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Larry King Live Weekend

Nancy Reagan Reflects on Life With Ronald

Aired March 4, 2001 - 9:00 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LARRY KING, HOST: Tonight, it's been more than a decade since she called the White House home. Former First Lady Nancy Reagan's star power can still steal the spotlight. She shares special stories and memories of life with President Ronald Reagan, up next.

Nancy Reagan was guest of honor Sunday at the christening of the Navy's newest aircraft carrier, "The Ronald Reagan," breaking the traditional bottle of champagne against the ship's hull. The same week that she and her husband marked their 49th wedding anniversary. It's a marriage that's endured the triumph of his presidency and the tragedy of Alzheimer's.

I sat down with the former First Lady the week of the President's birthday in February, just days after he had undergone surgery for a broken hip. I asked her if she had ever imagined Ronnie turning 90.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NANCY REAGAN, FORMER FIRST LADY: No, never. I still can't believe it.

KING: Ninety?

N. REAGAN: I know. I know. It's incredible.

KING: And he isn't the kind of guy that supposed to be 90, right?

N. REAGAN: No, he isn't. No, he isn't. Like Jack Kennedy, you can't picture Jack Kennedy as being...

KING: Yes, he would be close to Ronnie's age, right?

N. REAGAN: Well, I think he'd be older, wouldn't he? Didn't I read that he'd be 100?

KING: He'd be right there.

N. REAGAN: Yes. You don't think either of one of them as being old. And Ronnie doesn't look it.

KING: Oh, we never get to see him. How does he look?

N. REAGAN: He looks fine. I mean, you know, the skin -- he's got a full head of hair.

KING: Would you say he does not look 90?

N. REAGAN: Oh, no.

KING: Is this genes?

N. REAGAN: It must be because his brother had a full head of hair. His mother had a full head of hair. And Ronnie -- I mean, when the barber comes to cut his hair, he has to thin it.

KING: You're kidding?

N. REAGAN: No, I'm not.

KING: And the color is still orangish, reddish?

N. REAGAN: No, it never was orangish, reddish.

KING: All right, what was the actual color?

N. REAGAN: Brown.

KING: But a kind of brown that looked run in the sun? It looked red to me.

N. REAGAN: Well, I don't know what you were seeing.

KING: Brown, but he always he had that light color hair?

N. REAGAN: Yes, yes, got a few grays, but not many.

KING: Is there anything good about aging?

N. REAGAN: Well, if you find out, let me know. OK?

KING: There have been better years for you than this one?

NANCY KING: Mm-hmm.

KING: So let's discuss first that which was most immediate in the news, the hip. What happened? Because I know you fell.

N. REAGAN: Yes.

KING: We had lunch one day when you limped in.

N. REAGAN: That's right. Well, Ronnie got up out of bed and walked around and fell.

KING: Was in the morning?

N. REAGAN: Mm-hmm.

KING: Were you there?

N. REAGAN: No, I was at the -- I had gone to the eye doctor and I was only gone for like 10 minutes.

KING: So when you got...

N. REAGAN: But there was a nurse there, not in the same room, but...

KING: Was there like a panic scene like when you got back or?

N. REAGAN: Well, the Secret Service called me to say that there had been an accident. And I got home and Larry, it was so incredible.

KING: Was there pain?

N. REAGAN: Oh, Ronnie never, ever complains about pain, ever.

KING: Wait a minute, no complaint with a broken hip?

N. REAGAN: No.

KING: I am told that's impossible.

N. REAGAN: No. This time when he was frowning and he was rubbing his right thigh, you knew he had to be in pain because he never...

KING: Because me, I'm screaming probably on the floor. Give me something for this, right? On the way home, you must have thought the worst or did they tell you it was a fall?

N. REAGAN: They told me it was a fall.

KING: The idea of getting someone like this to the hospital right away. Here we have a former president. This is not your everyday patient? He also has Alzheimer's, which must complicate some of the kinds of problems in communications. How is it done? How did it all happen?

N. REAGAN: Well, we called an ambulance and got into the ambulance and went.

KING: Why St. John's Hospital, which is not the one closest to you?

N. REAGAN: All of our doctors were at St. John's and so that's where we went.

KING: And what did they say -- this is very common, right in older people?

N. REAGAN: Yes, mm-hmm.

KING: Was the prognosis good right away?

N. REAGAN: He was operated on the next morning and Ronnie heals very quickly.

KING: Because you're supposed to stay in two weeks, that's what they said?

N. REAGAN: Yes, well, we stayed a week. As a matter of fact, it was two weeks ago yesterday that he had the surgery.

KING: Yes, we're taping this a few days before the birthday.

N. REAGAN: Yes.

KING: So they let him go home early because he was able to go home early.

N. REAGAN: He was able to go home.

KING: Now does he have to walk with a cane?

N. REAGAN: Well, he hasn't walked yet.

KING: Well, when he walks, he will walk with a cane?

