How Nancy Reagan forever changed the job of First Lady

March 11, 2016

Former First Lady, Nancy Reagan, will be laid to rest today in Simi Valley, California. She was a remarkable woman.

Overlooked in discussions of her role as the devoted wife is how she forever changed the role of First Lady. It was a role that was markedly different from any before her but one that will be studied and often copied by her successors.

Eleanor Roosevelt showed that a First Lady could be an activist. Both publicly and behind the scenes she lobbied her husband.  Sometimes unsuccessfully.  A very dramatic example was her reaction to learning of the death camps in Germany toward the end of World War Two.  Information now available to researchers shows that the First Lady lobbied her husband to bomb the camps.  It was an idea suggested by a member of the President’s cabinet. The thinking was that the bombing was risky to the inmates but it would disrupt the process and possibly allow for a mass escape. In retrospect, it might have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

But FDR and his wife Eleanor were estranged and there were limits to what she could accomplish. Toward the end of his life, FDR brought in his own daughter, Anna, as a super White House staffer. Among other things she was tapped to run interference with Eleanor as FDR renewed his liaison with an old girlfriend. There is a scene in my book All the Presidents’ Children where Eleanor confronts her daughter Anna, begging to go to the summit in Yalta. On orders from FDR, Anna turns her down.

Lady Bird Johnson was a superb businesswoman, who later took the Johnson business interests to new heights but as First Lady, she assumed the traditional role, never contradicting her husband.

Rosalynn Carter took activism to new lengths when she actually sat in on many of her husband’s cabinet meetings.

But in general, before Nancy Reagan, First Ladies were indivisible from their husbands on policy and personnel.

Nancy Reagan broke from her husband on both even while they were seen as utterly devoted to each.

When it came to White House personnel she became known as the “great enforcer.” Any one disloyal or incompetent or politically damaging would get pushed out. The president could maintain his relationship with the former staffer. It could all be blamed on “that mean old First Lady.”

Likewise, stories would leak that the First Lady held a different view on a particular issue. This allowed the president to expand his political base and engage with editors, television producers and politicians outside of his ideological circle. This was so effective that it was repeated by subsequent First Ladies. Barbara Bush let it leak that she had different views on pro-choice. Laura Bush let it leak that she was not happy with the President’s language, “wanted dead or alive.”

If the president had let another staffer disagree on policy or personnel he would have appeared weak. But his support of his wife’s role only made him appear loyal.

This arrangement worked especially well for the Reagans because they were so publicly devoted to each other. Frank and Claire Underwood would never have gotten away with it.

Nancy could not only spot a disloyal staffer, she could spot a loyal one too. I have written before about how she brought back Michael Deaver into the inner circle after he had been kicked out. There were lots of questions about why. Why is Deaver back?

Months after this drama I was invited onto the campaign trail and joined the entourage at a hotel in Florida. It was the middle of the night. At 3 A.M. I stepped into an elevator to find Michael Deaver with his arms full of dirty underwear. He was on his way to the basement to do the laundry. I said to myself, “That’s why.”

I often tell my children this story. Michael Deaver became one of the most powerful persons in the world. His face appeared on the cover of TIME magazine. But he had to wash Ronald Reagan’s underwear to get there.

Nancy Reagan was not only the doorway out for disloyal staffers. She was also the doorway in for anyone who could help her husband and who could serve him loyally. And she knew how to spot them.

 


What’s with Rand Paul’s blue jeans?

February 2, 2015

Doug Wead on Neil Cavuto, February 2, 2015.


Presidents in the Movies

January 31, 2015

Each president is different.  In their own way, each has impacted the office.  What may be an accurate theatrical representation of one president will differ greatly from another and both may be right or wrong.  In recent years, the office has become forced into a more consistent template, this because of the demands of security and technology.

