Spin Cycle

04.13.11

How Kondracke Fell For Reagan

Three decades after Ronald Reagan’s election, Mort Kondracke has a confession to make.

“I admit I was seduced,” Mort Kondracke said. “Then Iran-contra came along and I realized I was in the tank and I climbed out.”

The seduction began with Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric about the Soviet Union. “I was kind of a hawk,” says Kondracke, and of all the presidents he covered, Kondracke thinks Reagan did the best job of restoring the country.

Kondracke is stepping down as executive editor of Roll Call to hold the first Jack Kemp chair at the Library of Congress. Kemp was one of his political heroes for his willingness to work across party lines and to buck GOP orthodoxy on immigration and some civil-rights issues.

He reflected on his career at a “Retirement from Deadlines” party Monday at Washington’s Newseum, where the CEO, Charles Overby, conducted an interview. He began by asking Kondracke to describe his own political evolution from liberal to neo-liberal to moderate.

Kondracke traced it back to when he was covering the Ford White House and congressional Democrats would not appropriate money to boost South Vietnam. “I was angry and I said I’m not a liberal anymore. Since then I’ve been pleading with people to get along, to solve the problem, to strike the grand bargain.”

He started out with the Chicago Sun-Times and recalled one of his early forays into Washington. It was after the Goldwater debacle in 1964, and he was interviewing then-congressman Donald Rumsfeld about the state of the GOP. “Let me see your press card,” Rumsfeld demanded. Then he picked up the phone and called the newspaper to make sure the 20-something Kondracke was worth his time. Worse than that humiliation in Kondracke’s memory is that he allowed Rumsfeld to convince him Illinois Senator Charles Percy would be the Republican nominee.

“I was gullible,” Kondracke says. “I got less gullible as time went on.”

The relationship between journalists and politicians during much of Kondracke’s career was more forgiving than it is today. He recalls interviewing President Ford who spoke bluntly about his negative view of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Ford’s press secretary Ron Nessen asked Kondracke if he could put that off the record because it would create an international incident. “This was the 70’s, I said okay.” Then Ford proceeded to repeat on the record all his critical comments. “He was incapable of guile."

The Clintons never won over Kondracke; he couldn't get over Clinton's personal flaws despite the fact he was a centrist and a New Democrat, the political arena that Kondracke champions. He backed the Iraq war, but now thinks it wasn't a good idea--and he doesn't think George W. Bush's economics worked either. "Nice man though," he says.

Kondracke wrote enough critical stories about the Nixon White House and all the money sloshing around from people with an interest before the government that he was among the journalists who made Nixon’s enemies list. “What a joy!” he exulted, savoring the moment these many years later.