wasn’t it?

Young

Yes, and he was citing all these statistics about real purchasing power, and he was just rushing because they’d given him too much to say. They’d filled his head too full of facts. It was quite a shock from a viewer’s point of view because you’d never seen Reagan under this situation. He’s usually the master of the situation when he’s giving an address. Again, that was on questions of economics where he—Maybe it was the stay the course speech. I don’t think it was. I think it was introducing his economic program, which turned out okay.

Laxalt

Yes, I remember. What was it—they had some kind of animal, rubber animal?

Loranger

It was a dollar bill prop—

Laxalt

Oh, it was a dollar bill.

Young

Stretching and shrinking or something.

Laxalt

How hokey can you get?

Hargrove

Do you think it is possible that supply-side economics had great political appeal as well as economic, because there was no pain?

Laxalt

I’m just not sure of that. The economic issues, in my own travels around, just were not cutting edge when you get out in the town halls and all. God, we used to sit around here and fret about the deficit and the national debt, and you’d never get a question out stumping. People can’t relate to it.

Hargrove

People couldn’t relate because they weren’t suffering from it.

Laxalt

That’s right.

Hargrove

So it had a political appeal, in a sense. I’m not sure whether they ever turned on to it or not. Both Bush and Clinton bit the bullet.

Laxalt

Yes.

Hargrove

Unpopularily, but they got it resolved. But I’m not sure there was any great demand to do so. Ever.

Laxalt

I think if you’re going to do something, you’re going to do it pretty dramatically. The Bush tax cut is fine, but what the hell—they get $300 or $600. It doesn’t mean a hell of a lot to the people who receive it.

Hargrove

No.

Laxalt

I’d rather have seen all of it go in at once. If you’re really going to—What would be the term, ignite, or stimulate—

Young

Jump-start.

Laxalt

If you want to jump-start, do it with a real shot.

Young

You don’t do it incrementally and a number of times.

Laxalt

Let me talk for a second or two about relationships up there.

Hargrove

Oh yes, please do.

Laxalt

You raised that. When I first came here in ’73, Jake Garn and I were the only two Republicans to be elected. That was post-pardon. Remember that? Terrible year. Watergate, post-pardon era. When I came here I was pretty nervous because there were big healthy Democrat majorities, and the Republicans pretty much were held in—not bad regard, but certainly not good, either.

I came here, and, of course, I was greeted handsomely and warmly by my fellow Republicans whom I had met before I’d been Governor. I’d met a lot of them in another world. But to my delightful surprise, I was embraced most warmly by the Democrats, starting with Mike Mansfield, God rest him. He was then Majority Leader, we were fellow Westerners, and he was interested in my background. He had a lot of Basques in Montana who supported him, apparently, and he just embraced me. Hubert Humphrey was another one. And then all the wonderful Southerners, [John] Sparkman and all that crowd. They were just so great.

From what I hear on the Hill, that couldn’t happen now. To be seen with anybody on the other side is almost traitorous to the cause. Over a period of time this thing degraded to the point—I guess the [John] Tower confirmation contributed substantially. That was so nasty. And then the lady—what was her name?

Hargrove

Anita Hill. Clarence Thomas.

Laxalt

That was a nasty confirmation.

Young

[Robert] Bork.

Laxalt

And then Bork was another deal-breaker.

Hargrove

But the southernization of the Republican Party—

Laxalt

What’s that?

Hargrove

The southernization of the Republican Party, particularly in the House, but even in the Senate. Suddenly you no longer have too many conservatives in the Democratic Party, and your Republican party has become more conservative.

Laxalt

That’s true.

Hargrove

Over this time. And that surely has contributed to this—

Laxalt

But the darn thing, for whatever reason, became personal. They started drawing lines on a personal basis. Gosh, those first few years I never sensed that being seen with a Democrat or having lunch was a traitorous act. True, at election time you go out and do your thing campaign-wise, but politics were never personalized in the Senate. Then gradually everything became personalized.

Hargrove

Right.

Knott

Can you put your finger on why you think that?

Laxalt

I just think these events contributed to it, and I think another thing that happened was that with seniority being pretty much brushed aside, a lot of the old timers who were stabilizing characters leaving, I think that contributed a lot to it, too. And they all deplore it. I have good friends on both sides of the aisle, and they really deplore the fact that the personal relationships just no longer exist. Although I understand lately that it is improving.

Hargrove

I hope so.

Knott

I know you’d left the Senate by this point, but did you get called in at all to help with the Bork nomination?

