03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Standing on One's Principles: An Interview With Ron Reagan


Ron Reagan is the son of a president and, weekdays on Air America, he's a voice of reason for many listeners who are trying to navigate the complexities of national and global concerns. Known for his progressive views and politics, Ron took a few moments to discuss some of the more pressing issues of our time and gave a shoutout to Elvis Perkins.

Mike Ragogna: When did The Ron Reagan Show begin broadcasting on Air America?

Ron Reagan: It would have been a year ago September, we started with an hour show.

MR: How did that come about?

RR: I had been at the Republican convention in Minneapolis, they (Air America) asked me to come there and be part of their coverage. I'd been doing some things with Mark Green who had a weekend show, a wrap-up kind of thing. I did some of those with him, so he invited me to the convention, and I spent a few days there doing shows. At the end of the week, they asked if I wanted to do an hour show for them, and I said sure, my having been between gigs at the time.

MR: How much time passed between then and when your first show aired?

RR: They said, "Can you start Monday?" and this was Friday evening. I said, "I guess I can, am I going to have a producer?" I met my first producer on the phone Monday morning, the day we launched the show. Not a lot of prep time to get things together, but it slowly evolved, and by the beginning of this year, I think it was in February, we went to the regular three hour format.

MR: Who's backing you up behind the scenes?

RR: Tina Nole, my executive producer, came on board in February, and Shelley Osterberger, the associate producer, came on during the summer.

MR: When you discuss topics, you've been very respectful and gracious to callers and guests with opposing points of view, although it's pretty clear where you stand on the issues. How do you find the patience to deal with your more challenging guests and callers?

RR: I'm not much of a yeller, I don't really get particularly offended or affronted when somebody takes even an extreme position that's opposite mine. I'm not a big one for personal attacks or rudeness. When somebody crosses a line where it's going beyond just stating their extreme viewpoint, like attacking me in a personal way, well then I'll take exception to that and come back at them.

But I don't see any purpose in yelling at the civilians who call in to the show. These are just folks calling in, regular folks, they're not professionals at this or anything. You know, some people have weird ideas, and it's often more interesting to tease out those ideas. For instance, we had a guy call in, and we were talking in general about the ramifications of the off-year elections. The subject of Maine's Question #1 on marriage rights for gay couples came up, and he was violently opposed to allowing gay couples to marry. I asked him, "Well, what would the harm be?" "It's terrible! It's an abomination! These people and their deviant lifestyles..." He was from Massachusetts, and I said, "That's you're opinion, but I want to know what negative consequences YOU'VE felt because of gay people being allowed to marry."

Then he went off again on how terrible gay people were which was all irrelevant, and at that point, he crossed the line and started talking about a Jewish/gay conspiracy. I was like, "Okay, now I've heard enough from you, now we can leave you alone because the entire audience knows that this is the kind of person who is opposed to allowing gay people to have the same civil rights as everybody else." This was a guy where there was no end to the bigotry. If I kept scratching, we'd find racism, we'd find everything else, and I think it was more useful, in a way, than me jumping all over the guy and telling him what an idiot he was. That would have been easy enough to do, but it would have been less educational for people.

MR: When you go home after a day of calls like that, how do you process it?

RR: That kind of stuff doesn't really wear on me at all. I admit it's pretty tiring doing a three hour show, where, generally speaking, it's pretty much ad lib five days a week. That's tiring for anybody to do. But dealing with folks like that is not really a problem. They don't wear on me, I'm aware that those people are out there, that's no secret, I've run into them before and I'll run into them again. They don't really suck the energy out of me. They're more amusing, in a way, and I guess a little depressing, too, but that stuff doesn't bother me.

MR: What are your thoughts on the defeat of Question #1?

RR: We've talked about it on the show before. I would put to the audience as a question whether people in this country should be allowed to vote out civil rights for others. I mean, if a majority of folks in a given state decided they didn't want free speech anymore, should they be allowed to eliminate free speech in their state? I think that most people would say no, and I see marriage rights for gay couples is pretty much in that territory.

This is a fundamental civil right that everybody in this country enjoys EXCEPT one group of people--gay folks. I don't think that should be left up to the vagaries of politics, out-of-state financing, dishonest campaigns, and the various lies that are told by opponents of civil rights. I think it's too fundamental. There's nothing in the Constitution that implies or says that gay people should be treated any differently than anybody else, and that's the document we should be relying on when we look at this.