N. REAGAN: I don't know. I don't know. This is all to be seen.

KING: Will you able to watch -- now you're the daughter of a doctor? And you've watched surgery?

N. REAGAN: Mm-hmm.

KING: Did you watch this?

N. REAGAN: No, they wouldn't let me in the operating room. I was with him...

KING: You have a lot of clout, Nancy. You could have said, "I want...

N. REAGAN: No, I wasn't in the operating room.

KING: And how did he handle all of it? We always remember his grace during the shooting.

N. REAGAN: He handled this just as well, just as well.

KING: Did he know what was going on?

N. REAGAN: Well, he knew something had happened, sure.

KING: I mean, obviously. But I mean, you know, we don't -- we're learning so much about this disease. Was he comprehending what was going on?

N. REAGAN: I don't know, Larry.

KING: The saddest part of all is we don't know.

N. REAGAN: Mm-hmm.

KING: But he wasn't screaming in pain? N. REAGAN: Oh, no. He wouldn't scream in pain at all.

KING: Now at the same time, correct if I'm wrong, Maureen is in the hospital?

N. REAGAN: Yes, we end up, father and daughter, in the same hospital.

KING: You couldn't write this?

N. REAGAN: No, you couldn't. No, you couldn't.

KING: How's she doing?

N. REAGAN: She's tolerating her treatments pretty well. And hopefully, she's a very strong girl and she'll be out.

KING: They released a statement that it's melanoma -- skin cancer?

N. REAGAN: Mm-hmm.

KING: Did you know this or was she complaining because...

N. REAGAN: No, no, she didn't know there was anything wrong until they found it.

KING: And the treatment is what, chemotherapy?

N. REAGAN: Yes, the series of three treatments with three weeks in-between each. And no.

KING: You hope?

N. REAGAN: Mm-hmm.

KING: She's a gutsy lady though?

N. REAGAN: Yes, she is. Yes, she is. And I'm sure she'll be fine.

KING: Maybe it's a blessing that her father doesn't have full comprehension, something like that?

N. REAGAN: Well, it was so strange to be in the hospital with her.

KING: Did you go back and forth?

N. REAGAN: She couldn't come up to Ronnie.

KING: Did you? You were...

N. REAGAN: I went down to see her.

KING: You were a shuttle? N. REAGAN: Yes. And Dennis, her husband, came to see Ronnie.

KING: Now what was the world? How is the world reacting to Ronald Reagan? Who did you hear from? What were -- who was calling?

N. REAGAN: I heard from so many people, I'm -- it was wonderful. Really, it was very heartwarming. I heard from -- well, if we go for presidents, Ford, Bush senior and junior, and then we get into Nakasone, Prince Charles.

KING: How about well wishers, everyday people?

N. REAGAN: Oh, lots. I mean, we got I think 10,000 e-mails at the Library. Isn't that nice?

KING: I want to talk about that library in a while because that's very, very -- I've been there...

N. REAGAN: Mm-hmm.

KING: -- and I know important a place that is. And you could maybe raise some money for it tonight on his 90th birthday. That would be appropriate.

N. REAGAN: Yes, it would.

KING: But you remember we didn't an interview once on his 80th birthday?

N. REAGAN: Mm-hmm.

KING: Where he promised to come back on his 90th?

N. REAGAN: Yes.

KING: We're with the former First Lady of the United States, Nancy Reagan, as we celebrate Ronald Reagan's 90th birthday. Don't go away.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Hello, Larry and good evening President and Mrs. Reagan. Laura and I have now spent two weeks in the House where you lived for eight years. Everywhere we look, we find reminders of the great men and women who lived here and the achievements they left behind. Your achievements, Mr. President, are clear to all Americans. They are found in the spirit of our nation and the peace of the world.

You came here at a time when our country needed confidence. You told us we could be strong again at home and abroad. And when you left, we were. You came to the White House when the Cold War was real. You told us even when few believed it, that the Evil Empire would pass and that freedom would prevail. And your resolve made it happen. In your time here, you never tried to seize the credit, one of the traits I have always admired most about you.

But tonight on your 90th birthday, America knows where the credit belongs. America knows you came here 20 years ago and changed the world. America knows the good heart that always guided you, the unbending principles that always defined you and the kindness and courage and the grace that makes you the man you are. For all that, your country thanks you, Mr. President. Your country honors you and your country loves you. God bless you tonight.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RONALD REAGAN, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING: So the hip now is mending and the outlook is good for that, right?

N. REAGAN: Yes, mm-hmm.

KING: Good doctor's report? What did they do?

N. REAGAN: They put in a pin.

KING: And then that fuses, I guess?

N. REAGAN: Mm-hmm.

KING: To the bone?

N. REAGAN: I guess so, Larry.

KING: What were they like at the hospital?

N. REAGAN: Wonderful, just wonderful. The doctor is great and the nurses are wonderful. It was -- they were all nice.

KING: Now every time I called, you were there?

N. REAGAN: Oh, yes.

KING: Did you ever go home?

