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NEAL CONAN, host:

From NPR News in Washington, DC, I'm Neal Conan, and this is TALK OF THE NATION.

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CONAN: A quarter century after Ronald Reagan entered the White House, an oral history project records the reflections of key members of his administration. Here's Martin Anderson, who served President Reagan as assistant for policy development.

Mr. MARTIN ANDERSON (Keith and Jan Hurlbut Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University): Reagan said again and again in the campaign, very clearly, go back and look at all the speeches, that if it ever comes to a choice between running a deficit and protecting the United States, we will protect the United States first.

CONAN: The fight to win the Cold War, disaster in Beirut, Iran Contra, the oral history of the Reagan administration. Plus a proposal for refuge rooms in cold mines, and Criss Cross wins the Newbery Medal. Author Lynne Rae Perkins joins us on the TALK OF THE NATION. First the news.

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. True perspective on an American presidency, successes, failures, its effect on history, often takes decades. Just ask any presidential historian and they'll tell you that patience is a major element of their craft. One principal source of information, of course, is presidential papers, but it takes five years after the end of an administration to begin to gain access to those documents. A president can restrict access for another seven years, and it could be decades before some materials are declassified.

Of course, presidents and their senior officials can tell their side of their story in their memoirs, but getting deep inside the inner workings of a presidency requires both the passage of time and the willingness of those closest to a president to share their thoughts and their insights. Many who worked for Ronald Reagan have now done just that.

Forty-five people who worked for Governor and later President Reagan have participated in an oral history project undertaken by the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. Today we're gonna have a chance to listen to excerpts from some of those interviews. We'll hear from former Cabinet secretaries and other administration staff on Iran Contra, the end of the Cold War, about Ronald Reagan's management style and his reputation as the great communicator. I want to also talk about strengths and weakness of oral histories and understanding a presidency and why a staff member's recollections might say more about him than it does about the president.

Later in the program, Pennsylvania moves on mine safety for the first time since 1961, and we'll congratulate the winner of the Newbery Medal for children's literature, but first the Reagan tapes. We, of course, will take your calls. What would you want to interview from, uh, who would you want to interview from the Reagan administration? What would you ask? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Email us, talk@npr.org. And we begin with Stephen Knott, an associate professor at the University of Virginia, who oversaw the Ronald Reagan Oral History Project at the Miller Center. He joins us now from the studios on the campus there in Charlottesville, Virginia. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Dr. STEPHEN KNOTT (University of Virginia): Oh, thank you for having me.

CONAN: Oh, we're gonna hear some tape in just a moment, but first, how did this project originate? Who was the driving force, and how did you decide who to talk to?

Dr. KNOTT: Well, the project, the Miller Center conducted a fairly comprehensive oral history of President Jimmy Carter back in the early 1980s. This was the first time that the Center had got into this business. It was really created by a professor by the name of James Sterling Young, who was still in charge of the program, and for about five years, Professor Young and other professors from around the country interviewed various Carter administration officials. The Center got out of the business until the late 1990s when Jim Young came back to the Center for the purpose of starting up the Oral History Program once again, and since that time, we've engaged in an oral history of George H.W. Bush, and we're currently in the process of doing an oral history on President Bill Clinton, colleague Russell Riley is overseeing.

CONAN: Well, we want to give listeners an opportunity to hear the quality in terms of the content of some of these conversations. We're gonna begin with the origin of a famous phrase from the Reagan administration, and that, of course, is "evil empire," and here is Aram Bakshian, he was a speech writer for the president, describing how that phrase made it into a presidential speech about the Soviet Union.

Mr. ARAM BAKSHIAN (Deputy Assistant to the President and Director, Office of Speechwriting): Well, I do distinctly remember that one because I remember reading the speech draft before I sent it on and getting to the evil empire reference and thinking, now, if I flag this in any way, there's going to be, it'll get pulled. But it's not my, I, but first of all, A, it is an evil empire, what the hell, um, and if someone up there disagrees or is nervous about it, it's up to them to notice it. I'm not going to raise the question because I happened to agree with it, and so I didn't call it to any attention and sent it through. At the time when there was a flap, a number of people tried to point out how they had attempted to stop it because they were being responsible. Of course, it's played rather well over time, and now they're, now they're all explaining how they were part of getting it in. So I don't know whom to believe along the way.

