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PAULA ZAHN NOW
Remembering the Great Communicator; Interview With Senator John McCain
Aired June 7, 2004 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): He was a man of words.
RONALD REAGAN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You were young the day you took these cliffs. Some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet you risked everything here. Why?
ZAHN: He was a man of letters.
REAGAN: In this springtime of hope, some lights seem eternal. America's is.
ZAHN: He was a man who loved to communicate with pen and paper.
REAGAN: My dream is that you will travel the road ahead with liberty's lamp guiding your steps and opportunity's s arm steadying your ways.
ZAHN: Tonight, Ronald Reagan, the thoughtful communicator.
ZAHN: Good evening and welcome. Thanks so much for joining us tonight.
The sound bites, the quotes, the one-liners, even the occasional mistake that, when we look back, seem to distill Ronald Reagan's presidency, phrases like evil empire, tear down this wall, there you go again. But what few of us understood then was that this president was a man who loved to write. Reagan the actor had learned from Hollywood how to get the most out of the written word.
And what he wrote in thousands of letters shows us the depth of his thinking and the warmth in his heart. So tonight, we focus on Ronald Reagan, a man of letters.
ZAHN (voice-over): President Reagan was unquestionably a man of words, writing more than 5,000 personal letters in his lifetime, letters to his loving wife, his famous Hollywood friends, influential world leaders, and Rudy. It began in 1984 with this letter from President Reagan. "I was delighted," Reagan wrote, "to see your letter on my desk today. I am proud to have you as my pal." President Reagan had visited a local elementary school that his White House was adopting. The principal selected one very lucky first grader, Rudy Hines, to be the president's pen pal. You might think a couple of letters would be exchanged and then it would be over.
But in this case, something quite extraordinary happened. Ronald Reagan and Rudy Hines exchanged letters, hundreds of letters, for more than seven years. For this inner city boy, it was an education. Rudy got a glimpse of politics, history and diplomacy through the prism of his pen pal, the president. But perhaps more importantly, Rudy gained an adviser, a mentor, a lifelong friend.
Reagan gave him advice on everything from homework to friendships. These letters were filled with stories about the president's dogs, his hobbies, even the doodles he made in high-level meetings. And it wasn't just letters. President Reagan often sent photographs as well, the president and the first lady at the Great Wall of China, the president at the ranch, the president with world leaders.
And on the back of each picture, a handwritten note from Reagan to his friend Rudy. Through the years, Rudy and the family made dozens of trips to the White House, including one to celebrate the president's birthday. Rudy came with balloons and cupcakes in hand for his friend.
And then, in 1984, the president and first lady turned the tables when he and Nancy stopped by Rudy's home for dinner, a little different from the state dinners Nancy became famous for.
STEPHANIE LEE, MOTHER OF RUDY: Fried chicken and rice and salad. And they seemed to enjoy it.
ZAHN: A quiet fried chicken dinner on the living room couch in front of the TV. Now 20 years after the correspondence first began, these letters and photos are not just keepsakes, but cherished memories of a young boy and his very devoted pen pal.
ZAHN: Joining us now, all grown up, is Rudolph Hines, along with his mother, Stephanie Lee.
Great to have both of you with us tonight.
RUDOLPH HINES, FORMER PEN PAL OF PRESIDENT REAGAN: Thank you.
LEE: Thank you.
ZAHN: What a piece of history. I've been looking through this book and you have not only pictures that the president took the time to sign on the back and tell you who was in the pictures, but dozens and dozens of letters that he wrote to you over the years. We want to look at an excerpt right now from the first letter that he wrote to you dated, March 20, 1984. And the handwriting in the P.S. at the bottom reads: "I was so pleased to get your letter, I got excited and started to sign my name in the wrong place." Clearly, the president was trying to have fun with you. You were only 6 years old at the time.
ZAHN: Were you surprised at how he was able to connect with you?
HINES: I was surprised that he took the time to sit down and write a letter. I was just a 6-year-old kid, really.
ZAHN: He was a good letter writer, wasn't he?
HINES: Yes, he was. Yes, he was.
ZAHN: I want to share with our audience another letter that was dated April 9, 1984, where the president said: "You said that one of your hobbies was painting. That's fine. And it's something you can get a lot of pleasure from throughout your life. I didn't paint when I was your age, but I liked to draw cartoons and still do. What I do is called doodling and usually is done when I'm in a meeting of some kind. I've enclosed a few from a recent meeting."
What did you think of his doodles?
HINES: They were pretty good, actually. Unfortunately, I was never as good an artist as he was, but the doodles he sent, he sent me, I think there were four, four different ones on one page, they were quite good, quite good.