N. REAGAN: Negative.

KING: They brought your clothes?

N. REAGAN: Mm-hmm.

KING: You are in later life as you were in earlier life? You're kind of inseparable, the two of you?

N. REAGAN: Yes.

KING: Can you explain that? I mean, we all know about love affairs, but yours is different? That book showed us how different, the letters.

N. REAGAN: Mm-hmm.

KING: Which I hope if you don't, I'm going to read. Did you -- how do you explain that? Is this just fate? You and him?

N. REAGAN: I don't know. I don't know. I've had letters. I've found a letter that was written to me from a girl who was getting married. And she wanted to know the secret of a happy marriage. I said -- and I wrote back and said something to the effect that I couldn't -- I had no magic formula. And I never sat down and thought about it, but everything just fell into place with Ronnie and me. We completed each other.

KING: Did you ever fight?

N. REAGAN: We disagreed, but we never yelled or slammed the doors.

KING: You never had one of those, "Get out of here or...

N. REAGAN: Oh, no. No, no. But there's nobody that you agree with all the time.

KING: So you -- by completing each other was -- where you weren't whole, he made you whole?

N. REAGAN: Mm-hmm.

KING: And you the same for him?

N. REAGAN: Mm-hmm.

KING: And that continues now?

N. REAGAN: Oh, yes.

KING: Except you are faced with something now, and you've helped so many people by getting the tragic way that someone has to have affected someone for us to be focused on it. When did you first know this?

N. REAGAN: I didn't.

KING: You never noticed the Alzheimer's coming on?

N. REAGAN: I didn't, no, no. We went to Mayo's in August that year.

KING: Was there the normal memory slippages that older people have?

N. REAGAN: Well, yes.

KING: You know, I forgot his name.

N. REAGAN: I mean, you forget names. I forget names.

KING: Forgot what I had for lunch today.

N. REAGAN: So no, I didn't notice anything.

KING: And then what happened at Mayo?

N. REAGAN: Well, they diagnosed it as Alzheimer's.

KING: And they came and told you?

N. REAGAN: Mm-hmm.

KING: Did you get second opinions? Did you -- what...

N. REAGAN: No, I...

KING: How do you react to something like that?

N. REAGAN: Well, we'd been going to Mayo for so long. And I knew all the doctors so well. I accepted what they said. Of course, nobody can ever know what it's like until you're there.

KING: This is the 90th birthday of former President Ronald Reagan. And we're saluting him tonight with a visit with his wife, the former First Lady, Nancy. We'll be right back.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: Larry, thank you for giving me this opportunity to join Ronald Reagan's many friends in wishing him a happy 90th birthday. My particular warm regards go to Nancy Reagan. What courage she has shown over the years. And let me say to my dear friend from whom I learned so much, President Ronald Reagan, that we will never forget your kindness to the Bush family.

I will never forget the principles of leadership that I learned from being at your side for those eight years when you served so nobly as President of the United States of America. God bless you. God bless you at 90 years old.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CROWD: Four more years! Four more years! Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING: What was it like for him to write that letter, that now famous -- what is it '94?

N. REAGAN: '94, uh-huh. He went into the library and I was with him. And he just sat down at the table and wrote it.

KING: Now we have learned subsequently through letters how good a writer he was.

N. REAGAN: Oh, yes. Oh, yes, very good writer.

KING: I wonder if he doctored scripts ever because he could have?

N. REAGAN: No.

KING: He had a way with words.

N. REAGAN: Yes, he did, but there's a book that's coming out by Marty Anderson called "Reagan in His Own Words." He found a lot of speeches and radio shows and...

KING: He wrote his own radio shows?

N. REAGAN: Yeah, uh-huh.

KING: Yes, I saw somewhere that's coming.

N. REAGAN: Yes, and it's wonderful to -- I mean, you can't believe the things that he wrote about. I remember when he first ran for governor and people criticized him because he was talking too much about foreign affairs. And then when he ran for President, they were criticizing him for the opposite. I mean, you know...

KING: He liked to write?

N. REAGAN: He liked to write, yes.

KING: So he just sat down and wrote that letter to the public?

N. REAGAN: Mm-hmm.

KING: Because he knew what was coming. So as they say, what did Hemingway say, class is grace under pressure?

N. REAGAN: Yes.

KING: He had that?

N. REAGAN: He sure had.

KING: Did he express fears to you?

N. REAGAN: No.

KING: He didn't say...

N. REAGAN: No.

KING: ... this is going to be terrible or?

N. REAGAN: No, well all -- he said which is in the letter that he knew it would be hard on me and that he hoped that with peoples' support and faith that I'd get through. I mean, he was sorry to have put me in this position.

KING: What should people know who hear this news about a relative, a wife, a husband, a mother, a father? What advice can the caregiver give another caregiver?

N. REAGAN: Well, that's hard to answer, Larry. We just get up each day and put one foot in front of the other and go. You know, each day is different.

KING: But it is...