Laxalt

No. I had no reason to, really—maybe just as an advisor. I was very active in confirmations during the time I was on the Judiciary Committee. But I wasn’t called in on that.

I think Korologos handled Bork, didn’t he? I’m pretty sure he did.

Loranger

Yes, Tom has handled a lot of those nominations for years.

Knott

You were involved in the [Antonin] Scalia and [William H.] Rehnquist.

Laxalt

Uh-huh, Rehnquist.

Knott

And there was some opposition to Rehnquist, if I remember correctly.

Laxalt

Oh, a lot. He was a young activist in Arizona, in the Goldwater campaign. So they raised all that.

Hargrove

I remember all that.

Laxalt

It got fairly nasty.

Hargrove

Scalia just slipped through.

Laxalt

Scalia got through nicely.

Hargrove

Good timing. They were worn out.

Laxalt

Yes, I think they were tired out, tired of the strife.

Hargrove

Right.

Knott

And the Sandra Day O’Connor nomination, any particular—

Laxalt

No, not really. That just sailed through. Of course, that delighted us. She was a neighbor of ours. They’re a ranching family in Arizona.

Hargrove

She’s a very important figure on the Court.

Laxalt

She’s turned out to be just that, hasn’t she? She’s done very well. It’s been very awkward for her at times, too.

Hargrove

I think the election of [Newt] Gingrich and company soured a lot of politics, because he over-reached.

Laxalt

That could easily be. Yes.

Hargrove

He thought he could do more than he could do. But he got pushed back.

Laxalt

He was a little short on the management side, too. Truly. He’s one of these guys who’s a great campaigner but doesn’t govern well.

Young

I’m glad you brought that up.

Laxalt

In fairness, I remember when he came with the Contract with America. I remember we were kicking it around here. Senator [Russell] Long was with us for years—we came out of the Senate together—and all of us agreed that it was the stupidest political idea we’d heard in a hell of a long time. We ought to nationalize a Contract with America! But, boy, we were so wrong, and he was so right.

Hargrove

Yes, he saw—

Laxalt

By God, they connected. It was masterful. But Newt wasn’t worth a damn as a leader.

Hargrove

They finally figured that out.

Laxalt

Just wasn’t worth a damn. Too autocratic, game player.

Hargrove

You want him to talk about George Bush and his initial selection as Vice President?

Young

Yes, Bush. The selection of Bush as Vice Presidential candidate. But before that, your observation, your testimony on the—I don’t know whether I should call it the caper, but the whole Ford-Reagan co-Presidency idea that got out. It is still puzzling to a lot of people about how that could have ever come about as a selection, Ford as Reagan’s Vice Presidential nominee. Can you talk about that?

Laxalt

No. I heard about it, but I figured it was just so much b. s., which it was. And I think Henry Kissinger had a lot of fun. He was sort of Ford’s campaign manager, Henry was in front of it. Some of the political pols got together and decided this would be nice speculation for the networks, and they all bit.

Hargrove

Was Casey there?

Laxalt

No, he never signed off on that at all.

Hargrove

He didn’t?

Laxalt

Not a bit. So I think that they kicked it around with everybody but Ron Reagan. I don’t think Ron ever decided on it; they never even brought it to that level.

Young

Well, it’s reported that he stopped it after a while but let it go on for a while. I think he and Ford had a meeting, didn’t they?

Laxalt

Well, we had a meeting in ’76. I didn’t know. Did they meet in ’80?

Young

I think there was a meeting.

Hargrove

Reagan did finally stop it. I know that.

Young

He stopped it?

Hargrove

And Ford was appearing to be interested.

Young

Yes, that was the appearance, at least.

Hargrove

Somebody was encouraging him. I don’t know who. It would have been a terribly harebrained idea.

Laxalt

I guess.

Hargrove

Just an awful idea.

Knott

But at the time you didn’t take it seriously.

Laxalt

I didn’t at all. I thought it was just so ludicrous on its face. And I wasn’t part of the process because I was on that Vice Presidential list where I didn’t want to be, and Ron wouldn’t let me off. So I’m sitting there as a delegate and not privy to these very interesting meetings upstairs because I was technically disqualified. So a lot of this I was getting off the floor.

Hargrove

Did you have some skepticism about Bush as a choice?

Laxalt

Not really. I didn’t think he would fly because he wasn’t held in high regard by either of the Reagans, particularly Mrs. Reagan. Because he held on way too long. He wouldn’t get out. I was on the phone almost daily with Jim. I said, Jim, for Christ sake, get your candidate out of here. I’m getting eaten up.

