Past Speakers of the: LANDON LECTURES

Landon Lecture by Lesley Stahl,

CBS White House Correspondent
Nov. 29, 1984

by Lesley Stahl

Whenever I get up to a podium, especially when there are three [microphones] pointing right at me, I am always reminded of a true story. CBS News hired a very distinguished reporter from, I will tell you what newspaper, but I'm not going to tell you his name, because it's not fair from The New York Times. And his first day on the job a major story broke on Capitol Hill. Maybe they had just picked a new majority leader, I don't know. But they hadn't had time to train this New York Times reporter on how to work with a camera, and how to work with a microphone; they just sent him right up to the Senate to interview the main suspect of the case, if you will. And so he, never having worked with equipment, took the microphone, asked the senator the important questions, and as the senator began answering, he took the microphone, put it under his arm, whipped out his notebook and began to take notes. So if I fade, or if I'm too close, let me know. I'm having trouble seeing some of you in the back, but wave your hand and say, "I can't hear you."

It is a great honor to be asked to be a Landon Lecturer. Alf Landon, as you all know, ran for president in 1936, but now today he is a true folk hero, an elder statesman of the Republican Party. And every time a major issue comes up, I know some reporter national reporter, commentator is coming to Topeka to find out what Alf Landon has to say, what his views are on the issues. I was told that Mr. Landon is listening to me right now on radio, and I'm also told that as sure as I'm standing here, Alf Landon will be rebutting whatever I have to say at some point, very shortly. So I would like to say "Hi" to Alf Landon in Topeka, and I'm sorry that he's not here today.

White House correspondent for CBS News. Well, I must admit to you that it does sound very glamorous. And while I do like my job very much, I cannot tell a lie; much of covering the president of the United States is boring. The White House press corps is virtually imprisoned inside the White House, and while the press room is only a few yards away from the Oval Office, days can go by when we never see Ronald Reagan. Lack of access is a way of life. We are confined in these claustrophobic little cubbyholes. The CBS booth is, oh, I would say about 16, 17 feet long, and five of us work in there on a given day. We have four reporters and a radio technician; all crammed in this little tiny, tiny space. And what we do and I am just going to be honest with you what I do most of my time is wait for one of those top officials who wishes to remain anonymous to return my phone call. Covering the White House is, in fact, a glorified stakeout operation. I very much feel like Cagney and Lacey in their squad cars waiting for a little peek at the suspect, you know, a little peek at Ronald Reagan, a glimpse. I mean, one little tiny shot of the secretary of state's limousine driving onto the White House grounds, and I'm running back and saying, "I got a piece for tonight," which means I've got about 10 seconds of a car driving onto the White House grounds, and then I could do a piece, assuming I could find out what he's on the White House grounds for.

I was well trained for staking out, not because I went to police academy, but because when I started my job at CBS in 1972, I was assigned to cover Watergate. And because I was the newest reporter in the Washington bureau, you can just imagine what kind of plum assignments I used to get. The truth is, the assignment I got was the early morning stakeouts at Halde-man's house, Ehrlichman's house, and as they came out to go to work, ask them a question. Staking out became such a total way of life in Washington in that time that I think at least CBS practically forgot there was another way to gather news.

I can well remember the morning my phone rang about three o'clock and the assignment editor, he woke me up said, "Your job tomorrow is to stake out Justice Douglas." "Oh, my God, what did he do?" No, he was about to become the justice that had served the longest on the Supreme Court, and they wanted pictures of him jogging. But, you know, we never called anybody up in those days and said, "Can we come and take pictures of you jogging?" No, you just went and staked them out. And I said, "Okay." But' when I woke up about 5:30, it was hailing out and I could actually hear the pellets hitting the window in my bedroom, so I called in and as I told you, I was the newest kid at the CBS bureau and I said to the assignment editor, "You know, it's hailing out, and Justice Douglas is 70 years old; are you sure he's going jogging?" And the assignment editor talked to me like I was the biggest idiot that ever lived, and he said "Everybody knows he's an outdoorsman. So he won't jog, he will walk his dog; he will go out. Get out there, kid." So I was out there, and the crew, of course, was angry at me because it was cold and dark, and no lights are on in the Douglas house 7:30, 8:30, 9:30 this limousine, bigger than this hall, pulls updid you know that the Supreme Court justices carpool? a black man comes and picks up Justice Douglas in this limousine, but the limousine drives right up his driveway, practically to the front door. The justice's wife is virtually carrying him into the car because it's very slippery, and the car came to the bottom of the hill, and I'm standing there, and we shined a light on the car, and we had umbrellas and microphones and cameras. And they pushed the electric window down, and I said, "Mr. Justice, my name is Lesley Stahl, and we've been here this morning to get pictures of you jogging." And he said to me, "Ms. Stahl, I am 70 years old and it's hailing out. Are you crazy?"