N. REAGAN: That's a progressive disease.

KING: That's right. So Monday is not going to be better than Sunday?

N. REAGAN: Negative.

KING: What about new drugs we hear about?

N. REAGAN: I -- as I understand it, they have two new drugs that will delay the onset, which I would have been very happy to have used.

KING: The toughest part for the caregiver, I guess, is you don't give back what you give, right? Isn't that he hardest, to keep giving when someone is not responding, not through any fault of their own?

N. REAGAN: No, that doesn't bother you. At least, it doesn't bother me. It's sad to see somebody you love and had been married for so long and you can't share memories. That's the sad part.

KING: You know, I never thought of that. Couples sit down and say, "Remember when..."

N. REAGAN: Yes.

KING: ... little Fergie broke his foot."

N. REAGAN: Right.

KING: Here was the picnic.

N. REAGAN: Right, right. We can't do that. KING: So you share them with yourself? How important are your friends?

N. REAGAN: Oh, very important, very important. But you know, you don't want to -- if somebody calls you, you don't want to unload on them every time they call.

KING: Well, you're not a complainer by nature? Right, you don't sit around and talk about...

N. REAGAN: I hope not.

KING: But you have, you know, helped a lot of people?

N. REAGAN: I hope so.

KING: You've raised a lot of money?

N. REAGAN: Yes, I hope so.

KING: For this disease?

N. REAGAN: Yes.

KING: For a while you weren't talking about it?

N. REAGAN: Mm-hmm.

KING: What made you change?

N. REAGAN: I guess being with Ronnie.

KING: And I guess he would have wanted you to, wouldn't he?

N. REAGAN: Mm-hmm.

KING: Because he would have wanted...

N. REAGAN: That's why he wrote the letter because he wanted to help people. And he made it public and you know, the same thing that he did with colon cancer, prostate cancer.

KING: He's had them all?

N. REAGAN: He's had them all.

KING: On the occasion of his 90th birthday, our guest is Nancy Reagan, his wife. We'll be right back.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM J. CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Hillary, Chelsea and I are proud to join all Americans in wishing President Reagan a happy 90th birthday. Our thoughts and our prayers are with him, Nancy and their family. This is an occasion for us to reflect on the great contributions he made to America, the enormous spirit and sense of optimism, constant faith in the future of our country that he'd brought to every day, on the job, indeed, to every day of his life. So on this day, we say to you, Mr. President and to you, Nancy, we thank you. We thank you now for 90 years of the American dream.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING: ... do with frustration because you must have that? It must be frustrating when you're with someone who's not cognitive?

N. REAGAN: Well, you just learn to live with it. I mean, what is there to do?

KING: Well, some people -- there are hospitals that specialize in just treating Alzheimer patients. You would never do that?

N. REAGAN: Oh, no. Oh, no, never, never. No, no. He's going to stay at home.

KING: Do you ever hope that maybe the end comes? I mean, do you ever say you know that maybe it isn't such a life?

N. REAGAN: No, I never...

KING: Because he's not in pain?

N. REAGAN: No, he's not in pain.

KING: How goes the library, by the way?

N. REAGAN: Very well.

KING: People come everyday?

N. REAGAN: Mm-hmm.

KING: They come more when there's a new story?

N. REAGAN: Well, there are a lot of people who went to the library after he broke his hip.

KING: That's what I mean. If the name comes back in the news and --

N. REAGAN: Yes. And -- I mean, they were lined up bringing flowers and everything.

KING: Did you describe the setting? I've been there. Describe first of all where it is.

N. REAGAN: It's in Simi Valley, California.

KING: His favorite view there, right?

N. REAGAN: Yes. The shining city on the hill that he often talked about. It's high and you have a wonderful view, which he always liked.

KING: And there's a lot of great things in that library, including a whole film career.

N. REAGAN: Well, you know, when you think about it, he's had an incredible life when you think back. I mean, sports announcer, pictures, governor, President. It's incredible.

KING: He's a large mirror of the society.

N. REAGAN: Mm-hmm.

KING: He even gets a disease at the end of his life that becomes one of the relevant, talked about diseases.

N. REAGAN: Yes, yes.

KING: He has the most prominent men's disease that we all -- prostate. That's old news to him, right?

N. REAGAN: Mm-hmm.

KING: That was history long ago? Prostate cancer was yesterday for him, right?

N. REAGAN: That's right.

KING: So he's pulled through all this.

N. REAGAN: Mm-hmm.

KING: His wife has breast cancer.

N. REAGAN: Mm-hmm.

KING: By the way, are there any aftermaths of that for you?

N. REAGAN: No.

KING: Are you in good health?

N. REAGAN: Yes -- knock on wood.

KING: I mean, you're OK because you are frail. Not frail, you're not (UNINTELLIGIBLE) you know what I mean?

(LAUGHTER)

KING: You walk quietly in the room.

N. REAGAN: Well, thank you, Larry.

KING: Are you in good health?

N. REAGAN: Yes, I think so.

KING: Do you still go to Mayo for your check-ups?

