Thursday, February 22, 2007

THREE QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF BEFORE YOU VOTE FOR PRESIDENT. Was Reagan Out of Touch or Was it a Brilliant Ploy by a Veteran Actor?


By Thomas F. Roeser

An article for The Wanderer, the oldest national Catholic weekly.

CHICAGO—Earlier on in this series of articles for The Wanderer, I said that no Democratic candidate for president could possibly be attractive to a traditionally conservative Catholic (who is pro-life and still anti-Iraq War). The possible options are with the Republican side. So, having outlined the pros and cons of the various Republican candidates (the Democrats’ turn will come later) what are the criteria to use to make a determination on whom to support?
For fifty years I’ve relied on three. More about them later.

I’ve always tried to meet and interview all the candidates—and I’m still doing it. It’s helped that I was a newspaperman and later a corporate executive who had access to other people’s campaign money (not my own) which intrigued candidates sufficiently to spend time with me. I interviewed President Dwight Eisenhower at the then Wold-Chamberlain field in Minneapolis in 1956 ; I had three distinct shots at querying Richard M. Nixon—in Chicago in `64, `66 and `68. I never questioned JFK but saw him sufficiently first-hand in Minnesota in 1960 and `62 and studied his remarks so as to draw a conclusion.

I never felt interested enough in Lyndon Johnson to bother trying to get an interview but I did spend an interesting evening with Barry Goldwater in 1964 while he flew a jet roundtrip-- from Minnesota to South Dakota and back again--with the co-pilot a 70-year-old grandmother, an excellent pilot who could swear like a longshoreman, causing Goldwater to double up with laughter as he sat at the controls. I knew Hubert Humphrey very well, having traveled with him from one end of Minnesota to the other as a journalist.

I never talked with Jimmy Carter but one of the longest and most profitable sessions was lunch and a four hour face-to-face session with private citizen Ronald Reagan in 1979, one year before he was elected president, while he waited for a plane connection at O’Hare for California. Walter Mondale had been an across-the-hall office neighbor as Minnesota attorney general so I knew what he thought long before he smothered his real opinions as vice-president and presidential nominee.

I spent the longest, most boring dinner in my life sitting next to the 41st president George H. W. Bush at a dinner hosted by the City Club of Chicago (where I was president) trying to prop my eyes open as he worked to parse his cliché-laden answers to my questions. I drowned Hillary Clinton by shaking my snowy overcoat in New Hampshire and covering her with melting ice and was the victim of her scathing looks and tongue while her husband Bill was nice enough to hang up my coat for me and answer a lot of questions. I met Sen. Al Gore in Chicago with my old Democratic friend the Rev. Jim Wall, editor of the Christian Century.

I had questioned Sen. John Kerry at length on night after he lectured at Harvard down the hall from the class I was teaching politics there. Believe it or not I have never met George W. Bush, sorry to say. But in 1969 in the Nixon administration, I drank a lot of coffee with Don Rumsfeld’s top aide at the Office of Economic Opportunity since the agency I headed required we work closely together--a lad named Dick Cheney (he pronounced it “cheeney” then) and I’ve interviewed him on my ABC-Chicago radio program several times since. That takes us up to this year.

Two months ago I spent 1-1/2 hours with Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), a Catholic convert from evangelicalism and last week it was two hours with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) along with about 20 people or so. All in all, not a bad record for putting tough questions to presidents, vice presidents and wannaabes for the past fifty years.

But you don’t have to be a nosy journalist like me to satisfy your curiosity about presidential candidates. There’s an easy way to do it. A website called www.realclearpolitics runs all the transcripts of news conferences and speeches for free and you can easily bone up. You can find out more about them there than anywhere else—and it’s all free. The point is: bone up on them before you decide who you’ll vote for.

Having boned up, I ask myself the following three questions: First, does the candidate appear to be well-motivated to do what is right—not just for his own political advancement but for the nation’s—if he becomes president? Second, is he sufficiently up to the challenge of the job intellectually and physically? And third, do I have any reservations or personal doubts about whether he would hold firm to his stated convictions and not flinch when the political heat is on.

Asking myself these three questions has always helped me. Having spent some time with Nixon before 1968 and watching his beady little eyes dart around as he thought of palatable answers, I had reservations about him concerning numbers one and three. Considering that he was running against Humphrey whom I knew very well over fifteen years about whom I had reservations on number three, it was a rather difficult job making up my mind. I said the heck with it and went with my heart.

