A Matter of No Party Preference

By Leslie Westbrook   |   October 29, 2020

In the newsroom of the Washington Post, Lou Cannon cultivated a reputation as a “reporter’s reporter.” Concealing his political loyalties was as much a matter of professional integrity as it revealed his facility to see both sides. “I’ve been a Democrat and I’ve been a Republican,” Cannon revealed during a recent Zoom conversation just before the first presidential debate. “I was an independent voter when I lived in North Virginia, but registered Republican to vote for Lagomarsino when Michael Huffington ran against him here in Santa Barbara. Lagomarsino lost. A lot of people I voted for lost.”

Now 87 years old and still living in Summerland, the venerable journalist and Ronald Reagan biographer is more candid today about his political views. He had been a Republican but with Donald Trump, his status has shifted to nonpartisan.

Journalist and Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, 87, still writes regularly for the State Net Capitol Journal and for other outlets from his home in Summerland

“I am now no party preference,” he says, “as I was when I covered Reagan when he was in the White House.”

Lou Cannon and I covered a lot of ground, from his personal heroes to cannabis in Summerland to politics in the age of Trump. The parts of our conversation that pertain to current day political affairs, including his preference for Joe Biden to Donald Trump, follow.

Q. Where do you stand on the current election?

A. I’ve become more bullish on Biden’s chances since tracking the election on the Cook Political Report, always fair and non-partisan. It’s clear from polling that Trump hurt himself in the debate and with his inconsistency since he got COVID. Trump makes himself a laughingstock when he tweets that Biden is “against God” while he’s attending mass. That was offensive to Catholics, including me.

It’s telltale that endangered Republican senators are no longer aligning themselves with Trump. Someone looked at 46 ads they did over the weekend. Trump isn’t mentioned in any of them. Trump has been pulling these senators along throughout the campaign; now he may be hurting them. I’m talking about North and South Carolina, Georgia, Iowa, and Kansas. I think Biden will win; wouldn’t hazard a guess about the Senate, which could wind up anywhere from one to seven net Republican losses. Dems will lose Alabama and possibly Michigan, where the incumbent senator is running 9-10 points behind Biden. Dems need a net gain of three seats if Biden wins.

Do you see any similarities between Ronald Reagan, once a movie star, and Donald Trump, a former reality TV star?

I don’t think people in political life get how attached people become to a television personality or movie star. Trump, in a way, was like Reagan, but to me he is the anti-Reagan because he is different in every way. Reagan was a very gentlemanly man, he would never say the things that Trump says. Both of them started with tremendous name recognition. People who are in show business or are entertainers or are well known start with an advantage that ordinary politicians don’t have. 

 Reagan was politically involved as an actor. Many in those days were not. He’d been an active Democrat who was always interested in issues. It wasn’t like, here’s a guy who woke up one day and thought: ‘People know who I am, I’m going to run for governor.’ People wanted Reagan to run. I think it’s very different with Trump – with one exception. The person who wanted Trump was Trump. There were a lot of people who wanted Reagan.

I think his opponents on the Republican side, and Mrs. Clinton as well, in the general election, people didn’t realize how well known you become, as in his (Trump’s) case, as a television celebrity, which would have been the equivalent of a movie actor in Reagan’s day. Trump, in a sense, played the role of himself. It’s not very heartwarming. What Trump did was fire people on television and created dissention. He created a narrative of ‘You’re up to it or you’re not up to it,’ even though I don’t think he meets his own narrative, that’s the kind of president he’s been – a divisive president.

Most people think well of the people they’re watching on a television or reality show or they wouldn’t be watching it. Most people do not think well of politicians as a class or as a group.

Reagan would always get annoyed with me in conversations – he mentioned this a couple of times when I’d refer to him as a politician. I’d refer to him as a good politician. He told me afterwards he didn’t want to be called a politician, good or otherwise, because people don’t like politicians. He didn’t see himself as one, which was hooey of course! He was a politician, and one of the best. When he ran for governor he compared himself to Cincinnatus, the Roman who left his plow to go run an election and straighten out Rome and then return to his plow. That’s how he wanted people to see him and I think, at first, that’s how he saw himself.

What about another California governor who came from Hollywood?

Arnold Schwarzenegger – if you watched the Terminator movies – came in as a guy who could get something done. He also gained from the fact that he didn’t seem like a politician. Governor Schwarzenegger, whom I liked in a lot of ways, led us into the era of taking climate change seriously. He made it possible for Jerry Brown and our present governor to build on what he did on climate change. He was a person who didn’t quite succeed; he never did quite learn the nuts and bolts of politics. I don’t think Trump has either.