N. REAGAN: No, I haven't been since Ronnie and I were there together. I should go, but I don't want to leave him.

KING: Now you don't have visitors, do you?

N. REAGAN: No.

KING: Because you don't want people to see it?

N. REAGAN: I don't think that Ronnie would want that. I think Ronnie would want people to remember him as he was.

KING: So when you read a newspaper or watch television, do you still talk to him? In other words, do you have discussions?

N. REAGAN: Well, no, you can't.

KING: Because he -- there'd be no response at all? I don't know how you do it.

N. REAGAN: Well, you just -- as I say, you just cut out beach day.

KING: You do it because you do it?

N. REAGAN: Yes.

KING: Has the library added new things?

N. REAGAN: We keep changing the exhibits, you know, because...

KING: You still have those great group of speakers...

N. REAGAN: Mm-hmm.

KING: ... that's honored to be one?

N. REAGAN: Mm-hmm.

KING: That was a great day.

N. REAGAN: Yes, it was.

KING: It's a great presidential library.

N. REAGAN: It really is.

KING: Whoever put it together -- and it needs funds all the time, right? N. REAGAN: Of course, it does. Of course, it does.

KING: We'll be right back with the former First Lady of the United States right after this.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GERALD FORD, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Ron, congratulations on your 90th birthday anniversary. We join your countless friends worldwide in complimenting you on a fabulous public career for many, many years. You were an outstanding governor of the state of California. And you did a superb job as President of the United States during the very difficult days of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. You have our very, very warmest, best wishes in the years ahead from Betty and Gerry Ford.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING: So I want you to comment on something that broke last week, that former President Ronald Reagan, whose friends bought him a $2.5 million home in Bel Air in 1989, paid those friends back with interest after he left the White House, his chief of staff said last week. With all the stories of gifts and the like, we had never known that.

N. REAGAN: Well, at the time, it was public that -- I mean our money...

KING: Well, the gift was public, but I never knew...

N. REAGAN: That we repaid?

KING: Yes.

N. REAGAN: Well, you know, some things are just left out of stories.

KING: So it was always a loan then?

N. REAGAN: Always, always. Our money was in a blind trust and we had to buy a house. And we didn't know how much money we had. So the friends bought it and then we repaid them with interest.

KING: Without willing to put any discomfort on anyone else, do you think you got a bad rap on gifts?

N. REAGAN: A little bit.

KING: Well, you wrote about it in your own book. I mean, you took a lot of hits for things that are now everyday. You don't feel funny when you see things like that?

N. REAGAN: A little.

KING: So it was always the intent to pay back the house. And the house is paid back...

N. REAGAN: Always.

KING: And the house is paid back with interest?

N. REAGAN: With interest.

KING: I'll bet you most people thought that that was a lifetime gift.

N. REAGAN: They probably did, just as most people think I bought the china.

KING: They still think that?

N. REAGAN: I still read it. I still hear it. And I keep saying, "It was donated. It was donated."

KING: All you did was borrow some dresses for designers, right? That which is done...

N. REAGAN: All the time.

KING: The wife does it when she goes to an event from time to time to do this.

I want to discuss some things first we're going to be showing some clips from. And I want your thoughts on them. When you sang "Our Love is Here to Stay" at that White House gala, what was that moment like?

N. REAGAN: Well, that's our song, you know.

KING: Gershwin to you?

N. REAGAN: Yes, mm-hmm. And I sang it to Ronnie.

KING: Did he know you were going to do it?

N. REAGAN: No, no. He was so surprised.

KING: You've just seen an inaugural. I guess one of the inaugural -- there are some inaugurals that remain implanted in our minds, the John F. Kennedy's in the snow and your inaugural, the red hat, the red coat, looking up. What do you remember?

N. REAGAN: I remember mostly that it was very overcast, gray, but when Ronnie came forward, the clouds broke and the sun came out. Same thing happened in Sacramento.

KING: Really? N. REAGAN: Mm-hmm.

KING: On his first term as governor?

N. REAGAN: Mm-hmm. And as a matter of fact when he was shot, the next morning, there was a rainbow over the White House.

KING: What were you thinking then? Were you then the girl who grew up in Silver Spring or the little girl from Chicago work -- what were you, standing up there? Your husband is about to become President?

N. REAGAN: Well...

KING: You made movies together.

N. REAGAN: Well, we just made one together, but...

KING: "Hell Cats and the Navy."

N. REAGAN: Yes. Well, it's so overwhelming when you're really doing it that I don't remember thinking anything, except, "My gosh, here he is and he's president."

KING: My Ronnie.

N. REAGAN: My Ronnie.

KING: You just celebrated the anniversary of Challenger. And we will never forget your husband that day.

N. REAGAN: I know.

KING: What was that like for you?

N. REAGAN: Well, about like it was for everybody else.

KING: You went down there?

N. REAGAN: Yes, yes. Terrible, terrible, sad.

KING: Is that one of the hardest things of executive things that people have to do, tragedy?