ZAHN: Did you have any idea at that stage in your life -- because you're basically a little kid -- what the impact of his communication meant?
HINES: I didn't really make a big deal of it at the time. I knew who he was, that he was president. But he was just a friend I wrote letters to. He just happened to be the president.
ZAHN: Just happened to be the president.
Now, mom, you had to know what a big deal this was, that a president that had so much to do would take time out of his day to, in many cases, personally hand-write the letter?
LEE: Well, the grownups around Rudolph at that time were quite flabbergasted. They were totally impressed and just gaga with the fact he was signing them and writing them and sending him pictures and everything.
ZAHN: And it obviously was something that the president did because he wanted to do it. He wasn't doing this for show.
LEE: Right. ZAHN: That had to get you right here.
LEE: It did. It probably had more of an impact on us as the months passed and we saw exactly what was coming. They were quite prolific in their writing to each other. And we were very amazed at what was coming, what was coming in the ordinary mail for Rudolph.
The mailman would just get a real kick out of delivering the mail and leaning it up against the door and says, got another letter from the president today. The mailman was a trip, but the neighbors and the family clearly enjoyed the whole process.
ZAHN: So the president not only sent you letters. There was one Christmas where he sent you a check. But you never cashed it, did you?
HINES: No, I did not. No, I did not. We still have it.
ZAHN: And we have a picture of it. Why didn't you cash it?
LEE: Actually, he got the money.
ZAHN: He did get the money.
LEE: His dad and I gave him the money, but we kept the check. The accountant, I think, called about six months later and said, are you guys going to cash the check? And we said, no.
ZAHN: And I don't blame you. What a piece of history you have.
Rudolph Hines and Stephanie Lee, please stay tuned. We're going to take a short break here.
When we come back, we're going to hear about your invitation to the president to dine at your home with the first lady. That story when we come back.
ZAHN: We're back with Rudolph Hines and his mother, Stephanie Lee, talking about his childhood memory of President Reagan, who adopted him as a pen pal.
HINES: Thank you.
LEE: Thank you.
ZAHN: Now, one of the best parts of your history is that you actually invited the president to eat at your home with the first lady. How did that come about?
LEE: Rudolph sent a letter to the president. He asked the president if he'd like to come over and have dinner. Actually, it was supposed to be at his grandmother's house because she had a vegetable garden that year and he says, but if you want to come, please call in advance so my mom can get the laundry up off the floor.
I was totally mortified by that, but I didn't -- the letter went out to the president and I didn't give it a second thought.
ZAHN: So when he arrived, what was it like?
LEE: Not when he arrived. When they called and said that, can he come? It was absolutely -- I said, well, I need a day to clean up. I need a day to kind of straighten up a little bit, borrow some furniture or cook some food. And he came. It was amazing, absolutely amazing.
ZAHN: Describe to us how the president behaved. He didn't get out of the White House all that often. In fact, he often talked about feeling imprisoned in the White House and he wished he could have had more opportunities to do what he did with the two of you. Was he relaxed?
LEE: He really was.
We had gotten some information that said, please do what you normally do in your home. And we normally ate on trays, because we lived in a small apartment. And they said, fine, just do that. And so that's what we did. We had TV trays and we served them on that. And they talked. And they were so casual. It was like bringing family over and tucking them in the sofa and letting them eat. It was great.
ZAHN: Did you dress up that night?
LEE: Are you kidding me? It was summertime and it was hot and we dressed accordingly. So it was fun.
ZAHN: So, Stephanie, do you remember what you talked about?
LEE: They actually talked about their life in the White House, what it was like to have family in the White House. They talked about their early years. Mrs. Reagan told this story about how she used to be a nurse's aide at a hospital and she was instructed to bathe this patient.
And the patient had a sheet over him. And she said she gave that patient a really, really good bath. And when the supervisor came by to her and said, well, "Why did you bathe that patient?" she said, because you told me to. And she says, no, that patient is dead. You were supposed to do the one next to it. We were on the floor. It was just totally hilarious. She was very comfortable.
She was sitting back on the sofa sort of tucked in the corner. And they were very animated about very ordinary things, about him being a lifeguard, about growing up in Illinois. We were very much enchanted, very much so.
ZAHN: How great, that they could be so at ease with all of you.
LEE: Very (CROSSTALK)
ZAHN: And, of course, meanwhile, the neighborhood is going nuts.
ZAHN: Let me share with our audience another letter the president wrote to you after you asked him a number of questions about his relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev and the U.S. relationship with the Soviet Union.
