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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Ken Duberstein

June 10, 2004

Ken Duberstein
This is Ken Duberstein and it is great to be with you today. In Washington there is great sadness but there is also great celebration. Passing President Reagan's coffin sitting in the rotunda last night lying in state, I couldn't help but think as I reached out and touched the coffin of our beloved President, how fortunate we all were to have him as a leader who not only changed our country but wound up changing the world.

I look forward to taking your questions.

corwin, from eagle, Nebraska writes:
I don't have a question to ask but I would like to send my deepest sympathy to President Reagan's family. He was a true American and one of the greatest Presidents of my time. I was in high school when he was in office and I thought he was one of the best. I think he is sitting on a horse looking down on us from that big ranch in the sky.

Ken Duberstein
President Reagan is smiling and is saying with his self deprecating smile, “Aw shucks, is this all for me? I just tried to do my job.”

Neal, from University of Southern Mississippi writes:
I am proud to say that I was born during the Reagan Administration. Within the past week from simply watching CNN, I have learned more about President Reagan than I have my entire life. He seemed like such a great man, full of wisdom and humor. What was a typical day like for President Reagan?

Ken Duberstein
He arrived in the office at 9am promptly every morning or a few minutes before. He already consumed the morning newspapers, and he and Nancy watched the morning news programs. At 9am, he had a briefing from his Chief of Staff and I had the opportunity to serve in that capacity at the end of the Administration.

And then we would be joined by the National Security Advisor, and during my time as Chief of Staff, the National Security Advisor was General Colin Powell, now our wonderful Secretary of State.

We were also always joined, when he was in town, by then Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush. My briefing as Chief of Staff was 30 minutes going over the events of the day, issues that had developed overnight, what the calendar looked like for that day, talking about some of the speeches and some of the issues of the day.

And then we were joined by General Powell to do a briefing on the national security items that had happened overnight and were thought to likely happen during that day.

The President then met during the day with various Cabinet officers of Members of Congress, business leaders, or ordinary American citizens.

He was known as the Great Communicator, he was also a terrific listener. He loved listening to people. He always started a meeting with a story or joke. That was his nature. But he quickly got into the specific issues of the day.

Many times he dined alone in the library adjacent to the Oval Office. But I would also tell you that he never took off his tie and jacket inside the Oval Office in deference to the Presidency of the United States.

Nor did anyone else walk into the Oval Office without a coat and tie on because we followed our leader in deference to the Presidency.

He used to say that the Oval Office was not his office, but he was the temporary custodian of the Oval Office.

He usually ended his day officially in the White House by 6pm. Then he went upstairs and he and Mrs. Reagan used to watch TV, the news programs and have their dinners on TV trays. He then did his reading and he used to bring up a satchel full of reading materials or decision memos during the evening and then turned in around 11 o’clock at night.

Katie, from Indiana writes:
Did you serve both terms when President Reagan was in office?

Ken Duberstein
Yes, I did. In the first term, I was in the Legislative Affairs office as the Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs. I missed a couple years in the beginning of the second term. Some people say I missed Iran-contra (the controversy that surrounded President Reagan in ’85 and ’86).

I returned to the White House in early 1987 when Howard Baker became Chief of Staff, I was Deputy Chief of Staff. And then in 1988 I became Chief of Staff through the end of the Reagan Presidency.

I will tell you very briefly that when I came back in early March of 87, I wasn’t sure if I was going to come back to work again in the White House. And I walked into the Oval Office at the President’s request and he said, “I understand all the reasons why you might not want to come back, but I just want you to know one thing. Nancy and I want you to come home for the last two years of the Administration.” And I said, on the spot, “Yes sir.”

And I had the great privilege of working with him in the last two years when Ronald Reagan fundamentally ended the Cold War. I stood with him at the Berlin Wall when he uttered what became the signature line of the Reagan Presidency, “Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev.”

And I departed with him on Marine One (the helicopter) from the inauguration of George Herbert Walker Bush and we went back to California for a final – at that time – farewell to the Presidency of Ronald Reagan.

Chris, from Hoboken, NJ writes:
What was your fondest memory of President Reagan?

Ken Duberstein
I have hundreds, if not thousands of favorite memories. But I will tell you that on a personal basis, he periodically carrying my then three year old son Jeff around the White House and sharing little anecdotes with young Jeff, is a very special memory.

But so is going with him to Moscow and to Washington for the summits with Mikhail Gorbachev and of course going to the Berlin Wall and being with him for the farewell address to the nation. And riding with him on the helicopter and then Air Force One back to California on January 20.

It is the memories of his victories on Capitol Hill and beating Tip O’Neil and the democratic majority to cut taxes, and cut spending and cut down on over burdensome regulation and rebuild our national security.

And the wink of his eye and the smile on his face, and you knew that people would come around and be supportive of President Reagan.

Sly, from West Bloomfield, MI writes:
Mr Duberstein, Is the job of the President especially President Reagan's, misrepresented by television on such shows as "The West Wing"?

