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Tribute to Ronald Reagan

Aired June 6, 2004 - 08:30   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back, everybody. It is just about half past the hour on this AMERICAN MORNING. Lots to talk about as we remember Ronald Reagan and with his death coinciding with the 60th anniversary of the anniversary of D-Day. President Bush receiving news in Paris, in fact, and paying tribute to Ronald Reagan at ceremonies this morning in Normandy. Dana Bash is going to join us in just a few moments for more on this very emotional day, obviously.
Also a little bit later we'll talk to a man who was there on D- Day and was one of the very first medics to land, he saw it all. We'll hear what he has to say.

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: It's a phenomenal day and seeing that moon over Simi Valley in California, a short time ago, before the sun comes up, there. Also, we'll talk to a man who worked closely with Ronald Reagan when he was president. Frank Donatelli, former White House political director recalling some of Reagan's greatest triumphs in the White House. A lot to talk about this morning. And welcome back everybody, good to have you with us on this Sunday morning.

O'BRIEN: And President Bush and French President Jacques Chirac stood side by side this morning to start a day of somber reflection over the heroism and loss of life during the D-Day invasion 60 years ago today. White House correspondent Dana Bash, live for us this morning in Normandy, France.

Dana, good morning.

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Soledad. And for all of the discord between the U.S. and France over, particularly the war in Iraq since a year ago, today was very much a day of harmony. You saw the two presidents walker shoulder to shoulder, witnessing a 21-gun salute, laying a wreath, all in the name of commemorating the allied liberation of France here on the beaches of Normandy. President Chirac said he could never forget that and the people of France will never forget that. President Bush reminded people here that France was America's first friend. But the thrust of Mr. Bush's speech today was the sacrifice that Americans and other allied forces made when they came upon these beaches in Normandy.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Generations to come will know what happened here, but these men heard the guns. Visitors will always pay respects at this cemetery, but these veterans come looking for a name and remembering faces and voices from a lifetime ago.


BASH: The president did make several references to the veterans who were here. There were many in the audience listening to the president's speech. But he also tried to bring to life some of the more than 9,000 soldiers who are buried here at Colleville Cemetery by telling some of their specific stories.

Now, the president, as he's traveling through Europe over the past three days, first in Italy, now of course, in France, has been -- the theme of his trip has been to equate, as he put it, the post World War II struggle against communism, with the fight against terrorism, also has talking about the fight against Saddam Hussein, equating that to the fight against, what he called the tyranny of the Nazis. But today, the president did want to focus on, again, the sacrifices of all of those who essentially began the beginning of the end of the Nazis in Europe and eventually, of course, the invasion of Normandy did lead to the liberation of Europe. The president did honor, of course, somebody who was here 20 years ago today, making a very memorable speech. That was President Ronald Reagan and Mr. Bush saying that he was somebody who was a gallant leader in the cause of freedom -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Dana Bash for us this morning. Dana, thank you.

HEMMER: From Normandy, now back to Washington. Former CNN Washington bureau chief and White House correspondent, Frank Sesno, covered President Reagan extensively and got a close look at the personal side of the president's family.

Good morning to you, Frank, an old friend and colleague, as well. Great to see you again. Also want to make mention you helped produce that two hour documentary, "Ronald Reagan: A Legacy Remembered" that aired on the "History Channel." And, great to see you, again today.

Want to talk about the tone when you worked at the White House, there. A lot of people talk about the dignity and the level of class that Ronald Reagan and Nancy had in that eight-year period. What was the tone? Was there a distinct tone at the White House when you covered him?

FRANK SESNO, FMR. CNN WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF: Oh there was, you know, but it was but it wasn't all a cake walk for the Reagans, either. There was a lot of divisions at the time. There were a number of people, especially the democrats, who were absolutely confounded, utterly confounded by the president and by Mrs. Reagan, as well, and they were portrayed as somehow regal and above it all. But the Reagans were remarkably serene, especially Ronald Reagan. You know, people say of him that he was comfortable in his own skin.

