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CNN BREAKING NEWS
Aired June 5, 2004 - 19:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you for joining us. Aaron Brown and I wanted to bring you up to date on the news out of California. The longest living president ever, the oldest American ever elected to the presidency, Ronald Reagan, has lost his very long battle with Alzheimer's. It became public around 4:10 PM Eastern Standard (sic) Time. That's the point at which the White House was notified of his death. President Bush, who is traveling in Paris, was immediately informed of it. And within a half hour, the White House was flying a flag over the White House at half-staff.
Nancy Reagan had communicated to the American public over the last couple of weeks how she believed her husband's health was slipping away. She talked about the heartbreak of his at least maintaining his physical integrity until just very recently. But he suffered through a slow deterioration of his mental capacity.
And Aaron, I think that's one of the toughest things about his battle with Alzheimer's. People would see him, even as recently as two years ago, and they reminded him of the guy that was out there, you know, cutting lumber with an axe at the age of 88 with no problem at all.
AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: It's actually -- I was trying to think when I was driving in when the last time we actually saw him -- I mean, since it was announced in that dramatic and quite sad letter in '94 that he had Alzheimer's, there were only a couple of -- this is just -- this is the president's statement to reporters from France.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE WALKER BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A great American life has come to an end. I have just spoken to Nancy Reagan. On behalf of our whole nation, Laura and I offered her and the Reagan family our prayers and our condolences. Ronald Reagan won America's respect with his greatness and won its love with his goodness. He had the confidence that comes with conviction, the strength that comes with character, the grace that comes with humility and the humor that comes with wisdom. He leaves behind a nation he restored and a world he helped save. During the years of President Reagan, America laid to rest an era of division and self-doubt. And because of his leadership, the world laid to rest an era of fear and tyranny. Now, in laying our leader to rest, we say thank you. He always told us that for America, the best was yet to come. We comfort ourselves in the knowledge that this is true for him, too. His work is done, and now a shining city awaits him. May God bless Ronald Reagan.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BROWN: That was President Bush in France a short time ago. You heard -- those of you who've been with us for a bit, at least, heard the audio of that, and that's the videotape of that, announcing the president's -- or his reaction to President Reagan's passing.
There are very few things in the country we do in a kind of almost royal way, but state funerals, the passing of presidents is one of those things, and it will be over the next week very choreographed, as the former president's body is ultimately brought to Washington and then back to California for burial.
I heard, Paula, you and Wolf were talking a bit ago about, This is a sad day, and of course, it's a sad day, but also, there's -- again, as I was driving in, I thought how difficult these last -- this last decade has been for the former president's family, for Mrs. Reagan. Alzheimer's, for people who have family members who have experienced it, know it is among the most difficult things to contend with because the -- the vitality of your mind is lost.
And we were saying just before the president how little we had seen of him. Really, there was -- I remember some pictures of him in his Santa -- in his Santa Monica office, or his California office, Los Angeles office, a few times, but he's been out in public hardly at all. He would go to a park with his Secret Service agents. He would -- he would see family members, of course, and I think his family drew closer over the years. Like many families, they weren't always -- always the closest, but over time and in adversity, they became closer and better. And I think on days like this, they are no doubt glad of that.
John King is with President Bush in France today. John, there are, oddly, I think, some similarities in the way this President Bush and former President Reagan have conducted themselves, the way they see themselves, and in the way they would like the country to see them.
JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think that's exactly right, Aaron, This President Bush often said to be much more like Ronald Reagan on the campaign stump and in his style of governing than his own father -- of course, the former president George H.W. Bush. Ronald Reagan once came to my home town, came to an Irish pub and was seen quite happy tipping a pint. And I think, in many ways -- not at all to be disrespectful -- Mr. Bush, in the statement he just delivered, reflecting what will be, I think, the kind of an Irish wake that perhaps Ronald Reagan would love -- statements of condolences and sadness, but also a celebration of his optimism, a celebration of his spirit. You see that tonight not only in the statement from the president of the United States, George Bush, but also in the statements we are seeing come out from Democrats back in the United States. Ronald Reagan gave Democrats fits because he often beat them, but Senator Kerry, the Democratic nominee, said tonight, always with a smile. So I think you will see that in the days ahead. This is, of course, a challenge for this president, who will lead the nation at this time of mourning, but I think a pretty clear reflection from the president's statement just moments ago here in Paris that he will do so in a respectful and in a sad way, yet also in a upbeat way, celebrating the spirit of Ronald Reagan -- Aaron.
BROWN: That strikes me as -- at least -- for me, at least, exactly the right tone to take. He lived a good long life. The last 10 years were obviously difficult, but he lived a good, long, productive, interesting life. He accomplished more than any of us could ever imagine, from very humble roots. He wasn't really a Westerner, but he became seen as a Westerner because of all those years in California. And in those places like Michigan and Ohio and the other Rust Belt states, he turned a lot of Democrats into Republicans, at least for a while, in ways not unlike George W. Bush would like to do come November.
KING: Would very much like to do that. We still have Ronald Reagan's lexicon, if you will, in politics. There was the "Reagan revolution" that brought the tax cuts after Jimmy Carter and the revitalization of the conservative wing of the Republican Party, something Barry Goldwater tried and failed to do. There is always the theme that this president is underestimated. Well, so was Ronald Reagan. Everyone tried to say in every campaign, for California governor or for president, that this was an actor, that this was not a politician up to the stature of being the governor of the nation's largest state or the president of the United States.
On the world stage, like this president, he was often mocked in the editorial cartoons and questioned by other world leaders. Now Ronald Reagan will be remembered in the history books as perhaps the most influential president and the defining man, if you will, in the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war. So many comparisons will be made between the current president and the now late President Ronald Reagan.
And quite interesting that Mr. Bush is in Paris, will be at Normandy tomorrow. So many other heads of state, I would look for a chorus of praise and reflection from Ronald Reagan in Europe here, where Ronald Reagan was often quite controversial and not always popular during his presidency, Aaron.