So they just weren’t held in high regard at all. And I didn’t think he’d ever be chosen.

Hargrove

Why do you think they were?

Laxalt

I think it was a good, political, pragmatic decision. I think that when you look over the array of potential horses, George Bush was the best, and it proved certainly to be the case.

Hargrove

Did the tension continue, particularly with Mrs. Reagan, through the eight years?

Laxalt

It never was very warm. I think George and Ron got along well, but I don’t think the women—It was an arm’s length relationship. That’s just the way it is. I think the women, God bless them, are a lot less forgiving then we are.

Young

But it is still striking, the very different kinds of people, it seems, that George Bush and Ronald Reagan were.

Laxalt

Totally different.

Young

They came from very different backgrounds, different starting points. One was almost a lifetime in politics after a brief fling in business—

Laxalt

George was the prototype of the moderate Rockefeller Republican. Country club, Ivy League, very moderate on the issues. And Ronald Reagan was a blue-collar Republican. All of our effective people in these various states, they didn’t come out of country clubs. They were small business people, aside from the kitchen cabinet, and they were all self-made. So they were really prototypes of the battles we’ve had: Goldwater, Rockefeller, all the way down through the years. People forget that the Reagan constituency—that’s why they were so damn effective—were blue-collar types. They didn’t sit around and talk to one another at cocktail parties, they were out there working.

Hargrove

Texas never rubbed off on Bush.

Laxalt

No, it really didn’t, and he’s a wonderful guy. He was so loyal to President Reagan, so loyal. God.

Hargrove

I wonder if Reagan doubted his capacity to be President, though.

Laxalt

No, I don’t think so. I think as time went on, that was all dissipated. I think over the years gradually they became very good friends.

Young

Also, not only did they have different political constituencies and backgrounds, but they came out of different political breeding grounds. I mean, western California is a different kind of political place from Connecticut.

Laxalt

No doubt about it.

Hargrove

Now young George is different. He really is Texan.

Laxalt

He’s a Texan. It shows.

Hargrove

And he never took the pedigree stuff too seriously, I don’t think, the Eastern pedigree stuff.

Laxalt

He disdained it, really.

Hargrove

Yes, yes, I believe so.

Young

You want to talk about ideology?

Hargrove

Well, we’ve talked about it. I don’t know if there’s anything more to say. There’s just been this polarization, which I think is unfortunate.

Young

Well, the coalition that Reagan built and kept without visible disintegration is pretty apparent, at least from a historical perspective, and it looks like what one saw under George Bush is that fell apart. To sort out why this happened, I don’t know, but I’m sure there were right wing conservatives who thought Ronald Reagan was selling out their cause.

Laxalt

Oh, at times, you’re right, no doubt.

Young

But it didn’t break out into an open rebellion. But it did under Bush. There were people going public. Newt Gingrich.

Laxalt

Part of the problem in my view, Jim, was that the Bush people, when George was elected, did not treat the Reagan people well.

Hargrove

Oh, really?

Laxalt

Oh, they were so rude. They just literally put them out in the street. And there was a lot of hard feeling in the Reagan camp across the country, which was a huge problem for George. George never contributed to that, but it was handled on the staff level. They were just brutal. I imagine the Reagan people over eight years probably stuck their nose into it too, every now and then. So it was get-even time. That wasn’t really played in the papers as much, but it was a real serious political problem. And then, of course, you have the poorest campaign in recorded history. Except maybe Bob Dole’s was a close second.

Hargrove

Do you think the 1988 no new taxes pledge was necessary, or was he just running scared that he might get beaten?

Laxalt

I think it was almost a new throw-away line at the time.

Hargrove

But as you remember, his economists were just driving themselves crazy because Peggy Noonan was insisting on this line. But he got caught and cross-whipped.

Laxalt

And then relented.

Hargrove

I wonder if it was necessary to do that, if he couldn’t have addressed—

Laxalt

I didn’t think so. Why box yourself in unnecessarily, particularly on something as sensitive as taxes?

Hargrove

I think he was not confident.

Laxalt

Look how many political candidates have been hurt horribly by painting themselves into an abortion corner.

Hargrove

That’s right.

Laxalt

Then you get into the last several days of the campaign, you find out that the middle, which isn’t dedicated one way or the other— You start cutting yourself a little slack, and before you know it, you’ve sold out to the true believers. We’ve had candidates here in Virginia lose on that basis, haven’t we?