Almost any movie or tv portrayal of a president is flawed.  but some are more accurate than others.  West Wing had some accurate moments.  Although the constant rushing about – shuffling paper – and the extra large, movie set offices were far-fetched and distracting.  The open, team oriented president is also unlikely.  Presidents quickly become corrupted and become more private.  Because of the nature of the office, all of them become isolated.  This leads to moments like Katrina for George W. Bush and Paris for Obama.  These are moments when presidents lose touch with reality.
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Some movies are literally scripted by history.  Oliver Stone’s W used many historical events and real life conversations, with some very notable exceptions. (They had Karl Rove advising GWB back in the 80’s.  I never saw Karl or even heard of him back them and was with GWB almost every day.)  But even with accurate conversations the movie still managed to portray GWB as “the dummy” characterized by Saturday Night Live, which was inaccurate.  I guess you would call that art mimicking art. Ha.
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The movie Lincoln also stuck to real events recorded by history and like a good newspaper editor, they didn’t use a conversation unless confirmed by more than one source.  The exception were the private conversations between Abe and Mary, which only Mary gives us in her recollections.
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It was a great movie that was ruined by one stark, totally unnecessary, inaccurate scene at the very beginning.  Lincoln is sitting with soldiers, black and white and they are reciting back to him the Gettysburg Address.  I promise you that nothing like that ever happened.  It would be like someone reciting back to President Obama or Reagan a speech they had just given a few months before.  At that time in history, no one memorized the Gettysburg Address.  Lincoln, himself, could not have quoted his own Gettysburg Address, let alone soldiers in his army.
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Kevin Costner played in Roger Donaldson’s Thirteen Days.  He was a special assistant to the president. The portrayal  of this character was too confident, too relaxed, to glib in the president’s presence.  He was the hero, not JFK.  In fact, a presidential assistant is in constant danger of the machinations of other staffers.  If he was anything other than servile and deferential to the president he would be gone fast.
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 Movie producers almost always underestimate the power of the president’s celebrity.  No one but the president can be the center of attention.  He dominates the room.  Every room.  And almost every conversation.
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Depictions of the sycophants around the president are almost always poorly done.  They are subtle and accomplished beyond anything one sees in the office or the corporate world.
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The most accurate theatrical moments, to me, have been in the House of Cards because they have captured the art of politics at work.  I have literally put the show on pause and told my children stories from real life that mimic exactly what is going on. The only thing that is different from real life, is that all of the players, not just Frank and Claire Underwood, can likewise be manipulative. (And, of course, presidents don’t personally commit murder.)  Picture the White House with 100 Frank and Claire Underwoods on staff and you get a little idea of what life is like there.
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And in the House of Cards, the media is often seen as the victim when they are just as likely the predator as the politician.
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Presidents of the nation, like presidents of corporations, never have to say what they want or spell it out.  Although, comically, sometimes it happens like the governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, who was wiretapped speculating on the sale of appointing a new Senator.  The staff is competing to please them and anticipating what they want.  The president can grunt or groan or role his eyes or sometimes just remain silent and wait and his staff will figure out what he wants.  And sometimes they will do it without his knowledge to protect him.  And they will all use lofty language, the good of the people, the nation comes first, etc.
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Power corrupts.
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Finally.  The best, recent, presidential movie, the most accurate from history, IMHO, is probably Hyde Park on the Hudson, starring Bill Murray.  It was a small but complicated piece of neglected history that I had been researching and it was done exceptionally well.  Historians, spoon fed from the FDR propaganda machine have usually portrayed him as sexually impotent. We now know better.
PostScript:  This blog was written before the third season of House of Cards in which the accuracy of life in the White House, especially the role of the Chief of Staff, was very much diminished.  It’s too bad.  That was a good part of its charm.  The theatrical appeal of the series is still somewhat compelling but the producers clearly decided to save some money by cutting much needed input from real live participants who have “been there and done that.”  The author of the original British series, who took great pains to get it right, was probably horrified.
Doug Wead presidential historian