Ken Duberstein
Ronald Reagan was a far better President than Martin Sheen. But Martin Sheen does a good job of understand the complexities and the crossroads you have to deal with as President. There is no easy decision that ever reaches the Oval Office desk.

If it were easy, if it were “yes or no,” if it were black or white, then it would probably have never reached the President’s desk in the Oval Office.

But President Reagan during those eight years worked diligently for his goals. And I think the West Wing show certainly tries to portray that.

Rikki, from Orange County writes:
Ken Many Reagan staffers have written books about their experience in the Reagan White House. Have you?

Thanks for your time.

Ken Duberstein
No, I have not and I do not plan to. When I came back to the White House in 1987 when Ronald Reagan was 37 percent in the polls, he wasn’t simply a lame duck, but many people thought of him as a “dead duck.”

I said to him that I wasn’t writing a book, I wasn’t taking notes, I wasn’t going back to my office and dictating, that he had hired me obviously not for my good looks but for my judgment and to my loyalty and if he expected me to be a reality therapist and give him my best judgment and advice it would have to stay between him and me.

And I also was counting on him being able to level with me without any concern that I would share that in memoirs or a book that I would be writing.

And he told me how much he appreciated that. And I will tell you that I have stayed true to that because I think we were able to share the trust and confidence that you must have in order to be an effective Chief of Staff to the President.

Ted, from Dallas writes:
Mr. Duberstein You were Chief of Staff at the time of the Korean airliner incident, were you not? Can you discuss that day?

Ken Duberstein
No, I was not. I was head of Legislative Affairs in the White House at that time. But I will tell you it was one of those memorable days in the life of anybody at the White House because we weren’t sure what the Russians had done and Ronald Reagan was on the ranch in Santa Barbara.

He came back to Washington to take personal charge of the situation. And you’ll recall that he spoke to the nation and had his representatives make presentations to the United Nations using intercepts that we had gotten as far as what the Russian pilots were doing.

It was a sad day that brought us to the brink of lots of problems. But there was an understanding with the then Soviet Union that they had made a mistake and while it cost innocent lives, that Ronald Reagan was able to explain that to the country; to accept their word, but not accept the circumstances.

And I think he handled it the right, appropriate way.

Matthew, from Washington DC writes:
Hi Mr. Duberstein- As someone who spent his childhood under the Reagan Administration, I have always been curious about the specifics of Ronald Reagan. For instance, when he shook hands was it a firm handshake? Did he look you in the eye when he talked to you? Was he more of a listener or a talker? Was he good at remembering names? How tall was he? All of these questions though seemingly trivial, help my generation put a person to the face and legend of this great president. Thank you.

Ken Duberstein
Yes, when he shook hands, it was a very firm handshake. He always looked you in the eye when he was talking to you or listening to you. It was not an actor’s training, it was vintage Ronald Reagan.

He loved dealing with people. He loved being with people. He was not very good though on remembering names. But I will tell you that there is a famous quote by a very senior democratic lawmaker – Senator – who at the end of the Reagan Presidency was quoted as saying in a brief tribute to President Reagan, Ronald Reagan may not always remember your name, but he always remembered his goals. He stayed focused on those goals of cutting taxes, and cutting spending and increasing our national security and fundamentally ending the Cold War. That’s what he focused on.

As warm and engaging his personality was , he was occasionally a bit shy, but he always broke the ice by telling a story or a joke and also by being a very good listener.

Matt, from Bettendorf writes:
What were some of the goals that President Reagan wanted to accomplish, and how he went about accomplishing them, while in office?

Ken Duberstein
I think I've touched on those in earlier comments, but he wanted to cut taxes so the American people could spend more of their own money and save it.

He wanted to rebuild our national security, He wanted to cut down on big government and you’ll recall years later that even President Bill Clinton said, “The era of big government is over.” Ronald Reagan would have loved that line.

But he always stayed focus on the big picture and the big goals that he had thought about before he ran for the Presidency and what he committed himself to do when he was elected President.

John, from Bowling Green, KY writes:
How did the president view his place in American history as the fortieth

President of the United States? How did he see himself in regard to the thirty-nine who came before him?

Ken Duberstein
You know at the end of his farewell address in January of 1989, the comment he made to the American people was “We did our best. Not bad, not bad at all.”

He was always very self-deprecating, he always thought, “Well, aw shucks, did they really come to see me?”

You know something, he was very proud that he was able to make the changes here in America and especially restore pride in America by all Americans.

A lot of people forget that in the late 1970s, a lot of commentators have written, there was malaise throughout the United States, we thought our best days had come and gone. And Ronald Reagan said, no America’s best days are yet to come.

And since the Reagan Administration, during and subsequently, I think everyone agrees that Ronald Reagan restored pride in America, here at home, and respect for America throughout the world.