It was a couple of months later when the bureau chief in Washington asked me if I was ready to do some live nightly analysis of the Watergate Senate hearings. So I lied, and said I was ready, because I was covering the hearings. So every night we would analyze what had happened that day in the hearings, and at the end of the broadcast there was a round table discussion. Dan Schorr was on my left and Dan Rather was on my right, and I was always in the middle. I think somebody thought boy, girl, boy, girl would be cute, and put me in the middle. And our moderator was John Hart, who was in New York, and he would always open up with a penetrating question and one of these guys would jump out and answer it, and the other one would jump out and disagree, and that would be the round-table. I'd never get to talk, ever. Finally, I might be able to say, "Yeah, right, I think that's right." The bosses said it didn't look good; "Let her talk."

Night after night after night I would be sitting there looking and looking and you could hear this little wistful "But. ..." But never. Finally they were threatened, finally threatened that if they didn't let me talk at the next roundtable, that we weren't going to do these anymore. So everybody knew I was going to get to talk, and for some incredible reason, John Hart's opening question that night was, "Well folks. ..." I remember he clapped his hands, and he went, "Well, folks, what's the gossip down there in Washington about L. Patrick Gray?" And I did what you did; I heard the word "gossip" and I said to myself, "Gee, I think I'll wait and answer that question." I couldn't talk. So Dan Schorr, who could never tolerate a vacuum, jumped in and said on live television, "Well, John, if it's gossip you want, that's why we have a woman, here." I was so enraged and upset, I know I talked, but I also know I made no sense. I rambled. I was trying to control my rage, also my fist, and I was. ... It was terrible.

The show ended and I ran upstairs into the newsroom and I called home. "Daddy, how do you write a letter of resignation?" And he said, "Oh, no, you were great." And I said, "Daddy, I was awful, I finally got my big chance and I blew it." "Oh, no, you looked good, your voice was firm, your points were sharp. I mean, you're so much smarter than those guys." "Daddy, if you are not going to level with me, put mother on the phone." And my father said, "Mother can't talk right now; she's too upset."

That's a little unfair because my mother did eventually pull herself together and get on the phone, and as she's always done in my life, she said "You get out there swinging, don't you resign, you come back tomorrow night, you'll be great." She was terrific.

So anyway, I have covered the White House now for six years. As somebody said recently, I've been at the White House longer than Ronald Reagan which is true.

What I have discovered is something I think I first learned when I was in high school. And that is just as in our little lives, in the big world of national politics and super power relations, what really counts is personality.

One must admit that Ronald Reagan is a stunningly successful leader. Thousands and thousands of people who disagree with his philosophy and his policies, and even some people who don't particularly respect his work habits, still want him to be president of the United States, still want him to lead us. So I think his appeal transcends the issues; it flows from his upbeat positive outlook, his very confident good nature, and let's face it, his style on television.

Indeed the past election and the one before 1980, between Reagan and Jimmy Carter have had less to do with issues and ideology than with spirit. They were about optimism versus pessimism. Together these two elections in '80 and '84 comprise a great cross country collective casting off the guilt and negativism that festered in the American psyche because of Watergate, Vietnam, and the hostage crisis.

The elections were a national repudiation of the "America is wrong, America is failing" mood, and of those who through Reagan's tireless efforts got linked to that mood. In virtually every Reagan speech during this campaign, the so-called liberals were fingered as the culprits who brought us the malaise. He called the liberals the gloom-and-doomers. He emphasized their negativism wherever he went, actually borrowing from a speech that UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick gave at the Republican Convention in Dallas, when she said, "They" and she meant the liberals "always blame America first." The president's speech writer, Peggy Noonan, transformed that line in the president's stump speech, the one he gave wherever he went in the campaign, as, and I quote, "The blame-America-first crowd." On top of that the president's TV ad showed pictures of the American hostages in Iran, certainly one of our country's most painful and humiliating chapters. Reagan's ads managed to contrast that sense of impotence with his own aura of strength. The public ate it up.