N. REAGAN: Oh, I think so, yes. Seeing -- trying to give people support and -- yes, it's very hard. And they're crying and you're crying, which I can do pretty easily.

KING: How about his farewell speech? He said goodbye. Is that a sad day for you or were you happy to leave? You did a little spin around Washington.

N. REAGAN: Yes, we did. The helicopter took us over the White House. And he looked down and he said, "Look, honey, there's our little cottage." KING: We're with the former First Lady of the United States, Nancy Reagan as we celebrate Ronald Reagan's 90th birthday. Don't go away.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIMMY CARTER, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, I want to express my heartfelt congratulations to President Ronald Reagan on his 90th birthday and also my best wishes to his wonderful wife.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING: The assassination attempt, you were out that day, right?

N. REAGAN: Mm-hmm.

KING: Where were you?

N. REAGAN: I was at a luncheon at an art museum. And for some reason -- this has never happened to me before or since, and I hope it doesn't -- I just had this overwhelming desire to get out and go home. And I did.

KING: Here we go again.

N. REAGAN: Yes.

KING: No call?

N. REAGAN: No. And I went back to the White House. And I went up to the...

KING: Left early?

N. REAGAN: I left early, Yes. Didn't stay for desert or whatever. And I went up to the solarium, where they were doing some work. And then, George Opfer who was head of my detail came there. So...

KING: And what does he say?

N. REAGAN: He said, "There's been a shooting, but don't worry. The president's all right." And he thought he was. Everybody thought he was. And he said...

KING: As he told us, he didn't know he was shot.

N. REAGAN: And he said. That's right. That's right.

KING: And then, what, right to the hospital? N. REAGAN: Right to the -- George kept saying, "You don't have to go. He's all right. He hasn't been hurt." I said, "George, I'm going. You better get the car because I'm going." And I went.

KING: What days those were. We -- I guess then as we didn't know about the house. We didn't know how close we came to losing him.

N. REAGAN: Oh, yes, very.

KING: That was...

N. REAGAN: Yes.

KING: ... touch and go.

N. REAGAN: Yes, it was. I almost lost him.

KING: Did you know that?

N. REAGAN: Yes.

KING: In other words, they didn't Pollyanna it?

N. REAGAN: No, no. The nurse would come in periodically and give me updates. Then I remember one time she said, "Well, we may have to leave the bullet in there." And I said, "Leave it in? I don't think that sounds very good." And they finally found it, an inch from his heart."

KING: Was there a time, truthfully, when you thought you'd lose him?

N. REAGAN: Oh, yes. Yes, there was.

KING: You know, Nancy, as you look at the totality of your life, the totality of it, your father, your breast cancer. You lose a mother shortly thereafter...

N. REAGAN: Mm-hmm.

KING: Your husband has all the diseases, gets shot. He's attained everything and had every misfortune. How do you regard yourself? I mean, are you lucky, unlucky?

N. REAGAN: I don't really think about myself that much. I really don't.

KING: You know, some people go around and say, "Boy, the gods, they gave me a -- they give you this and then they take it away."

N. REAGAN: I must say the last couple of weeks, I've felt like that little cartoon figure who walked around with a black cloud over his head.

KING: Little Abner?

N. REAGAN: Yes, Little Abner.

KING: Yes, he's been around...

N. REAGAN: Yes.

KING: Or as Al Pacino said in "Godfather 3..."

N. REAGAN: Yes.

KING: -- every time I get out, they throw me back in." Do you ever feel like fate treated you badly?

N. REAGAN: No. No. When you balance it all out, I've had a pretty fabulous life.

KING: Do you ever miss acting? You almost took a role.

N. REAGAN: Yes, I did.

KING: If Ronnie weren't sick, you were going to do "Mother" for Albert Brooks, right?

N. REAGAN: That's right. I was. I was. And it would have been fun -- maybe.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: What was it like at that tribute to you at the convention?

N. REAGAN: Very sweet. Darling.

KING: What's it like seeing your old friends there? Colin Powell, secretary of state, one of your favorite people on Earth -- your husband wanted him to be President.

N. REAGAN: Uh-huh, Yes. I'm very happy he's there.

KING: Do you think about endings? Do you think about -- I know -- of course, I stood there with you -- you know where you're going to be buried.

N. REAGAN: Yes.

KING: See, that's weird to me, but you know exactly...

N. REAGAN: Well, most presidents do know.

KING: It's either at the library or the site they choose?

N. REAGAN: Mm-hmm.

KING: So you -- every time you go to the library, you look at that?

N. REAGAN: Well, I don't really look at it. I just know where it is. KING: Do you think about...

N. REAGAN: No.

KING: Now this -- Ronnie could make it to 100 then, couldn't he?

N. REAGAN: Sure, could.

KING: Everything else is fine?

N. REAGAN: Everything else...

KING: Heart, liver, lungs, kidney.

N. REAGAN: Yes, yes.

KING: Appetite still good?