BROWN: I remember, John, President Reagan being in Normandy, I guess it would have been the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, and the speech that he gave then. Everyone, I think, remembers his, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," the speech he gave in Berlin. The "Great Communicator" is -- was, in fact, true. He was the consummate communicator of a very clearly defined message.
KING: He was, indeed. And remember, Ronald Reagan called for the deployment of short-term missiles in Europe. Many Western allies thought that was too provocative, too confrontational. His rhetoric, Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev, his constant theme that America and its allies would win the cold war and defeat the "evil empire" -- Ronald Reagan colorful, controversial and -- his death comes at an interesting time, in this sense, because we are having this commemoration of the great fights of World War II, and Mr. Bush on this trip has been repeatedly comparing his war on terrorism to Ronald Reagan standing up against communism. It will be, I think, quite striking, especially the contrast tomorrow, a reflection on the heroism of World War II, but now also we'll have a very serious mix, I think, of tributes to Ronald Reagan.
BROWN: John, thank you. We'll talk more with you. Our senior White House correspondent, John King, who's in France today.
Paula, I know you've got -- you're about to step aside for a bit to get ready for the 8:00 o'clock hour. It is one of those moments, isn't it, that we mark our lives by. We -- not -- not in the same way, I suppose, of President Kennedy, but we all remember when the attempt on President Reagan was made, and I think we'll remember this Saturday with a kind of sad relief that the pain for the family is finally over and we move on.
ZAHN: I think a lot of Americans will think back to that poignant letter that he wrote to the American public in 1994. I remember how I was personally affected by that. And you were talking a little bit about the toll this takes on the family. I remember one of the last conversations I had with Maureen Reagan, shortly before she lost her life to melanoma, she talked about what it was like to spend time with her father.
ZAHN: And she said, Here was a guy who was once in charge of the free world, and I sat with him. He recognized my voice at that time. He didn't recognize her physically. He found great humor in the color of nail polish she was wearing. But she talked about the -- the poignancy of sitting down and trying to entertain him with a children's puzzle. And she said, I'm not talking, Paula, about a 50- part puzzle, I'm talking about something a 2-year-old would play with, with five or six pieces. And she talked about the great delight that brought him and how even as mentally he had started to fade, he still has his sense of humor intact and found joy in doing the simplest of tasks.
BROWN: Well, there's a reason they call it "the long good-bye," and it is. And no one, I think, handled it with more dignity than did former first lady Nancy Reagan. Judy Woodruff joins us from Washington now, and she has, I think, a statement, Judy, from the former first lady.
JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Aaron, that's right, I do. This statement came out -- I don't know exactly what hour, but it's been within the last hour. She issued a very short statement. She said, "My family and I would like the world to know that President Ronald Reagan has passed away after 10 years of Alzheimer's disease at age 93 years. We appreciate everyone's prayers over the years."
We are told that Nancy Reagan is going to be issuing and the family will be issuing a longer statement later. We don't know exactly when. But this woman, Nancy Reagan, herself has had an extraordinary journey over these years. She has been the one, someone said a minute ago, who has fiercely protected her husband. She has been the one who has been at the president's side. They've been sleeping together -- sleeping in the same house for the last 10 years. She has been on the front line of fighting this Alzheimer's along with him. She has been the one to meet friends, to meet family and to be the public face of the Reagan family.
I want to bring in now, Aaron, two people who -- who know Ronald Reagan from different perspectives. Bill Bennett was his secretary of education after he served as the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities...
WILLIAM BENNETT, EDUCATION SECRETARY 1986-88: Correct.
WOODRUFF: ... early in the Reagan's...
BENNETT: Right. .
WOODRUFF: ... presidency, and then went on, of course, to be secretary of education. Frank Sesno covered Ronald Reagan as a reporter for none other than CNN...
BENNETT: That's right.
WOODRUFF: ... back during his presidency. And I will add that I covered the Reagan presidency for the first few years. I was then working for NBC. So I saw him from a different perspective. I covered a little of his campaign in 1980 and then went on to watch him as president.
Bill Bennett, you were just saying this was someone who was very different, in many ways, than people expected. Tell us -- well, the poetry story, but -- but you have so many memories of him.
BENNETT: Well, I have a lot of memories. And not to be jocular at this time, but I'm -- you know, I'm an -- I'm Irish, like Reagan, and you know, don't have to drink at an Irish wake, but you got to tell stories. And the stories -- he loved stories, by the way. In a cabinet meeting, if there were a lot of -- there was a lot of data and a lot of numbers, he would tend to tune out. He really did tune out. I can say that. But if you told a story, if you said, You know, there was this guy and he was trying to start a business, or There was this kid in school, he would look up, pay attention, and you could see it processing, the brain processing. It would come out then some day in a speech or a -- or a talk.
But I think he had the -- the profound in the homespun. That's -- that's a great American tradition. He would say very simple things that had profound truths. He changed the country. A 69-year-old man came to office and gave youth and vitality to the country. We were cynical. We were kind of tired. We were -- you know, malaise -- remember that business? And he really lifted us up. And then the confrontation with the Soviet Union, with the "evil empire"...
BENNETT: ... one of the most consequential things in the last 500 years. That's quite a record.
WOODRUFF: No question. Absolutely no question. Frank Sesno, I mean, I know as a reporter, you and I were there at the beginning of his presidency. He ran for president, was probably the most underestimated politician I've ever known in American -- American politics because he had been a movie actor. He had been on the circuit giving speeches for GE. And he ran for president, and a lot of -- first of all, a lot of people didn't think he could win, and if he won, they weren't sure what sort of president he would be. And then he went on to be the man that Bill Bennett just described.