CONAN: And in that interview Aram Bakshian also explains that, gee, if this had been thought of as a more important speech, more people would have looked at it, and that phrase probably wouldn't have made it in there at all, which gives us a real glimpse into how the West Wing operates.

Dr. KNOTT: I think that's absolutely true, and there really was a split within the Reagan administration between the so-called true believers or Reaganites, as they're often referred to. These were people who saw Ronald Reagan as the penultimate Cold Warrior, as somebody who was going to challenge the Soviet Union, rhetorically and also through a massive defense buildup, and that group included people like the speechwriter Aram Bakshian and others. And then there were the so-called pragmatist or, pragmatist is probably the best term. We're talking about people like James Baker, Michael Deaver, Stuart Spencer who was an outside advisor to the president. These were folks who urged him to take a more conciliatory approach and sort of welcomed the approach that George Shultz pursued, which was negotiation.

CONAN: You mentioned Stuart Spencer. He was a campaign advisor for President Reagan. There's an interesting clip of tape, and we're gonna play this as well, where he describes President Reagan's views on communism, and how passionate he felt about it, and on US-Soviet relations with the Soviet Union. You're gonna hear, by the way, a reference here to Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev.

Mr. STUART SPENCER (Campaign Advisor to Ronald Reagan): Every night when he went to bed, he was thinking of some way of gettin' Brezhnev or somebody in the corner, and he told me this prior to beginning in the presidency, because, you know, I used to ask questions like what the hell you want this job for?

You know? And he'd, I'd get the speech, as I call it, and the program on communism, and he'd quote me numbers, figures, etcetera, etcetera, and say we gotta build our defenses till they're scary. Their economy's going down, and it's gonna get worse. I mean, I'm simplifying a discussion. He watched and he fought for defense. God, he fought for defense, he always, he cut here, he cut there for, to get more defense. He took a lot of heat for it. All the time delivering, in his mind, the message to Russia, we are not gonna back off and we'll out-bomb you, we'll outdo everything to you, and his backside knowing that I have the resources, when I say I, we, this country had the resources. They don't.

CONAN: Stuart Spencer talking about a program that's usually summed up in the phrase "spend them into the ground."

Dr. KNOTT: Oh, that's correct, although in a later portion of the Spencer interview, he did talk about his own, Spencer's own misgivings about Reagan's use of the term "the evil empire." Spencer really believed along, I think, with Mrs. Reagan that there were times that some of the hawks in the administration went a little too far with their rhetorical assault against the Soviet Union.

CONAN: Hmm.

Dr. KNOTT: Reagan's an interesting character in this regard. Kenneth Adelman once described him, in another interview that we did, as an anti-nuclear hawk. He was a strange mix of somebody who despised nuclear weapons, viewed the whole doctrine of mutual assured destruction as immoral and wanted to see it replaced with another doctrine that didn't hold both the Soviet population and the American population hostage to a nuclear holocaust. But at the same time, he did despise the Soviet system. So he was a very interesting mix of both a hawk and a dove, and there were times when he went well beyond his hawkish advisors and pursued a more conciliatory approach, and ultimately, of course, signed some very historic agreements with Gorbachev.

CONAN: Mm. There was another clip you have from Frank Carlucci, in the Reagan administration, secretary of defense, talking about how, I think he said, you know, we all thought when President Carter said he hated nuclear weapons, we all thought he was crazy, and then Ronald Reagan says even more radical things. And one piece of advice, from an outsider, next time you do these presidential oral histories, get a better tape recorder, will you?

Dr. KNOTT: Our equipment improved along the way. There were a few times when we were on the road where we had to use a small portable device that did cause some problems.

CONAN: All right. Let's bring another voice into the conversation.

DR. KNOTT: Point well taken.

CONAN: But anyway, everybody will appreciate it, if you improve the equipment.

DR. KNOTT: Sure.

CONAN: Joining us now is presidential historian Robert Dallek, who's written biographies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon Baines Johnson and John Fitzgerald Kennedy; currently working on a dual biography of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.

And, Robert Dallek, always good to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

ROBERT DALLEK (Presidential biographer): Thank you.

CONAN: How common is the use of oral history? We've been hearing about the Miller Center's project going back to the Carter Administration and how useful is it?

Mr. DALLEK: Well, it's quite common now. It's a part of the presidential library's effort to develop as rich a history of a presidential administration as possible. And you can go back to even the Harry Truman and Franklin D. Roosevelt administrations and find some oral histories there.

