- The Washington Times - Monday, August 30, 2004

Jim Kuhn, who was executive assistant to Ronald Reagan, recalls his experience with the late president in his new book, “Ronald Reagan in Private: A Memoir of My Years in the White House.”

The following are excerpts from a recent interview with Mr. Kuhn, an Alexandria resident who has been a lobbyist since 1989:

Q: How was Ronald Reagan as a boss?

A: It’s a high honor to work for any president, but you were darn lucky if you got to do it for Ronald Reagan because he was such a dear man. … There was this close, trusting relationship. … [But] there was that very demanding side of him. He demanded to be on schedule. It wasn’t because of him. He didn’t want to inconvenience anyone else.

Q: People say Ronald Reagan was a great communicator. How did you see that was true?

A: He had tremendous personal appeal. Whether you agreed or disagreed with this man, he had this way of connecting with you and appealing to you. Most people liked this man because of this charm. … If you like someone and they are somewhat appealing, even if you disagree with their policies, you are more apt to listen to them. … He listened to criticism and tried to pick up on things he could do better. Even if he was in total disagreement, he didn’t let it get him down. He didn’t go after his adversaries. … He had such a big mind in that regard.

Q: How did you see Reagan react to problems, such as the Iran-Contra affair?

A: Truly, the hostages, every day, ate away at him, day in and day out, that there were seven hostages being held in other parts of the world against their will. … He did feel that if there was this group of moderates that maybe things would open up in Iran that we could deal with from a policy standpoint. … If there was a way to open a door and build a dialogue with them, and it meant shipping arms to them, and at the same time, they could help us get our hostages back, he truly felt that was the right things to do. And if he had it to do over again, he would have done it again. What he never authorized or even knew about was the diversion of funds when those arms were paid for and sending them down to Nicaragua. … At times, it got under his skin a bit. … One day, walking down the colonnade … he stops and says, “Let me ask you a question. How do I look to you today?” I said, “You look fine.” … He said, “No, no, no, not that.” I said, “Everything looks A-plus to me.” He said, “Don’t you see this dark cloud hanging over my head, all this doom and gloom that all the media keep talking about because I’m so down and out and depressed of Iran-Contra.” I looked at him and said, “That’s ridiculous. Let’s go to work.” And we marched on into the Oval Office.

On July 13, 1987, we were on Air Force One. It was a Monday — before Air Force One took off, he looked at me and crossed his fingers and he said, “Jim, this is the week that John Poindexter [former national security adviser] … will clear me once and for all.” On Wednesday, July 15, Poindexter said the President didn’t know [about the diversion of funds].

Q: How did he take the victory in the Cold War?

A: There were all the highs and the lows. All these great achievements. When you have a great achievement and there’s all this elation and you’re on cloud nine, you have to come back down. When things aren’t going so well, whether it’s 241 Marines killed in a terrorist attack in Beirut, or the space shuttle blowing up, or some hostage crisis like TWA, somehow you have to get yourself back up. Reagan was amazing how he controlled his emotions. He didn’t go on highs, and he didn’t go on deep lows. He stayed on an even keel … The rest of us were off the Richter scale.

Q: When you watched his funeral what were you thinking, seeing Michael Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher in attendance?

A: He and “Maggie,” as he referred to her, were close, close friends. They had a great affinity for one another in terms of friendship and policy. … It demonstrated the great respect Gorbachev had for this man. They spent many hours together … [Reagan] appreciated the fact that the two of them together were able to eliminate a whole class of nuclear weapons., which led to the end of the Cold War. It was very symbolic.

Q: Where were you the day Reagan was shot?

A: I was with the governor of Illinois, Jim Thompson … in his office in Springfield at the state capitol because Reagan was [scheduled to come] into Springfield the next day, on the road to sell his new economic plan. … When we got word, I was with the governor alone, that there was a shooting and the president wasn’t hit. And then 10 minutes later, the president was hit. There was chaos. We never had deep concerns because we were told that Reagan walked [into the hospital], got out of the car, in his own strength, not knowing until they opened him that the bullet was stopped less than an inch from his heart.

Q: Do you think Reagan’s relationship with Nancy Reagan was magical?

A: It was almost like a fairy tale relationship. It was like they were dating. They just, based on married couples I know, and everything I know about marriage, things change. But it was almost like they were engaged, having a serious love affair. … Every day was like a new day. The two would hold hands on the elevator. They would be staring at one another. They would be making looks at one another. Always talking about various things, between the two of them … There were times when we were on movements, whether in Washington, in the United States or overseas, you almost had to say, “Hey, guys, can you break it up a minute? When we get off this elevator, there will be cameras and people. I have to let you know what’s going to unfold.” … It almost seemed like it got stronger as time went on. It just kept growing. It was very unusual in today’s world. They had tremendous love for one another.

With regards to Nancy, she deserves a lot of credit for his success. She didn’t get involved in policy, but she stayed engaged from a big picture standpoint, monitoring the news. She was not afraid to pick of the phone and call the chief of staff. … They had a special line that the operators would put her through on. … When you picked up the phone, you knew she wasn’t calling to say, “Jim, I just want to let you know that you’re doing a good job today.” There was usually something wrong, but it was never for her. It was always for Ronnie, always for her roommate, making sure the policy was right for him.

Q: Do you remember an instance where you saw that belief in God was important to Reagan?

A: The one time it really came out, where I saw how religious he really was … a group came in to make a presentation to him in the oval office to say hello to give him something … Somebody said to him, “Mr. President, we’re praying for you.” He paused and he looked at this woman and said, “You know, I have to tell you nothing means more to me than to hear that from you.” And he thanked her. I thought, “Gee, he’s even more religious than I thought.”

He had a tremendous sense of optimism and a strong positive outlook every day. He was never concerned about the political consequences of decisions he made. He didn’t care who got the credit. He was just trying to do the right thing.

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