Knott

How seriously did you weight a run in 1988? I know there was some—

Laxalt

I did it seriously at the time, I wasn’t being fanciful about it. That’s why I went the exploratory committee, a genuine exploratory committee, route. And I told my people, I’m not going to get in and do a kamikaze trip here. I think it’s late. Bush has already gobbled up an awful lot of my people, like Lee Atwater and so forth. I said, If you can demonstrate to me, raise a couple of million dollars— and I think I gave them two months— then I’ll take a look at it.

They didn’t reach that goal, so I walked.

Knott

Any encouragement from the Reagans?

Laxalt

No, but I wasn’t discouraged, either. They really believed in the 11th commandment. When they didn’t even take a position with Maureen [Reagan], their own daughter running for the Senate, I figured I was in deep trouble asking for an endorsement. Those were probably, as I may have said in the book, probably the three or four most miserable months in my life. Gee, it’s terrible running for President, even if you’ve got a huge organization. If you’ve got the planes and your help, but if you’re out there literally alone, God, it’s hard. It’s hard. Money is so overriding.

Hargrove

Do you have to be psychologically hungry? Ravenous?

Laxalt

Yes. I don’t think you have to be ravenous, but you have to be damn hungry. As Nixon said, you’ve got to have that fire burning in the God damn belly.

Hargrove

Certainly that’s true of Clinton.

Laxalt

But very quickly in my own case—I’d been around Presidential campaigns enough so I wouldn’t be naïve about it. And wherever I traveled, I came to the conclusion I was just in the race way too late. I thought I had the luxury, because of my prior experience in the Reagan organization, but the more I sampled around to find out what was really going on, I found out that most of my Reagan people were already committed to Bush, even good friends, never thinking that I’d get in. So I was just too late. But I got out right away, too. Didn’t get singed too badly.

Young

What did you see as happening to the Republican party during the Bush years and the campaign, the final, the failing campaign of ’92? What happened there? What’s your perspective on that?

Laxalt

I don’t think that anybody who had 87 percent poll rating could ever be defeated for re-election, do you? Just being cute. That’s precisely, remember, what George Sr. said. He had 90 percent poll rating, he’s invincible. The problem was, he believed it. No. I think he got a good running start.

Knott

The Gulf War.

Laxalt

The Gulf War. He didn’t face up to the economy and all that, but he got the bump from the Gulf War just like George W. is getting. I think George W. is handling himself real well. The conservatives seem reasonably happy; he’s doing very well with the center, and the blacks, and the Hispanics. This guy’s got a real shot, I think, at being a two-term President if he wants to be. And if he prospers, the party prospers. There’s no greater stimulus for a political party than having a popular sitting President. We learned that in the Reagan years. Boy, you raise all the money, you get a lot of younger people in almost automatically. There’s no substitute for victory, is there?

Young

No.

Laxalt

Isn’t that profound?

Young

It also helps to have Congress of your own party, doesn’t it? And Reagan didn’t have that luxury.

Laxalt

Never did. We were able to put coalitions together that worked, but it’s a lot better to have a solid majority. It was a lot easier in the Reagan years working for the Senate than it was the House in that if we didn’t have, well, Phil Gramm and all the boll weevils, it would have been hard to pass the tax cut in the House. But we had the good makings of a coalition. It wasn’t part of any grand plan, but you had an awful lot of blue-collar types. You had Catholics, you had a decent hunk of the minorities. When you win 49 states two elections in a row, that speaks volumes, doesn’t it? I just couldn’t believe we were as strong as we were in ’84 after that dismal start. He had tremendous residual political strength, roots were deep as hell.

Knott

Was he good about pitching in for these Congressional races?

Laxalt

Yes, he was a good soldier. He was a real good soldier. He would just work his tail off and sometimes look so tired, but he never complained. Never complained. God, he was just a pleasure to work with.

Knott

So there was none of that criticism that you saw directed against President Nixon in his campaigns where all the resources were just directed at himself.

Laxalt

I didn’t hear that.

Hargrove

No, no.

Laxalt

That’s the problem with Nixon being a micromanager.

Hargrove

Reagan ran with Congress his first time, unlike Carter or others. He ran with Congress. Did you notice that he got older, tireder, a little less quick toward the end?

Laxalt

Never saw that.

Hargrove

Never saw it.

Laxalt

Never saw it. Despite all the Morris crap. Thank God that’s been buried. Anyhow, he’s probably a friend of yours, Jim, huh?

Young

No, he’s not.

Laxalt

Just kidding.