FRANK SESNO, SPECIAL CONTRIBUTOR: And he enjoyed being underestimated, you know? In addition to covering him for all those years, I also did a documentary in which I spent a great deal of time with the family and others very close to him since. And what you hear again and again and again is that Reagan, not just as a politician but even in his acting career, was very soft-spoken. His humor was often directed at himself. He could laugh at himself and did so. And he enjoyed being underestimated.
There's a very interesting story about a news conference that Reagan held as president. And he was often a little loose with some of the facts. And that night, Lou Cannon wrote a story for "The Washington Post" that documented 13 errors of -- of misstatement or inaccuracy in the president's news conference. And the next day, the president's press secretary took the newspaper into the president and said, Mr. President -- this was Marlin Fitzwater who did this -- he tells the story. He said, Mr. President, here's a newspaper story with 13 errors of fact and misstatement being attributed to you. I got to go out and correct this with the media. And the president says, No, Marlin, don't even waste your time. First of all, they won't believe you. Secondly, the American people, they don't need it because they know me.
BENNETT: That's right.
WOODRUFF: And he was right about that.
SESNO: And -- and he was right. He -- you may remember this. He drove the press crazy.
WOODRUFF: He did drive the press crazy.
SESNO: He drove the press crazy because he -- he wasn't a Bill Clinton, into all kinds of facts and figures. Sometimes he was a little loose with what he spoke. But he connected with a remarkable array of the public.
WOODRUFF: He came into office on the heels of Jimmy Carter, who had been a very hands-on, detail-oriented president. Ronald Reagan was a delegator. Bill Bennett, you know that, I'm sure, as well as anyone. He wanted to keep...
BENNETT: That's right.
WOODRUFF: He had the big picture in mind, and he had it firmly...
BENNETT: Right. WOODRUFF: ... in mind. He knew what he wanted to accomplish in broad strokes...
BENNETT: That's right.
WOODRUFF: ... and more than that.
BENNETT: Destroy -- destroy "evil empire," reduce size of government. He was the hedgehog, the hedgehog and the fox, that famous book. He -- only a couple of things mattered to him. But he -- you know, he paid attention. I'd be sitting at my desk at the Department of Education. He would read something in the newspaper or "Reader's Digest," and he would call me up and say, Sorry to interrupt you, Bill. I'd say, That's fine, Mr. President. You can interrupt any time. Said, But could you look into this? There's -- there was a famous story about a kid who was put into special ed when he didn't need special ed, and the president just thought -- you know, the parents were very upset, and he wanted me to look into it.
So you know, reading the newspaper, pick up the phone and talk to your cabinet secretary -- I was -- I was in trouble -- if I could just tell a quick story because -- I was in trouble because I was very controversial my first couple of weeks. And we had a cabinet meeting. The president came in and he had a folder that said, "Bennett." And I could feel the chairs drawing away from me as he started. And he read these headlines that said, Bennett's terrible, Bennett must go, Bennett must be fired. He closed the folder and he looked at me, and he said, That's what Bill Bennett's doing. What's wrong with the rest of you?
BENNETT: You know, it's just remarkable.
WOODRUFF: We're going to have to...
BENNETT: Sure. Sure.
WOODRUFF: We're going to come back to both of you, Bill Bennett and Frank Sesno, in just a minute. But right now, we want to move to our White House correspondent, John King, who is in Paris -- John.
KING: And Judy, a few more details on how President Bush here in Paris was told about the unfortunate, the tragic passing of former president Ronald Reagan. Mr. Bush had actually just gone to bed here in Paris a short time before his chief of staff, Andy Card, after 10:00 o'clock here in Paris, a little after 4:00 o'clock back in Washington and the East Coast of the United States, told him that Ronald Reagan had, indeed, died. And we are told the president had about a five-minute conversation with Nancy Reagan to voice his condolences directly. Mr. Bush has not yet spoken to his father, who, of course, is the former president but was Ronald Reagan's vice president. And Mr. Bush, we are told, upon hearing the news, Judy, ordered all flags over federal buildings flown at half-staff for 30 days. As of now, no change in the president's plans. He will be at the 60th anniversary commemoration of the Normandy landing tomorrow, still scheduled to have the Group of 8, G-8, summit in Georgia early next week. They are waiting to get the definitive plans from the Reagan family, I think, to then put in place the schedule for the state funeral in Washington.
And Judy, we expect a chorus of these over the next hours and days but a statement tonight from the French president, Jacques Chirac, I think is -- will be typical of what we will hear from other leaders around the world. He voiced his sadness, of course, great sadness and emotion at the death of President Reagan and said that Mr. Reagan would be remembered as a great man who, with the strength of his convictions and his engagement for democracy, has left a profound mark on history. I think, Judy, that will be typical of what we hear from European leaders especially because of Ronald Reagan's constant campaign against the "evil empire," the Soviet Union, and in favor of putting pressure on the Soviet Union during those days, in the 1980s, not always popular at the time here in Europe. Ronald Reagan remembered quite fondly, especially in Eastern Europe, Judy, for that campaign now.
WOODRUFF: No question. There's almost a personal connection with Ronald Reagan. When you're president of the United States for eight years at a time of such extraordinary change, you are going to have those kinds of relationships that he did, and those leaders are remembering him with personal stories, no doubt, in so many instances.
I'm here with Bill Bennett and Frank Sesno, talking, remembering Ronald Reagan. Frank, I remember this man as a man of astonishing charm. When I was in the hospital giving birth to my first son, the first phone call I got, other than family members, was from the White House, and it was Ronald Reagan on the phone, remembering his first -- when Nancy gave birth to Ron Reagan, Jr., and telling the story about how long it took them to get to the hospital.
I was just a White House reporter covering for NBC, and there were all sorts of reasons for him to be calling, but he was that way with everyone.
SESNO: Well, yes, but there was also an aloofness to him that's very interesting, and that there was a charm -- I've heard people say today several times that what made this great connection with the American public was his sense of optimism, and that was part of it. But the charm, the humanity, was another part. The sense of humor was another part. The clarity of what he was about -- you know, if you went out on the street at any point during the Reagan presidency and asked friend or foe alike, what was he about, they'd tell you: cut taxes, cut government, beat communism. It was simple. And he didn't waver, so he had respect in that regard.
