Reagan Retains Charm but Not His Memory


It was the old Gipper that reporters saw entering the federal courthouse one week ago--the jaunty smile, the cheery wave from the passing limousine.

And, as the tape and transcript of Ronald Reagan’s testimony showed when it was released Thursday, the former President retains the self-deprecating wit that helped charm the nation during his eight years in the White House. Early in the testimony for the trial of Reagan’s former national security adviser, John M. Poindexter, Judge Harold H. Greene ruled out as irrelevant a question about Reagan having quoted Abraham Lincoln.

“I am sure you weren’t around at the time of President Lincoln,” the judge said.

“Thank you, your honor,” the 79-year-old Reagan replied, reaching for one of his longtime favorite campaign lines. “There have been a lot of people talking about my age. I am glad to have that straightened out.”


The testimony revealed much about another aspect of Reagan as well.

A spate of memoirs by former aides has detailed how carefully the former President’s every move--even remarks as casual as greetings and inquiries about a visitor’s wife and children--was written out in advance. The eight hours of testimony, therefore, represent the most extensive unscripted public statements by Reagan in many years.

The resulting record bears out what his former associates have said--Reagan could be both stubbornly detailed in sticking to certain anecdotes and ideas and breathtakingly vague about other aspects of his job, particularly the identities of those in the supporting cast.

Gen. John W. Vessey Jr. is a case in point. Reagan appointed Vessey as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff--the nation’s top military officer--in March, 1982. Three-and-a-half years later, when Vessey retired, Reagan stood beside him in a flag-bedecked airplane hangar at Andrews Air Force Base and hailed him “for his years of service and devotion to America.”


Vessey, Reagan said at the time, “presided over the restoration of American military strength and power at a moment critical to the fate of freedom.”

Reagan was asked about Vessey at his testimony last Friday.

He did not remember him.

“Oh dear,” Reagan said, “the name I know is very familiar. . . . I don’t think this was my military aide.”


Vessey was far from the only person or event Reagan did not recall.

The words “I don’t remember,” or their equivalents, occurred at least 124 times in his eight hours of testimony. The lapses in memory ranged from the identity of Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee during several of the key years of Reagan’s presidency, to the central conclusions of the Tower Commission that Reagan appointed to investigate the Iran-Contra affair. He also did not remember the fact that Robert C. McFarlane, who served as his national security adviser, had pleaded guilty to a charge of withholding information from Congress.

Reagan’s memory lapses, however, never occurred on answers that bolstered his long-standing position that he, himself, had done nothing wrong. Repeatedly, he emphasized that while he might not be able to recall the names of the subordinates he gave instructions to--even at Cabinet rank--he recalled clearly the content of the instructions: “Stay within the law.”

If the former President often could not remember key events, he came well-armed with statistics, which he did recall, to explain why things were hard to remember. He had accumulated some 50 million papers he said several times, and he had met with 400 foreign leaders while in office.


“I have been told by statisticians that my average of meeting with people was about 80 a day for eight years,” Reagan said. “I hate to keep throwing figures at you,” he added later, “but I have been told that because of the busy-ness of our Hollywood photographers, I have got something over a million photos of people that came in (the White House) as visitors.”

What Reagan also possesses is an unshakable set of beliefs that have guided his career. And if, particularly during the latter days of his second term, he sometimes seemed to depart from those beliefs, his testimony made clear that when freed to speak his mind, Reagan is still Reagan.

Asked, for example, about Central America, the former President came back with one of his favorite stories, somewhat based on the views of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state.

To understand why the Soviets were supporting Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, “we only had to heed the words of Lenin,” Reagan said. “Lenin said that the Soviet Union would take Eastern Europe. It would organize the hordes of Asia, and then it would move on to Latin America. And once having taken that, it wouldn’t have to take the last bastion of capitalism, the United States. The United States would fall into their outstretched hand like overripe fruit.


“Well,” he added, “history reveals that the Soviet Union followed that policy, and almost up to the present head man there.”

Reagan also retains from his years in the public eye the ability to remain utterly unflappable regardless of the contradictions thrust at him or the questions that at times grew repetitive enough to annoy even Judge Greene.

At first, despite a confident-looking wink in Poindexter’s direction as he took the oath, the former President often looked nervous, lost and even a little frightened as he began his testimony Friday morning. In the afternoon, after about another hour and a half of testimony, both his own lawyer and Poindexter’s counsel told the court they feared Reagan was tiring.

“I think that my sense is that he is getting real tired,” Richard W. Beckler, Poindexter’s lawyer, told Greene in a private conference outside the witness’ hearing.


But by the second day, as Reagan was cross-examined by prosecutor Dan K. Webb, he seemed to gain poise, sitting forward in the witness chair, watching Webb as if to dare him to ask the next question.

And at one point, clearly relaxed, the retired President even seemed to reminisce quietly to himself about his time in the Oval Office. While attorneys argued a point of law off camera, the President read to himself from a document he had been handed, smiling with a familiar tilt of the head, then remarking in a quiet aside that he was just rereading an old speech.

Staff writer Ronald Ostrow contributed to this story.