The president wrote: "I don't have many answers to your questions about Gorbachev's family or his hobbies. We never got around to that kind of conversation, possibly because all our talk had to be through interpreters. You are right. It would better if he could understand our language, or of course, if I could talk Russian. Just between us, on another subject, I was rooting for the Redskins, even though, in my job, I'm not supposed to take sides. I think it's going to be quite a Super Bowl."
Did you ever think he would be a witness to history that way and have a president respond to some very specific questions you asked?
HINES: No, not in a million years. I figured I will get just a generic response that typical politicians give when people write letters to them. But he was not a typical politician. He actually sat down and took the time and carefully thought out his responses to my letters. And I really appreciated that.
ZAHN: It certainly is a measure of a man.
Just a final thought of what this relationship meant to you as a mother to watch Rudolph correspond with the president in a very meaningful way.
LEE: You know, after a while, you stopped thinking about him as president of the United States. I mean, always as adults, we knew exactly what was going on, but, clearly, it was turning into something a lot more than that. And his father and I both very much appreciated the relationship that he developed with Rudolph, because, as you can see, it turned out to be something that no one would have thought of.
ZAHN: It's a beautiful story and thank you for sharing part of your story with us tonight.
HINES: Thank you.
LEE: Thank you.
ZAHN: Good luck to you.
HINES: Thank you.
ZAHN: Rudolph and Stephanie, thanks for your time. LEE: Thank you.
ZAHN: And much of what Ronald Reagan was heard, not read. Coming up in this hour, the man and his message, a revealing look at how Reagan found the words that spoke to a nation.
Coming up next, though, I'll ask Senator John McCain about riding the Reagan wave right to Washington.
ZAHN: Tonight, the body of President Reagan lies in repose in the Reagan Presidential Library. It is the first stage in a week of ceremonies, which will include the first state funeral for a president in the U.S. capital in some 31 years.
ZAHN (voice-over): This morning, Nancy Reagan, surrounded by family and friends, arrived at the funeral home in Santa Monica, California, the beginning of a five-day remembrance of her husband. Mrs. Reagan looked on as eight military pallbearers loaded the president's flag-draped coffin on to the hearse. The family followed the casket on a 40-mile drive to the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.
REV. MICHAEL WENNING, RETIRED SENIOR PASTOR, BEL AIR PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH: The lord our God is in our midst. and as we were in procession I couldn't help but think of the love and the outpouring that has begun in the nation for a great president, a great world leader and a faithful servant of almighty God.
ZAHN: A final moment with the president, and then the family departed. Waiting five miles away in a holding area were public mourners, including some who had lined up overnight.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We didn't get much sleep, but you know what? The whole part about it is to be able to pay tribute to the greatest American that I think we've ever had.
ZAHN: Throughout the day, thousands of people were shuttled on buses to the library, where they filed past the coffin. Among the mourners, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. President Reagan will lie here in repose for two days before being flown to Washington, D.C., where he will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol.
Across the country, the president was remembered, a two-minute moment of silence at the opening of the New York Stock Exchange, a makeshift memorial at his college alma mater in Eureka, Illinois, and reflections by politicians on Capitol Hill.
SEN. BILL FRIST (R-TN), MAJORITY LEADER: He believed we must protect freedom wherever it may be threatened and plant its seeds wherever freedom may take root.
(END VIDEOTAPE) ZAHN: Nobody knows how precious freedom is more than Senator John McCain who, for five and a half years, was imprisoned by the North Vietnamese. In whispered conversations or code tapped out on prison walls, McCain and fellow captives would find comfort knowing that California Govern Ronald Reagan supported their mission in Vietnam. Senator McCain and Reagan would later become friends.
And joining us a little bit earlier was Senator John McCain.
ZAHN: Good to see you again, sir. Welcome.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Thank you, Paula.
ZAHN: Let's talk a little bit about how you believed then Governor Reagan helped you endure your captivity.
MCCAIN: Well, Governor Reagan and Nancy Reagan became involved in the POW issue after he became governor of California.
And there were so many of the POWs who were either Air Force based in California or from aircraft carriers that were from California. And they became very involved in the movement to improve our conditions and to bring about our release as early as possible. I had the privilege then of meeting them at some parties they had after we came home. And then Governor Reagan asked me to speak at his Prayer Day breakfast the last year he was governor, and we continued our relationship from that time on.
I might add, he wore a bracelet with a POW's name on it who sadly never came home, Captain Hanson, United States Marine Corps, but that showed the depth of his commitment.