Doug Wead

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George H.W. Bush: The Nicest President in American History

January 2, 2015

Having worked for the man I can tell you that George H.W. Bush is no pushover.  When Manuel Noriega rattled his swords and waged his drug war against the USA, Bush descended on Panama like a thunderstorm, without warning, bringing the villain back in chains.  When Saddam Hussein invaded his neighbor, Bush organized the entire world against him.  It was an unprecedented moment. “This shall not stand,” Bush said.  And it didn’t.  Bush, not Reagan, was the man who stood watch over the collapse of the Soviet Union.  And many forget that the Berlin Wall came down when he was in the White House. Even so, what endures from those who know him personally and from those who have studied the presidency, is that George H.W. Bush may be the nicest man to ever sit in the Oval Office.

Presidents, like all leaders, are often known for their ruthlessness.  “A great Prime Minister,” Gladstone once mused, “must be a good butcher.” Bush, not Theodore Roosevelt, was the president who walked softly and carried a big stick.

Presidential power within a family sometimes reaches tragic proportions. Accustomed to fawning subordinates at work, the presidents often expect the family to likewise cater to their egos at home.  John Quincy Adams, our sixth president, told his namesake and son, John Adams II, that he would not attend his Harvard graduation unless the boy worked his way into the top five graduating students.  When the son prevailed the father moved the goal posts.  If the boy was not number one, he said, he still wouldn’t come.  The son, John Adams II, got drunk and was expelled from Harvard.

Abraham Lincoln had a mean, stubborn streak that left him estranged from both his father and his first born son.  He refused to attend his father’s funeral.  Lincoln oversaw the massive slaughter of a generation of young men.  More Americans died in the Civil War than in all other modern wars combined.

Theodore Roosevelt invaded Columbia and invented Panama.  It was an illegal, arguably immoral war, but it got us the Panama Canal.  Roosevelt once said, “Every generation of young manhood should experience a war.”  It Hitler were to say such a thing we would rightly rebuke it.  Theodore Roosevelt only makes us chuckle.

Franklin D. Roosevelt interned thousands of Japanese families living in the USA during World War Two.  And he too could be quite tough on his own family.  When son, Jimmy Roosevelt, complained to his mother that he could never talk to his father she suggested he get an appointment. “That’s what I do,” she said.

Lyndon Johnson could be cruel to staffers and rivals alike, even physically intimidating them. Richard Nixon had his blacklist.  New audiotapes show John Kennedy viciously excoriating subordinates.

Sexual abuse seems to be a rite of passage for men of power.  Again, FDR comes to mind. Missy LeHand faithfully served him for years, living with him alone when he was forgotten, even crawling in the mud on the beaches of Florida with him as he tried to affect a quack homeopathic cure for his polio. Some of the president’s sons remember her, wearing a nightgown, sitting on his lap, in the private quarters of the White House.  But when she, herself, had a stroke and developed a paralysis, he threw her out and took a new “friend.”  John Kennedy’s sexual abuse of staff and friends has become legendary.

Sadly, there is no better understanding of the leadership skill of George H.W. Bush than a comparison of the two Gulf Wars.  George H.W. Bush defeated Saddam Hussein but left him in place.  His son, Bush the younger, conquered Iraq and stayed until both Saddam Hussein and his two sons were killed.

In the first Gulf War many people often asked, “Why didn’t the president finish it off?  Why didn’t he take Baghdad?”  It is not very often that we can see what would have happened if things had been done differently.  But now we can.  If Bush, Sr. had taken complete control of Iraq and deposed or killed Saddam Hussein, the whole Sunni-Shia balance of power in the Middle East would have collapsed.  The region would have erupted into bloodshed. Terrorism would have proliferated.  Radical Islam would have toppled established governments.  Christian communities, who trace their lineage back to the time of the Apostles would have been butchered, their centuries old churches burnt to the ground.   We know it would have happened because it is exactly what happened when his son, President George W. Bush, decided to give it a try.

