Listen to an excerpt from the Audiobook
June 5, 2004
The man with one minute to live is no longer confused.
Ronald Reagan lapsed into a coma two days ago. His wife, Nancy, sits at the side of the bed, holding the former president’s hand. Emotionally and physically exhausted by the ordeal, she quietly sobs as her body rocks in grief. Reagan’s breathing has become ragged and inconsistent. After ten long years of slow descent toward the grave due to Alzheimer’s disease, a bout of pneumonia brought on by food particles caught in his lungs has delivered the knockout blow. Nancy knows that her beloved Ronnie’s time has come.
Counting the former president, six people crowd into the bedroom. There is his physician, Dr. Terry Schaack; and Laura, the Irish nurse whose soft brogue the president is known to find soothing. Two of his grown children stand at the bedside. Ron, forty-six, and Patti, fifty-one, have been holding vigil with their mother for days. They have a reputation for conflict with their parents, but on this day those quarrels have vanished as they lend their mother emotional support. An adopted son from Reagan’s first marriage, Michael, has also been summoned, but he is caught in Los Angeles traffic and will miss the president’s final breath.
Outside the single-story, three-bedroom house, the foggy Pacific marine layer has burned off, replaced by a warm summer sun. The hydrangea and white camellia bushes are in full bloom. A media horde has gathered on St. Cloud Road in Reagan’s posh Bel-Air neighborhood,* waiting with their cameras and news trucks for the inevitable moment when the fortieth president of the United States passes away. The former actor and college football player is ninety-three. Even into his seventies, he was so vigorous that he rode the hills of his Santa Barbara ranch on horseback for hours and cleared acres of thick hillside brush all by himself.
But years ago his mind betrayed him. Reagan slowly lapsed into a dementia so severe that it has been a decade since he appeared in public. The root cause could have been genetic, for his mother was not lucid in her final days. Or it might have been the result of a near-death experience caused by a gunman’s bullet twenty-three years ago. Whatever the reason, Reagan’s decline has been dramatic. Over the past ten years, he has spent most days sleeping or looking out at the sweeping view of Los Angeles from his flagstone veranda. His smile is warm, but his mind is vacant. Eventually, he lost the ability even to recognize family and friends. When Reagan’s oldest child from his first marriage, Maureen, was dying of melanoma in a Santa Monica hospital in 2001, the former president was in the same hospital being treated for a broken hip—yet was too confused to see her.
So now, the man who lies at home in a hospital bed, clad in comfortable pajamas, is a shell of his former self. His blue eyes, the last time he opened them, were dense, the color of chalk. His voice, which once lent itself to great oration, is silent.
Another breath, this one more jagged than the last. Nancy’s tears fall onto the bedsheets at the onset of the death rattle.
Suddenly, Ronald Reagan opens his eyes. He stares intently at Nancy. “They weren’t chalky or vague,” Patti Davis will later write of her father’s eyes. “They were clear and blue and full of love.”
The room hushes.
Closing his eyes, Reagan takes his final breath.
The former leader of the free world, the man who defeated Soviet communism and ended the Cold War, is dead.
Convention Center Music Hall
October 28, 1980
The man with twenty-four years to live steps onstage.
Polite applause washes over Ronald Reagan as he strides to his lectern for the 1980 presidential debate.† The former movie star and two-term governor of California is striving to become president of the United States at the relatively advanced age of sixty-nine. His jet-black pompadour, which he swears he does not dye, is held in place by a dab of Brylcreem.‡ His high cheeks are noticeably rosy, as if they have been rouged—although the color may also have come from the glass of wine he had with dinner. At six foot one and 190 pounds, Reagan stands tall and straight, but his appearance does not intimidate: rather, he looks to be approachable and kind.
The governor’s opponent is incumbent president Jimmy Carter. At five nine and 155 pounds, the slender Carter has the build of a man who ran cross-country in college. In fact, the president still makes time for four miles a day. Carter is a political junkie, immersing himself in every last nuance of a campaign. He has made a huge surge in the polls over the last two months. Carter knows that with one week until Election Day, the race is almost dead even. The winner of this debate will most likely win the presidency, and if it is Carter, his comeback will be one of the greatest in modern history.§ In another reality, a Carter loss would make him the first president in nearly fifty years to be voted out of office after just one full term. Still boyish at fifty-six, but with a face lined by the rigors of the presidency, he now stands opposite Reagan, a man he loathes.