ZAHN: Well, obviously, the president had respect for your triumph and he peppered you with a lot of questions. And I understand one of them was pretty startling, when he asked you if you had ever thought about committing suicide while you were a POW. How did you respond to that?
MCCAIN: Well, I told him actually that I had under a certain situation when I was about to be broken by my interrogators.
One story, Paula, was that he had a press conference in Sacramento. He invited some families. Some wives and children were there. He began the press conference right at his office. A little boy, Todd Hanson, whose father was missing, came up, tugged on his sleeve. He bent over. And Todd Hanson told him that he had to go to the bathroom.
And Governor Reagan took him into his bathroom in his private office, came back and mentioned that he had not performed that duty in some years, since his children were grown. And he continued with his statement. Todd Hanson tugged on his sleeve again and he bent over and he said, will you please help bring my daddy home? And, of course, that had a significant effect naturally on Governor Reagan. And he wore a bracelet, as I mentioned, with Captain Hanson's name on it from then on. But they were very emotional. They were very committed. And I think that President Reagan and Nancy Reagan viewed it as sort of the patriotism of America and what makes America what it is. He often would say: I asked Nancy where did these people come from, and I answered the question, they come from every town and city and village and farm across America in far more eloquent style than I'm telling you now.
ZAHN: You later became one of his foot soldiers in the Reagan revolution when he was elected president.
MCCAIN: Maybe even a robot.
ZAHN: A robot. What was so addicting about this movement to you?
MCCAIN: In the 1970s, America was very unsure of itself. We had gone through a war that divided our country that we had lost. We had a president who said that maybe the nation was suffering from a national malaise.
We sort of lost our footing that we had had ever since Theodore Roosevelt. And what President Reagan brought back to America was a confidence, a sense of confidence, a belief in our greatness and a belief in our destiny. Ronald Reagan really believed that we are a shining city on a hill. And he would describe America and its mission in the world in the most eloquent terms.
And so I think he brought us back to a sense of ourselves. And that, I think, was probably one of his greatest contributions.
ZAHN: Well, thank you for remembering him with us this evening. Senator John McCain, always good to see you.
ZAHN: Coming up next, protecting the president. Two former Secret Service agents, including one who put his life on the line for Ronald Reagan, talk about a day they will never forget.
And a little bit later on, a friend of Nancy Reagan's on the difficult days ahead for the former first lady.
ZAHN: These past few days, we've talked a lot about Ronald Reagan's legacy, but there might not have been much to discuss if it weren't for the bravery of some Secret Service agents, two of whom you're about to meet.
On March 30, 1981, just 70 days into President Reagan's presidency, John Hinckley opened fire on the president as he was leaving a hotel in Washington. Reagan was hit by one bullet, which just missed his heart. Another bullet intended for the president hit this man, former Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy. Mr. McCarthy had jumped in front of Reagan and was shot in the abdomen. He was hospitalized for 10 days.
Tim McCarthy joins us now from Orelon Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.
TIM MCCARTHY, FORMER SECRET SERVICE AGENT: Thank you.
ZAHN: What did you first think when you first heard those shots rang out.
MCCARTHY: When the gunshots ran out, I thought they were gunshots. I reacted, frankly, based upon my training. I think everyone agreed that it would be unnatural to jump in front of a bullet. If you saw, most of the people did what was natural. They ducked and they hit the deck and hit the ground.
Our training in the Secret Service, though, is quite different. Our training is to cover and evacuate the president. And I would have to be very honest to say, Paula, my reaction was based upon my training that was very intense in the Secret Service, and I really couldn't say it had a lot to do with bravery. I like to tell people that, but it really wouldn't be the truth.
ZAHN: There wasn't that split-second you had where you thought, what the heck am I doing? I'm putting myself between a bullet and the president here.
MCCARTHY: No, I never really thought that it was going to happen to me, even when it happened. I'm Irish, too, like the president, and I thought that I would be a little bit luckier than that.
But, frankly, you're doing the job you were trained to do, as did the entire team of agents that were out there. And it was a team effort to save the president of the United States, not the actions of one person alone.
ZAHN: Reflect on that day and remind us of what stood out, besides the horror of hearing these gun shots.
MCCARTHY: Well, it was the horror of the gun shots, it was the horror of what happened. I remained conscious after I was hit until I went to the hospital, and just at the time I went into surgery. But while I was laying on the ground, I heard on my radio that the president was going back to the White House. So I was pleased at least at the moment that the team of agents did their job and that the president was not injured.
Moments later, I heard that the president was now going to George Washington Hospital.