A lot more with Eisenhower and particularly you get to Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and you have hundreds of them, thousands if you combine the two.

Now what's interesting is there is no significant oral history project Richard Nixon, at least not for his presidency. For his pre-presidential administration, there is an oral history project.

But that's a special situation because you don't have a presidential library on Richard Nixon, yet. It's going to happen. Their transferring documents from the archives here in Washington to the Nixon Library in California.

But it's quite common and it's valuable. You get the memories of participants, of journalists, of some critics. I think most directly of Joe Califano who was Lyndon Johnson's principal domestic advisor. And it's a massive oral history. It goes on for hundreds and hundreds of pages.

And Calafano insisted that the interviewers do their homework and bring him the documents so that he could review the material when he spoke about particular subjects. Because memory of course is a sometime thing and it's a dicey proposition.

And that brings me to your second question. How valuable are these oral histories? They're valuable but they are a distinctly limited part of the story. If you want to probe in any full rich way a presidential administration you need the contemporary documents. And as you said, at the outset of our discussion here, it takes many years, 12 years after a presidential administrations now mandated that documents be open.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. DALLEK: But it's a very limited sample that you're going to get at that point. Usually it takes 35 to 40 years and even then lots and lots of materials remain closed because of national security considerations and privacy concerns.

For example, there are 900 hours of Richard Nixon tapes, 30 what, 31 years now after his presidency 31 and a half years and these 900 hours are still closed. They'll be open in the next four to five years.

Johnson's tapes interviews, not interviews, but discussions that he had in the Oval Office et cetera still closed from 1968: vital crucial year.

CONAN: And by the way, we could have urged both Richard Nixon and Lyndon Baines Johnson to get better tape recorders too.

Mr. DALLEK: Oh, well that's part of the problem with technology. Very difficult to listen to those Johnson and Richard Nixon tapes and even more so with the Kennedy tapes.

CONAN: We're talking about the Ronald Reagan presidency through the recollections of some of those who worked with him. Coming up after the break, we'll hear what George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger remember from the Ronald Reagan years and continue taking your calls: 800-989-8255.

I'm Neal Conan we'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking today about the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the Miller Center of Public Affairs is releasing tapes from their most recent oral history project. We're listening to excerpts from a few of those interviews today.

With us is Steven Knott who oversaw the project for the Miller Center. He's with us at the Campus, at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. And also Robert Dallek, a presidential historian is with us.

If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call 800-989-8255 or zap us an e-mail talk@npr.org.

And let's get a caller on the line. Bobby is calling us from Kansas City.

BOBBY (Caller):

Hi, thank you for taking my call. I'm curious to know if perhaps you've interviewed any of the first lady's secretaries. Because I think I would most want to talk to Nancy's secretary and find out if the reputation that she was so hard to get along with and everything were true.

And a second question is what about Gerald Ford? Certainly, some of his people are still living. Are you doing an oral history on him?

CONAN: Steven Knott?

DR. KNOTT: If we had limited time and resources we would love to do a Ford oral history.

The Miller Center is really the only institution in the United States currently doing this kind of elite oral history as it's called. And we have to make some choices unfortunately and so far the Ford presidency has not been done as much as we'd love to do it. But again that comes down to resource question.

Regarding Nancy Reagan, we were working on actually getting an interview with Mrs. Reagan. Unfortunately, this was around the time that her husband passed away. And at that point, I decided to withdraw the request. It's conceivable; we could still do something like that down the road.

But I will tell you this. One of the areas of inquiry that we pursued all the time was this question of the extent to which Mrs. Reagan had influence within that White House over personal matters, which it seems to be pretty clear that she did and also policy matters. And there's a real dispute over that question.

We did not interview any of her secretaries. We did interview President Ronald Reagan's secretary Kathy Osborne.

CONAN: Bobby, thanks very much for the call, Robert?

BOBBY: Thank you.

CONAN: Robert?

ROBERT (Caller): Oh, I wanted to ask Stephen, do you know whether the Reagan and Ford libraries are doing their own oral history interviews? I would think they are.

DR. KNOTT: I believe they are not. My understanding is, and in fact, we did this oral history at the behest of the Reagan Presidential Library. They did not provide any financial resources for us. But we did it with their endorsement, with their support. These transcripts, and they're transcripts, Neal, not tapes.

CONAN: Mm hmmm.

DR. KNOTT: That are about to be...

CONAN: Okay.

