Remembering Reagan - Jim Miller

Former Director of Office of Management and Budget

Initial cabinet meetings were pretty formal affairs, with each member of the cabinet being asked for their advice on the issue at hand. At one such meeting, the issue was whether the President would issue an Executive Order allowing some deterioration in the quality of air in Wilderness Areas, in order to permit limited commercial development. President Reagan asked each for their advice, in turn. Almost everyone urged him to sign the draft before him, but some things he said about open spaces and pristine air indicated he was disinclined. “Mr. President,” he said, “I still don’t understand why bears needed cleaner air to breathe than us humans.” As the laughter broke out, President Reagan responded, “Jim, have you ever smelled a bear?”

Once, while waiting to go onstage to speak to a wildly-enthusiastic crowd at some Midwestern university, President Reagan said to me, “Jim, what’s the last thing you do before walking out to give a speech?” “Go to the bathroom?” I proffered. “Close,” he said. “Check your fly. Always check your fly.”

President Reagan, like many people, is prone to mispronounce the names of people who cause him trouble. For example, President Reagan pronounces the name of John Maynard Keynes as “Keens.” On two occasions I corrected him: “Mr. President, I think it’s pronounced ‘Canes,” as in 'sugar cane’.“ He would acknowledge my effort, yet kept calling Keynes "Keens”. I soon gave up. Also, after the Iran-Contra joint (congressional) committee made its report and one of the co-chairmen made some disparaging remarks about President Reagan’s competence, if not honesty, the President intoned one day, “I’ll tell you, the one that gets me is that "Red-Man” fellow [Senator Warren Rudman] Red-man. Yeah, he’s the one that gets me.“

On several occasions each year there was a threat of a government shut-down, as Congress and the President failed to agree on a budget. One day, after a particularly difficult time when I thought negotiations would have borne fruit but didn’t, we came to the "magic hour” when we had to notify all non-essential federal employees to go home. I was pacing up and down in the Oval Office, apologizing to the President and wondering what to do next, when he turned to me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Jim, Jim, just settle down. Let’s closer ‘er down and see if anybody notices!”

Every month or so the President would invite the Congressional Leadership down to the White House for a discussion of issues. The meetings were held in the Cabinet Room, with strict seating protocol. Outward from the President would be the Speaker, Majority Leader, and Minority Leader on one side, and the Senate Majority Leader, Minority Leader, and Majority Whip on the other. Members of the President’s staff, including any cabinet members present, would sit against the wall. This day, in early 1986, the President called on Chief of Staff Howard Baker to discuss some legislative matters, on Secretary of Treasury Jim Baker to discuss the soon-to-be-met statutory limit on federal debt, and me to discuss the budget. After we had all finished our presentations and had answered questions, the President said, “That’s right. We have to do something about all this wasteful spending. It’s getting away from us. Too much pork.” “Right, Mr. President,” said someone, and most began pushing their chairs away from the table. But the President wasn’t finished: “We just have to do what the people elected us to do - get rid of all that non-essential spending, get rid of programs that don’t work, and cut taxes.” At this point, Speaker Tip O'Neal’s face was as getting red as a beat, and he blurted out, “There you go, Mr. President, cutting programs for the poor, the downtrodden, the disenfranchised.” “There you go, Tip,” said the President, “spend, spend, spend.” There you go, Mr. President,“ said the Speaker, "you bail out all your rich buddies with tax cuts while leaving the poor to wither on the vine.” “No your answer to everything is government, more government, more regulation,” said the President. At this point, there was scared looks all around the room. Two Titans were going at each other, and the mice were able to get stepped on. Out of the blue, Senator Alan Simpson shouted, “All right, all right. Enough from you two.” And magically, there was silence. Both looked like a kid who had just been caught with his hand in the cookie Jar. Well, Tip, I guess we had better get back to work,“ said the President. "You’re right, Mr. President,” said the Speaker. And the meeting ended as though nothing had happened.