Do you think Trump is as talented of a politician as Reagan was?

No matter how much you dislike Trump, he has really mastered Twitter. Every day, if I say the method you are using to vote is unreliable, then in six months’ time, you are going to wonder. A substantial number of people still believe that Obama wasn’t born in the United States of America, which was a rumor he started.

Ronald Reagan had the most self-deprecating sense of humor of any politician I’ve ever known and he was funny. He’d say things like, “I know hard work never killed anyone, but why take a chance?”

Trump doesn’t do well at dinners where he’s roasted. Trump is incapable of poking fun at himself. The week after we hear his voice on the Bob Woodard interview where he admits that he knew this (COVID-19) was dangerous but he was trying to play it down, Trump gives himself an A-plus on the way he handle the virus.

Reagan was 70 at the time of his first term as president. Does age matter for either of the current candidates?

Before the death of the great, great lady Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Trump, 74, was trying to portray Biden, 77, as someone who wasn’t up to the job. I look at Biden and Trump – I don’t make any secret that I prefer Biden to Trump – age really isn’t an issue in this election. It seems obvious to me that both of them are able to function and do what they do. It’s a question of, do you like what they do? I don’t like what Mr. Trump has done.

If I have this right, Reagan was the oldest president when he was running for president. He turned 70 soon after he was sworn in. I asked him if his age would be a factor? He said, ‘Lou, if I act old, it will be a factor. If I don’t act old…’

He didn’t act old.

Speaking of Ginsburg, what do you make of the effort to swiftly replace her with Amy Coney Barrett

This is a boon for President Trump. It is because he badly needs to change the subject away from the coronavirus. The number of people who think he’s handled the COVID-19 well is down in the 30s. That means people are going to go vote for him because he consistently polls in the low to mid 40s.There are people who are going to go vote for him who don’t think he handled the coronavirus well and well it’s obvious he didn’t. So almost anything that would enable him to change the subject.

I think the Trump voters are more enthused than the Biden voters. The polls show that, although it’s not a great margin. You can’t vote twice – although Trump seems to think you can in North Carolina – if you’re already enthused you’re enthused. Maybe if the (Supreme Court) nominee seems a threat to people on the other side – particularly on Wade vs. Roe – that might prod Democrats.

What about moving forward with the nomination?

 [Senator Mitch] McConnell is clearly a hypocrite. I don’t think there’s something wrong in moving ahead. I thought there was something wrong in not giving Obama’s nominee a hearing. But I don’t know how many people really care about that. So, Senator McConnell is a hypocrite who says one thing and does another? Many people think that’s what politicians do.

What do you think the October surprise will be? 

This September surprise (Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing) is enough for me! I still think that Biden is most likely to win. He’s been ahead steadily not only in the overall poll (Hillary Clinton has shown you can win the popular vote, but lose) but he’s been ahead in the battleground states. Trump has been holding some rallies; apparently it gives him a warm and fuzzy feeling to hold them.

Before Justice Ginsburg died, if you’d ask me how the Supreme Court played into this, I’d have said it wouldn’t play very much into this. For conservatives, I think this does give them a rationale for voting for Trump even though they don’t like his crudeness and fanaticism and his mangling of the facts. He promised that he would put conservative nominations on the court. And I think you have to say, if you are being fair to Trump, he has chosen solid, conservative justices.

I’m curious about this choice and I wonder whether Judge Amy Coney Barrett – she’s had seven children, been at Notre Dame, very outspoken, not only on the question of pro-life – also casts doubt on the value of precedent. For the liberals that must send a chill down their spine. Chief Justice Roberts shows a great respect for precedent and it’s why people who want Roe to survive have come to trust him.

You’ve taken a strong stance against a cannabis dispensary in Summerland. Can you elaborate?

I’m opposed to a cannabis store in Summerland. It’s the right of anyone to use cannabis, but we don’t even have a grocery store in Summerland. People have to go out of town to buy their groceries, and cannabis users can do the same. There’s a cannabis store on Milpas Street in Santa Barbara, the same street with Trader Joe’s and the recently opened Sprouts, both of which we like. A survey by the Summerland Citizens Association found that more than 90 percent of respondents oppose a cannabis store in Summerland. More than 25 percent of Summerlanders responded to the survey, a large response in a town with so many absentee owners.

Supervisor [Das] Williams has said he will listen to the wishes of communities before choosing sites for additional cannabis stores. If he does – and I believe he will – he will not put a cannabis store in Summerland. 


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