Dr. KNOTT: ...will be housed both at the Miller Center Public Affairs and at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, and of course, online at the Miller Center Web site.

But we are doing this project, again, at the behest of the Reagan Library. And it is my understanding that the Presidential Libraries basically get out of this business in the mid 1970s.

CONAN: By the way, there's a time line of Ronald Reagan's life at our Web site NPR.org and there's also a link there to the Miller Center's Ronald Reagan Oral History Project, if you'd like to find out more directly from them about it.

Of course, a presidency is more than a collection of policies and measures passed by Congress. It's about the personality of a leader as much as anything else. We're going to listen to a clip now from Max Freidersdorf. This was President Ronald Reagan's liaison to Congress, talking about the relationship between President Ronald Reagan and the then Speaker of the House, Democrat Tip O'Neal from Massachusetts and the first time that Tip O'Neal came over to visit President Ronald Reagan at the White House.

MAX FREIDERSDORF (Assistant to President Reagan)": He has a couch; he sat at one end of it and Tip O'Neal at the other. And the speaker ordered up a martini and the president ordered up a martini. And we were all sitting around looking at him and the first thing they started to do was telling each other Irish jokes.

And I got so tickled, you know, that Tip O'Neal can tell, could tell a joke that was just, he had such an Irish brow in him. He's so charming and when he, and he had a real repertoire of jokes. But each one he would tell, President Ronald Reagan would come right back. Just two old Irishmen and top his story you know.

Unidentified Man: Uh huh.

FREEDERSDORF: And it was just hilarious and, you know, by the time Tip O'Neal left that night, I said you know, this is going to be a little easier than I thought.

(Soundbite of laughter)

He could charm the socks off of you.

CONAN: And a story that has gained some repute over the years. In fact, Tip O'Neal, Robert Dallek, tells that same story a little bit differently in his own memoirs.

Mr. DALLEK: He sure does and he was much more critical of President Ronald Reagan than you'd ever learn from that exert of the oral history.

Indeed let me give you a quote from Tip O'Neal's, Man of the House, which was his memoir, Ronald Reagan lacked the knowledge he should have had in every sphere, both domestic and international. But most of the time he was an actor reading lines, who didn't understand his own program. I hate to say it about such an agreeable man, but it was sinful that Ronald Reagan ever became president.

So, you know, there are a number of sides to these stories and oral histories, give you just one of them.

CONAN: That's why historians have to check several sources.

Mr. DALLEK: Yes you should.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line and this is Voron(ph), I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly, in Cupertino, California.

VORON (Caller): Yeah, hi. My question is regarding the Iran Contra affairs. And when the hearing came up, so Ronald Reagan was asked about some of the details he said he doesn't remember, hiding his sickness. But to me it, appeared he was in pretty much good health so was it strategy not to answer those questions or did he really didn't have any idea about what was going on?

CONAN: Yeah, there's a lot in your oral history, Steven Knott, about what the president knew and when he knew it.

DR. KNOTT: Right there is and I think some of the most compelling evidence comes from those individuals who were with Reagan on the day when he was informed about the so called diversion of funds from the sale of arms to the Iranians diverting it to the Contras and so forth.

Reagan was genuinely shocked. And if you're asking me my opinion, once again, speaking for myself as a scholar, it's my guess that Ronald Reagan did not know about the division of funds; that this was kept from him by John Poindexter, his national security advisor who has testified to that effect.

CONAN: There's a clip of tape of where George Shultz , secretary of state at the time, talks about what President Reagan took away from the Iran Contra scandal when people began to doubt his word.

Mr. GEORGE SHULTZ (Former Secretary of State) I think the thing that upset him as much as anything in the Iran Contra was he saw that he wasn't able, the American people didn't believe him.

He always felt that if I'm doing something that's right I can go out and I can convince them. So therefore I'll do what's right no matter what people tell me the politics are. Because I can turn that around.

And he found that he couldn't because basically what, the story he was telling was not the right story.

CONAN: The story he was telling, Robert Dallek, was not the right story. A couple of interesting insights there that he did believe in what he was saying and his belief in his ability to bring the American public around to his point of view.

Mr. DALLEK: Yeah, well he was, known justifiably as the great communicator. But you see what historians badly need, and they will hopefully get this material some time in the not to distant future, are what we call the memcons, the memorandums of conversations that generally are made of conversations that a president has in the oval office or in whatever working office he's using.