Young

But I want to hear about what you think about some of the books. That one about Reagan is real strange.

Laxalt

I’ve had conversations with people who are deeply resentful at Edmund Morris being given as much latitude as he had for many years psychoanalyzing Ron Reagan. That really griped me.

Young

Well, how in the world did he get that in privileged position and all that access?

Laxalt

Nancy.

Young

She was taken with him?

Laxalt

And aided and abetted by one Michael Deaver, who now would deny it.

Hargrove

They had these dinners and they looked him over.

Young

Why? Why?

Laxalt

Just old relationships, Georgetown relationships.

Young

I’m surprised.

Laxalt

I think they were pretty impressed with the work he’d done with [Theodore] Roosevelt. I think that’s essentially it. But he had no right to do what he did, besmirch that fine man, getting into his head and trying to psychoanalyze him. God. A lot of us who are friends of the Reagans deeply resent that, and the public obviously did. It didn’t go anywhere.

Hargrove

Well, the Presidency section is the weakest part of the book. There’s none of the politics, none of the fun, none of the real guts of it.

Knott

None of the politics in it. He didn’t do the ’76 campaign.

Hargrove

He didn’t know anything about those things.

Laxalt

No, he didn’t.

Young

Many years ago—I don’t know how many years Morris was working on this—I had conversations with him about what he was doing in the White House, because others of us who study the Presidency don’t get that kind of anointment and get doors opened and to follow a President around, or at least to have some opportunity to spend regular time with him. And Edmund was in, I think, a prolonged period of writer’s block.

Laxalt

That’s true. I think he was professional enough to know he wasn’t doing the job right.

Young

What comes across in the book and also what came across in my discussions with him was he doesn’t have the faintest notion of how to study a living politician.

Laxalt

No political dimension.

Young

He has no feel, no anything. You study Teddy Roosevelt, a dead guy.

Hargrove

But at mid-career. I don’t think the book goes too much—It is a three-volume thing, isn’t it? The Morris? He’s working on the next volume now. He left him in early career.

Young

You’re talking about Roosevelt?

Hargrove

Yes. He never got the full benefit of Theodore’s glory, political glory.

Young

I think there is probably a reason why he hasn’t gotten very far with it, which is that he really doesn’t understand. He hasn’t experienced and seen politics, and I don’t think he’s really interested in it.

Laxalt

I think you’re probably right.

Young

And he was frustrated at not being able to get the real Ronald Reagan. He could never take this man in his daily activities, in his meetings, he could never take that as the real story. He always wanted to get something underneath. So I’m really very puzzled about how he was ever selected.

Laxalt

Well, he tried to make Ronald Reagan a very complicated and diplomatic type of man, but he isn’t. He’s precisely—what you see is what you get with Ron Reagan, and he’s just very simplistic. He’s entirely predictable. To get into his head and try to figure all this Machiavellian stuff, what made him tick, God, that’s so presumptuous.

Hargrove

So Reagan is not anywhere like Franklin Roosevelt, who was really enigmatic, very hard to figure out.

Laxalt

Well, I don’t know. Roosevelt, of course, to me as a young person in the war, he was my Daddy. I, all of us, wept openly when he died.

Hargrove

Oh, sure.

Laxalt

I’d have liked to have known him, but he was Machiavellian.

Hargrove

And hard to read. He wouldn’t let you read him.

Laxalt

Is that right?

Hargrove

I think, don’t you? He was literally more a Sphinx, mask. People see pieces of him.

Young

Yes, maybe so. Too bad Edmund Morris didn’t have a real other President, underneath President, to work on.

Hargrove

No. Ed Morris said one thing. I heard him on a radio program. He said Ronald Reagan never had a friend. What do you make of that? By which he meant the detachment was—

Laxalt

I don’t know what he means by a friend. I just don’t know.

Hargrove

But you were a friend.

Laxalt

Yes.

Hargrove

I think what he meant was he was detached. He would forget people’s children’s names, never asked about his own family, etc. He was focused.

Laxalt

Detached. That’s true. A lot of Hollywood rubbed off on him.

Hargrove

Persona, there was a persona.

Laxalt

Yes, the whole attitude. You know. You heard that old Hollywood story. Oh, we sat here and we spent this last hour having a nice lunch together talking about you, as in, Tell me, how’d you like my last movie? You get the Hollywood types, Ron included. They become very detached in terms of their personal relationships, they really are. The only one of that crowd that I really felt was very soulful was Jimmy Stewart.