I was certainly disappointed at that point that he was going to the hospital. I was also starting to think a little bit about myself, I suppose, because I was laying on the ground and it took a moment to figure out what happened to you, but after I collected myself, I realized that I had been wounded, too. ZAHN: You are one brave man, Tim McCarthy. Thanks for talking to us tonight.
MCCARTHY: You're welcome.
ZAHN: And I'm now joined (AUDIO GAP) longer than any other Secret Service member, and he eventually became very close to the president. Mr. Barletta, good of you to join us. Welcome.
JOHN BARLETTA, FORMER SECRET SERVICE AGENT AND LONG-TIME FRIEND OF REAGAN: Thank you very much.
ZAHN: Take us back to the day that you were on detail with Mrs. Reagan and she found out about the shooting.
BARLETTA: Well, we hadn't known that there was a shooting. When Mrs. Reagan got back to the White House, George Opfer (ph) and Joe Sullivan (ph) were with her, and I was on the first lady's detail that day. And George said to her that, There's been a commotion. The president's on the way back here, but we don't know what's happened and -- which raised her curiosity very, very much. And then a couple of minutes went by, and then we got word that the limousine is going to St. Elizabeth's Hospital.
And when Mrs. Reagan was told that, she said, Well, if there's nothing wrong with him, then why are they going to the hospital? And we just couldn't tell her because we didn't know. Nobody knew. And Mrs. Reagan said, I want you to take me to the hospital to be with my husband. And they tried to talk her out of it. There was so much confusion going on, and we didn't know if this was a conspiracy and what else was involved, and we wanted to keep everything sterile. But she looked at us and said, Either you take me in the car or I'm walking.
ZAHN: And she probably would have walked.
BARLETTA: Yes, she would have.
ZAHN: Knowing the devotion to her husband. What was the scene like, once you got to the hospital.
BARLETTA: Well, when she got to the hospital, Mr. Deaver greeted her and said, They're going to be operating on him. And -- Why? And Mr. Deaver said to her, He's been shot. And the look on her face said it all. I won't forget that look. And she says, I must see him. Well, the doctors are working on him. They couldn't find that bullet that had squashed down to the size of a dime, and they didn't want her to go in. And she just looked at them and said, You don't understand. He has to know I'm here. And she was absolutely right. And she went to him and grabbed his hand, and that's when he said, "Honey, I forgot to duck."
ZAHN: The self-deprecating humor...
ZAHN: ... never left him, did it.
BARLETTA: Never, ever. No.
ZAHN: We mentioned in the introduction that you served the Reagans not only when they were in the White House, but after the president went into retirement. You were with him in Los Angeles. You were with him at the ranch. You developed a close relationship with the president, didn't you.
BARLETTA: I did. We're not there to be his friend, we're there to protect his life. But you can't be around Ronald Reagan, especially the way I was, that you don't become a friend. And we had some wonderful rides out in front, just talking. And it was a unique situation, which I was so lucky to be involved in.
ZAHN: I heard an amazingly touching story about you. You two long enjoyed these rides, and after Mr. Reagan's diagnosis of Alzheimer's, I understand it got to the point where you didn't think it was safe for him to be on a horse anymore. Tell us what happened next.
BARLETTA: Well, people ask me, what was my worst time, and they expect me to say March 30, the assassination attempt. And it wasn't. It was the day I told him he couldn't ride anymore. As the disease progressed, I noticed he was having trouble saddling. He wasn't mounting properly. And one thing led to another. Then as it got more, he just was making rookie mistakes up there.
President Reagan is a consummate rider. The horse he rode, El Alamein (ph), a lesser rider could not have ridden that horse. And now I'm getting worried. And it came to the point where I went to Mrs. Reagan and I said, Ma'am, I can't protect him from himself. He's making too many mistakes up there that I can't correct, and I think he should stop riding.
Now, this was the love of his life -- well, the No. 2 love. Mrs. Reagan was first. And she looked at me and she said, John, you have to tell him. And I said, Mrs. Reagan, I can't do that. And she touched me and said, John, he'll take it better coming from you. Well, I didn't want to do that, but she called me up in the Secret Service command post and she just said, It's time, John.
So I went down. I knocked on the door and went in, and he was sitting in the chair by the fireplace, reading a book, like he always does. And I just said, Sir, we had a tough time today and it's getting worse. And we're not having fun out there anymore, and maybe you shouldn't ride anymore. And I was in tears. He got up off his chair and put his hands on my shoulder, and he looked at me and he said, It's OK, John. I know. So in his worst hour, he was trying to make me feel better.