But when I worked on this documentary, I interviewed Ron Reagan, and Ron said he was the most affable man you'd ever meet. He was the most charming person. But he said, Even for those of us closest to him, there was always that 10 percent of mystery. We couldn't get past that. And that was part of, I think, his charm. There was a certain mystery about him, too.
WOODRUFF: Well, he didn't reveal... BENNETT: He left something...
WOODRUFF: ... all.
BENNETT: ... didn't give you everything. Right.
WOODRUFF: He never gave everything. He never...
BENNETT: Didn't give you (UNINTELLIGIBLE)
WOODRUFF: ... revealed everything about himself, so you were always trying to figure that last 10...
BENNETT: My guess is...
WOODRUFF: ... or 15 percent.
BENNETT: ... only with Nancy. Only with Nancy because of that very special relationship. With the Bushes, they were very generous, invited us out a number of times to Camp David. Not with the Reagans. When they went out, they sometimes had other people, close friends, but often it was just the two of them.
SESNO: When they were at the ranch -- when they were at the ranch, when the children went to the ranch, they did not sleep in the main house. They slept in the guest house.
SESNO: Vice President Bush was never an overnight guest at the ranch.
SESNO: That was their place. And if I may, in that letter that Ronald Reagan wrote in November, which I have here, he said, "As Alzheimer's progresses, the family bears a heavy burden. I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience. And when the time comes, I'm confident that with your help, the American people, she will face this with faith and courage." This was their last great battle together.
WOODRUFF: And she knew him far, far better than anyone, and by a measure of -- of hundreds, we know.
BENNETT: That's right.
WOODRUFF: All right, Bill Bennett, Frank Sesno, thank you both. We are going to be coming back to you a little later.
Aaron, now back to you in New York.
BROWN: Thank you. Before you let Mr. Bennett get away, let me -- let me ask a couple of questions, if he's -- one political, one personal.
BROWN: On the political -- did -- we talk about the "Reagan revolution." Did Mr. -- did President Reagan see it in those terms? Did he see himself as a political revolutionary who really was going to change the direction forever and all time of American politics and American government and American life?
BENNETT: I think he did, but he would never speak to himself in such grand -- grand terms or grandiose terms. He would, again, use the commonplace and the homespun. But yes, the deep passion about the things that mattered the most. And he was transformative character. I was a Democrat, like Ronald Reagan was in his youth, and you know, one of the reasons that he changed things was that he attracted so many Democrats to him, the Reagan Democrats. We have that phrase. And he changed the Republican Party. People thought the Republican Party was pretty much a Rockefeller-Ford party because Barry Goldwater had been cast aside. But Ronald Reagan made it a conservative party. And it is still a conservative party.
BROWN: Well, let me ask a -- this is absolutely personal, but I -- I have this feeling that a lot of people are struggling right now with precisely how to feel about this. Ronald Reagan led a good, long life. The last 10 years were very difficult. Obviously, his passing, in a kind of instant sense, is sad. How -- how should we look at this moment exactly?
BENNETT: Well, I think it's -- it's not a tragedy. He was a very old man, and he was sick. And as Frank read, he already said good-bye to us. He said good-bye to us 10 years ago. And his time had come. I think what we remember, and we will remember because there'll be no choice, is the legacy.
I started a radio show, not -- I don't want to pump it, but it started eight weeks ago. It's called "Morning in America." That's a Ronald Reagan phrase. And that's the legacy for many of us, not just my generation of -- of Democrat-turned-Republican and many Republicans, 60-year-olds, 50-year-olds, 40-year-olds -- he is the mentor. He is the -- he is the North Star. And I think that's the way we should remember him. Besides, he would, at a time like this, want us telling these stories...
BENNETT: ... and smiling and listening to Judy about having her baby. That's what he would want because there's nothing he liked better than a story. We went on a lot of trips together. He'd say, Do you have a good joke? And -- and he always had a good one, and he often played jokes on me. I -- whenever he saw me, he said, There's a guy I can play a -- he left me in a wheat field once in Missouri. He was testing the microphone in his car -- you know, the limo? And he said, I'm not sure people can hear this. So he had me step out of the car, presidential limousine, stopped the whole thing. I got out about 10 feet. He says, Can you hear me, Bill? I said, yes. He goes, 20 feet further back. Can you hear me? Yes. A hundred yards. You know what he did? He took off. You know, he took...
BENNETT: He just looked at me and saw someone, you know, he could make a joke on. Anyway, that's the personal...
BROWN: I think that's -- that's exactly, I guess, what I hoped you'd say.
BROWN: I hope that over the next few days, we will, all of us, all of us who sit in these chairs and all of us who watch, be able to balance what is an obvious sorrow, that a president of the United States has passed, but also we celebrate the interesting and funny and important moments of his life without a kind of overlay of grief that is too heavy, too much, in a moment like this, at least as I see it.
BENNETT: You bet.
BROWN: Former president Bush is in Maine today. That, too, was an interesting relationship, the relationship between president and vice president. They were competitors for the nomination. They didn't always see things the same. In many respects, they came from different wings of the Republican Party when the Republican Party had different wings. I'm not so sure it does anymore. But former president Bush spoke a short time ago in Maine, and this is what he had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE H.W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I thank you all very much for coming. This is a very sad day for our country. Though Ronald Reagan has been ill for a long time, the finality of all of this is going to hit the American people very hard. And Barbara and I mourn the loss of a great president, and for us, a great friend. People ask me, Well, what was so special about President Reagan? And on a personal basis, it was his kindness, his decency, his -- his sense of humor -- unbelievable. And he had a wonderful way where you could disagree with him. He'd have leaders in Congress or foreign leaders that he'd disagree with, and yet he was never disagreeable about it himself. He was never mean-spirited. And so he set a great example.