It's no coincidence that people who want to deprive or keep gay people from having this civil right generally have to change their state constitution to achieve that. They have to literally write-in a specific amendment to their constitution that singles out gay people for this exclusion, and the fact that it's exclusionary is the point. These idiot arguments that come up about, "Well, if we allow gay couples to marry, then we have to allow polygamy and bestiality and things like that"--beyond the stupidity of these arguments--it's quite obvious that in the case of polygamy and bestiality, those laws are not exclusionary in any way. They apply to everybody. No one can marry more than one person. But when we're talking about gay marriage, then we're talking about an exclusionary law. Everybody can get married in this country to the person of their choice except gay people, they're excluded. That's a very different thing, it's an apples and oranges kind of situation.

MR: With all the ignorance and fear out there, it seems that the only way issues like this are going to be resolved is through the court system, and ultimately, by the Supreme Court. But that might not be such a good thing because of some of its hard right judges.

RR: Well, you've got Scalia who's a radical fundamentalist Catholic on the court. You've got Roberts and Alito who also have an agenda, though it might not be as socially extreme as Scalia's. I think they're more interested in protecting the rights of corporations and things like that. I mean that's why they were installed on the court. But yeah, you're quite right, it's not a gimme on the Supreme Court. It could very well be one of those unfortunate five-four decisions that would come down the wrong way.

MR: What do you think, if any, were the messages from last week's election?

RR: I don't think we can read the tea leaves and say because democrats lost the Virginia and New Jersey governorships that this portends all sorts of awful things for the mid-term elections. I don't think you can really say that there's that connection. On the other hand, I do think that the people widely, across the political spectrum, are becoming terribly dissatisfied with status quo governance in Washington, D.C., right now. I think you saw that, to some extent, even in the Tea Party stuff earlier this year. Now, some of these people were just, you know, kind of Glenn Beck idiots with their Nazi signs and all that kind of stuff. But there were people who were drawn in because they were upset, for instance, by the bank bailout and the lack of transparency at the Fed. I can't argue too much with that, they're not wrong to be worried.

I think with health care, we find progressives who are very disenchanted with the approach of this administration and, certainly, the approach of Congress to health care reform. It's really as if these people are bending over backwards to try and make as ineffective a piece of legislation as it can possibly be. You know, we've got people shouting about the public option being a government takeover of health care...hell, it's not even going to be available to most people. I mean, you and I, if we have health insurance through our jobs, we can't sign up for the public option. This is going to apply to maybe twelve million people in America. It seems to me this is the worst kind of incrementalism, and I think people are looking at that and wondering if our government is capable of dealing with really big problems that are all coming down the pike at about the same time.

MR: What would you say are some of those problems?

RR: Look at the environment, economic issues, social issues, health care of course, war and peace... We've got lots on the plate and it's pretty serious stuff, and we don't seem to be able to man-up and do something about it. And you think the health care fight was ugly? Wait 'til we get to Cap & Trade. We've got a bunch of people in Congress who are still denying that global warming even exists! These are Flat Earthers that we're having to deal with here. It's a little depressing, and it doesn't bode well for the future.

MR: Do you think that we've got a president who can tackle some of these issues?

RR: There's no question that this administration is a vast improvement over what we had before. My God, from torture to everything else, not only were they evil, but they were incompetent and evil at the same time. So yeah, I'm a supporter of Obama, I wish him the best, I think his impulses are good. My question--I think it's a question that many people on the progressive side have--is, does he have the stones to see this thing through?

He's not really a progressive democratic politician. He is a centrist democrat. He's cautious, he always has been. If you look at his history, it's one of always reaching across the aisle, always looking for the bipartisan compromise which can be fine in its place. But he's not as "left" as some people on our side thought he was during the election, and so we're seeing the real Barack Obama here--a cautious, centrist, pragmatic politician. That can often get the job done, but I'm a little nervous at this particular time in history, with all the problems we have facing us, that that approach really isn't going to get the job done. I think he's wasting a lot of time--a lot of time--with this reaching across the aisle stuff. He had to make the gesture, had to let people know that he would try in good faith with republicans; but we're long past the point where we realize that these people aren't reaching back. They just simply want him to fail. If they're reaching back at all, it's to stick a thumb in his eye, so the time for that stuff is just about over.