The feeling is mutual. Reagan privately refers to the current president of the United States as “a little shit.”
■ ■ ■
As President Carter stands behind the pale-blue lectern, he makes a sly sideward glance at his opponent. Carter is all business and believes that Ronald Reagan is not his intellectual equal. He has publicly stated that Reagan is “untruthful and dangerous” and “different than me in almost every basic element of commitment and experience and promise to the American people.”
At his acceptance speech at the August 1980 Democratic National Convention, Carter made it clear that the upcoming election would be “a stark choice between two men, two parties, two sharply different pictures of what America is and the world is.”
The president concluded by adding, “It’s a choice between two futures.”
Indeed, Carter appears to be the smarter man. He graduated fifty-ninth in a class of 820 from the U.S. Naval Academy and spent his military career onboard nuclear submarines. The Georgia native with the toothy smile possesses an easy command of facts and figures. He has hands-on experience in foreign and domestic policy and often speaks in soothing intellectual sound bites.
In 1976, Carter defeated his Republican opponent, Gerald R. Ford, in their three debates, and he is sure he will do the same tonight. Political pollster Pat Caddell, the nation’s leading authority on presidential elections and a member of the Carter campaign, predicts that Carter will clinch the election with a decisive debate victory.
Two months ago, Reagan’s lead in the polls was sixteen points. But if the election were held today, polls indicate Carter would garner 41 percent of the vote and Reagan 40. However, Caddell has strongly warned Carter against debating Reagan. The biggest knock against Reagan politically is the perception that he is a warmonger. Caddell believes that a debate would allow Reagan to counter those fears by appearing warm and collected rather than half-cocked. Once it became clear that Carter was intent on a public debate, his advisers pressed for the long, ninety-minute format that will be used tonight, hoping that Reagan will wear down and say something stupid.
That would hardly be a first. Ronald Reagan is so prone to saying the wrong thing at the wrong time that his campaign staff has been known to call him “old foot-in-the-mouth.” Perhaps the worst public gaffe of his career will occur in Brazil. Speaking at a dinner in that nation’s capital city of Brasilia, Reagan will hoist his glass, proposing a toast to the people of Bolivia.¶
But Reagan is no fool and is much more incisive than Carter about the Soviet Union’s Communist regime. He despises it. But he has no foreign policy experience to refer to. Reagan memorizes speeches and phrases, rather than immersing himself in heavy study or specific details. While this might not be a problem at most campaign events, where Reagan can read from a prepared speech, it could be trouble here in Cleveland: the rules of the debate stipulate that neither candidate is allowed to bring notes to the stage.
Yet Reagan will not admit to being at a disadvantage. He believes his communications skills will make up for his lesser book smarts. Reagan, in fact, is far different from how most people perceive him. He has an army of close acquaintances but few friends. He freely offers his opinions about public policy but rarely shares deep personal thoughts. Some who work for him think Reagan is distant and lazy, as he so often lets others make tough decisions for him. Others, however, find his manner warm, friendly, and endearing and his hands-off management style liberating.
Reagan does not really care what other people think. He confidently marches ahead, rarely showing any self-doubt.
To bring him luck in the debate, Reagan traveled to his native state of Illinois and visited the tomb of Abraham Lincoln this past week. He actually rubbed his nose on the statue of the great political debater, hoping some of Lincoln’s brilliance would rub off on him.
Not that Reagan is intimidated. Of Carter he has said condescendingly, “He knows he can’t win a debate if it were held in the Rose Garden before an audience of Administration officials, with the questions being asked by Jody Powell,” referencing the president’s hard-living press secretary.
The truth is that Reagan’s campaign has lost whatever momentum it once possessed. “Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign may be running out of steam,” wrote the Wall Street Journal on October 16.
“I think Reagan is slipping everywhere,” one of his top aides told reporters in an off-the-record conversation. “If he doesn’t do something dramatic he is going to lose.”**
Meanwhile, Carter’s aides are almost giddy in their optimism. “The pieces are in place for us to win,” they tell Newsweek magazine.
