Recently, the Washington Post published two columns attacking our book Killing Reagan. We believe the hostile criticism is both misguided and disingenuous and is motivated by a small group of Reagan loyalists who are vehemently opposed to any objective look at the 40th President.
It should be noted that Killing Reagan is, on balance, a book that lauds the man but apparently that is not enough. The Reagan cabal insists on deification.
The primary controversy has to do with a high level White House meeting held on March 2, 1987, in which President Reagan was under close scrutiny by his own advisors.
Battered by the Iran-Contra revelations and the resignation of Chief of Staff Donald Regan, Mr. Reagan was under siege by the media. Just days before the meeting, incoming White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker tasked his assistant, James Cannon, with investigating how the White House was functioning. Cannon's written report was shocking – it described an often disengaged president and an undisciplined environment in the Executive Branch, where underlings sometimes even forged the president's initials on documents. That troubling assertion is specifically mentioned in The New York Times obituary of James Cannon, published on September 20, 2011.
Over the years, details about the crucial meeting emerged. On September 15, 1988, The Washington Post reported that President Reagan was depressed, inept and inattentive. The article went on to say: “the possibility of invoking the 25th Amendment to remove him from office was raised in a memo to Howard H. Baker Jr., who was just taking office as Reagan's chief of staff.”
The 25th Amendment states that the president may be removed if he is "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office."
The Post went on to directly quote Cannon’s recommendations to Baker from the memo’s opening paragraph: "Consider the possibility that section four of the 25th Amendment might be applied."
Even one of Ronald Reagan’s closest friends and advisers, Michael Deaver, wrote about the meeting in his book Behind the Scenes. Deaver stated that Baker was warned if he accepted the position of White House Chief of Staff, “he would have to be prepared at any time to invoke the 25th Amendment.”
Deaver went on to add that in Cannon’s view, Reagan was “on the brink of being physically and mentally incapable of carrying out his responsibilities.”
Baker was skeptical about Cannon's findings, feeling that some of the criticism was generated by White House staffers loyal to Donald Regan. However, he took them seriously enough to follow through on the assertions. In fact, Baker actually addressed the meeting of March 2ndwith the press: "Ladies and gentlemen, is this president fully in control of his presidency? Is he alert? Is he fully engaged? Is he in contact with the problems? I'm telling you, it's one day's experience, and maybe that's not enough, but today he was superb."
So it is beyond a reasonable doubt that the meeting of March 2, 1987 did occur. And it is also a hard fact that Howard Baker purposely scrutinized Ronald Reagan’s every movement at that meeting, searching for signs of mental and physical dissipation. However, as we write in Killing Reagan the president turned that meeting into a triumph. He demonstrated to Baker and his other advisors that he was totally in command of important issues.
It is preposterous to assert that there wasn’t an intense concern about the president’s mental state shortly after the Iran Contra scandal broke. That is a fact, and it is disturbing that Reagan loyalists have attacked us for pointing it out.
But here’s something ever more troubling: the report written by James Cannon has disappeared. It is not in the Reagan Library, nor is it to be found in the papers of Howard Baker and Cannon. It is clear to us that someone did not want history to record it. It is also clear that misguided people are trying to distort the record by covering up a very important time in Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
The irony is that President Reagan overcame the severe wounds he suffered on March 30, 1981, when John Hinckley tried to assassinate him. He did this by sheer will. Killing Reagan chronicles the president’s struggle and demonstrates his tremendous courage in bringing his second term to a successful close. The true story of Ronald Reagan is an amazing exposition that pinpoints the essence of a great man. It is a damn shame that some refuse to accept the compelling truth.