I covered the campaign, and nowhere was the response to Reagan's messages of "I'm strong, they're weak; I'm positive, they're negative" more wildly received than on college campuses. When Reagan spoke at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, I thought that I was at a Michael Jackson concert. I had to keep turning around and looking to see that it was Reagan and not some fantastic rock star, the applause was so thunderous, the faces so adoring.

Now, every time a political candidate goes out and has a rally, he's going to go to a place where people like him, and they are gonna rev up the crowd before. It is not that I haven't been to a million rallies. I'm telling you I saw something different, I saw something deep and emotional, and I was impressed. I have covered campaigns since '68, and I have never seen anything like this outpouring of love and worship that I saw at Bowling Green for Ronald Reagan.

What was the power that the oldest president in our history had and probably still has over young people? A very brilliant political analyst named Michael Barone, who writes the Almanac of American Politics, tried to figure out what this attraction was, and he called it, are you ready? "The Palovcek phenomena." You remember Walter Palovcek, don't you? Well, when I tell you who he is, you will remember him. Walter Palovcek was that young boy in Chicago whose parents went back to Russia and he refused to go with them. You remember, I know you do, because it was an extraordinary story that all the networks covered.

Says Barone, "Walter looked around him and said, "Hey, this is a pretty nice place, why would anybody want to leave here, no less to go back to Moscow?'" Barone says that's what happened to young people all across the country; they looked around them, they saw no war, no draft, they saw an improving economy, they didn't remember Watergate and Vietnam. They did remember the hostages. In fact, that was probably their first awareness of foreign policy and what they saw was a Democrat in power, with the United States being humiliated and being impotent, and now we had a president who talked about strength and a positive outlook on life.

Anyway, the young people, according to Barone, were very much attracted to Reagan's very unashamed, proud patriotism. It appealed to them and what they wanted out of their lives, and in fact, and the truth is, it appealed to most people in the country, and it even appealed to women. When it was all over, a majority of women voted for Ronald Reagan. The pollster, Dotty Lynch, said that the gender gap, says today, I just talked to her two days ago in preparation for this she says that the gender gap is still there. For instance, women did not and we take this from exit polls, you know, when people left the polls they were asked a series of questions; this is the CBS exit poll that more women did not give Ronald Reagan credit for the economic recovery. But nevertheless, a majority of women said they felt they were better off than they had been four years ago, and they got swept up in the mood and good feelings about the country that Ronald Reagan seemed to embody.

Lynch says that very few of Mondale's messages were positive. His greatest stroke, she says, was selecting Geraldine Ferraro, because it played into the new mood, the new sense that things were going right in America, that all things are possible, that life is getting better for everyone, even women. But, she says, "The Mondale campaign grew fearful that the Democratic Party was becoming feminized, and so Ferraro was not highlighted in those terms." The election in the end was an endorsement for the way things are now the status quo, a hip, hip hooray for the status quo. And the status quo meant Ronald Reagan in the White House, but it also meant a lot of Democrats in Congress, including liberal Democrats.

The fact that so many liberals were reelected to Congress seems evidence enough that the American people were not putting a stamp of approval on Reagan's conservative agenda. Consider the issues. Most of the these young people who voted for Reagan say that they're liberal on social issues. A recent CBS News/New York Times poll showed that most Americans think that the president didn't do enough to bring around an arms control agreement with the Soviet Union. Another poll, this one by Gallup, shows that there's overwhelming support for increased spending on social programs in the country, and that there's support for a cutback in the military budget, and that most people really do expect that our taxes will go up. There was not the major political realignment that many of Reagan's supporters predicted. Democrats are not swinging over and becoming Republicans; liberals are not tearing off their liberal labels and putting on conservative ones. There is instead movement toward dealignment, with people leaving both parties. They are becoming independent voters, people who split their vote; and they're becoming combinations of things, liberal on social issues but conservative on economics, or maybe conservative on foreign policy and liberal on economics. People are no longer in those very rigid "I'm conservative," "I'm liberal" categories.