At the stroke of 9:30, the debate begins.
■ ■ ■
Ruth Hinerfeld of the League of Women Voters opens the proceedings with a short speech. She speaks her few careful lines in a hesitant tone before handing the proceedings over to the evening’s moderator, veteran journalist Howard K. Smith of ABC News. Smith sits at a desk to the front of the stage, his tie loose and his jacket unbuttoned.
“Thank you, Mrs. Hinerfeld,” he says before introducing the four journalists who will launch questions at the two candidates.†† The chatter and applause that filled the room just moments ago have been replaced by palpable nervous tension. There is a sensation that tonight may change the course of U.S. history.
■ ■ ■
As both Reagan and Carter well know, the 1970s have been a brutal time for America. In 1974, President Richard Nixon resigned under threat of impeachment after the Watergate affair. The unchecked growth of the Soviet Union’s war machine and the American failure to win the Vietnam War have tilted the global balance of power. At home, inflation, interest rates, and unemployment rates are sky-high. Gasoline shortages have led to mile-long lines at the pumps. Worst of all, there is the ongoing humiliation that came about when Iranian radicals stormed the American embassy in Tehran in 1979 and took almost the entire staff hostage. Nearly six months later, a rescue attempt failed miserably, resulting in the deaths of eight American servicemen. One week from today, when Americans go to the polls to pick a U.S. president, the fifty-two hostages will have spent exactly one year in captivity.
The United States of America is still very much a superpower, but an air of defeat, not hope, now defines its national outlook.
The small theater in which the debate will unfold was built shortly after World War I, at a time when America had flexed its muscle on the world stage and first assumed global prominence. But tonight, there is a single question on the minds of many watching this debate:‡‡ can America be fixed?
Or, more to the point, are the best days of the United States of America in the past?
■ ■ ■
“Governor,” asks panelist Marvin Stone, editor of the magazine U.S. News & World Report, “you have been criticized for being all too quick to advocate the use of lots of muscle, military action, to deal with foreign crises. Specifically, what are the differences between the two of you on the uses of American military power?”
Reagan’s career as a Hollywood actor has seen him through a number of personal highs and lows. He has experienced failure and divorce, and endured the humiliation of acting in films that made him look ridiculous. But he has also learned poise under fire and the art of delivering a line. Now, as Stone zeroes in on what some see as a glaring weakness in Reagan’s résumé, those communication skills desert him. He fumbles for words. Eloquence is replaced by odd pauses. “I believe with all my heart,” Reagan says slowly, as if he has forgotten the question completely, “that our first priority must be world peace.”
Offstage, in the Carter campaign’s greenroom, the president’s staff roars with laughter as they watch an uncomfortable Reagan on a television monitor.
There is more to Reagan’s answer, but it is clear that he is searching for a way to leave the moment behind and revert to the well-rehearsed lines he has prepared for tonight. “I’m a father of sons,” Reagan finally says, finding a way to use one of those scripted answers. “I have a grandson. I don’t ever want to see another generation of young Americans bleed their lives into sandy beachheads in the Pacific, or rice paddies and jungles in Asia, or the muddy, bloody battlefields of Europe.”
About ten feet away, Carter grips his lectern as if standing at a church pulpit. His eyes are tired and his face pinched.§§ Naturally peevish, he is tired from staying up late trying to negotiate the release of the American hostages in Iran. The talks are at a delicate point, and he knows that his electoral victory is assured if he succeeds. Carter is so preoccupied with these talks that he initially refused to spend time prepping for the debate. The lack of sleep has made him short-tempered, tense, and difficult to be around. This fatigue also makes it difficult for Carter to hide his utter contempt for Reagan as they share the stage.
When it comes his turn to field the same question, the president speaks in simple declarative sentences, reminding the audience and the millions watching on television that he is committed to a strong national defense. He mentions the American journalist H. L. Mencken by name and quotes him on the nature of problem solving. It is a literary allusion meant to remind the audience of Carter’s intellect, but it is a misstep—Mencken is against religion, suspicious of democracy, and elitist. Carter’s mentioning him is a thinly veiled attempt to rally the more left-leaning aspects of the Democratic Party. But the American public, Democrat and Republican alike, is in a patriotic mood. They long for a return to simple, straightforward American values. The words of H. L. Mencken only succeed in making Carter look out of touch.