When I interviewed the former Canadian prime minister, Brian Mulroney, who got quite close to Ronald Reagan actually, he made, I thought -- I think, a very astute observation. He said, look, this man was elected the presidency in his late 60s. He had already lived a life. He didn't have anything to prove to anybody anymore. He had been the governor of California, he had been on the lecture circuit, he had spoken out on behalf of General Electric. He had laid out his positions clearly, so it wasn't like he was -- you know, holding his finger to the wind and trying to play to public opinion polls. In fact, when things got rough, the Reagan crowd resorted to a bumper sticker, "Let Reagan be Reagan and Stay the Course." So there was this notion of consistency that I think was as trademark, as well.

HEMMER: How did he view the job that you and others had to do in covering this White House?

SESNO: You know, I don't know, to be honest. There was this mysterious part of him. It was not -- he did not have a particularly close relationship with most of us in the press corps. He didn't know most people by name, oh, he knew Helen and Sam Donaldson and Lesley Stahl and Andrea Mitchell, a few people by name, but most didn't. When George Herbert Walker Bush came in later suddenly everybody was known by names, so there was a different level of connection. Reagan spoke in his photo ops, and had his famous one-liners, he had his news conferences, but those were generally speaking a little more difficult for him. He was a great communicator when he addressed a crowd, worked from a speech, worked from his notes and almost always connected when he was in those kinds of impromptu situations, but with the press it was always a little bit more contentious.

HEMMER: Let me try and go back a little further into his own life and his own history. This is a man who was a democrat, it's essentially the way he was raised up in Illinois. Converted to the Republican Party. What did he see in the Republican Party, as a necessity, for how he wanted to govern this country and the White House?

SESNO: I would say one word really defines a lot of where Ronald Reagan came from. And keep it in mind throughout, and that is "individualism." His upbringing in Dixon, Illinois, he was from very poor stock, his father was an alcoholic, his mother was devoutly religious, knew the bible well, they talked about it a lot. Ronald Reagan came to believe in the individual and the story of the individual worked for him -- you know, ye was a lifeguard, he saved people when he was a very young man, and that stayed with him. Despite their own adversity he went out and made it in radio and then he made it in motion pictures, and throughout all of this, one of the pervading experiences was that "I can do it" and that's why, in the end, he hated big government. He hated communism. He hated welfare. Because he felt those things undermined what the individual could do, undermined that sense of enterprise and initiative.

HEMMER: Thanks, Frank and good to see you, again.

SESNO: Thanks.

HEMMER: Frank Sesno former Washington bureau chief, there, back in our bureau, in D.C.

O'BRIEN: Still to come this morning on AMERICAN MORNING, they were president and first lady, but to those who knew them well, they were also a couple madly in love. We'll take a look back at the Reagan love story.

HEMMER: Also another story for you. Former White House political adviser Frank Donatelli, he helped Ronald Reagan make his first bid for the White House. Some of his first impressions of Reagan the candidate, in a moment, still to come on this special edition of AMERICAN MORNING.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. As we remember the life and times of former President Ronald Reagan, we also recognize those World War II veterans who stormed the beaches of Normandy, France, 60 years ago today. Albert Sponheimer was one of the first medics to land on D-Day and joins us this morning from Normandy. We're joined by Ron Drez he's the co-author of the book "Voices of Valor."

Gentlemen, good morning and thank you so much for joining us.

Albert, let's begin with you.


O'BRIEN: As you mentioned you were one of the first medics to land on Omaha Beach. Take us back to that day. What was it like?

SPONHEIMER: It was horrible, really. When we come ashore, there wasn't much there, just -- you know, one tank, the ground was covered with dead people, and as a medic, I just had to get to work.

O'BRIEN: Sixty years later to be going back, what is that like for you today?

SPONHEIMER: Oh, it brings back a lot of memories, but it's good in a way because you're helping other people to realize what went on that -- in those days.

O'BRIEN: How has what happened on that day, as a very young man, how has that shaped the rest of your life?

SPONHEIMER: Oh, I don't know. It -- it made me so I didn't want to have anything to do with medical, I'll tell you that much. I thought I had had enough that day to last me a lifetime.

O'BRIEN: I think it's very hard for people who were not there to really understand the death and the destruction and the horror of that day. Is it something that you've ever forgotten or is it something that you remember with clarity each and every day?

SPONHEIMER: Oh, I remember it just like it was yesterday. It was -- it was so bad, it was just horrible. And it's something you'll never forget. It just lives with you.