I learned a great deal from him as his vice president for eight years. We'd been political opponents, and we became very close friends. And every Wednesday, we'd have lunch alone together. And I'll never forget those lunches. There was no agenda. He didn't ask you to define different problems. It was just two people talking, and he made me feel totally welcome, totally relaxed in his presence. And he was great.
And I might say, we have unlimited respect for Nancy Reagan, for the way she had conducted herself and stood by the ailing president for so many years. She's shown a lot of courage, a lot of -- a lot of responsibility, and it's been a wonderful thing for Barbara and me to see -- to watch and to honor...
You want to say something about anything?
BARBARA BUSH, FORMER FIRST LADY: Well, I don't think I've ever known anyone who was so innately polite. Ronald Reagan was a gentleman, certainly, and adored his wife. She should be very proud of that, I think. And we certainly send our love to Nancy. And we've talked to her today, so she knows we love her and we're missing her husband already.
QUESTION: Mr. President, have you had a chance to talk to your son today at all?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BROWN: President Bush and Barbara Bush in Maine, at their vacation home. I'll bring in Wolf here. It is interesting to me, Wolf, how much politics has changed post-Reagan. Ronald Reagan was this incredible, genial man. He had these fierce political battles on Capitol Hill, but it was never -- his relationship with Tip O'Neill is legendary, for one thing. They were great pals off -- once they punched out for the day, if you will. Politics has changed so much in the country. It's gotten much more destructive. It's gotten much nastier. I just wonder -- one of those things we will never know -- how Mr. Reagan would have seen all of the nastiness of the political debate that has become so common in the country today.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I think he would be -- I think he would be -- and it's obviously just my speculation. He would be depressed, knowing how the political debate in the United States has deteriorated in recent years because when he was president, Aaron -- and you're absolutely right -- no matter how different the parties were, the Democrats who dominated the Hill, the Republicans in the White House, there was an affability, if you will. Even the strongest Democratic leaders had this grudging admiration for this very likable president who did do so much to bring America back together. That "Morning in America" theme was so powerful and so important, by all accounts.
And Aaron, as I sit here in Normandy, and I remember that 40th anniversary of D-Day, in a few hours President Bush will be here with other world leaders to remember the 60th anniversary of D-Day, let me just share with you some of the words that Ronald Reagan said 20 years ago on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, when spoke of what had been accomplished on June 6, 1944.
He said: "You were here to liberate, not conquer. And so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt. You all knew that some things are worth dying for."
And the president went on and he recalled the boys of Point Du Hoc. Those were the U.S. Army Rangers who scaled those cliffs under enormous fire. And he said: "These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war."
And we're looking at that videotape, Aaron, when he was here 20 years ago at Point Du Hoc, not far from this cemetery where I am right now near Omaha Beach here in Normandy.
It was truly an amazing moment, Aaron, as we look back on those days.
BROWN: Just -- it's funny how we think of him in almost two different ways. We think of him as the grand politician and president, the war to end the Cold War, if you will, to bring down communism, we think of him that way.
And we also think of him in these lovely and memorable personal terms. I wish I could remember the woman's name now. But there's a woman in Philadelphia who I met on -- doing a story on the 90th birthday of President Reagan.
And she had written to him when she was 13 and he was an actor. And it was the kind of fan letter that one -- that a child, a 13-year- old girl might write way back then. And he responded. He first sent a picture and then he responded with letters. And then there was -- she went to Dixon, Illinois where there was a Ronald Reagan Day. He had come from Hollywood.
And over the course of the next 40 or 50 or I think 60, 70 years, they maintained this pen pal relationship that went through his movie career and ultimately to the White House. And so Ronald Reagan was, in many respects, not one person but a person of many different personalities, many different sides who never lost the ability to touch individuals, whatever their politics were. He would touch individual lives in extraordinary ways.
I want to do one little piece of programming business to help guide viewers through the rest of the night. I'll tell you where our coverage will go the rest of the night. And then we have much more ahead.
8:00 tonight, Paula returns with a special edition of "PAULA ZAHN NOW." "LARRY KING," of course, at 9:00. And though I don't know his guests, I can imagine the range of people that will join him, including Mike Wallace and many others with Larry from 9 to 10. We'll be back with you at 10:00 with a special edition of "NEWSNIGHT."
So that's how the night will shake out. Walter Cronkite will be with Larry, I gather. I'm just hearing some of this, anyway, Bob Dole, lots of people we will hear from. And it will be an interesting balance between the personal remembrances and the political, the big issues and the small, the personality that was Ronald Reagan and how history will view him.
Those are all things that we will talk about tonight and in the days and certainly the week ahead as the country prepares for a state funeral, something we have not had. The country learned of Ronald Reagan's passing a little bit after 4 this afternoon Eastern time, around 4:15, 4:30. And here is how we will remember him. The life of Ronald Reagan as reported by CNN's Bruce Morton.
BRUCE MORTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The motto by his picture in his high school yearbook was "life is just one grand sweet song, so start the music."
Ronald Reagan believed that, always. He loved the music, loved his life, at school, as a lifeguard, at little Eureka College where he made the football team. Loved being an announcer for the Chicago Cubs, loved Hollywood.
Maybe he really was "The Gipper" after all.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "KNUTE ROCKNE ALL AMERICAN")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Did you hear me yelling when you ran back that kickoff?
RONALD REAGAN, 40 TH PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Sure I did, Bill, that's why I kept running.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Gee, wait until tell the kids that.
REAGAN: That a boy.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MORTON: If he succeeded, and he did, it was because he was happy in all the roles he played. He really was the kid he used to talk about who knew, faced with a barn full of manure, that there had to be a pony around somewhere.
He was married twice, didn't always get along with children, but was deeply in love with his wife.
REAGAN: I met Nancy Davis 33 years ago in California. She had been my first lady since long before the White House.