Ronald Reagan was the greatest man I met running for president—but, believe it or not, I had trouble giving him a perfect 3 for 3 score. I graded him tops on number one and tops on number three. After our Chicago meeting I had doubts about him on number two—whether he had the intellectual stuff to be president.

When we were together in Chicago, he was relaxed and jovial, having served two very successful terms as governor of California and having come close to winning the GOP presidential nomination over Gerald Ford in 1976. He was 68 years old, slightly hard of hearing but with that burnished reddish pompadour that he assured me had not been touched up by Max Factor. In fact, he dug into his wallet to show me a picture of his big brother Neil, two years his elder who similarly had not a grey hair in his head. Why he thought showing me Neil’s reddish hair proved anything I don’t know: maybe they both had hired Max Factor! But until he got ready to climb on his plane, I was ready to give him 100% on question two as well. But then he seemed to unintentionally talk me out of it.

As we walked together to the plane, like the TV detective Columbo, I had only one more question to ask. He had been governor of California during the same time span as Richard B. Ogilvie—a fellow Republican--had been governor of Illinois. Ogilvie was the exact opposite of Reagan. Reagan was charismatic; Ogilvie was a nerd. So nerdy was he that he wallowed in fine print of legislation—down to the very last sub-section, semicolon and period. Everybody knows Reagan was not a detail guy—as governor or president, but he was a broad-brush specialist, setting forth general objectives and letting his staff carry them out.

Even so, long after he became a private citizen, Ogilvie told me a fascinating story. He said, “Both Reagan and I inherited deficits and spending programs from the Democrats who had greatly overspent on social programs. Californians and Illinoiosans both had gotten used to the continued levels of funding for the social programs—nutrition for the poor, programs for maternal care of poor women, special law enforcement help for sheriffs, a whole host of things that were very popular.

“When Nixon became president, the word came down to all the governors that the feds were going to shut down the pipeline for these funds going to the states. The federal government was hemorrhaging money. Nixon ordered them to shut the pipeline on these services and if we wanted them to continue, we’d have to pay for them ourselves out of our own state budgets.”

Ogilvie continued, “This posed a tough political problem for all the states, but particularly the big ones with huge urban centers like California and Illinois. Which meant Reagan and I had the same problem: we were supposed to pick up the cost of these programs for our states—Illinois and California—because the feds were going to shut down down—poof!—turn off the money spigot. To answer to the voters as to why the programs were ended was sure political death--but to pay for them meant ruinous tax increases. As it was, I was going to have to have a tax hike. This would mean I’d have to put it some more taxes which would kill me politically. What to do? I knew Reagan had the same problem.”

The former Illinois governor told me, “I didn’t know Reagan at all, had only talked to him a few times as national governors conferences. But at one, I tapped him on the shoulder and asked, `what are you going to do?’ He said, `I’m going to do what I have to do—cut the services.’ I was highly impressed: wow. Then I said to myself, `you can cut, brother, because you’re a big-time movie star and maybe you can get away with it. Not me!’

Ogilvie continued: “A few weeks later, I sent a staffer to Washington, D. C. to research these programs and figure out where we can cut. No sooner did he arrive when he called me up, his voice throbbing with excitement. He had just met a guy from the state of California who had been sent out there much earlier by Reagan to do the same research I had this guy do!. With the very same mission! This guy Reagan sent was an Asian, a Chinese by the name of Tom Joe—I’ll never forget the name. Tom Joe.

“Tom Joe looked over the original legislation which sponsored those social programs and discovered an amazing thing. The way the legislation was written, no federal agency could close down the pipeline by fiat. To do so required amendatory legislation! The Nixon administration was fooling us, telling us the spigot would be closed when under law it could not be closed! . The pipeline was open and would stay open: that was the way the legislation was passed.

“My guy said, `Tom Joe is telling Reagan he can keep on spending because nobody’s shutting down the pipeline.’ And my guy said, `Governor, this means we can continue the programs because the Democratic Congress is never, ever going to amend the programs to cut off the services for the poor. This means we’re home free! And only one guy—Tom Joe of California, Reagan’s guy—was smart enough to look up the law and see what it contained!”

So, Ogilvie said, “we continued to run the same level of federal programs in Illinois the way we always had—and California did, too. We sent our bills for these programs to Uncle Sam who paid them. So did California. I didn’t make a big deal about it, as you can imagine, and our lazy media never probed into it. The same lazy media out in California didn’t either, as Tom Joe kept joking to my guy. By the time the story came out, it was on page 123-B under the corset ads. The same with the California papers.