O'BRIEN: Let's turn to Ron Drez, as we mentioned, the author of several books about World War II. What's it like to be there for all the ceremonies today, Ron? RONALD DREZ, AUTHOR, "VOICES OF VALOR": Well, it's wonderful. This cemetery, that we're visiting today, is emblematic of the United States and World War II. And the World War II event was truly an American epic. There have only been two American epics in our short history, one is World War II, and the other one, of course, is the American Civil War. And this World War II generation, which is slowly starting to pass, has left a legacy for all future Americans to revel in. And this cemetery is not a place of sadness, it truly is a place of joy, because it's the joy of our life that we have today that we owe to these men.

O'BRIEN: There are some who say that the campaign to invade occupied France was one of the greatest military undertakings of all time. Do you think that's true or an overstatement?

DREZ: No, it is true. In all military campaigns, if you go back into all of them in history, what was unique about Normandy was that it had no backup plan. It was one throw of the dice against the German might, and it was sink or swim.

O'BRIEN: Albert Sponheimer and Ron Drez joining us this morning. Gentlemen, thank you so much for sharing your stories with us, and of course, I can imagine it must be incredibly painful to be there for the ceremony and yet at the same time, as you mentioned, Albert, a very important thing to do. So we certainly appreciate it -- Bill.

HEMMER: Cemetery there at Normandy, absolutely stunning in its beauty and such a juxtaposition, today. The amount of peaceful feeling that one gets there, when you contrast with that moment 60 years ago, today. In a moment, much more on what's happening in D- Day. Also in a moment here, talking to the former political director for Ronald Reagan during the White House years, his thoughts and reflections in a moment.

Also, he's called a courageous man, more on what the current president had to say about the late Ronald Reagan. A lot more to talk about, and we will, right after this.


O'BRIEN: Frank Donatelli knew former President Ronald Reagan for decades. He served as White House political director during the Reagan administration and is the chairman of the Reagan Ranch Board of Governors. He joins us from Washington this morning.

Nice to see you, Frank. Thanks for being with us.


O'BRIEN: You started back in 1980 as the Midwest coordinator for the Reagan campaign. Give me a sense of your very first impressions of Ronald Reagan.

DONATELLI: Well, you know, I think Reagan by 1980, Soledad, was well known to most republicans as a man of principle. In fact, that was his greatest strength was that he stood for certain principles that most republicans could identify with. But, gradually during that campaign, what comes across very quickly is, as he goes through primary after primary, his appeal to Americans well beyond party. That was the campaign where the term "Reagan democrats" was coined. An ability to reach out to blue collar workers, Catholics, ethnic voters in the northeast, and Christian Evangelicals in the south, which brings the Republican Party from minority status to near parity with the democrats.

O'BRIEN: Why was he able -- or maybe a better question, how was he able to do that? If you think about it, here was a guy who was a Hollywood famous actor and then a governor and president and all along seemed to have this strong connection with regular folks in America. Explain that.

DONATELLI: Yeah, it's really interesting. You know, I guess if I could articulate the exact factors, a lot of other politicians would do the same thing. A lot of times -- you know, you just have to have that certain something. But, a couple of things come to mind. No. 1 -- you know, he never really had to shout when he made his greatest points as a speaker, he was always in a very -- not a strong tone of voice at all. I think secondly, very much like Franklin Roosevelt, he was able to use specific examples of the more broad points that he was trying to make that really struck a cord with the individual voter.

O'BRIEN: Many people point the meetings between Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan as being some of the most important events of his presidency. What do you remember about their relationship, personal and their working relationship as well?

DONATELLI: Yeah, it was a very interesting relationship. Reagan, while he always maintained his distance from the Soviet Union, did come to trust Gorbachev, in a way. I remember being with him -- we were heading to yet another fund-raiser in Washington, D.C. and I was giving him an overview of the crowd that he was going to be speaking to that night. And all of a sudden, in the car, Soledad, he stops and he says to me, "you know, I think we can do business with this guy." And I said, "excuse me, Mr. President?" he said, "Gorbachev, I think we can deal with him." And I said, I certainly wasn't his foreign policy adviser and I said, "Sir, that would be great for the country" and he went on and I continued to give him his briefing. But the point was that Gorbachev, in making an arrangement with the Soviet Union, was very much on his mind as his term wound down.

O'BRIEN: All the time, it seems like. Frank Donatelli, former White House political director. Nice to hear from you, thanks for being with us this morning.

DONATELLI: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: Bill.

