Ronald Reagan at 100: How America's 40th president passed a key test of character
Ronald Reagan wasn't perfect. He even lied to the American public. But I saw first hand how his commitment to integrity restored his presidency and helped him become the transformational leader America needed to win the cold war.
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Second, Reagan called me at NATO to come immediately to the White House as special counselor for three months. I was given absolute authority to manage the executive branch, interface with the investigations in Congress, and establish liaisons with the newly appointed Independent Counsel, Judge Walsh. I would report not through the chief of staff, Don Regan, but directly to the president. To enhance my own independent legal advice, I accepted the president’s call on condition that I bring in as my deputy Judge Charles Brower from the International Court at The Hague.Skip to next paragraph
'I have nothing to hide'
Reagan told me, “There will be no executive privilege. I have nothing to hide.” Considering that the FBI had already tagged 3,000 documents as relevant, this was a tremendous statement. It was that statement of his commitment to integrity that enabled me to harness the bipartisan support for the president on Capitol Hill.
When the Tower Board Report was ready, the president faced another dilemma. He could accept it in full, or accept some portions and take issue with the particularly critical parts. The report was critical of chief of staff Regan, Secretary of State Schultz, and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, and all three men wanted the president to publicly not accept the report as written. But in a meeting alone with the president just before he met with the Tower group, I argued that regardless of the merits of their cases, he should accept it in full. Otherwise, the press would fasten on the White House’s hedging and qualifications and the path to recovery (for both his presidency and his leadership of the Western world) would be blocked. The president did that famous head tilt and said, “Don’t worry, Dave, I’m with you. I must do it.” With the report in hand and after a highly successful meeting with the elated Tower Board, the president prepared a speech outlining the steps that he had taken to restore integrity to his presidency.
As distinguished author and Professor Dick Neustadt argued, Reagan was a transformational president. But President Richard Nixon was too. He opened up China, ended the Vietnam War and successfully negotiated a détente with the Soviet Union. However, one major difference is that Reagan helped to change history with an act of character, while many remember that Nixon made history with his failure of character. Amidst the qualities needed for a great presidency, character counts.
David M. Abshire, a former US Ambassador to NATO and Special Counselor to President Ronald Reagan during the Iran-Contra affair, is president of The Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.