MORTON: And they were partners. She worried for him, planned for him, sometimes even fed him a line.
NANCY REAGAN, FMR. FIRST LADY: Everything we can.
REAGAN: We're doing everything we can.
MORTON: Some presidents yearn for the job, need it to find out who they are. Ronald Reagan always knew who he was, politics came to him.
Debating Jimmy Carter he asked a question people remembered.
REAGAN: Are you better off than you were four years ago?
MORTON: But Americans remembered the humor from that debate, too.
REAGAN: There you go again.
MORTON: He loved one-liners and so did the voters. Badly wounded by would-be assassin John Hinckley, Reagan joked to his wife: "Honey, I forgot to duck." And to the doctors: "Please tell me you're Republicans." One-liners, grace under pressure.
REAGAN: Go ahead, make my day.
You ain't seen nothing yet.
And you can tell it's working because as I've said several times already, they don't call it "Reaganomics" anymore.
MORTON: When the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up, killing its crew, he gentled the country.
REAGAN: They prepared for their journey, waved good-bye, and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.
MORTON: To a country haunted by Vietnam, he offered easy wins: Grenada. Force could work.
REAGAN: Under this administration our nation is through ringing its hands and apologizing.
MORTON: It didn't always work, of course. Marines died in Lebanon. And the president who cared deeply about the hostages there, traded arms for them. He said he wouldn't and then convinced himself that maybe he hadn't done that after all.
REAGAN: I'd have to say I don't recall that at all.
MORTON: He got to be good at not hearing the questions he didn't want to hear. People loved his politics or hated them, but mostly they liked Reagan the man. He left office on a high.
REAGAN: George, just one personal request, go out there and win one for "The Gipper."
MORTON: He didn't need the presidency when he was president. He didn't seem to miss it much once he left. A visit to Japan. A stroll with Mickey Mouse. Life was a grand sweet song, and the music played for a long time.
Bruce Morton, CNN.
BROWN: The music ended late this afternoon in Bel Air, California. The former president was surrounded, we are told, by family members who had been called over the last couple days when it became clear that his health had taken a turn -- his physical health had taken a turn for the worse.
Officially it will say he died of pneumonia. Alzheimer's has different ways to end lives, and that is but one of them. Frank Buckley is in Bel Air, California, outside the home of the Reagans.
Frank, good evening to you.
FRANK BUCKLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Aaron.
And I've been listening as you've talked about the ravages of Alzheimer's and how it affected the family. And because we've known for the past few days that the president -- the former president's health has taken a turn for the worse, we've had chance to prepare, looking at some of the things that have been written and said over the past few years.
And I looked at the letter that the president himself issued at the time that he announced to the public that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's at the Mayo Clinic. That was November, 1994, when the letter went out. And he talked about what he called the heavy burden that he expected that would fall on his family.
He said, quote: "I only wish I could spare Nancy from this pain." He said: "I am confident that with your help, she will face it with faith and courage."
As you say, the family was present at the time of the former president's death here in Bel Air. Nancy Reagan, of course, at his side, also two of his children, Patti and Ron Jr., Michael Reagan arrived shortly thereafter and just left approximately an hour ago, thanking the police as he went.
Now begins the several days of mourning and remembrances that will take place as the body of the president moves from California to Washington and then back again to California. It all will begin here and we're told that it will begin soon. We're told that the hearse is about 15 minutes away from our location here in Bel Air.
At some point then the body will move, we believe, to a mortuary. And sometime after that, the official process will begin of the former president's body -- Aaron.
BROWN: And on that point, do we know the choreography of the next several days? It seemed earlier, the president's body would be taken to his library in California first, is that your knowledge?
BUCKLEY: Well, that isn't clear. It could be going to the library first for a period of repose, and then from that point going to an airport. And we're not sure if it will be a military or civilian. It's quite likely it will be Point McGoo (ph), which is a Naval air station, and from there the body would go to Washington, then to the National Cathedral, then in a procession up to the Capitol, from the Capitol at some point back here to California for burial services. BROWN: Ultimately he will be buried in California where -- his adopted home and certainly the former president associated about as much with California as anyone could be. Frank, thank you. We will be checking back with you.
Just -- the only words that I have seen from Nancy Reagan today was an official statement that came under her signature: "My family and I would like the world to know that President Ronald Reagan has passed away after 10 years of Alzheimer's disease at 93. We appreciate everyone's prayers." That's the statement of the former first lady.
It has been a rather -- she has been, to my eye, at least, rather extraordinary over the last 10 years of dealing with this, dealing with the family that she brought closer together during her husband's illness, tending, caring for her husband who -- which a wife must do even under the circumstances of having enough money to manage and have health care givers and all the rest. The burden still falls on the family. And to also take on causes that matter to her.
She took on the cause of stem cell research, as we were talking about earlier, because it mattered to her. And she understood that when she did it she would go against some of the traditional conservative base of the party that her husband redefined. She certainly understood that.
But she felt passionately that there was a future of hope in that research and that it ought to go forward vigorously, not moderately. And that was the dispute, it was a gentle dispute, it was never a harsh dispute she had with the current President Bush. But clearly it was a dispute. And she handled that with dignity also.
She was very much a lightning rod, Mrs. Reagan, through the course of her husband's presidency in part because she was so aggressively protective of him in the way I think we all hope our spouses will be. But her statement today said a good deal. "We appreciate everyone's prayers." And certainly in the country today, Democrats, Republicans and neither send Mrs. Reagan and the family their prayers.
Wolf Blitzer is in Normandy, France, preparing for the ceremonies there that mark the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landing. Ronald Reagan was not a soldier in the war, but he was in Normandy 40 (sic) years to note the day. And nobody saluted quite like Reagan did, I always thought.