ZAHN: What a beautiful story!
BARLETTA: If you understood the love that he had for horses, it was just amazing. And we never rode again. Most importantly, we never even talked about it anymore. So that was -- that was good. ZAHN: Very tough thing for you to have to broach with the president. John Barletta, thank you for sharing some of your memories of the president with us tonight.
BARLETTA: Thank you for having me, Paula.
ZAHN: And when we come back, Ronald Reagan penned many of his own speeches. We're going to look at what they tell us about the man and his leadership. And then a little bit later on, how the former first lady and the nation will say good-bye to our 40th president.
ZAHN: Ronald Reagan has developed relationships in some of the people who followed his every move, namely, the White House press corps. Journalist Frank Sesno got to know Reagan well as he covered the White House for this network. Sesno later researched Reagan's communication skills and examined some of the former president's lesser known writings to make a documentary. And Frank Sesno joins us now to talk about the man's letters. Welcome back.
FRANK SESNO, REAGAN DOCUMENTARIAN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good to be here.
ZAHN: So what did you learn about the president that you didn't know by studying his letters?
SESNO: Well, first of all, when you were there at the White House during those years, he was distant. He was removed. There was the odd news conference, the shouted question, that kind of thing. And it was only the most superficial response. And there was a certain sense that he really was involved in the day-to-day stuff. And in some ways, that was true. The big things, yes, a lot of the little things -- but the notion of him as an amiable dunce, disengaged, as his critics said -- as you get into the letters and look deeply, not true. And they really provide a window on him.
ZAHN: So to understand the "great communicator" is to understand what about him?
SESNO: Radio. Radio, I think. And that's where it all started. And as you go through the boxes of stuff, you start to see these radio speeches that he gave. And we've got one of them here. And he sat down and he'd do several at a time on large yellow legal pads. And you see one here. And it's a little corny, but it's very Reagan in a number -- It's nightfall in a strange town. I'm in a strange town a long way from home. I'm watching the lights come on, he would say, from my hotel room window on the 35th floor. I'll be right back.
And what these radio addresses did is it allowed him great range in what he talked about, and it established his timing. And there's something about radio -- no offense to television, Paula. You and I both love it. It's been very good to both of us.
ZAHN: Sure. SESNO: But radio's very intimate. It's just you and your voice and the listener. And words matter. And I think that's where he really established that "great communicator" skill.
ZAHN: It's interesting when you talk about that because I think there was a perception on some Americans' part this was a president that was not fully engaged with the details. But when you went back long before the presidency, you saw a really firm track record.
SESNO: That's where it started. Also complexity. He wrote a number of things that really got into a lot of detail -- arms negotiations and treaties and all the rest. One I've got here is, Ronald Reagan was chosen to deliver a response on the 2nd of February, 1978, to Jimmy Carter on the issue of the Panama Canal. It was going to be, you know, negotiated, the canal treaties. Reagan was vehemently opposed to it.
This speech is -- this document here is 19 pages long. The first one, you can see it's typed out. Somebody prepared it. Flip over to the second page, and about, you know, a third of the way down -- not quite -- a big X, and he says, No, no. I'm not going there. By the third page, it's all in his longhand, and it then goes on page after page. He makes a legal argument, an historical argument, a diplomatic argument. It's really quite extraordinary.
Then at the very end, there's this note to his assistant, who is writing it -- "Pete, this should be great. Replacing what I had on my page 50" -- it's a little insert -- "we have two minutes to spare because I've timed out at 20 even. So insert this."
ZAHN: Just like a radio man!
ZAHN: Timing is everything.
ZAHN: You also, in your travels with the president, studied or felt the impact of his words, not just here at home but abroad. And there was a particularly poignant experience you had, where you saw just how far his impact reached.
SESNO: This was fascinating. This was actually before I started covering the president. I was over in Warsaw, in Poland, during the days of the Solidarity union, its rise, and they were staring down the communists. I was there when the assassination attempt on the president occurred, and it shut us down and it shut everything down.
So I was still over there. We were working the story. And I went out to a restaurant one night with a colleague of mine, a journalist colleague, of mine. And we sat down. There wasn't much food there in Poland at the time. Everything was in short supply. Mushrooms. That's what we had. So we had mushroom soup. And there was an old guy across the restaurant, and he heard us speaking English, and he looked up. He was missing some teeth. I mean, he was a pretty rough guy. And he looked up, and from across the restaurant, he reached into his pocket, pulled out a dollar bill and screamed out, "Reagan, good," and kissed the bill.