And there are thousands and thousands of these for Lyndon Johnson and for Richard Nixon. And one assumes that this material is there for Ronald Reagan as well. So we're going to find out a lot more about what Ronald Reagan knew, when did he know it and how accurate this presentation of his ignorance of Iran Contra turned out to be, and indeed, also the role that the senior George Bush played in these matters.

Because one can assume there are conversations there. There are materials, maybe there are e-mails that flew back and forth. So there's an awful long road winding here before we're going to reach something like an authoritative history of Ronald Reagan's presidency and the Iran Contra affair in particular.

CONAN: Voron thank you.

DR. KNOTT: Neal?

CONAN: Go ahead, I was just going to say good-bye to Voron, but go ahead.

DR. KNOTT: Neal, I just want to make it sure that we are not arguing that this oral history is somehow the definitive account of Ronald Reagan. Of course, as scholars, we all believe that you have to look at the documents, you have to read memoirs. You have to go wherever you can to find a variety of perspectives. This is just one resource of which we're very proud and we think it does advance the nations understanding of Ronald Reagan.

And let me just say that documents are equally capable of being self serving and don't always tell the entire story. I mean people put records on files just to cover their butt, pardon the phrase.

CONAN: Yeah, there's a, Robert Dallek, a famous story of a French general during the Second World War. Chaos around him, his army, his division has been defeated and the journalist finds him writing out orders in his headquarters. He says what are you doing, why are you writing that? He says, (French spoken).

Mr. DALLEK: Absolutely, of course the point is well taken and I would particularly underscore the idea that you do need to explore every possible avenue and look at as full and rich a program of materials as you can. And documents can be doctored so to speak. They can be sanitized, but there's so much paper in these presidential administrations, millions of pages. There are so many people involved that ultimately something resembling the truth will out. At lease that's my faith and that's been my experience in writing about Kennedy and Johnson and FDR and now Nixon and Kissinger.

CONAN: Well let's get another caller in. This is, maybe I didn't do that properly before, now. Oh, boy. I'm having a little trouble with the phone system here. Anyway, we'll see if we can rectify that and get more callers on the line. I wanted to ask you Robert Dallek, obviously emails are going to play a bigger and bigger part in presidential histories in the future. Capturing those, does anything exist to capture them?

Mr. DALLEK: Well, yes. Apparently in the Clinton White House I had a friend who was in the speech writing office and he said every email you sent went to a central file and so hopefully there is going to be a mass of emails there. On the other hand, echoing the point Stephen made before, there were a lot of emails that were never sent, so to speak, because people were cautious. If they didn't want to go on record saying something they simply wouldn't send an email or they wouldn't even make a telephone call because they didn't want a record to be made of that.

I'm worried that there is going to be a certain impoverishment of these presidential records. You see, although it was ugly and we have a certain amount of recrimination over the fact that Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon made so many tapes it is a fabulous resource for historians, because you have these folks speaking on the telephone, speaking in the Oval Office and spontaneously. And particularly with Richard Nixon because Nixon's tapes were voice activated. With Johnson and Kennedy they would press a button or indicate to a secretary that...

CONAN: Roll the tape.

Mr. DALLEK: ...roll the tape.

CONAN: So there's an element of self-consciousness there.

Mr. DALLEK: That's right. But with Nixon it was going all the time and so it is a fabulous source for those who want to reconstruct that administration.

CONAN: Robert Dallek, as always thanks very much. We appreciate your time.

Mr. DALLEK: My pleasure.

CONAN: Robert Dallek has written biographies of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and John Kennedy. His dual biography of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger is due out next year and he was kind enough to join us today here in studio 3A. And you're listening to Talk of the Nation coming to you from NPR News. And let's get another voice in the conversation now. Joining us is Michael Schaller a Professor of History at the University of Arizona, author of "Reckoning with Reagan: American and its President in the 1980s." He joins us from the studios of member station KUAZ in Tucson, Arizona. Welcome to Talk of the Nation.

Professor MICHAEL SCHALLER (History, University of Arizona): Thank you very much.

CONAN: I know you've been listening to the program, the conversation thus far. What's your view on the usefulness of oral histories?

PROF. SCHALLER: I think I agree pretty much with what Robert Dallek said. And it reminded me about the need to look a little more deeply, you know. One of Ronald Reagan's favorite phrases that he always used to shoot at the Russians was trust, then verify. And I think that's the message we should take from oral histories, that they're a source, but they're not the source. And just as Robert said that any document could be self-serving, so can any oral history. And not necessarily because of deception, but as I looked at several of these recent releases from the Reagan administration it was clear that people's memories reflected their role in the administration.