BLITZER: Actually, 20 years ago to the day, now it's June 6 here in Normandy. He was here for the 40th anniversary of D-Day. The 40th anniversary he delivered a memorable speech referring to the boys of Point Du Hoc, Aaron, when those young Rangers, those U.S. Army Rangers, scaled those cliffs and began the beginning of the end of the Nazi empire in Europe.
Ronald Reagan was here. He will be remembered tomorrow. It's actually today already here in Normandy when the president of the United States, the president of France, other world leaders come here to commemorate, to remember that 60th anniversary of D-Day. Ronald Reagan will be very much on the minds of everyone.
And so many of those leaders will be going to the United States for the G-8 in Sea Island, Georgia, and presumably, those presidents, those prime ministers, and other world leaders, including kings and queens, will come to the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., for the memorial service that's expected to take place in the coming days, and the body of Ronald Reagan will lay in state -- will lie in state on Capitol Hill in the Rotunda; enabling Americans to simply walk by and pay their respects.
Dinesh D'Souza is a biographer of Ronald Reagan. He's joining us now live from Dallas.
Dinesh, as you look back on this conservative president and think of his legacy today, what goes through your mind?
DINESH D'SOUZA, AUTHOR, "RONALD REAGAN": I was part of a generation of young people who came to Washington excited by Reagan and by what he represented. We were tantalized by Reagan as a man. But I think most importantly we were struck by Reagan's ideas.
The great -- the unifying idea of Reagan's thought was opposition to collectivism, the growth of the welfare state at home, the Soviet empire abroad. And I think history will remember Reagan as someone who brought a halt to the era of big government, in that sense the era of collectivism that began with FDR, Franklin Roosevelt in the beginning of the 20th century, came to an end with Reagan.
And of course, Reagan also played a decisive role in bringing about the end of the evil empire. So in a spectacular way, the ideas he believed in came to fruition, and we are now living in a world that Reagan made.
BLITZER: You were one of those young writers - Dinesh, one of those young historians, as you point out, clearly influenced by Ronald Reagan. Why was he so important to your generation of conservative thinkers?
D'SOUZA: I think that conservatism before Reagan was a different kind of conservatism. In a way, Barry Goldwater is a good representation of that. It was a conservatism that was - protected business interests. It was a conservatism that was used to being in the minority. It was negative in tone. It had an elitist ring to it.
Reagan changed all that. He brought not only a populist rhetoric, but he had a confidence, a sense of humor. Even though he was elected at the age of 69, he appealed to a lot of young people and he brought a lot of young people like me into his administration. So what we liked about Reagan was not only the things he believed in but also how he believed them and his optimism about America.
BLITZER: Did he really appreciate, during his eight years in office between 1981 and early 1989, that what he was doing, the stance he was taking against the Soviet Union, do you think he really believed that the Soviet Union would crumble, that 74 years of communist rule in the Soviet empire would simply go away in the years that followed his administration?
D'SOUZA: I don't know if Reagan could seriously have expected that at the outset. If you remember, those ideas which were at the time called "roll-back," in other words, not merely containing but rolling back the Soviet empire...
BLITZER: Dinesh, hold on, hold on one second, Dinesh. I want to just interrupt for a second because I want to go Bel Air. You're seeing a hearse that's about to drive into this Bel Air home, the residence of Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan. You see it driving in right now.
This hearse will take the body of Ronald Reagan, will take the body presumably, Frank Buckley, you're there, to the Simi library -- the Simi Valley library, the presidential library of Ronald Reagan where it will await a flight to Washington, D.C.
Is that your understanding of the next step in this process, Frank?
BUCKLEY: That's right, Wolf. But the most immediate step will be I believe that the former president's body will go to a mortuary first for the preparation of the body. At that point, the body will then go in the casket to the library at a certain period, after a certain period at the library, the Military District of Washington takes over the process and then begins the official count.
And I apologize for the helicopter that's hovering so close to us. But then begins the official process of the movement of the casket containing the former president's body to Washington for the official ceremonies to take place. And the body, once again, returns here to California for burial.
The hearse coming up St. Cloud Street (ph) here in Bel Air, escorted by a single police motorcycle. And as you've just seen it, it has disappeared into the estate of the Reagans. If you look from above, you might get a sense of the -- what's happening as the hearse moves inside the estates.
The police telling us they are doing their best to maintain a dignity to the undertakings that are taking place here. And we can tell you that we're just being handed a statement that was issued by Joanne Drake (ph), the chief of staff for President Reagan's office.
And it simply states some of the information that we've already reported with regard to the information of when the former president died at approximately 1 p.m. local time here in Los Angeles, that he was 93 years old, that his wife of 52 years, Nancy Reagan was present, along with two of his children.
We'll go ahead and read you the statement in its entirety: "Ronald Wilson Reagan, 40th president of the United States, died this afternoon at 1 p.m. at his home in Los Angeles, California.
Born February 6, 1911, he was 93 years old. His wife of 52 years, Nancy Davis Reagan, his son Ronald Prescott Reagan, and his youngest daughter, Patti Davis, were at his bedside when passed away from pneumonia as a complication of Alzheimer's. He is also survived by his son, Michael Reagan, who spent Friday with his father. President Reagan's oldest daughter, Maureen, died in 2001 from cancer."
And it says here that details of state funeral arrangements will be announced as soon as they are finalized with members of the Reagan family and Military District of Washington, historically tasked with conducting state ceremonies for all presidents of the United States -- Wolf.
What's interesting in that statement, among other things, Frank, is that the actual cause of Ronald Reagan's death was pneumonia, complications from pneumonia, not the Alzheimer's, not other problems, but actually pneumonia had set in resulting in the death of Ronald Reagan just a few hours ago.
And we see that hearse now having backed into that driveway, in that very elegant, posh neighborhood in Los Angeles, Bel Air, not far from Beverly Hills, where that hearse eventually will take the body of Ronald Reagan, as you point out, to a mortuary and then to the library, the presidential library in Simi Valley.