During the campaign a lot of the president's critics said that his campaign was shallow, that he was manipulating images, and that he wasn't addressing the issues, that it was all style and no substance. I am going to tell you a personal story about a long report I did for the CBS evening news about that, about who was talking about issues and who was not.

The piece documented how in fact the president was not talking about the issues, he was not outlining a plan for his next term, he was avoiding questions about the next term. And the report documented how he was trying to actually disassociate himself from some of his own policies, trying to create some public amnesia over the ones that had become unpopular. We showed him at the Olympics for the handicapped, and at an old age home, trying to take credit for these programs, and pointed out that in fact he had tried to cut the budget for the disabled and the elderly. It was, I will be honest with you, a fairly tough report, and I was a little worried about the reception I'd get the next day when I went to work at the White House in my little cubbyhole. I thought, "Oh, my God, none of those anonymous sources are ever going to call me back again." But no sooner had this report aired on the evening news when my phone rang, and it was a White House official. And instead of blasting me, he said, "Great piece, really like it, and thanks a lot." and I said, "What?" He said, "No, no, we loved it; it was great."

And I said, "You have to explain this to me." This man said to me, "Oh, Lesley, the American people don't listen to what you say; they only see those great pictures of Ronald Reagan. And while you were yammering away we saw those wonderful pictures." He said that they see the bunting and the balloons and the flags, and Reagan looking healthy and talking about a positive future for the country. "That's what the people want," he said, "and that's all they see."

Television, where the campaign was waged, turned out to be Mr. Reagan's ultimate weapon. It is, after all, a medium of impressions, where personality and how one looks make a big difference. And you all heard Walter Mondale's last news conference where he blamed television for a lot of his problems. A lot of television images in the early part of Jimmy Carter's presidency contributed to a public notion that he wasn't strong, that he wasn't macho enough. He wore that sweater, for starters, if you remember. In his zeal to deimperialize the office, he seems to have ended up demasculinizing his own image. I don't know if you remember this, but in the 1980 campaign, a headline squeaked past an editor at the Boston Globe. It was a story about Carter, and the headline said, "More Mush from the Wimp." The title stuck.

By contrast, Reagan's early TV images were extremely strong, especially after he was shot and joked about it. I'll never forget the day he left the hospital. Now, the press had not seen him for weeks. They kept putting out these still black and white photographs of him, but we had not seen him. And he walked out and just let me remind you that Hinkley, that fellow who shot at the president, was standing with the press. So as you can imagine, we were nowhere near the president when he left the hospital. He came out a door we were across the street and then back behind some barricades. We had these huge gigantic lenses to see this little dot that was coming out, but we happened to have some bullhorn reporters in our press corps you've of course heard of Sam, and Sam, or somebody like Sam, shouted across this huge expanse, "Mr. President, what's the first thing you're going to do when you get home?" And Ronald Reagan said, "Sit down." It was heaven. Now, all of us who were standing there and had covered Jimmy Carter, turned to each other and said. "Can you imagine what Jimmy Carter would have said?" He would have said, "I am going to read all the national security documents that I haven't been reading and the Bible in Spanish." Would have gone on forever. Believe me, we loved it.

Anyway, the public felt that Reagan was a hero and a hero with an awfully good sense of humor. Moreover, he seemed to be consistent, he talked tough, he had a great walk, winning smile. From what the public saw on television, they really liked him. You know, there's a lot of talk about the Teflon factor, and everybody keeps trying to explain it, but what I told you in the beginning is, it's not that hard. If you like somebody, if you like your friend, you forgive him, just because you like him, and I think that's what happened with the American people and Ronald Reagan. He's someone we want to forgive, so we forgive him.

In fact, CBS did a poll, probably about 18 months ago. I remember it because I ended up doing a report on it, and there were a lot of questions about Reagan that came out negative in this poll. People said, "Do you think he works very hard?" And the majority said, "No." "Do you think he as a really firm grasp of foreign policy?" "No." "Do you think he understands the deep intricacies of, you know, tax policy?" "No." All these negatives. And then they finally got around to saying, "Do you think he's a good president?" "Yes." "Do you want him to be president some more?" "Yes." And it was all there in the polls, just what I'm saying, that the feelings that he gave us through his mood and his disposition and his outlook transcended everything else.