Hargrove

I thought you were going to say that.

Laxalt

He was an absolute jewel, wonderful guy. When we injected him in the campaign in ’76, it was a brand new ball game. Instead of being a political event, it became just a wonderful classic, historical event.

Young

That was in North Carolina.

Laxalt

North Carolina. God, that was just something. It got to the point where he was upstaging the candidate. We got a little worried about that. Jimmy, cool it.

Hargrove

Actors tend to be detached.

Laxalt

They are.

Hargrove

I’ve known some, and you know their private life, and they’re not very interesting.

Laxalt

They develop a veneer out here. And God help you if you try to get inside of it. But he was never discourteous. Never saw him be discourteous. He was so kind to people.

Young

And yet there was, after he had left the White House—some of it before—there is the appearance of all of this backbiting within his staff, within some of the people who served.

Hargrove

The kiss-and-tell books. There were a fair amount of those.

Young

And it is in such contrast. The President himself was not one to foment that kind of thing. I wonder what explains this. You didn’t see those kinds of books coming out of [Dwight D.] Eisenhower, not much out of [John F.] Kennedy, about the personal side.

Laxalt

Carter. I think Carter people were quite loyal to him.

Hargrove

Very loyal.

Young

And yet that’s not been the case.

Hargrove

The [Lyndon] Johnson people are a mixed bag.

Young

It is a mixed bag with Lyndon Johnson.

Laxalt

To say the least.

Hargrove

And the Nixon people are a mixed bag.

Young

Well, the Nixon people, of course. But it is kind of striking, this contrast between the—

Hargrove

Well, who? Don Regan, his book is very ambivalent, but he got bruised badly.

Laxalt

Nancy herself—

Knott

Stockman. Haig.

Laxalt

—wasn’t exactly benevolent, but Stockman, Al Haig.

Hargrove

Oh yes, but he thought he’d been trampled over, didn’t he?

Laxalt

Yes. He still does. And to a certain extent he was. But there are some beautiful books, too. I think Lyn Nofziger’s book is a classic, and Pete Hannaford did a great job. Ed Meese’s is a beautiful book. And who was it, that girl? Peggy Noonan, of course. The ambassador to Austria. What was her name?

Loranger

Von Damm.

Laxalt

Yes, Helene von Damm. And there was one other, Lou. It’s a beautiful book.

Hargrove

Lou Cannon’s book is superb. It’s balanced.

Laxalt

Yes, I think it is balanced and probably the most factual. If I were ever going to recommend a book on the Reagan Presidency, it would be Lou’s.

Hargrove

I think so. Yes.

Laxalt

And Lou, he had to walk a fine line, too. I think he really admired and respected Ron Reagan but, being a reporter for the Washington Post, you know, he had to take a whack now and then. And they were always gentle. I don’t think Lou’s were ever mean. They weren’t mean shots.

Young

I’ve talked with Lou a lot as we were planning this project.

Laxalt

You couldn’t have gone to a better source, Jim.

Young

And so we sort of consulted. He’s interviewing people, too.

Laxalt

Is he?

Young

Yes, he’s doing some work on Reagan’s governorship. I think he has that planned. So we keep each other informed of what we’re up to in our various projects. He did a couple of books for the Reagan library, the general books that the library puts out.

Laxalt

He’s a Reno boy, you know. Did you know that? He’s a Nevadan. Lou Cannon is from Reno. You knew that, Tom, of course.

Hargrove

I want to ask you a question. You’re a lawyer, but I don’t know whether this will help or not. The White House is holding up the opening of the Reagan library because they’re holding up all the executive orders. But a lot of historians are mad as hell about it, really angry about it, because it should have been open now 12 years.

Laxalt

Are they targeting the Reagan library?

Hargrove

We don’t know. There’s some speculation that it’s Bush who is protecting Daddy.

Laxalt

How? I don’t follow.

Hargrove

Daddy’s library is not officially open, is it? Or is it?

Young

The Vice Presidential.

Hargrove

No, the Presidential. The Carter people put in a 12-year time before the libraries could be opened.

Young

The documents, the Presidential documents.

Laxalt

Twelve years from when? The departure?

Young

The departure, yes.

Hargrove

And the Carter people thought they were going to have a second term, and therefore they were protecting themselves.

Young

And the twelfth year for Reagan has expired, but the White House has put a hold on all executive orders. It may just be a pro forma hold on executive orders, but it is affecting the opening of the Reagan library. Historians are going to have a big conference out there this spring, and nobody can get to anything.