It will be flown to Washington, D.C. in the next day or two. There will be a memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington. The body will lie in state as well on Capitol Hill in the Rotunda, where average Americans will be able to walk by and pay their respects.
Judy Woodruff is already in Washington where, for the past few hours, the flag has been flying at half staff at all federal buildings around the country -- Judy.
JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, and that's right, it has. And appropriately it has been a rainy, gloomy day all day long. We've been talking the last few hours since it was confirmed that Ronald Reagan had died.
And even as we say it's not a tragedy, this was someone who lived a very full life and who had said his goodbyes many years ago, still there is no doubt about it, a sense of loss. This is a man who was a giant in this past century in American politics. He will be missed by so many for so many different reasons.
WOODRUFF: I am here in CNN's Washington studio, along with two of my colleagues, Candy Crowley, who's our chief political correspondent Bill Schneider is our senior political analyst. And Bill, we were just hearing from Dinesh D'Souza, the conservative writer, about the impact that Ronald Reagan had. And I was just thinking, you know, you had FDR and Harry Truman, left a remarkable generation of Democrats to follow. Ronald Regan left a remarkable generation of conservatives.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Oh, absolutely, including George H.W. Bush, the first President Bush, and the second President Bush, and John McCain, and Colin Powell, and Rudy Giuliani. All of them worked for Ronald Regan. A whole generation of politicians claimed that they came out from Ronald Reagan's leadership.
WOODRUFF: He was someone who, you know, we heard Dinesh D'Souza say he was growing up, Ronald Reagan was somebody you listened to if you were a young and inclined to be a conservative. He was somebody who was literally leading the charge. And Candy, that was very evident in the way that he talked later about how he wanted to be remembered.
CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITCAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. Following up real quickly on what Bill was just saying, I don't think I -- I know I haven't covered a Republican campaign since Ronald Reagan when the candidate didn't claim to be a Reagan Republican. And all of them generally, and you could get it all in one debate, really. They all laid claim to that mantle.
It was interesting, looking back. In 1992, George Herbert Walker Bush, running for a second term, at his convention, Ronald Reagan appearing, and interestingly, talking about how he would like to be remembered.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RONALD REAGAN: And whatever else history may say about me when I'm gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears, to your confidence rather than your doubts. My dream is that you will travel the road ahead with liberty's lamp guiding your steps and opportunity's arm steadying your way.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CROWLEY: Interesting. Always the great communicator. What a way with words. I mean, he had a way of delivering them. And also interesting that the way he wanted to be remembered is pretty much what we've been bewaring all day long.
WOODRUFF: He wrote a lot of the material for which he is remembered. I mean, we all talk about presidential speech writers, and sure, there were speech writers, but Ronald Reagan made his name as a national political figure, if you will, when he was on the circuit for GE. He was writing his material then, and he was delivering it with passion, Bill, in a way that caught on all over the country. We had never seen anything like it.
SCHNEIDER: We have not. And one of the important lessons for all politicians forever is very simple: he had a base. A base are the people who are with you when you're wrong. He got in trouble more than once. In 1982, his economic program had never worked. We had over 10 percent unemployment. Reagan campaigned around the country to stay the course. Millions of people stood by him, because they believed in the course that he had set out. And Iran-Contra; people stood by him. He showed the importance for any politician, because sooner or later they're going to be wrong, you have to have a base who will stick with you. WOODRUFF: And that base was with him, Candy, and as you just suggested, it was a base that Republicans today would like to say that they have inherited.
CROWLEY: Absolutely. He's an icon. For Democrats and some Republicans, it's Harry Truman; but for Republicans it's definitely Ronald Reagan. I am reminded of something that one of his aides said to me after Reagan had left office and we were talking about what a career he -- I mean, what careers he had; I mean, how many of them, from an actor to a governor. And somebody said to me, you know what, I always thought that he was overestimated as an actor and underestimated as a president. And I think that's probably true.
WOODRUFF: Underestimated, that was a word we always associated with him. Candy Crowley, Bill Schneider, I know we're going to be coming back to you tonight and in the days to come.
But right now, back to Aaron.
BROWN: Judy, thank you.
As we head towards the top of the hour, I'll give you a quick look ahead at where we're going tonight on an historic night, a night to feel some grief certainly and some joy at the experiences that the country had with President Reagan.
Paula, coming up at the top of the hour, I see David Stockman, who helped engineer the tax cuts of the time. And so that will be a lively conversation. Larry King with Mike Wallace, Bob Dole and others.
And I'm sure we're planning something for "NEWSNIGHT," but I've been up here, so I don't honestly know, but we'll see you again at 10:00 Eastern time tonight as we all as nation and around the world remember Ronald Wilson Reagan who died just after 1:00 California time, out in Bel Air, California, surrounded by his family, most of his family and his wife of more 50 years, 52 years, Nancy Reagan.
This is how President Bush, the current President Bush remembered a political mentor, the president speaking a short time ago in France.
BLITZER: Ronald Reagan will always be remembered as the president of the United States who brought optimism back in the early 1980s. He took office on January 20, 1981. He had defeated Jimmy Carter.
There was a period, as Jimmy Carter used to call it, of "malaise" in the United States: high interest rates, depression across the board. There was a period of bloom. Ronald Reagan changed all of that.
For so many Americans he brought that sense of optimism as he moved forward with his tough talk against the then-Soviet Union, against the so-called evil empire. And he got a whole new generation of young people thinking about becoming Republicans, thinking about being conservatives, going for tax cuts. There were high budget deficits in those years as the Reagan administration spent hundreds of billions of dollars on defense, part of the effort that eventually resulted in the demise of the Soviet Union.
Ronald Reagan left office to his then vice president, George Herbert Walker Bush. And eventually, eventually he became sick with Alzheimer's in the past decade or so. He has suffered from that disease.
Ronald Reagan, 93 years old, the 40th president of the United States is now dead.
Our special coverage will continue now with a special edition of "PAULA ZAHN NOW" - Paula.
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