Q: We would like to talk to you about 'Killing Reagan.' You know, we are the largest magazine in America — 22 million homes.
A: I've been a subscriber for 10 years. So I know all about you guys.
Q: I'm glad you're a card-carrying AARP member.
A: I don't use the discounts because I'm too vain. But I have been with you guys for a while.
Q: That's great to hear. This is the fifth in your series of Killing books. First of all, how do you make the time? You're obviously a very busy guy.
A: Well, [coauthor Martin] Dugard is I think the best researcher in the country. I outline the book in the beginning: This is where we want to go, so you find out everything you can find out. I want new stuff. And then he goes where he has to go in the world and finds the new stuff. Then he gives me a chapter-by-chapter breakdown in narrative form. And then I shape it. I write it into the computer in a way that is the O'Reilly style. That's how it works. It's a militaristic operation. Each week we do a certain amount of words, so that we finish the book on a certain date, and we stick to that. Very disciplined and methodical.
Q: Why Reagan now? Why not James Garfield or William McKinley, who were actually assassinated?
A: People don't have any emotion invested in Garfield and McKinley. They're good stories, but they don't have any emotion. I try to pick subjects where people already have an interest. They don't have to be persuaded to have an interest. And [I] felt that in the election year 2016, this was the best place to go. I've got three more books to deliver after this, three more Killing books. They're all different. I can't say what they are because then people steal the ideas.
Q: I notice that it's dedicated to "all those who are caring for an elderly person." Was it Nancy Reagan who inspired the dedication?
A: Well, look: In the last 10 years of his life, Ronald Reagan was dependent upon care, and Nancy Reagan provided that care. So she was a heroine. In the beginning of the book, you might not like Nancy too much. But it takes a turn, as many lives do. That was one of those fascinating things about the book for me — how Nancy changed after disaster hit her own family. I decided to devote the book to those who are caring for elderly people because our culture doesn't emphasize that.
Q: Did you ever meet Reagan?
A: No. I met Nancy. I never met the president. However, I did cover the inaugurations. I was about 30 yards away from him, but I was a local reporter at that time, not a national reporter.
Q: I think the Reagan supporters who expect a hagiography from you are going to be disappointed. This is a warts-and-all portrait.
A: It's the same thing with all of my books. The Kennedy people who wanted a conspiracy were disappointed with Killing Kennedy because my coauthor and I didn't come up with a conspiracy. The Patton people who wanted a larger-than-life guy who never did anything wrong were disappointed with Killing Patton because we told the truth about him, although I think he emerges as a hero. And I think Reagan emerges as a hero in this book, too.
Q: Is it fair to say that you have great regard for Reagan the man, but might be more measured in your estimation of him as a leader, a president and a chief executive?
A: I think Reagan was a president who had two big things that he wanted to do, and he accomplished them. He wanted to bring back the free market economy and he did. He wanted to bring down communism, and ultimately he did. Reagan wasn't interested in the U.S.-Mexico border or Social Security. He wasn't a Bill Clinton–type policy wonk. So you want to say he's great? I'd say he's in the top 10. And all the more impressive was that he did it when he was impaired. He had days where he didn't know what he was doing. Whether it was sheer force of will or whatever, he overrode that and he was able to do the things that he had to do — and mobilize the nation.
Q: Going back for a second to Social Security — he cared enough about it to save it for 30 years. He reached across the aisle.
A: I know. But at what price? You know, he saved it, but he put us into a debt-ridden situation that haunts the government to this very day. The same thing he did with the border. He wanted to please. Reagan was a pleaser, all right? That's important for every reader to understand. He wanted to please — individuals and collectively. What he didn't do is batten down the hatches and say, "OK, I'm going to save Social Security, but I'm going to save it in a way that doesn't make it insolvent 30 years from now," which is where we're going. He could have done it back then, and he could have sealed the border back then, all right? But he didn't. Because he was more the big-picture guy than a smaller-detail guy.
Q: So during Reagan's decline — tell me if you agree — his greatest moment was at the Berlin Wall in 1987.
A: Absolutely. He rallied. Once he saw momentum was swinging into "capitalism is going to triumph," he rallied. And he brought himself to that pinnacle. Then, three years later, he was out of it.
Q: Let's talk about his mental acuity for a minute. As early as 1983, he was showing signs of confusion, confusing his own biography with movies that he had made. And you believe that the open-heart surgery after the assassination attempt in 1981 had some hastening effect on this — first his general confusion and memory loss, and then later on his decline into Alzheimer's?
A: You know, there's varying opinion about it. I think the evidence shows that he was a different man after he was shot. Before he was shot, he didn't spend time watching soap operas on TV during workdays. But later I think he just needed relief. I think his mind, when focused, worked fine. But on days when he was tired or annoyed or confused —
Q: Plus he was losing his hearing.
A: Absolutely. And he didn't want to admit it, because that showed weakness. He was a complicated man in those ways.
Q: I am struck by his charm when he looks up from his hospital bed after the assassination attempt and says to Nancy, "I forgot to duck."