Now, we know the genius and the patient calculation of George H. W. Bush and the gifts he brought to the presidency.  He is nice.  But it has a purpose.


When presidents go on vacation

August 16, 2014

Having written about presidents and worked for presidents I can tell you that there are some misconceptions about presidential vacations.  Some things happen like the rest of us.  Some things don’t.

First there is the idea that the president is the boss and can take off when he wants.  Actually, he is at the mercy of other people just as we all are.  For example, he must co-ordinate with the legislative calendar on Capitol Hill.  If he is not in Washington to help lobby his own bills in congress both his legislation and his presidency will suffer.

Likewise, the timing and planning behind visits from foreign Heads of State are calculated well in advance.  If the president cancels a visit in favor of a sudden vacation with the kids to Disney World he can ruin a relationship or trigger an international crisis.  And if the president insists on taking a scheduled vacation when the rest of the world is falling apart he risks a political uproar.

In 1983, when the Soviets shot down a civilian Korean Airlines, Reagan cut short his time at the ranch in California and flew back to the Oval Office to address the nation.

Some people get upset if the president isn’t in the Oval Office with his sleeves rolled up.  But actually the work of a president is making decisions and that process does not stop, not for Eisenhower on the Golf Course, Kennedy at the beach, or Obama on a bicycle.

Woodrow Wilson, who had been the president of Princeton University, and brought an academic mindset to Oval Office decision making, was scandalized by the pace.  He told his wife and daughters that he didn’t have time to think, that he couldn’t even take a walk before making a decision.

The Oval Office was only built in 1909, which means that most presidents never worked there at all.  And today’s West Wing Oval Office was built in 1934 by President Franklin Roosevelt.  Many presidents, such as Richard Nixon, only used it for ceremonial purposes.  He did his real work in a more expansive office in the Old Executive Office Building which is adjacent to the White House mansion.

Some presidents, like George W. Bush, were not paper shufflers.  They got much of their work done through conversations and that could take place anywhere. The staff had to turn it all into paper. When presidents travel their communications network travels with them, as well as a miniature White House staff.

You will hear a lot of people talk about how Air Force One has ushered in a new era of the traveling president.  Not really. American presidents began extensive travel with trains.  At their peak presidential trains crisscrossed the continent and were a virtual traveling White House.  At one time each cabinet member had his own available train.

Presidents have always been criticized for taking time off, beginning with George Washington who often visited Mt. Vernon.  President Obama recently took a lot of hits for taking a vacation in the midst of world crisis but former presidents of both political parties won’t criticize one of their own for getting some rest. “I don’t agree with your politics,” Richard Nixon said to John F. Kennedy, after the latter won the 1960 election, “But I will never criticize you for taking a vacation.”

Perhaps the biggest misconception about presidents is how well informed they are, and how their morning intelligence briefing keeps them in the loop, even while on vacation.

It depends on the president, of course, but almost all of them become isolated in office.  It is the nature of power.  A memo sent to the president is stamped “The President Has Seen” and becomes an official document of government that will one day be seen by the world.  And so staffers who once told their boss everything are reluctant to send information that others will one day see and judge out of context.

While it’s true that because of their security briefings presidents have information that the rest of us don’t have, even on vacation, the fact is that we sometimes have information that they don’t have!  It is a story as old as the Emperor’s Clothes and it is strikingly seen in George W. Bush’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina and the unfolding tragedy in New Orleans. While the whole nation watched as mothers and children were trapped in 90 degree heat on rooftops without water, food or toilets, and an obvious major health crisis was in the making, the president was at his ranch and not to be disturbed. It was a costly mistake.

Having worked on senior staff at the White House I was often astounded and surprised at what the president knew and what he didn’t know.  There just isn’t time for anyone to know everything.


Presidents and their mothers

May 11, 2014

“All I am or ever hope to be I owe to my angel mother, God bless her.”