MR: And so many in Congress seem to be under the thumb of the lobbyists and corporations who have made large donations to their campaigns or causes.

RR: Let's not be naïve here. When you see that someone is receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars over a few years to their campaign PAC or whatever from a certain industry, they're getting that money for a reason. People don't just hand politicians money because they kind of like their haircut or the way they wear a suit. They want something for that money. If you want to know the main thing we can do to put a stop to that? Campaign finance reform. Let's take the money entirely out of politics. If you get pulled over by a cop for speeding and you try to give him a twenty dollar bill to get off, well, if he's crooked, he'll take it and let you go. But you're really courting arrest there. That's bribery of a public official. Well, why isn't it bribery of a public official for individuals or corporations to hand them bundled checks for their political action committees. It's the same kind of thing here, and we need to eliminate that entirely.

MR: Challengers to reform insist this is a Freedom of Speech issue.

RR: Money is not speech. If you want to go out and campaign for somebody, speak on their behalf, tell everybody that you think they'll be a great congressman or president or whatever. You're more than entitled to do that. But giving them money is not the same thing. Money is property, money is a bribe, it isn't support, and that's what needs to be eliminated. There needs to be a level playing field and a regular manor in which we elect officials where everybody, maybe who've gotten enough signatures on a petition or whatever, can get on the ballot. Then you all play by the same rules and you have the same amount of money to work with. Free television time would be a good thing for TV advertisement...we give the broadcast networks our public airwaves for a song. They're supposed to do a public service in return--that used to be the news shows that they would produce. Well, you know, they can start giving politicians free ad time during election years for a certain period as part of that public service so that (politicians) won't feel pressed to spend billions of dollars buying time on the networks that should be free. This is how we can elect public officials in this country. It's an important thing, and the broadcast and cable networks can get on board with that. If we can have a level playing field for various sports teams, we certainly can have it for political races as well. Just take the money out of the system entirely.

MR: But sometimes a level playing field can work against you, like when the media gives equal weight to both sides of a story no matter how ludicrous one side might clearly be.

RR: Yeah, that's the fallacy of "fair and balanced." It's turned into literally, "Well, we have two opinions here--Joe says the world is flat, Bob says the world is round, YOU be the judge," instead of pointing out that one person is full of s**t, and the other person actually has it right.

MR: And there's so much damage being done and ignorance being propagated as a result of that approach.

RR: There have always been these carny barkers in American life. There have always been the crooked tent preacher or whoever who's getting people all riled up about stuff. Limbaugh and Beck are just those kind of clowns. There's not much you can do to stop that. It's not that they're promoting ignorance as much as the American public--actually, a fairly small percentage of the public--buy into this crap. You know, come on people...wake up! The Limbaughs and the Becks are charlatans. They're entertainers who are there to make money and nothing else. I don't even know that Glenn Beck believes half of the stuff he says, and he's just taking advantage of people's ignorance and gullibility and stupidity. Are people that naïve and stupid that they're going to be taken in by fools like this? Well, apparently some are. You can fool some of the people all of the time.

MR: All of this seems even more ridiculous in the face of real discussions we need to be having on dangers like global warming.

RR: Indeed, global warming is a perfect example of just the kind of problem that American politicians seem incapable of dealing with. It's long term, it's incremental, it's not going to show up in a big explosion tomorrow that knocks down buildings on the southern tip of Manhattan. We've got to think long term, and we've got to actually deprive ourselves of stuff. We're going to have to change our lifestyle, we're going to have to make do with less in certain instances, at least temporarily. And it involves nature instead of just people politics and money politics and things like that, and that's something that Congress also has a very difficult time dealing with. These are people who spend way too much time indoors...they need to get out a little more! They forget that nature doesn't really care what your political agenda is, nature doesn't really care that Jim Inhoff doesn't believe that the atmosphere is warming up. Nature is gonna do what it does regardless. The laws of physics are the laws of physics. But these people don't seem to get that, they think they can kind of spin nature their way somehow. It ain't gonna happen, you know?

MR: Sure, global warming is important, but what music are you listening to?

RR: I've been playing a lot of Elvis Perkins in my car on the way to work. My wife is very good about finding new stuff, I'm a little more boring when it comes to that.

MR: What are some of your favorite classic acts?

RR: I still will throw a little U2 on every once in a while, and I still enjoy The Beatles. My wife and I were talking about Sgt. Pepper the other day and what a great song "For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite" was. We were trying to remember the lyrics. We had them all mixed-up and had to go online to find them.