Well, I told that story in 1993, late in '93, at an event I hosted honoring the president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, the former president.
ZAHN: And how did he react?
SESNO: He wrote me a letter that was really quite extraordinary. I didn't expect it. One of these letters. Nancy and I are still talking about the story you related to the guests that evening, Frank, he said. Don't worry. I promise I'll never tell your colleagues about the nice things you said about me.
ZAHN: Isn't that terrific!
SESNO: He loved the tweak, the one-liner. But this writing, this insight into him -- we didn't have at the time. And there are still boxes of these sorts of things that are under seal at the library, which scholars will slowly be getting to. You're going to be talking to Kiron Skinner soon. She's done a lot of this and has remarkable observations.
ZAHN: I'm also struck just by the graciousness. We had a previous guest on tonight, his pen-pal...
ZAHN: ... who wrote to him for seven years.
SESNO: You know, it doesn't...
ZAHN: And it wasn't for show.
SESNO: They say he may have written 8,000 to 10,000 letters during his presidency.
ZAHN: We better get going, Frank!
ZAHN: Thank you. Coming up right after the break, the former president's private letters, a very personal view of a legendary chief executive. And Nancy Reagan had a legendary relationship with her husband. I'll ask a friend how she will bear his loss.
ZAHN: Before the break, journalist Frank Sesno read a letter he had received from Ronald Reagan, but the former president wrote thousands of notes to everyday Americans, and our next guest has read an awful lot of them. Scholar Kiron Skinner was the first person after Reagan's official biographer to be given access to the private presidential papers. Those papers, she says, revealed a lot about Reagan as a leader and as a man. And Kiron Skinner has co-edited several books on Reagan's writings. The most recent is "Reagan: A Life in Letters," which was published just last year. She joins us now.
So you knew a fair amount about this man before you embarked on this project?
KIRON SKINNER, AUTHOR AND REAGAN SCHOLAR, VIEWED REAGAN'S PRIVATE PRESIDENTIAL PAPERS: Yes.
ZAHN: What surprised you, as you started poring through these letters?
SKINNER: Well, we all knew Reagan as the "great communicator," and he really -- when you think about the second half of the 20th century, he emerges as one of the greatest speech givers. I think his supporters and detractors would say that. But I didn't realize until I studied the archives that Reagan was an even better communicator on paper, in a one-to-one dialogue, that he just revealed himself in ways that he never did in public forums. He talked about family and home and issues, every issue, relationships and religion, politics. It all came out on paper, and that's where the real Ronald Reagan is.
ZAHN: There was a particularly interesting exchange between Sammy Davis, Jr., and the president about apartheid in South Africa. What happened?
SKINNER: In the midst of a debate about apartheid in 1985, as Congress was voting to impose sanction on the South African regime for its racial segregation policy, Sammy Davis wrote a very short wire to the president, As my friend and my president, do something about -- please do something about South Africa.
ZAHN: And this is how President Reagan responded. He said, "Now, Sammy, I don't want to read this as putting such things before the great moral issue involved in apartheid. Believe me, I see apartheid as an evil that must be eliminated. We must continue our efforts to bring this about, but we have a better chance of doing so if we maintain contact than if we pick up our marbles and walk away. You have my promise we won't let up. Best regards, Ron."
That says it all.
SKINNER: That's how Reagan thought about negotiations with adversarial regimes, and it's consistent with how he dealt with the Soviet Union, that you keep engaged with the adversary. And he thought it was important to stay engaged with South Africa as a way to transform it, and he thought that sanctions would put such a wedge between the West, the U.S., and South Africa, that it would be impossible for us to transform the regime. And that was his position with the Soviet Union, as well. And many of his conservative supporters on the Soviet side said, Why are you having so many negotiations and meetings and summits with the Soviets? He had four of them, more than any cold war president. And this was Reagan's style, that you stay engaged with the adversary. ZAHN: He also created quite an uproar in 1985 by going to a cemetery where S.S. troops were buried. And at the cemetery, he said this. "The evil of Nazism turned all values upside down. Nevertheless, we can mourn the German war dead today as human beings crushed by vicious ideology."
That was hard for a lot of people to stomach.
SKINNER: Yes. He visited the German military cemetery called Bitburg, and many Americans and Europeans suggested that he not go to the cemetery because there were Nazi war dead there. And Reagan said no. He stood firm, and it was consistent with his view that you never give in to political expediency. You always stand for principles. And he firmly believed that if he went there and told the living that Nazism was evil for all, even Germans who fought for the regime, that he could have a great impact on international relations. And so he took that political chance, and it worked out. He also that same day went to a Holocaust site, where many Jews lost their lives.