Stone pounces. The balding editor leans into his microphone. He speaks to the president of the United States as if he were lecturing a cub reporter. “Under what circumstances would you use military forces to deal with, for example, a shutoff of Persian Gulf oil, if that should occur, or to counter Russian expansion beyond Afghanistan into either Iran or Pakistan? I ask this question in view of charges that we are woefully unprepared to project sustained—and I emphasize the word sustained—power in that part of the world.”
Carter will reach for his water glass eleven times tonight. It is his tell, as gamblers call a nervous tic. Another tell is that Carter blinks constantly when ill at ease.
“We have made sure that we address this question peacefully, not injecting American military forces into combat but letting the strength of our nation be felt in a beneficial way,” he answers, eyelids fluttering as if he were staring into the sun. “This, I believe, has assured that our interests will be protected in the Persian Gulf region, as we’ve done in the Middle East and throughout the world.”
This is not an answer. It is an evasion. And while Carter is hoping to appear presidential and above the fray, the fact is that he looks indecisive and somewhat weak.
When it comes Reagan’s turn to field the same question, he stumbles again—though only for an instant. His thought process seems to be clearing. Reagan has rehearsed this debate with adviser David Stockman, whose sharp intellect rivals that of Carter. That practice now shows in Reagan’s new confidence. Statistics suddenly roll off his tongue. He rattles off the 38 percent reduction in America’s military force under the Carter administration, the refusal to build sixty ships that the navy deems necessary to fulfilling its global mission, and Carter’s insistence that programs to build new American bombers, missiles, and submarines be either stalled or halted altogether.
The outrage in Reagan’s voice will connect to those viewers sick and tired of America’s descent into global impotency.
Jimmy Carter reaches for his water glass.
■ ■ ■
More than one thousand miles west, in the city of Evergreen, Colorado, a twenty-five-year-old drifter pays little attention to the debate. Instead, John Hinckley Jr. fixates on schemes to impress Jodie Foster, the young actress who starred opposite Robert De Niro in the 1976 movie Taxi Driver—a film Hinckley has seen more than fifteen times. Even though he has never met her, Hinckley considers Jodie the love of his life and is determined to win her hand.
Hinckley’s obsession with the eighteen-year-old actress is so complete that he temporarily moved to New Haven, Connecticut, to stalk her while she attended Yale University. Hinckley is a college dropout, unable to focus on his own studies, yet he had little problem sitting in on Foster’s classes. In New Haven, he slid love notes under the door of her dorm room, found her phone number, and, in a brazen move, called Foster and asked her out to dinner. Shocked, she refused. So stunned was Foster by Hinckley’s advances and subsequent actions that she will not speak of them for years to come.
Now, nearly penniless and having moved back in with his parents, John Hinckley ruminates over how to make Jodie Foster change her mind. His plans are grandiose and bizarre. Hinckley has contemplated killing himself right before Foster’s very eyes, or perhaps hijacking an airliner.
He has even plotted the assassination of President Jimmy Carter.
The pudgy Hinckley, who wears his shaggy hair in bangs, has yet to see a psychiatrist for the schizophrenia that is slowly taking control of his brain. That appointment is still one week away. But no amount of therapy will ever stop him from thinking about Jodie Foster—and the lengths to which he must go to earn her love. Now, sitting in a small basement bedroom, Hinckley considers suicide.
Bottles of prescription pills cover his nightstand. It will take a few more days to summon his courage, but Hinckley will soon reach for the container labeled “Valium” and gobble a deadly dosage.
Once again, John Hinckley will fail.
He will wake up nauseated but alive, vowing to find some new way to impress Jodie Foster.
Killing himself is not the answer. Clearly, someone else must die.
