Nixon on Tape: Reagan Was “Shallow” and of “Limited Mental Capacity”

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Richard Nixon, say what you will of this criminally minded president, was a keen observer of politics. But he seems to have underestimated fellow Republican Ronald Reagan (or the American public). On the morning of November 17, 1971, Nixon, while meeting with National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office, shared a few sharp–and negative–comments about California Governor Ronald Reagan, who had recently told Kissinger that Nixon had a “real problem” with conservatives who believed Nixon was not sufficiently hawkish on foreign policy matters.

For years, the Presidential Recordings Program of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia has been transcribing and analyzing the tape recordings Nixon secretly made in the White House. Even though it’s been 33 years since a disgraced Nixon left office, his tapes are still being processed by the National Archives, and the Miller Center has only recently gotten to the tape of this particular conversation. According to the newly created transcript of the meeting, both Nixon and Kissinger believed Reagan was not the brightest bulb in the GOP. Here are some key excerpts:

President Nixon: What’s your evaluation of Reagan after meeting him several times now.

Kissinger: Well, I think he’s a–actually I think he’s a pretty decent guy.

President Nixon: Oh, decent, no question, but his brains

Kissinger: Well, his brains, are negligible. I–

President Nixon: He’s really pretty shallow, Henry.

Kissinger: He’s shallow. He’s got no…he’s an actor. He–When he gets a line he does it very well. He said, “Hell, people are remembered not for what they do, but for what they say. Can’t you find a few good lines?” [Chuckles.] That’s really an actor’s approach to foreign policy–to substantive….

President Nixon: I’ve said a lot of good things, too, you know damn well.

Kissinger: Well, that too.

Later in the 24-minute-long discussion, the two discussed the possibility of Reagan running for president:

President Nixon: Can you think though, Henry, can you think, though, that Reagan with certain forces running in the direction could be sitting right here?

Kissinger: Inconceivable.

So much for Kissinger’s powers of prognostication. As they were finishing up–after discussing other matters–Nixon slammed Reagan again:

President Nixon: Back to Reagan though. It shows you how a man of limited mental capacity simply doesn’t know what the Christ is going on in the foreign area. He’s got to know that on defense–doesn’t he know these battles we fight and fight and fight? Goddamn it, Henry, we’ve been at–

Kissinger: And I told him–he said, “Why don’t you fire the bureaucracy?” I said, “Because there are only so many battles we can fight. We take on the bureaucracy now, they’re going to leak us to death. Name me one thing that we have done that the bureaucracy made us do.”

President Nixon: The bureaucracy has had nothing to do with anything.

Kissinger: No, no. They’ve made our lives harder. They’ve driven us crazy. But that doesn’t affect him.

Shallow, negligible brains, limited mental capacity? Well, Reagan did manage to get elected twice, and he served out his two terms–a feat Nixon did not accomplish. And Kissinger happily served on Reagan’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.

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