MR: You sort of were introduced to America through your Saturday Night Live appearance in 1986, right?

RR: Yeah, that's pretty true.

MR: Your Risky Business parody is considered one of the show's best moments.

RR: I was a little reluctant to do it at first, I didn't want to be a conduit to ridiculing my parents. I knew, of course, there would be some fun poked at them, but I didn't want it to be vicious and mean and be a part of that. But I was assured I would have veto power over any of the skits if they got out of hand, that I could pull the plug on them. But it worked out well, it was a lot of fun. It was a good cast, and everybody was real nice.

MR: Were your parents okay afterward?

RR: Yeah, I think they were a little confused, they didn't understand the Tom Cruise thing. They'd never seen that movie, and they had no idea why I was in my underwear. So I had to explain to them that whole Tom Cruise bit and all. I was actually wearing three pairs of jockey shorts by the time we did the live show. The NBC censors said, "You can't go out there with just one pair of jockey shorts. God knows what might happen, he's moving around and dancing, we can't just have something fly out of there. Have him put another pair on!" I put two pair on and when we did the live show after we did the dress rehearsal, the edict came down, "He needs another pair!" So I had three pair of jockey shorts on just to be sure that nothing untoward happened.

MR: Having been a president's son, did you ever feel obliged to steer your career towards politics?

RR: No, from the time I was a little kid and exposed to politics, I pretty much knew that I was not interested in leading that kind of life. I'm just not that kind of person. There's nothing about that life that appeals to me. I guess it's an attractive enough notion to be in a position to get things done, that would be fun and challenging. But I'm no good at asking people for money, to get back to our campaign finance angle. It's not me, it's not my personality, it's not my life.

MR: You're probably contributing more by choosing the path you did.

RR: You do what you can do I guess. As I've told people before, I can't really be elected to any high office because I'm an atheist, and as we know, Americans won't elect an atheist to any high office. And I don't think I'd be a very good local politician because I don't know anything about local issues most of the time. You don't want me running your city or being in charge of your utilities or any of that.

MR: With all the current disillusionment in the way our government has been run for so long, what is your advice to anyone entering politics who wants to make a real difference?

RR: Well, cinch it up real tight because you're going to be buffeted by the forces of compromise, and I'm not talking about political compromise. I'm talking about compromise in principle. You can see some people in Congress today like Anthony Weiner from Brooklyn, New York, talk about health care, and, you know, Alan Grayson. He's ruffled some feathers, I know, and he gets right up in people's faces, but he seems to be doing stuff from the heart. There's Bernie Sanders, I talk to him a lot on our show. He seems to have his head screwed on right. These are people who follow their own principles, and they've probably gone about as far as they're going to go in politics being members of Congress. I would look to those folks who have identified principles they're willing to run on and stand on and do so consistently.

I was alarmed back in 2004 after the presidential election with Bush being re-elected. Nancy Pelosi, I believe it was, came out and said, "Well, the democrats have to sit down and decide what principles we really want to focus on." I thought, "My God, this is a woman who is in her sixties, she's been in government for a long time, and she's now saying we have to identify the principles that are important to us? Didn't you do that before you ran the first time?" What is wrong with THAT picture. So I would say identify those principles before you run. Make those the reasons you want to run, don't approach a career in politics as a sort of, "I'll see what happens when I get there, and I'll make it up on the fly," or anything like that. You need to know what you're all about before you set out on that first campaign.

MR: Congressman Alan Grayson sure did invigorate the health care debate with his passion.

RR: All too often, democrats play this soft game where it's always, "My friend across the aisle." Decorum is fine, but the fact of the matter is, half the time, they're not your friend, they don't wish the best for you, and half the time, they don't wish the best for the American people either. It's time to stop playing footsie with some of these people. There are some destructive forces out there in government, and they need to be confronted, and they need to be revealed for what they are. The corruption has to be exposed, the disinformation, the lies that are coming, health care being the obvious example--death panels, and all that kind of stuff. I mean that was such an obvious lie that was being told, and it needs to be exposed and those people need to be confronted in no uncertain terms. No more of this "my friend" and "we differ on..." kind of stuff. How about, "Congressman or Senator So-And-So is telling you a lie." If THAT'S the truth, it needs to be spoken.