So a speech writer naturally believed that his phrase the evil empire, getting it in was one of the things that brought down the Russians and Caspar Weinberger would think that getting fifty extra tanks built was something that defeated the Russians somewhere else and so forth. And it's important to balance each of these histories with not only other oral histories, but the written record.

CONAN: But you do find out more about the president's management style, how the administration worked. There is a clip of tape, here's Frank Carlucci, Secretary of Defense at the time of this, talking about the last year of the Reagan administration and President Reagan's management style and how three men decided to run foreign policy for him.

Mr. FRANK CALRLUCCI (Former Secretary of Defense): When Colin succeeded me and I was Sec. Def. and George and I had buried the hatchet, the three of us made a conscious decision that, I think it was George who said that Ronald Reagan had the landing lights on and the flaps down for the last year and that we're going to have to step up to the plate on foreign policy. The only way it's going to work is for the three of us to agree and that's when we had the 7:00 meetings everyday just the three of us no agenda, no substitutes, work through the day's events. Try a force agreement and both George and I changed positions a number of times in those meeting because we decided that, the three of us agreed we knew we had Ronald Reagan.

CONAN: And the three were of course Frank Carlucci, then Secretary of Defense, George, George Shultz and Colin, Colin Powell. And, well, you know, Michael Schaller, that phrase about the President had the flaps down and the landing lights on, it's the last year of his presidency. It would take a, that's good stuff.

PROF. SCHALLER: It's terrific stuff. And I think that shows one of the strengths of oral history. It can give you a real nuance of personal relationships. At the same time I think it's revealing that Carlucci, Powell, and George Shultz were not Reagan acolytes. They weren't the true believers. Each of them were certainly more or less conservative, I don't doubt that, but they were also pros. Carlucci had been in and out of several administrations. So had Colin Powell. George Shultz, of course, had a distinguished career in both academia and government service, had stood up to Richard Nixon during Watergate.

These were people who understood how government worked. And I think Carlucci was describing how professionals worked, that they recognized Reagan's weakness. And also that little Carlucci clip contradicts many of Caspar Weinberger's reminiscences, who talks about how Reagan was sharp as a tack until the moment he left office in January 1989. You know, the landing flaps and the lights were on and Reagan was coasting, barely aware. Carlucci goes on to say that Reagan barely commented on foreign policy issues in the last year. He agreed to anything they put in front of him.

CONAN: He also said that none of those three men thought that President Reagan was in any way incapacitated.

PROF. SCHALLER: Right, but he was certainly disengaged.

CONAN: All right.

Dr. KNOTT: If I could just jump in here, Neal, for a second.

CONAN: Go ahead, Stephen Knott.

Dr. KNOTT: We do need oral histories. Thank you. There is a real diversity of opinion on this issue, on the extent of Ronald Reagan's engagement or disengagement. And this is why I would urge interested parties to tune into our website on the 29th and to try to read the oral histories in their entirety. For instance, A.B. Culvahouse, who was the White House counsel at the time, takes the exact opposite tack that Frank Carlucci does. Culvahouse says that it was Reagan and Reagan alone that drove the INF Treaty.

CONAN: We're going to continue our conversation on the Ronald Reagan Oral History Project after a short break. And we'll also talk about Pennsylvania mine safety laws, up for their first major revision in forty years. And we'll also talk with the latest winner of the Newbery Award. This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan and this is NPR News.

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Right now we're talking about the Reagan presidency and an oral history project on it. Our guests are Stephen Knott, who oversaw the project at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. We're also talking with Michael Schaller, author of Reckoning with Reagan: America and its President in the 1980s. Michael Schaller, I meant to ask you, in writing a book like that is it frustrating to know that there's all this other good stuff out there that you just don't have access to yet?

PROF. SCHALLER: Well, you know, you're never going to have everything. And what you try to do is get as much as you can, when you can. As Robert Dallek said that it'll be decades in some cases before all the information's there. But you do, you know, you sample, you do the best you can, and you come up with what you think is a reasonable facsimile of reality. And I think by combining a lot of sources you can at least approach an actual story. These oral histories will enrich future historians and, you know, they're a wonderful resource.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Michael. And by the way the problem with the phones, it was me again. Michael, you're on the air calling from Boulder, Colorado.