– Abraham Lincoln

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to confirm that most of America’s presidents are “mama’s boys.”

It must make Sigmund Freud smile for one of his most enduring discoveries was how the perceived favorite child of a mother is empowered for life.  Consider the overwhelming evidence that mothers play a key role.  Many recent presidents were literally named after their mothers but none of their many siblings.

Ronald Wilson Reagan named after his mother Nelle Wilson.

Richard Milhous Nixon named after his mother Hannah Nixon.

Lyndon Baines Johnson named after his mother Rebecca Baines.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy named after his mother Rose Fitzgerald.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt named after his mother Sarah Delano.

Woodrow Wilson named after his mother Janet Woodrow.

And on and on it goes back into history. Rutherford Birchard Hayes named after his mother Sophia Birchard.  Of course it is not a perfect formula or Marvin Pierce Bush would have been elected president, not his older brother, George W. Bush, but it is common enough to defy any odds.

“You are a Delano,” FDR’s mother, Sarah Delano used to tell him, “not a Roosevelt.”

“I was a mama’s boy,” said Woodrow Wilson, “no question about it, but the best of womanhood came to me through those apron strings.”

“God bless my mother,” Abraham Lincoln supposedly said to his law partner William Herndon,” all I am or ever hope to be I owe to my angel mother.”

Keep in mind, the above famous quote, attributed to Lincoln’s law partner, may never have really been uttered.  Yes, it is featured prominently in almost every biography of Lincoln and appears in the first pages of Pulitzer Prize Award winning books but recent research shows that  the time and place named by Herndon  just couldn’t have happened and so, now even the quote is suspect.  But there is no denying that Lincoln loved his mother and perhaps, even more, his stepmother, who gave him the gift of books.

When I wrote The Raising of President I blind copied some of the above information to five psychologists, asking them to each give me their opinion.  I was especially intrigued why so many of the children who were namesakes of their mother went on to become presidents.

All five answered back with the same conclusion. When the mother took that infant to her breast she felt a special bond with the child who would bare her name for life and the infant could feel it.

I am only a layman who doesn’t pretend to understand such things but if it is true, if a baby can “feel” favoritism then just imagine the power and the impact for good or bad a mother, or a father’s words have on their children?   I was reminded of the experiments conducted by the Royal Horticultural Society.  If the human voice can empower a plant, then it must surely cause powerful reactions for good or bad on a human being.

There is a very predictable family formula for strong leaders, good and bad.  They have an attachment to the mother and an absent father.  Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedung all fit the pattern as neatly as Washington and Jefferson.

Andrew Jackson’s father died before the future president was even born.  His mother died when he was 14 years old.   Even when alive, she was often gone .  As a nurse she tended the wounded during the Revolutionary War.

When Andrew Jackson died as an old man, many years later, his body was full of bullets, including one lodged near his heart and too dangerous to remove.  They were the result of a life of action, including duels and wars.  It was as if he wanted to be worthy, the equal of those Revolutionary War soldiers who took his mother away from him as a boy.

In a sense, Andrew Jackson’s life was one long  journey back into the arms of his mother.

Start reading The Raising of a President right now on Kindle.  Order it for your mother.


The Conspiracy Against Ron Paul

September 20, 2011

The Conspiracy Against Ron Paul

I have never been much of a conspiracy theorist. My experience in the White House leads me to believe that a secret is currency that is quickly spent. Some conspiracy theories have thousands of people in large organizations, operating with extraordinary discipline, keeping secrets for hundreds of years, a mathematical impossibility in my opinion.

Having said that, my lifetime of studying history informs me that conspiracies do happen and usually when a group of people feel threatened. And in case you were wondering, Ron Paul, the presidential candidate, is very likely the subject of a conspiracy. He is the man who has opened that door on the Federal Reserve. The partial audit he prompted revealed that close to $16 trillion was doled out to Euro-American insiders and their corporations in 2008 alone. That is more than the entire national debt. It is a tax on every American and unless you are getting billions of that money yourself, you ought to be outraged and grateful to Ron Paul for figuring this all out.