HEMMER: On this AMERICAN MORNING, the sun now, starting to emerge in southern California. Get you back to the Presidential Library there, in Simi Valley, California. Anderson Cooper is standing by for more on that, this morning.

Also in a moment here, a look at a Hollywood love story come true: The Reagan romance, when we continue.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Anderson Cooper at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. The actor, Ronald Reagan, met the actress Nancy Davis while both were shooting a film. They married in 1952, they had a child later that year a second child soon after that. Both would remain married for 52 years. Early on in the Reagan presidency, some people made fun of Nancy Reagan, the way she would stare adoringly at her husband, some cynics made fun of it, but no one ever made fun of the love that they shared, a love which lasted still to this day.

CNN's Judy Woodruff reports.


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): They were a Hollywood fairy tale turned political power couple. Leading man, Ronald Reagan, was president of the Screen Actor's Guild, when he met Nancy Davis. He was divorced. His film career on the decline, and Davis was a waning Hollywood starlet. Reagan often said Nancy saved his soul and that he couldn't imagine life without her. She responded, saying her life didn't start until she met Ronny.

NANCY REAGAN, FMR. FIRST LADY: But, everything just fell into place with Ronny and me. We completed each other.

WOODRUFF: A love affair so close, even their children and stepchildren could not squeeze in.

MICHAEL DEAVER, FMR. REAGAN AIDE: It's a love like I've never seen and nobody gets in the way of that love, that's theirs.

WOODRUFF: When Reagan enters politics, their partnership solidified even more.

DEAVER: Nancy was a very fast learner. I don't think she had any idea, when Reagan decided to explore, which is the way he looked at it the governorship in '66, but she was immediately, not only part of the partnership, the campaign, but she had to go out on her own and do various activities.

WOODRUFF: Early in Reagan's political career, Nancy was criticized for gazing at her husband during his speeches. She was lambasted for playing the role of the adoring wife, but insiders say it was no act.

DOUG WICK, FRIEND OF REAGAN'S: But, I've always felt that the relationship between the two of them was quite genuine, and that this is not a -- you know, they didn't have to act at being in love, because they were.

ANNOUNCER: A late development, shots rang out as President Reagan left the Washington Hilton Hotel, this afternoon.


WOODRUFF: Nancy nearly lost the love of her life when John Hinckley shot the president, but Reagan recovered. He used humor to ease her fears, telling Nancy, "Honey, I forgot to duck." Still, Nancy worried, and began consulting an astrologer, something which raised eyebrows in Washington. Her profile improved with time, and as she traveled with the president. In Beijing...


WOODRUFF: ...Berlin...


WOODRUFF: ...and Geneva. The Reagans presented a united front of diplomacy and charm. They were each other's staunchest ally. Critics suspected that Nancy whispered more into the president's ear than words of help.


WOODRUFF: Nancy understood Reagan's strengths and weaknesses, and she filled in the gaps, even if that meant playing the heavy.

MERV GRIFFIN, FRIEND OF REAGAN'S: She had that third eye that she would see people who were trying to use him and use him in the wrong way, and she would stop that.

WOODRUFF: Many say Reagan would never have succeeded in politics, had it not been for his wife.

DEAVER: No, Ronald Reagan wouldn't have been governor, wouldn't have been president without her, no way.

WOODRUFF: And as his presidency ended, he let everyone know what she meant to him.

R. REAGAN: That second floor living quarters in the White House would have seemed a big and lonely spot without her waiting for me every day at the end of the day.

WOODRUFF: And then, in 1994, Reagan wrote a letter, a poignant farewell to the nation, after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. It would be the last campaign he and Nancy would handle together.

N. REAGAN: I found that even though the person I love and have loved for 44 years is slipping away. My love for him grows, as he changes, if I stop asking why and simply love, I do grow.

WOODRUFF: Reagan epitomized the American dream. He was a small town boy from humble beginnings, who exemplified that the system worked, that any kid can grow up to be president. And Nancy, well, she was right where she wanted to be, by his side.

Judy Woodruff, CNN, reporting.


COOPER: Ronald Reagan will be laid to rest once and for all here at the Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. His wife, Nancy, one day will be laid to rest by his side here, as well. Together in life, one day together in death, as well.

On AMERICAN MORNING morning, we continue in a moment -- continue to remember the life and the legacy of President Ronald Reagan.



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