N. REAGAN: Yes, it's not as good as it was.

KING: He had a great...

N. REAGAN: Yes, he did.

KING: I had lunch with him once. He destroyed desserts. Still like desserts?

N. REAGAN: Yes, but not -- you know, he doesn't have as big an appetite as he used to, but he eats.

KING: Going to spend a few more moments with Nancy Reagan on this occasion, the 90th birthday of her husband. Don't go away.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Reagan, you know, was always underestimated. Everybody thought somebody wrote speeches for him and then he gave them and that was it. Reagan basically wrote every speech he ever gave. George Shultz tells a wonderful story about handing the president a speech that George Shultz was going to give one day when he was secretary of state.

A week or so later, he came back in and asked the president if he'd had a chance to look at. The president said, "sure" and handed it back to him, and said, "It's a good speech." And then he added, "But I wouldn't give it." And George said, "What do you mean?" And he said, "Well, you know, I write speeches for the ear and these are speeches for the page, for the word." And so the two of them sat down and Reagan rewrote the speech for George.

Happy birthday, Mr. President.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

R. REAGAN: I think it's all too common in marriages that no matter how much partners love each other, they don't thank each other enough. And I suppose I don't thank Nancy enough for all that she does for me. So Nancy, in front of all your friends here today, let me say thank you for all you do. Thank you for your love. And thank you for just being you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING: We're back with some more moments with a national treasure, Nancy Reagan. Took a lot of -- I remember those first two years. I forget. What goes around comes around, though.

N. REAGAN: That's what they say.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: What led to the publication of the letters, because we didn't get a chance to talk to you when that book...

N. REAGAN: Well...

KING: We did a whole show reading those letters.

N. REAGAN: Yes.

KING: And you must have cried that night.

N. REAGAN: Oh, I did.

(CROSSTALK)

N. REAGAN: Yes, I did. Well, you know --

KING: Merv Griffin reading the letters. How did that come about?

N. REAGAN: Well, I had all these letters. I mean, I saved letters from before we were married. I saved Christmas cards.

KING: Old boyfriends?

N. REAGAN: No, no, Ronnie, before...

KING: But I mean, if you save, you save.

N. REAGAN: No, I don't -- no.

KING: All right.

(LAUGHTER) N. REAGAN: Life began with Ronnie. I came to realize that I had to make some decision about these letters. And I could destroy them, which I couldn't possibly do. Or I could leave them where they were. But then you run the risk of somebody finding them and selling them. So the library was a perfect place.

KING: And the library benefits from the sale of them, right?

N. REAGAN: Alzheimer's and the library, it was split. I didn't get anything, but...

KING: People want to help the library, by the way, it's just the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley...

N. REAGAN: Simi Valley, yes.

KING: California. And is there one Alzheimer's fund that you're associated with most or is it the National Alzheimer's...

N. REAGAN: National

(CROSSTALK)

KING: I'll just read one of the letters. I know it's hard for you to read them.

As -- "Dear First Lady" -- so you already go the job -- "As President of the United States, it's my honor and privilege to cite you for service above and beyond the call of duty in that you have made one man, me, the most happy man in the world for 29 years.

"Beginning in 1951, Nancy Davis, seeing the plight of a lonely man who didn't know how lonely he really was, determined to rescue him from a completely empty life, refusing to be rebuffed by a certain amount of stupidity on his part, she ignored his somewhat slow response. With patience and tenderness, she gradually brought the light of understanding to his dark and obtuse mind. And he discovered the joy of loving someone with all his heart.

"Nancy Davis then went on to bring him happiness for the next 29 years as Nancy Davis Reagan, for which he has received and will continue to receive his undying devotion forever and ever. She has done this in spite of the fact that she's still can't find -- he still can't find the words to tell her how lost he would be without her. He sits in the Oval Office from which he can see, if he scrooches down, her window and feels warm all over just knowing she is there.

The above is the statement of the man who benefited from her active heroism. The below is his signature. Ronald Reagan, president of the united states. P.S. He,-- I mean I -- love and adore you."

N. REAGAN: Yes.

KING: Why didn't we know how well he could write while he -- you know, he should have written more. He should have...

N. REAGAN: Well, he didn't have time when he was president.

KING: I know, but...

N. REAGAN: But he -- every speech, he went over it. And he would change a lot of it.

KING: So that image that we had of him just reading what they gave him...

N. REAGAN: Oh, no, no, no. That's not so, as his -- Marty Anderson's book points out.

KING: And that book will be called what again?

N. REAGAN: "Reagan in His Own Words."

KING: "In His Own Words"? And I think it's just come out, I think.

N. REAGAN: February 6, yes.

KING: "The New York Times" just reviewed it -- scheduled -- published today.

N. REAGAN: Mm-hmm.

KING: Because this is the day.

N. REAGAN: Uh-huh.

KING: Nancy, I really thank you for this visit. I know you don't do a lot of these things.