It is no accident that the media ignored Ron Paul’s upset showing at the Ames Straw Poll. It was so obvious to the whole nation that we laughed when Jon Stewart joked about it. It is no accident that in one of the early debates a director at MSNBC was picked up screaming into Chris Matthews earpiece, “Don’t go to Ron Paul, don’t go to Ron Paul,” even though it was a health related question and Ron Paul was a medical doctor. On Monday night, in the CNN debate, Wolf Blitzer asked numerous candidates about the idea of auditing the Federal Reserve but not Ron Paul who wrote the New York Times bestseller on the subject and introduced the bill in Congress that sparked the recent partial audit. Nor is it accidental that it was called a Tea Party event and the “father of the Tea Party” wasn’t acknowledged as such.

Blitzer raised expectations at the beginning of the debate saying that “I will try my best to make sure that each candidate is getting his or her fair share of the questions and answering time.” He then proceeded to give Rick Perry 21 opportunities, Mitt Romney 13, Michelle Bachman 11. Ron Paul was given nine. (In the CNN presidential poll released the day before, Ron Paul was shown third in the presidential race, behind Perry and Romney, beating Bachman who was down six points.)

To give you an idea of how this sort of thing works, let me offer an historical example from the other side of the ideological spectrum, from the left. In 1934 Upton Sinclair ran for governor of California. Most students had read his novel, The Jungle, which exposed the corruption and health hazards of the American meat processing industry. Sinclair was a popular and compelling figure. The nation was in the throes of the Great Depression and the people of California liked his ideas. He stunned the Democrat Party establishment by winning the nomination and it was likely that he would be elected governor in the general election.

The conspiracy to stop Mr. Sinclair was organized by a California oligarchy, a small group of wealthy businessmen who feared losing control of the California governor’s mansion and all the money it represented. Besides, Sinclair was a socialist and had once run for congress on the Socialist Party ticket. The conspirators arranged for a “Progressive” to run as a third party candidate to split Sinclair’s vote. They helped fund the campaign and poured money into the rival Republican but it didn’t stop there. They launched a full court press. The famous preacher Aimee Semple McPherson, unused to attention from such prominent Californians, was enlisted and persuaded to use her pulpit to preach to thousands about the dangers of Upton Sinclair and his crazy Socialist ideas.

This secret conspiracy only became known because it involved President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his records survived. Candidate Sinclair made the long journey across the country to Hyde Park where he met with FDR, the chief Democrat, and often the target of accusations of socialism himself. Sinclair explained his situation and asked the leader of his Party for help. He left Hyde Park convinced that Roosevelt would soon publicly endorse him. But we now know that the California oligarchy had already covered that base. Roosevelt was offered a proposal from the California Cabal. They promised that the Republican candidate, if elected governor, would not oppose FDR’s New Deal in their State. In return, FDR would withhold any endorsement of the Democrat ticket. Unknown to Sinclair, the deal was struck. Upton Sinclair went down to defeat. A Republican was elected. The oligarchy ruled.

Now, this story is instructive on two counts. It shows that conspiracies do indeed take place, they can involve the highest elected officials in the land, and they almost always involve money and private corporations. In this case, with Ron Paul, we are talking about sums of money that stagger the imagination. Wonder why your house isn’t worth as much? Wonder why your IRA and retirement accounts are diminished? Wonder why milk cost more and bread cost more? And wonder where all that money has gone?

It is in the pockets of people and corporations who run this country and their business partners and friends in Europe. They don’t care about left or right, Democrat or Republican, they prosper under both. They don’t care about creationism or evolution. They care about money. Remember, this is, and this has always been, a game of Monopoly. And they have been cheating. And Ron Paul has caught them.