Connie, from Kodiak Island, Alaska writes:
Dear Sir, My family watched the touching funeral procession as it progressed down Constitutional Avenue on television yesterday. It was very touching. Due to all the symbolism involved, could you please direct us as to how we may obtain information and historical background involved with this great event? We would be most grateful. President Reagan is a wonderful role model for our children. Thank you.

Ken Duberstein
Well, certainly the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California would have information. Their web site is located here.

Ronald Reagan was a wonderful role model for my children as well. Not only young Jeff – now 19 – who he used to carry around the White House, but also Andy, my son Andy, who Mrs. Reagan used to carry around the White House when I brought him there. He was strong and true and of the highest integrity. He was warm and encouraging to people and as my son Jeff has said many, many times, “Dad he has become my hero.”

Dennis, from Jacksonville FL writes:
Why are the Presidents boots placed backwards in the stirrups?

Ken Duberstein
That is for a fallen Commander in Chief on a rider-less horse. They are turned backwards because life is over for the Commander in Chief.

Malinda, from Hazelgreen, Alabama 35750 writes:
I just wanted to say how pleased I am that everybody at the white house treated The First Lady Reagan with such respect, may god bless each and everyone of you. I am proud that you all held her up so strongly she is really gonna miss President Reagan and I hope that someone there will keep her in mind and check on her once in awhile.

Thank You So Much Malinda

Ken Duberstein
I think President George W. Bush and Mrs. Bush have thrown out the welcome carpet for Nancy Reagan to pay tribute to President Reagan. I will tell you the outpouring of people on the streets of Washington on Constitution Avenue and also in California in Simi Valley was so extraordinary – that Ronald Reagan could bring people together, not just the tears but the smiles and the love.

You saw that in the procession route yesterday and in the Capitol last night and in Simi Valley a few days ago. He would have been overwhelmed by it.

I had the good fortune of riding in the Presidential limousine with the President many, many times, and I will tell you that as people lined the streets wherever we went – whether it was in Washington, Michigan, California, Indiana or Pennsylvania or Texas, that Ronald Reagan always waved with both arms extended looking out both windows.

Because if people came to see me, I want to see them. If they took the time to come out and see their President, then I want to give something back.

And yesterday morning, many hours before the processional and the rider-less horse and the horse drawn caisson, I drove up Constitution Avenue as people were starting to line up and I was overwhelmed with the memories of driving up that street with President Reagan going to Capitol Hill in the limousine.

And I know his reaction would be, “Do you think they all just came out to see me?”

This was Ronald Reagan at his humble best. It was absolutely special.

James, from San Diego, Ca. writes:
Ken, I was thinking about a the best way to memorialize President Reagan...what do you think about the last available carving site at Mount Rushmore, to the left of President Washington?

Ken Duberstein

If that’s possible, I think President Reagan belongs up there with the greats of America and certainly a giant of the 20th century.

Lynn, from Oklahoma writes:
We know that President Reagan was thoughtful, optimistic, funny, kind. These are good attributes but can you tell us more about why he could be considered one of the greatest Presidents of the 20th Century? Thank you.

Ken Duberstein
He restored pride in America here at home and respect for America throughout the world. He rebuilt our economy which was suffering so badly in the late 70s to become the economic engine as it is today. He triumphed over communism and he defeated the so-called Evil Empire.

Jurgen, from Halle, Germany writes:
Hallo Mr. Duberstein Firstly I want to tell you how grateful I am of what Ronald Reagan did for the sake of European security in securing the tearing down of the wall here in Germany. It was heartwarming to sense how much of an effort he put into security abroad. In your opinion, what was his greatest accomplishment as president?

The whole of Germany mourns his death. Thank you.

Ken Duberstein
Besides restoring America and respect around the world and rebuilding our economy, it was fundamentally ending the then Soviet Union. I had the honor of standing with him at the Berlin Wall when he uttered that signature line, “Tear down that wall, Mr. Gorbachev.”

Some people thought it was too confrontational and provocative. But President Reagan knew that this was the right way to approach Mikhail Gorbachev and to fundamentally based on all the military buildup that we could in fact triumph and find peace and reduction in nuclear weapons with the Soviet Union that would lead to their ultimate demise and a triumph for democracy and America.

Ken Duberstein
I just want to thank everybody and just add that we as a country were fortunate to have Ronald Reagan as our President who fundamentally changed the future of America. He always led us to the shining city on the hill.

He always dreamed that America's best days were yet to come. He was ripe with that optimism and with that smile and that encouragement. He didn't often get down because he always knew that his policies would bring peace and prosperity to the world and that he was serving the will of the people.

I think he would be very proud these days that President George W. Bush is in the White House and George W. Bush is pursuing many of the same policies with the kind of leadership style of Ronald Reagan.

I am really grateful to all of you for remembering President Reagan as you did. Because he was one of the real giants of the American Presidency. From humble roots in Illinois and then California, he became a true American hero and we should all be eternally grateful. Thank you and God Bless.

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