Knott

There’s speculation that they’re protecting current administration officials who served in the Reagan administration, that there might be some embarrassing information in there.

Laxalt

There can’t be a hell of a lot more than is already out there.

Hargrove

But individuals can get it.

Knott

We don’t know why else they’re doing it. Because the moratorium—that was on the rules, that was 60 days. This has been going on for several months.

Hargrove

That’s right. But people still are free to sequester their files in these libraries. You can close them. But it is very distressing, I know, to historians, on the Reagan papers. But I just complain about it. I don’t know what the law—The law is the law, but is there a limit to executive order continuation, review executive order?

Knott

I don’t know. I’m guessing, but I bet that it’s indefinite.

Young

You just do it repeatedly.

Knott

Like with a regulation, you can extend the effective date of the regulation.

Young

For so many days—

Laxalt

Until, legislatively they can face a veto.

Hargrove

It’s a disservice though; really it’s a disservice, I think.

Laxalt

You ought to have one of your people maybe get hold of Dick Cheney on that.

Hargrove

Well, historians are working on it, I know they are. But I don’t know where they’re going. They talked about a lawsuit, but the American Historical Society and the Political Science Association didn’t want to bring a lawsuit, for obvious reasons.

Young

Those things go on forever. If you do that, you can always file FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests to get documents out. You’re right, there’s quite a fuss. There’s a real problem besides that, with all the Presidential libraries, most of the Presidential libraries now. The archivists are so consumed with processing Freedom of Information Act requests that they can’t do the ordinary processing of the materials. They’re processing only requests, so that even students and scholars—the only way we can really get at it is by pulling the journalists’ stunt and filing a Freedom of Information Act, a right to the documents. It’s a bad situation, both from the library’s standpoint and everybody else’s.

Hargrove

I’m sorry they were all federalized. I wish they were independent. They were, originally. They still should be. I don’t see why they should be federalized.

Young

Is there one—

Laxalt

You got the last one, Stephen?

Knott

Yes, I’ve got one more. You’ve probably covered it already, but just in case we missed anything, do you think that there is anything about President Reagan, either the man or his Presidency that has been misunderstood, or that the public at large has still not quite grasped?

Laxalt

I don’t think so. Only by Edmund Morris. No, I think the people have a good handle on Reagan. My grandkids, for example: They don’t even know who the hell Reagan is, probably won’t for a long while. I’m at the point that I talk to younger kids, and I have to tell them who Barry Goldwater is. That used to be a given. As far as people in our generation are concerned, Tom, don’t you think they have a pretty good handle on Reagan?

Loranger

Yes, probably the last one. Think about it, he’s been out of office, what 18—?

Laxalt

’88. So it is 12, 13 years. Believe that?

Hargrove

I used to ask at the beginning of class every year, a Presidency course, who do you remember, who is your first President? It would get more and more dismaying every year.

Laxalt

That’s interesting, yes. So where are you now?

Hargrove

Well, I’m retired now, so I can’t tell you, but the last few years, I think it may have been Reagan. They’d forgotten Carter. And Reagan may be gone now.

Morrisroe

Reagan’s gone. I teach the Intro class, and they have no actual memories of the Gulf War.

Laxest

Isn’t that something?

Young

Who is the first President that they—

Morrisroe

Bush. Only in the same way that—

Laxalt

You mean George Sr.

Morrisroe

George Sr. But only in the vaguest kind of way. See, I can remember Carter’s name, but I have no memories of that.

Knott

Well, the freshmen at college were five years old when Reagan left office.

Hargrove

Sure.

Young

I’m glad the subject has come up because it gives me a chance to point out why the oral history work we do is so important. The Presidents we are talking about are fading in memory, and the time will come when there’ll be a resurgence of interest—but this time from much farther ahead in history. You put yourself in the position of somebody 20 years from now who’s going to be teaching about this era and the politics of our era, and what are they going to have to read? They’ve got to have to read, and even to listen to, the voices of the people who were there and who knew it. It’s just very important in carrying understanding beyond the lifetimes of the people who served in the office. That’s really why we’re in this business of trying to get the voices of every past administration on record, because the main beneficiaries will be the future. Otherwise, we’ll never learn anything from the past.

Laxalt

When, Jim, did they start recording oral histories? Is that fairly recent?