Q: Or when he comes out of anesthesia and he can't even speak, and he writes a note to the nurses: "If I'd had this much attention in Hollywood, I'd have stayed there."
A: It all goes back to Reagan being a pleaser. He was not a cynic; he was not a brooder. He was trained to be charming, and he was.
Q: And he turned out to be a brilliant spokesman for conservatism.
A: He did, and he wasn't really an ideologue in the sense that he wasn't poring over the writings of conservative people. It was instinctual — he believed in America, traditional values; you work hard, we give you the opportunity, you rise. He could forge a relationship with a guy like [former Speaker of the House] Tip O'Neill, whereas [President Barack] Obama has trouble on the other side, and some other conservative presidents did as well. But he did believe in traditional values. Traditional rather than conservative.
Q: There was a bit of a high edge to him, too, though. I mean, going after the "welfare queens" and throwing out the air traffic controllers.
A: Well, he had to do that in his mind because that was linked in with communism. That whole air traffic control thing was, "Look, you're a union." He didn't like the unions anyway because they were left wing. He said, "You're not going to violate federal law. You're just not, and I'm going to make a stand, and I did."
On the welfare front, that was more to please his own party than an individual thing. I don't think Reagan sat there and said, "You know, if I do this, people in the ghettos are going to be hurt." The party wanted it. And he wanted to please them.
Q: Did Reagan see Iran-Contra as a betrayal? Was he hurt by that as well?
A: I think Reagan just wanted it to go away. He thought it was an annoyance more than anything else.
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Q: There's an old saying that all politics is local. But after reading this, I got the feeling that all politics is personal. Reagan calls Carter a "little sh-t." Carter has utter contempt for him. Reagan hates Jerry Ford and has deep animosity for JFK, even holding a cocktail party two days after the assassination. Was I just being naive?
A: I think that was more driven by Nancy. Nancy wanted to have the party. So Reagan did. I don't think Reagan would have if Nancy hadn't wanted to. I do think they lived in a very narrow world, where they surrounded themselves with people who thought the way they did. But I never saw him as malevolent. I really didn't. He was a man who felt deeply but hid it, like a lot of Irish. He hid it under this facade that "Everything is OK." And he hated confrontation, didn't want to upset. He would walk away rather than try to solve the problem.
That's what happened with his kids. They didn't like being sent up to boarding school. They didn't like that they didn't see him much. But his view was, well, this is what's best for them. Rather than sit them down and try to get everything straightened out, he removed himself and let Nancy handle it, and then it just blows up worse.
Q: It's well known that you were a history major at Marist College, and you taught history for a couple of years at a Florida high school. So, now, why do you write these books? Is it out of a passion for American history or a desire to educate our low-information citizenry?
A: I think it's more of the latter. I get frustrated when I go around the country and people don't know the elements of how this country started. And the public school system doesn't really concentrate on it anymore. History classes in some schools don't even exist.
I decided to write these books so people would enjoy them first. They would be fun to read, because that's what I did in the classroom. I got the urchins' attention because I made it personal and told stories about real people who did real things. And a lot of things were exciting and controversial.
Q: Do you subscribe to the "Great Man" theory of history — the idea that individuals change the course of world events?
A: Yeah, somewhat. It's a little more complicated than that, because there are always the people with the great men that make it all possible. For example, Lincoln, I think the greatest American president, would not have been that without U.S. Grant. It's not just one person.
Q: As a Catholic, though, you also believe in the force of evil in the world.
A: Well, I absolutely believe in evil. I mean, it's beyond a reasonable doubt that evil has been a shaper of civilization. But I also believe that each person has free will, and most people sit it out. Benjamin Franklin said, "OK, if you sit it out, you're on the evil side." I'm not sure that's true. But I think the clash of it is finding people who do bad things, but who in totality are good people.
Q: Hinckley and Oswald and Judas?
A: They're evil people. In my estimation they're just evil people. They knew what they were doing was wrong, and they did it anyway. And I don't buy this mental illness business one bit. They knew.
Q: You have made a hobby of collecting historical letters and documents, right?
A: For about 20 years. I decided to try to get a unique view of the people that I was interested in by getting their correspondence. And luckily I had the means to do that. I've put together a collection of interesting documents and letters that I feel gave me an insight into who these people really were.
Q: At the end of the book, as a kind of coda, you include a Reagan letter to a friend that had never been published, in which he denies that Nancy hired astrologers, used her influence to fire people she didn't like, and other things that are reported in the book. How are we to understand that?
A: I think that was only fair, because there are two sides to this story. Clearly a lot of people did not like Nancy and went out of their way to hammer her in the last year or two of Reagan's administration. Her own daughter savaged her. But Reagan was always loyal to Nancy. And he wrote to his friend and said, "Look, this wasn't true." And I think in his mind he believed it wasn't true. I don't think he thought Nancy was a tough cookie, when she was. Other people who experienced it did say differently, and we presented both sides. And I felt that to be fair, he needed the last word on the subject, and I gave it to him.
Robert Love is the Editor in Chief of AARP the Magazine.
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