June 11, 2004 -- Ronald Reagan may have grown up in Illinois, but his home was where he hung his hat — particularly his cowboy hat — and that was at his California ranch. That's where Barbara Walters first interviewed Ronald Reagan during his presidency, just eight months after he survived John Hinckley's assassination attempt.
Walters recalls her Thanksgiving 1981 visit with Reagan at his secluded California Rancho del Cielo, or "Ranch in the Sky," as among her most memorable. She interviewed Reagan several more times both during his presidency and after. The interviews, spread over more than a decade, were opportunities to get to know one of the most down-to-earth presidents of our time.
Here are some highlights from Walters' visits with Reagan and former first lady Nancy Reagan:
1981: A Visit to the ‘Ranch in the Sky’
Then 70 years old, Reagan was amazingly physically strong, as he would continue to be for many more years. The president felt at home in the California mountains, and his ranch was his private sanctuary.
There, Reagan and his beloved Nancy, lived a life that was a world away from the glamour and ceremony of Washington, D.C. They enjoyed riding horses. Reagan chopped wood, and drove a jeep around the grounds.
In this interview, Nancy Reagan recalled the frightening March 30, 1981, assassination attempt on her husband's life.
NANCY REAGAN: I remember police running back and forth in the corridors and yelling, "Get those people out of the way!" And shouting and just a lot of noise. And finally they let me in to see Ronnie and that was when he said, "Honey, I forgot to duck."
WALTERS: Mrs. Reagan, was there a point when you thought your husband might die?
NANCY REAGAN: I was awfully scared. I was awfully scared.
In a later interview, Reagan said he didn't realize he'd been shot until he was in his car. Then, he said, "I felt the most excruciating pain I've ever felt."
BARBARA WALTERS: Mr. President, this ranch is a very special place for you. What happens to you here? What does it do for you?
PRESIDENT REAGAN: Well, it almost casts a spell. It is truly a Shangri-La and it just, well I guess the Scripture line is right: I looked at the hills from whence cometh my strength.
Humble Beginnings in Illinois
But Reagan, born in 1911 in Tamico, Ill., was raised in an environment that was anything but Shangri-La, and a home that you might not expect to produce a man known for extraordinary optimism.
WALTERS: Do you remember a time in your life that, when you look back, was the most difficult? REAGAN: We were poor. We had problems when my brother and I were boys growing up that seemed insurmountable to young boys at the time.
His father, Jack Reagan, struggled with alcoholism all his life.
REAGAN: Really he was a fine man, and it was a typical tragedy of the disease. … My mother would constantly say to us, "You must remember this is a sickness. This is not something that you should blame your father for. This is something that he can't help."
WALTERS: I don't know if you remember this but your brother, Moon, talking about you as a little boy said that one of your habits that used to drive him crazy was that you would come up to him and other people and start playing with their earlobe. Do you remember this?
REAGAN: Yes. I would sit in school, I don't know why, and there wasn't anyone close enough, I would sit and pull my own.
WALTERS: He said he used to swat you all the time.
REAGAN: Yes. I would sit there beside him and listen to the radio or something (laughter).
WALTERS: You stopped, I hope.
REAGAN: Yes. Oh, yes.
WALTERS: You don't do that with heads of state.
REAGAN: No. No.
WALTERS: You're more like your mother, people say … Do you think that's so?
REAGAN: She left me with an enduring faith, I know that. We were always conscious of people who were worse off than we were because my mother was always finding people that needed help.
WALTERS: What do you think is the biggest misconception about you?
REAGAN: Oh, I think the image that I am heartless and ruthless and so forth. As I say, I'm really a soft touch.
1986: ‘The Great Communicator’
In 1986, Walters met with Reagan again. When Walters visited the president, midway through his second term, Reagan enjoyed a 70 percent approval rating.
WALTERS: You, of course, are often called "the Great Communicator." Do you think that any of that is the acting experience? Are you able to express emotion in a better way, perhaps, or in a different way than other political people because with you it's just instinctive?
REAGAN: I've often wondered how some people in positions of this kind — how they manage without having had any acting experience. (laughs)
WALTERS: You have also been called "the Teflon President." … They say nothing sticks to you, no criticism sticks to you, that you get away with everything. How do you answer that criticism?
REAGAN: Well, maybe it has something to do with an image that's been created that, frankly, I find a little frustrating. They say I don't really think for myself, that the staff tells me what to do. Then there's the other one that I'm always making gaffes, saying things that aren't so. I'll always be sorry that I didn't overrule some people. A few years ago, the day after a press conference, the press was out with six horrendous mistakes, gaffes, that I had made. … I wrote a statement to the effect that I was right and they were wrong in these matters.
1990: Remembering His White House Years
Walters sat down with Reagan for the last time in 1990, reviewing his White House years and discussing his political and legacy.
WALTERS: How do you think that history will remember you?
REAGAN: I hope it'll remember me on the basis that when I took office, I felt very strongly that our government had grown too officious and imposing too much on the private sector in our society and that I wanted to see if the American people couldn't get back that pride and that patriotism, that confidence that they had in our system. And I think they have.
… I've always believed that there was some plan that put this continent here to be found by people from every corner of the world who had the courage and the love of freedom enough to uproot themselves — leave family and friends and homeland to come here and develop a whole new people called American. You look at the beauty of it, and God really did shed his grace on America, as the song says.