N. REAGAN: No, I don't.

KING: I really appreciate it as a friend. And, well, you'll come back on his 100th.

N. REAGAN: All right.

KING: Anything you want to say?

N. REAGAN: No. Thank you, Larry. Nice to see you.

KING: Anything to people?

N. REAGAN: No. I love all the people who send us all the messages and...

KING: They never forget, do they?

N. REAGAN: No, no. If anything, it grows, which is nice.

KING: Does it ever bother you when he's spoken of in the past tense? Because we haven't seen him in so many years, you know that it's easy -- senators say -- presidents say he was... N. REAGAN: Yes, yes.

KING: Does that bother you or do you understand it?

N. REAGAN: I will. I'd rather they didn't do it, you know. But I understand.

KING: For whatever it matters, give him our best.

N. REAGAN: I will.

KING: And to you.

N. REAGAN: Thank you, Larry.

KING: Nancy Reagan on her husband's 90th birthday.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ELIZABETH TAYLOR, ACTRESS: Happy birthday, Ronnie. I know with Nancy by your side, she'll give you all the love in the world and make it the best you possibly can have. I love you. And I love you, Nancy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING: One cannot do a birthday tribute to Ronald Reagan without having his good friend Merv Griffin on. He joins us from Los Angeles.

So good to see you, Merv.

MERV GRIFFIN, ENTERTAINER: Thank you, Larry.

KING: What were you...

GRIFFIN: Thank you for the opportunity for being able to come on and wish the president a happy birthday. I was with him on many of his birthday parties, the festive ones.

KING: I guess you were very worried when he went to the hospital.

GRIFFIN: Very, very. But he's so strong, you know, he can recover. He's a fast mender. But you know, there's nothing he liked better on his birthdays than those very festive parties with the people he enjoyed and was comfortable around even during the presidency.

But can I tell you about one party where he was the star like I had never seen? There was a man here who was very well-to-do. He had homes in Paris and out here. And he gave a big party for the Reagans. We all went. But he had a lot of the French there, who had flown over for the party. And it was a great night. The man giving the party didn't speak English to us, so he said, "Merv" -- his name was Al Madonni (ph) -- "Would you be me?"

And I said, "Oh, OK." So I got up and spoke in Arabic. No, I didn't. But I got up and I spoke and I welcomed everybody. And I said, "This is a very great joining at a party for the French and the Americans." And I said, "I know someone in this room who would like to get up and sing 'The Massier'(ph).

Well, everybody applauded and I said, "Ladies and gentleman, President Ronald Reagan." Well everybody gasped because no president ever sung "The Massier" that I know of. And he got up and sang every single word perfectly...

KING: You're kidding.

GRIFFIN: ... in French. Lin Renaught (ph) was there. She jumped up from the table, ran into the other room, and called Jacques Chirac on the phone and said, "President Reagan has just sung 'The Massier'," like he had won another war, you know.

KING: And Merv...

GRIFFIN: He's great.

KING: ... how do you explain -- as Nancy was tried to discuss it -- this enduring relationship between those two?

GRIFFIN: I guess it just happens in life: two people who just adore each other, who are great friends, I'm sure great lovers, a great marriage. And she was there by his side. And they just worked beautifully together.

KING: Yes.

GRIFFIN: Now, that's...

KING: And they had it right from the start, right? You've known them a long time.

GRIFFIN: Right from the start. Unbelievable. They both have a great sense of humor. I mean, amazing sense of humor, yes.

KING: Merv, how do you explain his incredible hold on the public? You know, he hasn't been seen -- hasn't spoken to us in seven years.

GRIFFIN: Yes. I think they remember him as one of the great leaders, a father image -- which America has always loved, because their brother image got into a little trouble -- their father image -- looking into that camera and talking in everybody's language, and being very honest about what he was saying. He was one of the people and yet, he was a great leader.

KING: Did you expect it from him? I know you're close friends. But did you expect him to be the kind of president he was?

GRIFFIN: Isn't that funny? You never think of that. I never sat down and said, "Will he be a great president?" I just knew that everybody who was around him admired him. And we knew he could translate that through the tube and into people's homes. And if his, you know, what we all heard is Reaganomics. And the press all laughed at him with his Reaganomics, they called it. Reaganomics worked.

KING: Nancy said that Ronald Reagan, she doesn't want people to come see him because he wouldn't want people to see him as he is now. You're a great friend...

GRIFFIN: Yes, that's absolutely right. I have never asked and nor would I to see him. He wrote me a letter. He wrote a number of us right after his letter to the American public. And he wrote us and told us what we had meant in his and Nancy's life. And to me, that was it. And, no, I think it would be too difficult to handle.

KING: Thanks, Merv, as always.

GRIFFIN: Thank you.

KING: Merv Griffin, one of our favorite people, entertainer, entrepreneur and a lifetime friend of the Reagans.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: And that was our interview with former First Lady Nancy Reagan. Hope you enjoyed watching it. Thanks for joining us. And good night.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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