Young

Well, the Presidential libraries used to do something called exit interviews. That is, they talked to people who were leaving and tried to get their voices on record. Mainly it was about what they did, and it was to help in records management. The Kennedy library did a sort of a first major oral history of a Presidency, but it had some private funding for that. The government has now pulled out of the business. It no longer funds any kind of oral history. So private funds do this. And that’s what we’re doing. We’re the only institution in the country that now does Presidential oral history on a continuing basis. We’re the only one, and we’re trying to get every former administration.

Laxalt

Well, you’ll have Carter through—

Young

Yes, we at the Miller Center started with the Carter project, and I’ve sort of designed and directed that. We did a little bit on Reagan, but I was not around fulltime to do it. I’ve been brought back to set up this program on a regular, continuing basis. So one of the first things I did was to go back. So many of the Reagan people, you know, have gone.

Laxalt

Boy, that’s so true.

Young

There are almost no interviews with them on the record. I was talking to Lou Cannon about this. There’s nothing there. So whatever they had to say, their memories and their recollections are totally lost to history.

Laxalt

How long will it be before you put the project to bed, Jim?

Young

Well, as long as anybody is alive and kicking and willing to speak—

Laxalt

I mean how about the Reagan portion of it?

Young

We’ll continue until we finish with everybody who is willing or is able to talk.

Laxalt

You better get to some of them in a hell of a hurry.

Young

Well, I spoke to you at the beginning. We do have what we call the actuarial imperative. That is, people we better get to quick. But that’s one of the reasons I talked to you earlier about advice about who’s still around, and who you would consider important that we talk to.

Laxalt

You haven’t got any of the women.

Young

I have to.

Laxalt

How about Nancy Reynolds? Do you have her?

Young

We don’t have her on the list.

Laxalt

You put Nancy Reynolds. I mean, she was a vital part of the Reagan administration and is such an interesting person. She started with the Reagans in Sacramento.

Young

Way down, perhaps not too far down the pike, it would be, I think, crucial to have Nancy Reagan say something. But I don’t want to start out with that, and she’s not in a good situation. But I think eventually her voice ought to be on record.

Laxalt

Well, if you’re the only one doing oral histories, that ought to be somewhat of an inducement for her to close the book on the Reagan Presidency.

Hargrove

How does one best approach her, do you think?

Laxalt

I don’t know. Right now I really don’t know. I would think probably through Mike Deaver.

Hargrove

Sure.

Laxalt

Mike has maintained that contact. He does a lot of the P. R. stuff. Even though he disclaims Edmund Morris, I think he still has some credibility with Nancy.

Hargrove

Yes.

Young

Well, in the meantime, my experience with these interviews is that people have to understand what it is we’re doing and why. And my own experience is that you get more people to do it as more people understand it.

Laxalt

I would think that the fact that you’re the only one doing oral histories ought to be a very strong point as far as Nancy is concerned. She’s very historically conscious, and more so every day. So I would make an appointment with Mike Deaver. You’ve got Mike on your list, too, don’t you?

Young

We certainly do.

Laxalt

Did he agree?

Young

We haven’t asked him yet, but he is in the next batch to be asked.

Laxalt

Well, maybe strategically—

Young

Early.

Laxalt

Let him get a feeling of how kind and competent you are in conducting these interviews, and then lay on Nancy.

Young

Fine, we’ll do that.

Laxalt

That’ll give them a leg up with her.

Knott

Is there anyone else, Senator, like a Nancy Reynolds, that we may not be thinking of?

Laxalt

I’m sure there’ll be a few. Let us think about this, Stephen, and we’ll get back to you.

Knott

Great, thank you.

Laxalt

Jeane Kirkpatrick certainly ought to be on the list.

Young

Helene von Damm.

Laxalt

Helene, clearly so.

Young

Yes, she was with him a long time.

Loranger

Margaret Tutwiler.

Laxalt

And Margaret Tutwiler. She was with both Reagan and Bush presidencies.

Young

She’s been interviewed, not by me, but for the Bush project, but only briefly. I would like to get her again.

Hargrove

She’s back in town, isn’t she?

Young

No. She’s in Morocco.

Laxalt

She’s the Ambassador now.

Hargrove

That’s what it is. She got a job.

Young

Yes, so some of my junior people are very hot to have an interview in Morocco. The Miller Center funds the start-up of all these interviews out of our own endowment funds, but down the pike we have to raise money to keep them going, and we’ll do that. But we’re really committed to doing all of these. We’re going to be doing Clinton.

Laxalt

He’d be fascinating.

Young

And exhausting.

Laxalt

Exhausting. You got that right. He’s the master of the filibuster. Thank you so much. It’s been a great experience.

Hargrove

Thank you.