MICHAEL (Caller): Yes, thank you Neal. Long time listener, first time caller.

CONAN: Thanks for that.

MICHAEL: I'd like to ask if the oral history has uncovered signs that Reagan already had Alzheimer's disease while he was president? I'll take my answer from the radio.

CONAN: Ok Michael, thanks very much and Stephen Knott there is plenty on that.

Dr. KNOTT: There is. Well it's a question that we pursued with quite a few of our interviewees, including two physicians, Otis Bowen, who was the Secretary of Health and Human Services in the second term and Dr. John Hutton, Reagan's personal physician. But we asked almost everybody who was close to Reagan and to a man the answer was no. No again, as has been pointed out, this is from people who were very close and affectionate with Ronald Reagan, but we didn't find any evidence to substantiate that.

CONAN: And we mentioned earlier that Caspar Weinberger is among those who has said that he thought that Ronald Reagan was at full capacity throughout his presidency. Here's a clip of tape of Caspar Weinberger being asked about the question on Alzheimer's disease.

Unidentified Male: Did you see any decline in President Reagan's performance over the years?

Mr. CASPAR WEINBERGER (Former Secretary of Defense): No. No, I've been asked that many times. No. there was no slight suggestion of that at all. He was, he kept his full possession of his faculties and his capabilities and all the rest. The Alzheimer's was a great surprise and shock to me. And many of them, including medical correspondents from the New York Times, many others have said you must have started to notice some change. I didn't. I didn't see anything that indicated the slightest decline in his memory or his medical capabilities, his mental capabilities. And I don't think there was any. And I think that's a very cursed disease, it comes on quite quick, quickly and...

CONAN: And that was Caspar Weinberger. Michael Schaller, when President, then former President Reagan was called to testify just a couple of years after his presidency was over, you could hear the deterioration then.

PROF. SCHALLER: Oh, certainly. He couldn't remember the names of people who were close advisors, high Congressional officials, the names of, you know, people he worked with intimately. It was a painful thing to watch. I'm not a medical expert, but my sense is that Alzheimer's doesn't come on so suddenly. Maybe aspects of it or there are thresholds, but I think many people who worked with Reagan have said that as long there were issues that he really cared about he could stay on task and be forceful. But as soon as he got away from those issues he began to drift. George Shultz said that in the last year that you didn't want to leave him in a room with a foreign leader without a minder because you just couldn't be sure what he was going to say. And I think those are certainly suggestions that he had lost his edge.

CONAN: And Stephen Knott, as your interviewees, there were forty-five of them, and I understand some of them have said, they've given you interviews but said let's not release them just yet.

Dr. KNOTT: That's correct. Part of what we do at the Miller Center with our oral history programs is guarantee the people that we're interviewing that what they say to us will be kept in confidence. And we want people to talk to us candidly. And if they want to put a restriction on a document for 10 years or 20 years, as much as I as a scholar would like to get at right now, we believe we're doing our part for history to at least get this on the record so that this material will appear at some point down the road. Obviously, I'd prefer they didn't do that, but I can tell you, it provides for far more candid interview as a result.

CONAN: And might you continue to do interviews at this point? Might you, for example, renew your request to Nancy Reagan?

Dr. KNOTT: It's possible. We are doing a number of projects right now. We're doing a very large, five year project on Senator Edward Kennedy, so we've sort of branched out into the legislative sphere. We've got a massive program on Bill Clinton that I mentioned earlier, so we've got a lot to do. I wish we could do everything, believe me.

CONAN: Well, thank you very much for being with us today and allowing us to share some of the excerpts from these tapes. They've been fascinating, no matter how well they were recorded.

Dr. KNOTT: Thank you.

CONAN: And I'm sorry for bugging you about that, but we're professionals here.

Dr. KNOTT: Not a problem.

CONAN: Stephen Knott, an associate professor who oversaw the Reagan Oral History Project at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia with us from the studios on the school's campus in Charlottesville.

Michael Schaller, thank you so much for your time today.

Prof. SCHALLER: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Michael Schaller, professor of history at the University of Arizona, author of Reckoning with Reagan: America and Its President in the 1980s. His new book, due out next March, is called Right Turn: American Life in the Reagan-Bush Era. He was with us from the studios of member station KUAZ in Tucson.

And remember a timeline of Ronald Reagan's life is at our website npr.org, there. You can also find a link to the Miller Center site and their oral history project.

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