ZAHN: I want to quickly close with a final reference to a letter that he wrote after people were pummeling him for a controversial endorsement that he got when he was running for the governor of California. He said, "My refusal to indict this group has nothing to do with fence sitting but is because of my deep-seated conviction that the greatness of our nation is our willingness to grant people the right to be wrong, so long as they don't infringe on the constitutional right of others."
SKINNER: Yes. Here, he's talking about the John Birch Society that wanted to support him, well before he had even made an official announcement. And Reagan said -- it was very politically difficult for him to do it. He said they have constitutional rights, as well. I don't agree with them.
ZAHN: He made that pretty clear in that response, didn't he.
SKINNER: Yes, he did.
ZAHN: Kiron Skinner, thanks for joining us tonight.
ZAHN: Finally, when we come back: Nancy Reagan always stood by her husband. I'm going to ask former White House social secretary Letitia Baldridge about Mrs. Reagan's role during this week of remembrance.
ZAHN: There will be ceremonies every day this week leading up to Ronald Reagan's burial on Friday. My next guest joins us from Washington to share her insights on about how former first lady Nancy Reagan is handling these very difficult days and about the upcoming events of this week. Letitia Baldridge served as social secretary in the Kennedy administration and as Jacqueline Kennedy's chief of staff. She is also the best-selling author of books on manners and entertaining.
It's always good to see you. Welcome, Letitia.
LETITIA BALDRIDGE, FORMER WHITE HOUSE SOCIAL SECRETARY: Good to see you again, Paula.
ZAHN: Thank you. There was nothing more heartbreaking than seeing the face of Nancy Reagan today during that powerful service, where she placed her face on the casket.
BALDRIDGE: As though she was placing her cheek on his cheek.
ZAHN: It broke your heart, didn't it.
BALDRIDGE: It was heartbreaking. It was beautiful. I'm glad they showed it to us because we need to see things like that to remind us how there is still love in the world and sentiment.
ZAHN: Tell us what devotion you saw firsthand when you were with the president and the first lady.
BALDRIDGE: Well, they absolutely didn't like being away from each other one second. And she could hardly wait until he came home at night to the White House, and he would go zooming through the house to see where she was and to find her. Always a big kiss in the evening when he found her. There was just a tremendous show of affection. She doted on him, but also, he listened to her. She had a lot of good judgment about characters and staffing, and she was very influential on that.
ZAHN: How much do you think he really relied on her?
BALDRIDGE: Enormously, because he had total trust in her. And you know, when you're president of the United States, there are very few people in whom you can have total trust. She absolutely adored him.
ZAHN: Now, of course, she has to confront the very public spectacle of this mourning over the next several days. You were actively involved in the planning of John F. Kennedy's funeral. And I understand it, there are so many details in the planning of a state funeral. There's a 138-page book that chronicles everything. What is the challenge here?
BALDRIDGE: Well, the challenge is that to do it right, you've got to have it done perfectly. You have to follow protocol. And in the Kennedy funeral, heads of state came from all around the world, and meeting them at the airport, getting them straightened out, getting them in proper quarters, where they're comfortable, giving them the proper water and toothpaste, whatever it is they wanted, giving each one of them a car, taking care of their schedules, getting interpreters, making sure that they got from one place to another -- it was an absolute zoo, people running in all directions.
State Department protocol office -- I felt so sorry for them. They all had a nervous breakdown. But then they had all had to be arranged in order of importance and ranked to be presented to the first lady, to the rest of the Kennedy family, et cetera, et cetera. So it was just protocol for 48 hours. It was a logistical nightmare, but it was exciting. It was wonderful. The funeral showed America at its very best. And I know the Reagan one will be the same way because Mrs. Reagan cares about those details, too. And she's having it done according to all the other great funerals in the White House.
ZAHN: And of course, there's a suggestion that Ronald Reagan many, many years ago, let her know what this should look like. So we will see his handprints on the services, as well. Letitia Baldridge...
BALDRIDGE: Well, I hope he had a chance to talk to her before he got Alzheimer's. That's what one hopes.
ZAHN: Well, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us tonight, Letitia Baldridge.
BALDRIDGE: Great to see you, Paula. Thank you.
ZAHN: Always good to see you.
And that wraps it up for all of us here tonight. Thanks so much for being with us. Tomorrow, candid and revealing moments from the Reagan White House. Photographer Diana Walker had inside access like no other. We'll see her amazing work tomorrow night. Thanks for joining us tonight. Good night.
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