■ ■ ■
About halfway through the ninety-four-minute debate, Ronald Reagan gets personal. “I talked to a man just briefly there who asked me one simple question,” Reagan says gravely. “ ‘Do I have reason to hope that I can someday take care of my family again?’ ”
Watching from the side of the stage, Nancy Reagan can see that her husband is gaining confidence with every question. This gives her solace, for Nancy was so afraid that her Ronnie would say something foolish that she initially opposed the debate. More than that of any of his advisers, it is Nancy’s opinion that matters most to Reagan. They have been married twenty-eight years, and she has been a driving force behind his run for the presidency. Throughout their marriage he has chosen to address her as Mommy, a term of endearment mocked by some journalists covering Reagan.
Nancy Reagan wears a size four dress and has thin legs and thick ankles. Her mother was an actress, her adoptive father an esteemed surgeon, and she grew up determined to find fame.¶¶ She relies on sleeping pills and tranquilizers, and sometimes bursts into tears from stress, but there is steel in her voice when she corrects her husband or sees to it that one of the campaign staff is disciplined. Nancy Reagan professes shock when the press portrays her as the conniving Lady Macbeth, but the description isn’t entirely off the mark. She is by far the more grating half of the Reagan marriage, and she is determined that this election be won at all costs.
Cheating is not out of the question. Although he does not yet know it, Jimmy Carter’s briefing notes for this debate were recently stolen from the White House and secretly handed over to the Reagan campaign. This, of course, has allowed Reagan to know in advance how Carter will respond to every question. Certainly, no one is pointing to Nancy Reagan as having engineered the theft—indeed, reports of the act will not be leaked to the public for three more years, and the real culprit remains in question.*** Yet it is well known that, with so much at stake, she doesn’t play nice. To Nancy, gaining access to Carter’s playbook is a windfall to the Reagan campaign, not a crime.
As the debate continues, Jimmy Carter is not doing himself any favors onstage. “I had a discussion with my daughter, Amy,” Carter says, referring to his thirteen-year-old, “to ask her what the most important issue was. She said she thought nuclear weaponry and the control of nuclear arms.”
In the greenroom, Carter’s campaign staff is distraught. While prepping for the debate, Carter told them he planned to use his daughter to make a point. His staff strongly urged him not to.
“In the end,” Pat Caddell will later recall, “it came down to ‘I’m the president. Fuck you.’ ”
It is a huge mistake. That the president of the United States is allowing a teenager to decide what matters most to America in a time of such great crisis is laughable. One journalist will later write that the statement was “Carter at his worst: Weak and silly.”
But Jimmy Carter does not have that sense. “In the debate itself, it was hard to judge the general demeanor that was projected to the viewers,” Carter will write in his diary tonight. “He [Reagan] has his memorized tapes. He pushes a button, and they come out.”†††
Carter’s statement is true. Like all veteran actors, Reagan has mastered the art of memorization. Also, while there are a great number of scripted lines that he has written himself or with his speechwriters to help him score points, Reagan has concocted a simple statement to deride Carter. After the president launches into a detailed and very dry explanation about Reagan’s opposition to national health care, Reagan pauses at his lectern. It is obvious that Carter is showing off his intellect in a way that is meant to make Reagan look old, slow, and out of touch. The president’s words were specifically chosen to ensure that Reagan’s scripted lines could not rescue him and to make it obvious to one and all that Jimmy Carter is the more intelligent of the two.
What follows is Reagan at his best. In four simple words that will be remembered for decades, he succeeds in making President Carter look foolish. They are words that Reagan came up with during the long hours of practice debates but which he has kept to himself, knowing that for maximum effectiveness the line must sound completely spontaneous.
Slowly shaking his head, Reagan turns to Carter and says, “There you go again.”
The auditorium erupts in laughter. Reagan’s tone is that of a disappointed parent, saddened by a child who has failed to live up to expectations. The words mean nothing and everything. One short sentence captures the mood of a nation that no longer wants detailed policy explanations as to why the economy has collapsed and Americans are being held hostage in a foreign country.
The time for words has passed. Now is the time for action.
The election may be seven days away, but for James Earl “Jimmy” Carter Jr. of Plains, Georgia, it is over. The only man who does not know that is Carter himself. “Both sides felt good about the debate. We’ll see whose basic strategy is best when the returns come in next Tuesday,” he will write in his diary.