Here is a story drawn from my budget book (Fix the U.S. Budget: Urgings of an “Abominable No-Man”[Stanford: Hoover Press, 1994], pp.60-61): On September 29, 2988, the President signed a revised version of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law in a small ceremony in the Rose Garden. Early in the day I had received a copy of his draft remarks and had read it carefully. As I had predicted, it was a statement that indicated he was signing the bill only with great reluctance and that scolded Congress for giving him such bad choices [agree to tax increases or cut defense]. In one place the President noted that some in Congress thought they had put him in a box between taxes and defense. He went on to recall the incident in World War II during the Battle of the Bulge when an American general and his troops were surrounded; to demand that the general surrender he replied with one word: “Nuts.” The next few lines in the draft read something to the effect that those who thought the president would go along with cutting defense or raising taxes were wrong. I made a slight change in the text so that the passage read, “To those who say we should weaken America’s defenses: They’re nuts. To those who say we must raise the tax burden on the American people: they, too, are nuts.” I like this new version; it was more forceful, and I had no doubt that if the president read that line it would become the “sound byte” that appeared on the evening’s network news shows. But I didn’t think it would get past the speechwriters, much less past the president. During the afternoon ceremony, my position was on the front row at the right end. You can imagine my surprise and delight when, standing there looking over the president’s shoulder, I saw that, in the next lines after the story about the general, that he had kept the speech as I had amended it. And, as I had anticipated, that was the sound byte that led the network news shows that evening. Later, Howard Baker, the President’s Chief of Staff, asked me what I thought of the ceremony, and I told him I thought it was good and appropriate that the president indicate his sentiments about the matter. Baker told me that he had been “positively scared” that one or more of those congressional leaders were going to bolt the session because of being dressed down so severely.

President Reagan’s sense of humor is the stuff of legend, and he loved a good joke even when the joke was on him.

On almost every Monday when he was in town, the President lunched with his Senior Staff, where he would address longer-term issues, how his message was getting out, and the administration’s relations with Congress. Since the President seldom complained about anything, we were surprised one day when he arrived grumbling about something.

Quickly, it became apparent the President was upset that some in the media were making too much of his age. “They say I can’t see,” he said. “Why I have a contact in one eye for distance viewing and no contact in the other eye, so I can read.” He then put his hand over one eye and said, “ I can see distance with this eye,” and then switching hands said, “And I can read with this eye.” “And they say I can’t hear,” said the President. “Here, wait a minute,” he said, and promptly took out small hearing aids from each ear and placed them on the table. “Now, somebody say something,” intoned the President.

It so happened that Vice President Bush was traveling that day, and I was sitting in his seat, directly opposite the President. Without hesitation, I caught his eye, and with great energy pointed at my watch, pointed at the door, and pointed at others in the room, all the time pretending to speak but no uttering a sound. After an awkward pause, the President caught on and delivered a belly-laugh. Others were not so sure, at least at first. “Ah-oh, Miller’s gone,” said one. But I was so sure about President Reagan’s sense of humor that I never thought twice about making a career decision.

By law, once each year the President must convene a cabinet-level meeting to review the safety of our stockpile of atomic weapons. The presentation is made by the Secretary of Energy, since the Department of Energy (DOE) is in charge of all warheads.

In 1987 or 1988, as part of his presentation, Energy Secretary John Herrington wanted to show President Reagan a “dummy” warhead - to stress how small one can be and the need to be particularly vigilant in protecting out stocks from theft. Secretary Herrington had his staff take over an example, on a gurney, covered with a black drape. As the DOE staff rolled the gurney in the basement door of the West Wing, it set off alarms, being metal in construction. When the Executive Protection Service (EPS) officer on duty asked what was on the gurney, the DOE staff replied, “an atomic warhead.” Understandably, this set off more alarms. After the DOE staff hastily explained what was up, the EPS officer said, “OK, let me see it.” To which the DOE staff replied, “You can’t. You aren’t cleared to see this.” The impass was broken only when Secretary Herrington personally intervened and had the gurney cleared.

By the way, the President showed keen interest in the dummy warhead during Secretary Herrington’s presentation.

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