“But I’ve always wondered why Reagan was always so mum about it at first and so coy about it after that. He had that innocent look about him, a citizen turned governor. Maybe he was the slickest pol of all of them, at least as slick as FDR. Either that or, what really scares me is this: maybe Reagan didn’t really know what was going on and who was paying his social services bills! Is it possible he didn’t know that his guy Tom Joe had solved his problem and nobody brought it up and he wasn’t curious enough to wonder about it?

“Or, there is a third option: was Reagan who campaigned as a tough, hard-nosed guy who could make tough choices kidding us and winking while his guy covered his bases? The answer is either Reagan was dumb, or mum or duplicitous. If you ever talk to Reagan now that he’s no longer governor, ask him if he had received good service from his guy in Washington, Tom Joe.”

I wrote down the name—Tom Joe. Six months later, I received a phone call from John Sears, Reagan’s campaign manager, who invited me to meet the ex-governor at O’Hare and have lunch with him—a total of four hours—and see that he got on the plane at 4 p.m. for California.

At the end of the long afternoon Reagan gave me a tough dutch uncle talk about cutting federal spending including social services. He gave a very generalized prescription on how he would handle the Soviet Union—not detailed but which squared pretty much with what he actually did nine years later. Then it was time to go. He and I hiked together down the concourse together to his commercial flight.

He checked in and we had a little time before the flight was called. We sat down and I said, “Governor, may I ask you one more thing? How did you meet the dire social services challenge in California when you took over? I mean with the feds closing down the pipeline of services for people who had gotten used to receiving them?”

I thought he looked at me sort of funny—but maybe it was just me. He gave me a very nice sermon about how he did it. It by saying that it required tough budgeting from his entire staff headed by his budget director. He went over the numbers day by day and he cut here and cut there, skimped here and made a draconian cut there and plain took the heat in the interest of fiscal solvency for the state.

When he finished, I said, “Was Tom Joe helpful?”

He said, “Who?”

“Tom Joe. Wasn’t he your Washington, D. C. representative, the man you sent to Washington to do research on the federal budget?”

He said again, “Who?”

“Tom Joe. An state employee. He was your man in Washington.

Matter of fact there is a Brookings Institution study about the services; it seems this Tom Joe read the law and said the feds couldn’t shut down the spigot. His name was Tom Joe. T-o-m J-o-e.”

He shook his head, “nope, never heard of him.” Nary a comment about the law that mandated the spigot couldn’t be turned off.

After he got on the plane, waving a jaunty goodbye, I reviewed the three criteria I have always used. First, does the candidate appear well-motivated to do right, not for his own political advancement but for the nation’s if he becomes president? The answer here was emphatically yes. Second, is he up to the challenge of the job—intellectually and physically? I passed up that question for the moment. Third, do I have any reservations or personal doubts as to whether or not he would flinch when the heat goes on? I was sure Reagan wouldn’t flinch.

Back to the second: up to the job physically? Unquestionably. Intellectually? Well, if he told me a whopper that was all right; all politicians do. But was it possible he was so far out of the loop that he never heard of Tom Joe or didn’t know what Tom Joe had found out, that he didn’t know that the federal spigot continued running all during his term? Or was it a con like every other first-rate politician.

Then I paused again. Or, since I was looking at a first-rate actor—one who far from being a Grade B, was mentioned for the Academy Award for “King’s Row”-- and who narrowly missed out being given the role of Ricky Blaine in “Casablanca” in 1942 because he was in military service, a part he would have been more suited for than Humphrey Bogart. Directors felt that Reagan at age 31 was more natural to play opposite Ingrid Bergman who was 27 than Bogart at age 43. This idea that he was a minor B actor always has been hogwash. Was this gifted actor using the age-old political arts of duplicity on me which have gone hand-in-hand with the acting trade since Athens was a democracy?

I pondered the question for long months—and after his nomination I made up my mind on who I should vote for. Once again I went with my heart. It was the right choice: the old actor has gone down as one of the great presidents of the 20th century, teaching us the virtues of tax cuts and of standing tall with the USSR. Come to think of it, he fooled Gorbachev believing we were going to deploy Star Wars, so Gorbachev folded his cards, the Soviets went bust—and we haven’t implemented Star Wars yet.

That Reagan was a tricky one but, yeah, I made the right choice.

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