All this emphasis on positivism unfortunately for those of us in the media, I think has serious implications for the press. We reporters, as you well know, just by the nature of journalism, end up being conveyors of bad news. During the campaign it was the press that kept reminding everyone of the ballooning deficits, that there was still a lot of unemployment in the country, that just because American troops overran a small Caribbean island called Grenada that really didn't mean that we were standing tall again. It was the press that brought back the memory of the 200 plus Marines who died in the bomb blast in Lebanon, and that Ronald Reagan's Middle East policy was in a shambles.

The public did not want to be reminded of those things, and as always they blamed the messenger. I feel a special resentment, because the press is always blamed when bad news has to be put out. But I think there is a special resentment in these days against the media, because I think that with a little help from Mr. Reagan, we are getting swept up in that repudiation of negativism and people that got linked with it. And now I sense an attitude in the public that maybe the press doesn't have a right to ask really tough questions of our leaders, that maybe the press shouldn't be delving into the bureaucracy to get information. I fear that the public is building a case against the press going about its business.

Now, I am not here to defend every action and every practice of every reporter and every news organization in our country. Clearly, there have been excesses, and I think we stand to be criticized and let's be frank, we have been criticized, and I think a lot of news organizations have taken that quite seriously. But while we talk about a free press in other countries, talk about the preciousness of it and how we as Americans should champion it in other countries, I wonder if we have lost the appreciation for a vigilant press in our own country. I also wonder if our universities are doing enough to explain the function and the responsibility for the state in a democratic society. You know, there's a new government panel that just put out a report that says our colleges are failing to give students an adequate education in the humanities. The report says that faculties have caved in to vocational pressures from students. They say, the panel says, that the students are not learning enough about history, literature, philosophy, I'm quoting the report, and the ideals of the paths that have shaped our society. Well, I suspect that not enough is being taught about American institutions like the press and the First Amendment. The public should understand, because they have studied American history, that all presidents end up attacking the press. We are, after all, trying to get the secrets they're trying to keep hidden. We are trying to get out information that they don't want us to get out. There is a very natural adversarial relationship between the government and the press, and that's as it should be. That is not wrong, and that is not bad.

I will tell you a story about that very natural adversarial relationship. You know, I think that if you look over the landscape of presidents, that this president has a pretty good relationship with his press corps. I know he attacks us all the time, but that's natural too; that's to be expected, and I think we do expect it. But because we like him too, because he tells us he smiles at us and wipes away a lot with a good little joke I think that we have that same kind of personal feeling for him that everybody does. But the adversarial relationship is alive and well, and I'm just building up to this true story which is so wonderful.

You know, when he goes out to vacation in Santa Barbara, you see pictures of him on CBS horseback riding. Well, that's because when he started going there we scouted around for a mountain top overlooking his ranch, where we could put our camera and take pictures. So the first day we found our mountain top, we took pictures of him horseback riding, and we brought the tape back to our little office in Santa Barbara, what they called the vacation White House, and there were these little tiny ants walking around, because we were so far away. So the next day we sent our crew up there with a super-duper gigantic lens, and back came the tape and there were little mice. You not only couldn't tell that any person was sitting on there, you didn't even know what those horses were.

So we sent away for a gigantic extraordinary lens. Now, I don't know the first thing about equipment, but I think it's that camera they put in Cleveland and you can see the astronauts in the capsule down at Cape Canaveral. I think that's the lens we got. They had to build a house just to put the lens onto rest the lens on something, because it's so huge. When we got back, these magnificent gorgeous pictures, no question, it's Ronald Reagan up on a horse.

Now, one of the aides told me this, but I recently heard the president tell the story himself, so it's absolutely true. He saw the pictures that night, and couldn't believe that we were taking pictures of him horseback riding, and got upset and said, "Oh my God, I can't even go horseback riding, I'm living in a bubble. This is awful." And then he stopped. He got some kind of mischievous look in his eye; he said, "Hey, what do you think they would do if tomorrow I go riding and when I know they've got a great shot of me, I grab my chest and fall off the horse?"

Do you want to tell me that the adversarial relationship is not alive and well? We would go nuts.

Anyway, in the spirit of these times I would like very much to end on a positive note, something that I care about, and that is just a note that this has been an extraordinary year for women; a woman walked in space and a woman ran for vice president of the United States, and you can't say that I am talking negative.

Thank you.

The transcription of this Landon Lecture was accomplished through the cooperation of the Kansas State University Libraries and the Office of Mediated Education.

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