■ ■ ■
Reagan finishes the debate with a flourish. “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” he says earnestly into the television camera, wrapping up with an emotional appeal to the American people. “Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was? Do you feel that our security is as safe, that we’re as strong as we were four years ago? And if you answer all of those questions yes, why then, I think your choice is very obvious as to who you’ll vote for.”
So obvious, in fact, that the election is a landslide. Ronald Reagan receives 489 electoral votes; Jimmy Carter receives just 49.‡‡‡
On January 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan is sworn in as the fortieth president of the United States.
John Hinckley Jr. has a new target.
*A group of Reagan’s friends bought the house for $2.5 million while he was still in office and leased it to him with an option to buy—which Reagan did, in December 1989, for $3.0 million. The 7,192-square-foot home sits on a 1.29-acre lot and features a swimming pool, three bedrooms, and six bathrooms. Next door is the former Kirkeby Estate, which served as the setting for the Beverly Hillbillies television show. Despite the price of Reagan’s home, one real estate agent noted that “it’s a very ordinary house—Reagan must be the poorest man in Bel-Air.”
†There were supposed to be three debates in the 1980 campaign, due to the presence of third-party candidate John Anderson, a Republican congressman from Illinois who ran as an independent. President Carter refused to debate Anderson, giving Reagan and Carter the chance to go head-to-head.
‡Reagan’s hair was actually brown, but the wet look of his hairstyling made it appear black.
§One reason Jimmy Carter is behind is that CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite’s nightly tally of the number of days the American hostages had been held in Iran helped lower voter confidence in Carter.
¶He immediately attempted to cover the slip by adding, “That’s where I’m going,” referring to his four-nation swing through South America. In fact, he was not going to Bolivia. His next stop was Colombia, whose capital city is Bogotá. Officials tried to cover for Reagan by changing the transcript of the speech to read “Bogota.” When asked why, they replied that it was what Reagan intended to say and refused to alter their correction.
**While this remark is still unclaimed, those within the Reagan and Carter circles believe they were the words of the late Lyn Nofziger (1924–2006), a political veteran who was known for his candor with the press.
††Barbara Walters, ABC News; William Hilliard, Portland Oregonian; Marvin L. Stone, U.S. News & World Report; and Harry Ellis, Christian Science Monitor.
‡‡Three thousand in the auditorium and 80.6 million watching at home on television.
§§The Reagan campaign argued that the lecterns should be side by side, which would accentuate Reagan’s height. The Carter campaign refused. On the night of the debate, as one observer noted, the lecterns were “as far as possible apart, without actually going off the stage.”
¶¶Nancy Reagan was born in New York City on July 6, 1921, as Anne Frances Robbins. Her mother was an actress and her father a used-car salesman. The two split up when the girl who had earned the nickname Nancy was just six. She was sent to live with family in Maryland. Her mother remarried, to a Chicago neurosurgeon named Loyal Davis, who adopted Nancy and gave her his surname. In 1949, after working for a time as a sales clerk, she traveled to Hollywood to pursue her dream of becoming an actress. During that time she dated several prominent names in Hollywood, among them Clark Gable.
***As noted in Craig Shirley’s Rendezvous with Destiny, the late Paul Corbin, an influential Democrat and friend of the Kennedy family who was bitter about Ted Kennedy losing to Jimmy Carter in the 1980 Democratic primary race, admitted to stealing the playbook shortly after copies were assembled in the White House on the night of October 23. The book was then given to William Casey, the former World War II OSS spy who led the Reagan campaign. Finally, on October 25, the Carter book was handed to the three key players in Reagan’s debate prep: James Baker III, David Gergen, and David Stockman. Three years later, when word about the theft was leaked, a ten-month congressional and FBI investigation ensued. Corbin never surfaced as the culprit, and the truth did not come out about his involvement until after his death in 1990. Pat Caddell, when interviewed for this book, said he believes Corbin was given the book by a member of the National Security Council serving in Carter’s White House.
†††Just moments after the debate ended, a group of journalists came to Jimmy Carter before he could leave the stage. “Are you prepared to claim victory? Did you win it?” Carter refused to answer.
‡‡‡ Carter won his home state of Georgia, plus Minnesota, the home state of running mate Walter Mondale. The Carter-Mondale ticket also captured Hawaii, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia.
Copyright © 2015 by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard