289. Memorandum From the White House Chief of Staff (Regan) to President Reagan1


  • Planning for 1987

As we prepare to move into the seventh year of your Presidency, we face a major challenge—dealing with Iran while at the same time advancing the elements of your 1987 agenda. Though substantively unconnected, the ability to deal with one will have a major effect on achieving the second.

The Iran controversy has resulted in not only questions regarding what happened but also questions regarding this Administration’s ability to lead the country. If we are to be successful in advancing our 1987 agenda we must also demonstrate our ability to manage the “process” of the Iran issue.

There is a need not only to get to the bottom of what happened with regard to Iran but to do that in a way that does not impede the conduct of the regular business of governing the nation.

This memo attempts to review:

the current status of our efforts to manage Iran;
your potential new initiatives for 1987; and
a strategy to deal with both.


With respect to Iran, our focus should now be on one theme—getting all the facts out to the American people and setting things right.

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The post-Iran revelation activities—personnel changes,2 the Tower Board,3 your call for coordinated Congressional inquiry,4 your urging of independent counsel,5 approval of testimony by White House staff,6 Presidential statements and the naming of a Special Counselor7—can now be seen as a positive pattern, demonstrating your commitment to learn all that happened and share that information with the American people.

Dick Wirthlin’s numbers confirm that these remedial steps not only checked the fall in overall approval ratings, but contributed to a positive though not complete recovery. The challenge now is to reinforce the positive nature of those actions.

We should avoid additional statements that describe what happened. No matter how detailed, they can never cover every single circumstance and therefore will contribute to even more criticism that you are “providing incomplete or inaccurate information, that you are covering up, or that you don’t know what is going on.” Rather, we should begin to place you apart from the day-to-day aspects of the Iran inquiry. Your primary attention should be directed to advancing arms reduction, reducing the deficit, providing catastrophic illness financing, and the other issues that are important to your agenda. In short, our strategy should be to put Iran “beside us.” The now unstoppable Iran investigations will not allow a quick solution to the problem, no matter what we do. The Congressional hearings will go on and the independent counsel will require an extended period of time to complete his work.

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Dave Abshire’s role will be to help coordinate and manage the Iran-related matters. Working with the other White House offices such as the Counsel, Legislative Affairs and the Press Office, he will be the primary focal point for the various Congressional investigations, the Special Counsel and other Iran-related inquiries.

The new year and Dave Abshire’s arrival allow a clean break between those actions taken in November and December concerning Iran and getting on with leading the nation. David Abshire’s effort should free the other White House staff to focus on the 1987 agenda. Iran issues will still require a portion of our attention, but David’s role allows the rest of us to recognize that the White House requires the multi-track approach of handling a series of issues at the same time.

1987 Agenda

The 1987 challenge will be selecting from among a number of good themes those issues that reinforce your agenda and the offensive nature of the last two years without conceding important topics to the Democrats. On issues like trade and agriculture, where the new Democratic Congress is expected to flex its muscle, we will find our best defensive strategy will be to have a good offensive initiative.8 We must also bring focus and coherence to a diverse range of other domestic issues and integrate them with national security/foreign policy priorities.

The range of domestic issues “teed up” for action is substantial and includes:

  • Catastrophic Health Insurance
  • Welfare Reform
  • Drugs/“Just Say No”9
  • FY88 Budget and Deficit Reduction10
  • Budget Reform
  • A More Competitive and Productive America
    VP’s Task Force on Deregulation
    Product Liability Insurance
    Insider Trading/Wall Street Reforms
  • Agriculture/Farm Bill
  • Right to Life/Adoption
  • Environment

On the foreign policy front, the list of key issues includes:

  • Arms Reduction
  • Nuclear Testing Treaties Ratification11
  • SDI
  • Support for Freedom Fighters
  • Soviet Relations
  • Middle East Efforts
  • Maintaining Adequate Defense Spending
  • 3rd World Debt
  • Various Arms Sales Legislative Packages

The list of potential Presidential initiatives is great. Success will depend on carefully picking just a few for major emphasis so that we can keep your agenda focused; our internal and external resources sharply honed; and our Congressional allies firmly aware of your real priorities.

We no longer have control of the Senate and will be unable to push a legislative agenda with any certainty. Therefore, your 1987 Agenda should include some issues that can be successful without a legislative component. In dealing with the Congress either on our initiatives—such as welfare reform and catastrophic health insurance—or on Democratic initiatives like trade and agriculture, we will be essentially in an “asking” posture with little opportunity to set the schedule. We should expect no breaks in the timing or scheduling of issues (hearings, testimony, or floor consideration). We will need behind-the-scenes legislative finesse in order to arrive at acceptable compromises.

Rather than planning our agenda to respond to the Congressional priorities, we need to fix our agenda so that we start 1987 with a specific plan in mind. We should look at the calendar in two-month blocks: January/February; March/April; May/June. This will allow us [Page 1256] not only to focus on the most current issues forced on us by the Congress and external events, but to do some intermediate range planning to be sure you are speaking out on the issues that are important to your agenda.

Generally speaking we can expect January and February to focus on the Budget and the State of the Union.12 Following up on the State of the Union, we will put together a detailed plan of activities for each of your major initiatives. March and April will probably focus a good deal on specific budget battles and other issues before Congress. This is likely to be our most “defensive” time frame, with our having to spend a good portion of our time fighting off unwanted Congressional initiatives as the new Democratic Leadership tests their mettle and your resolve.13 May and June will begin the focus on the Economic Summit, which is in Venice this year, and other foreign policy initiatives.14

In addition to these time blocks, we will continue to search for the current special events that will permit you to show leadership and dominate the news coverage. The Voyager event15 is a good example of such a “current event,” though in all probability many of the upcoming events may be tied to a specific substantive issue rather than a special event. We will also plan for a press conference every four to six weeks beginning in February. You could begin some domestic travel in February, perhaps one day every three weeks or so and of course, every trip would not have to be an overnight. Travelling and having events outside of Washington will enable you to perceptually take your issues “to the people.” It will help to keep you on the offensive, bypass the Congress with whom your battles will be mostly defensive, and produce heightened interest and expanded coverage of the issues. It will also reinforce your special bond with the American people that subtly conveys your continuing efforts to overcome the bureaucratic morass in Washington.

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The Budget

With the Budget transmitted to the Congress even before they actually returned (January 6), hearings on the Budget are expected to start almost immediately. Their focus is expected to be almost exclusively on raising taxes, raising domestic spending and cutting defense. Last year we adopted a budget strategy of low-key, get-along discussions that avoided a showdown with Senate Republicans. This year we need to agree upon our overall approach to the Budget: Is it confrontational or bipartisan cooperation? Do we make the Budget our top priority? Or do we want primarily to emphasize something else and let the Budget process percolate before we step in?

The Budget battle was launched with your January 3 Radio Address.16 Working with Jim Miller and Will Ball, we will outline in more detail a comprehensive approach to handling the budget this year. Since we don’t have control of the Senate, we won’t be able to rely on Pete Domenici and others to carry our fights into the final budget conferences. This year we will have to adopt different tactics in order to protect 3% real defense spending growth and cutting domestic spending without raising taxes.

Arms Control

The Nuclear and Space Talks are to reconvene January 15 in Geneva. To highlight that fact and to afford you an opportunity to reemphasize your approach to nuclear arms reduction, a meeting with our arms negotiators would be appropriate. Monday, January 12 would be a good day for you to meet briefly with Max Kampelman and the other negotiators to give them instructions for the next round of talks.17 Following your session, they could then go to the Press Room and brief on the current status of arms negotiations. In addition, we are preparing this week’s radio address for you on this topic.18 It will highlight the resumption of the Geneva talks, your meeting next week and your genuine desire to achieve real arms reductions.

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Observance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday

January 15 is the actual birthdate of Martin Luther King, Jr, although January 19 is celebrated as the Federal holiday. Given the recent race tensions in Queens there is a good opportunity for you to speak on racial tolerance. Ideally you could address an audience of young people in the White House, speaking to them on the importance of racial harmony and the special responsibility they have to insure that discrimination is eliminated.19 This would afford you an opportunity to address an issue of great importance and to do so as part of your observance of Dr. King’s birthday.


There will be no issue that is upon us faster with more lasting implications than trade. Recent trade figures indicate the problem is getting worse, not better. We can expect another round of bad trade figures for December. Mari Maseng reports that trade is the number one issue with her business constituents. The Democrats in Congress are expected to start immediately with House and Senate hearings on trade and to move their bills quickly for floor consideration. Trade remains a defensive issue for us. We will portray it as part of your larger theme of keeping America competitive. Keeping our trading system open, while not allowing foreign competition to unfairly gain advantages, will require some bold and decisive efforts. Without such actions the pressure for harmful Congressional action may overwhelm us. Your advisors are prepared to recommend to you an Administration trade bill that would receive some Congressional support. Our challenge will be to get the maximum possible attention on your proposal, to have it viewed as our initiative rather than a response to the Democrats and to give us negotiating leverage during Committee markups and floor consideration.

We should concentrate the activities surrounding the announcement of the trade proposal into a single week in order to get the [Page 1259] maximum amount of focus and attention. Your schedule should include meetings with business types, outside experts and Congressional allies. Messages should be dispatched to our trading partners around the world. Assuming your review and approval, our trade proposal should be ready to be announced as quickly as possible.

State of the Union

The week of January 26 is the week to firmly reestablish that Ronald Reagan has an agenda for his last two years in office, that this is the beginning of the fourth quarter in a very important game. The week will be focused around the State of the Union (SOTU) address scheduled for 9:00 p.m., Tuesday, January 27. The SOTU should be viewed as part of an ongoing process rather than a single, major-event speech that has no pre or post connections. As usual, the full compliment of pre and post speech briefings, and TV appearances by senior Administration officials are contemplated again this year.

Your State of the Union speech is expected to be an uplifting, philosophical, values-oriented address highlighting the agenda items for the next two years. You should have a preliminary draft for your “right track/wrong track” review on Wednesday.20 The speech is expected to be somewhat longer than last year, but it is not expected to be a “laundry list” of important issues. Like last year we are also preparing the President’s Legislative Message to be submitted to the Congress the next day.21 It will outline the numerous foreign and domestic Administration initiatives that Congress is expected to address during its 100th session as well as many of the deregulatory efforts that we are undertaking administratively.

Depending upon the initiatives contained in the State of the Union, one or perhaps two should be singled out for follow-up attention as quickly as possible. The point is not to select those initiatives now, but to agree that one or perhaps two post-State of the Union events will occur shortly after the speech—hopefully outside of the White House complex, if not outside of Washington, to highlight your State of the Union initiatives.

To promote grassroots support for your legislative message to Congress and the State of the Union, a briefing for Republican political [Page 1260] leaders from around the country would be useful. Mitch Daniels and the Office of Political Affairs will organize such a briefing, which would take place the day before/of/after the State of the Union, depending upon your schedule.22

In addition, the remainder of the Budget details are expected to be sent to the Congress that week. The full departmental administrative and programmatic budgets will then become public. Depending on our overall budget strategy we may want to consider some Presidential involvement in this “2nd” Budget submission. The week will also include the one-year anniversary of the Challenger disaster and an appropriate way for you to personally recognize that occasion will be identified.23 This will also allow you to highlight further the importance of space exploration, including the commercial spinoffs.

Catastrophic Illness

Given your decision to indicate in the State of the Union speech your intention to submit a catastrophic health insurance plan, once you have signed off on the final details of the plan we will need to arrange a well-orchestrated announcement. We need to tackle head-on the mistaken perception that you don’t care about how your policies impact the average person. Catastrophic insurance, in addition to being a worthy policy objective, is an issue that generates a lot of concern among all levels of citizens.

We can anticipate the Hill Democrats will advance a proposal of their own, have hearings and try to jump out ahead of us on this issue. They clearly can make the first move given their ability to control the hearing schedule but all the advice we are hearing from the Republican leadership on the Hill is not to let this very good issue get away from us.

Foreign Policy Speech

Particularly in light of the Iran affair, a major foreign policy speech, as we have discussed—a “State of the World” speech—if you will, will help place your foreign policy objectives in a broader perspective. The speech would give you the opportunity to articulate your foreign [Page 1261] policy objectives and allow you to put your Iranian initiatives, Soviet relations, commitment to freedom fighters and SDI/arms control policies in the framework of your overall agenda. The speech would build upon your National Security Strategy Report which is now required by Congress and due to be submitted in late January.24 You will, of course, want to discuss this with George, Cap and Frank, but I suspect they will be supportive. This speech could be given in early February to an audience outside of Washington, which would help to highlight its significance. Once you have restated your overall national security objectives, George and Cap could each follow up with a series of major speeches of their own giving more specifics within their areas.

Welfare Reform

The decision memo on your welfare and federalism initiative is being reworked as we discussed and should be back to you shortly. Assuming you decide to go forward with a program that is along the general lines of the one recommended, this issue provides an opportunity to focus not only on a new Administration initiative but do so in a way that highlights a political gain for Republicans—Governorships. The National Governors Conference will convene in Washington February 22–23. While you will have announced your initiative earlier, this is a good forum to speak to both federalism and welfare reform. In addition, a visit at a later date to a State Capitol to address a State legislature would provide yet another good opportunity to pursue your initiative.

These efforts would, of course, be complemented by the regular White House meetings with key Congressional leaders, constituent groups and experts on welfare reform in order to build support for your proposal.

N.A.T.O. Meeting

Consistent with past practice, periodic meetings and discussions with our NATO allies would be useful. Again you will undoubtedly want to talk to George and Frank about this, but we should consider proposing a special meeting of some or all of the NATO heads in mid-March in a “neutral” location like Bermuda. This would be the first NATO leaders meeting since the Reykjavik Summit.25 Iran surely would be an agenda item, but the main focus most likely would be your arms reduction initiatives.

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This meeting could precede your trip to Canada scheduled for early April and serve as a good bridge to the Economic Summit in June.26 We can expect a series of challenges by the Congress to your leadership in international affairs, A meeting of the NATO allies would be important not only in confirming that the President is ultimately responsible for conducting foreign policy, but it would also give you the opportunity to pursue the arms reduction proposals discussed at Reykjavik.

President’s Citizens Medals

One of the principal hallmarks of your Presidency has been your emphasis on acknowledging individual accomplishments and heroism. This emphasis on the exceptional contributions of individuals has been consistent with your philosophy of limited government and recognition of individual and community responsibilities to help effect change and the well-being of our fellow men.

To highlight your commitment to recognizing outstanding individual accomplishments, you should consider being more active and regular in awarding the President’s Civilian Medal. This Medal is the second highest award the President can voluntarily bestow, but your history of awarding it has been sporadic. The Voyager people each received the medal, but the last previous recipient was a departing White House staffer when he changed jobs in February 1985.

If you agree, we would regularize the awarding of this prestigious honor. While it is not possible to suggest a fixed schedule, such as one medal per month, we would undertake a determined, but thorough and careful, effort to identify deserving individuals as potential recipients. The selection criteria would emphasize outstanding individual accomplishments with a focus on that individual who has made a “national” contribution rather than an exceptional local or regional accomplishment. Examples of the types of people we have in mind are the “heroes” you have traditionally honored at the State of the Union.

Presidential Luncheon Series

In addition to the events that promote key issues, if you agree, we will build into your schedule a continuation of your regular luncheon meetings with outside experts from academia, literature, medicine, etc. These sessions would continue those luncheons held during this past year that were so successful, but would be broadened to include a wider range of subjects and be held on a more regular basis. The subject matters could range from agriculture to scientific research to outer [Page 1263] space and marine exploration to sports. The luncheons would serve to give you the different perspectives of non-governmental experts as well as keep you abreast of the “leading edge” developments in a wide range of subjects.


The preceding is not meant to be an all-inclusive outline of either the issues we will engage or the schedule to advance them. It does recognize that success in handling Iran will require an aggressive and coordinated plan to advance all the issues on your agenda. In addition, there is a very real need to “take the message to the people” and demonstrate you are not mired down in the Iran fallout, by doing more events outside of Washington.

We will work carefully to see that your schedule while not overloaded reflects the key issues you select as your domestic and international agenda. Additionally, creative scheduling of special events will be aggressively pursued. Taking the Presidency and your issues to the people should be central to your 1987 agenda. State legislatures, Senior Centers, high school youths/drug events all provide this great potential and will be utilized.

On the international front, there is a real need to build upon and strengthen your role as the “leader of the free world.” Announcing policy initiatives, dispatching envoys, and engaging head-on arms reduction, trade problems and regional discussions, all will help to reinforce your international affairs standing with a Congress that wants to challenge your authority.

We must rely far less on the Congress and far more on the actions and activities we generate to provide the success stories for 1987. To retain the agenda we cannot be reactive or predictable. There must be new ground broken—from trade to catastrophic illness, in our relations with Nicaragua or in debating arms reduction. Bold and decisive executive action is needed. If you agree, I will get the staff preparing to assist you in achieving these goals.

  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Collection, Donald T. Regan Papers, Box 213, White House, Subject File, Planning, 1985–87. No classification marking.
  2. See footnote 2, Document 288.
  3. See footnote 6, Document 286.
  4. In his December 2, 1986, address to the nation on the investigation of the Iran arms and Contra aid controversy (see footnote 7, Document 286), the President affirmed the administration’s desire to cooperate with Congress, adding: “But I do believe Congress can carry out its duties in getting the facts without disrupting the orderly conduct of a vital part of this nation’s government. Accordingly, I am urging the Congress to consider some mechanism that will consolidate its inquiries—such a step has already been requested by several Members of Congress. I support this idea.” (Public Papers: Reagan, 1986, Book II, p. 1595) According to a December 5 statement by Speakes, the President that day had met with the bipartisan Congressional leadership and told them “that it was important to expedite and consolidate the number of congressional inquiries being planned.” (Ibid., p. 1607)
  5. See footnote 7, Document 286.
  6. In his December 2, 1986, address, Reagan stated that he had taken the “unprecedented step of permitting two of my former national security advisers to testify before a committee of Congress.” (Public Papers: Reagan, 1986, Book II, p. 1595)
  7. On December 26, 1986, the President announced that he had appointed Abshire to serve as Special Counselor to the President and White House coordinator for the Iran inquiry. Abshire would assume his responsibilities on January 5, 1987. (Ibid., p. 1646)
  8. The mid-term elections took place on November 4, 1986. The Democrats won eight Senate seats, returning them to the majority, while they retained their majority in the House. (Congress and the Nation, vol. VII, 1985–1988, pp. 10–11)
  9. Reference is to First Lady Nancy Reagan’s drug education program.
  10. The administration transmitted the FY 1988 budget to Congress on January 5. For Reagan’s January 5 transmittal message to Wright and Bush, see Public Papers: Reagan, 1987, Book I, pp. 3–11. For the President’s January 10 radio address, in which he indicated that the budget had been submitted “a full month earlier than usual,” see ibid., pp. 17–18.
  11. On July 3, 1974, Nixon and Brezhnev signed the Treaty on the Limitation of Underground Nuclear Weapons Tests and the Protocol thereto, also known as the Threshold Test Ban Treaty (TTBT), which prohibited underground nuclear tests above a 150 KT limit. On May 28, 1976, Ford and Brezhnev signed the Underground Nuclear Explosions for Peaceful Purposes and the Protocol thereto, also known as the Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty (PNE), which extended the limitations of the TTBT to underground tests for peaceful purposes. Although the Senate had held hearings on both treaties in 1977, it had not, as of January 1987, acted on them. In a January 13, 1987, message to the Senate, Reagan urged ratification of both treaties. (Ibid., pp. 21–23)
  12. January 27; see footnote 1, Document 280.
  13. The Senate leadership included Stennis (President Pro Tempore), Byrd (Majority Leader), and Cranston (Whip). The House leadership included Wright (Speaker), Foley (Majority Leader), and Coelho (Whip).
  14. The G–7 Economic Summit meeting was scheduled to take place June 8–10 in Venice. Documentation on the meeting is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1981–1988, vol. XXXVII, Trade; Monetary Policy; Industrialized Country Cooperation, 1985–1988.
  15. Reference is to the Voyager, flown by pilots Richard Rutan and Jeana Yeager. The experimental aircraft departed California on December 14, 1986, and flew non-stop around the world, returning on December 23. For additional information, see Sandra Blakeslee, “Voyager Succeeds in Historic Flight: World Circuit, on One Load of Fuel, Ends in California,” New York Times, December 24, 1986, pp. A1, A10.
  16. For the text of the address, see Public Papers: Reagan, 1987, Book I, pp. 2–3. In it, the President commented, “You know, when you look at a budget, all you see are long rows of numbers. They go on for pages, and they’re not very exciting. But those numbers always add up to something, and it’s not just a surplus or a deficit. No, it’s also a plan, a hope, a vision of what America is and of where America is going.”
  17. The President met with Kampelman, Glitman, and Ronald Lehman on January 12. For the text of a statement released at the conclusion of their meeting, see ibid., pp. 18–20.
  18. The January 10 radio address dealt with the FY 1988 budget; see footnote 10, above.
  19. On January 15, the President delivered an address to high school students on Martin Luther King, Jr. PBS broadcast his address to high schools throughout the United States. In it, Reagan remarked: “As recent unfortunate events have demonstrated, we cannot be complacent about racism and bigotry. And I would challenge all of you to pledge yourselves to building an America where incidents of racial hatred do not happen, because racism has been banned not just from the law books but from the hearts of the people. You should accept nothing less than making yours a generation free of bigotry, intolerance, and discrimination. If I might be presumptuous enough to offer this suggestion: A good place to start, a tangible contribution each of you can make, is to be totally intolerant of racism anywhere around you. If someone, even a friend, uses an ugly word referring to another’s race or religion, let’s make it clear we won’t put up with it. Racial, ethnic, or religious slurs are vulgar, mean spirited; and there is no place for them in a democratic and free America.” (Public Papers: Reagan, 1987, Book I, p. 25)
  20. January 7. The President was admitted to Bethesda Naval Hospital on January 4 to undergo several medical procedures. According to the President’s Daily Diary, the President met with Regan at the hospital on January 7 from 2:50 until 3:20 p.m. (Reagan Library, President’s Daily Diary)
  21. Presumable reference to the President’s message to the Congress, entitled “A Quest for Excellence.” For the text of the message, see Public Papers: Reagan, 1987, Book I, pp. 61–79.
  22. The President took part in a meeting to discuss the State of the Union address with the Republican Congressional leadership on January 27. The meeting took place in the Cabinet Room from 10:07 until 10:49 a.m. (Reagan Library, President’s Daily Diary) No minutes have been found.
  23. On January 28, the first anniversary of the disaster, the President spoke at 3 p.m. from the Oval Office; his remarks were transmitted via satellite to NASA installations worldwide. For the text of his remarks, see Public Papers: Reagan, 1987, Book I, pp. 79–81.
  24. Printed as Document 290.
  25. See Document 278.
  26. The President was scheduled to travel to Ottawa to meet with Mulroney, April 4–6. Documentation on the visit is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1981–1988, vol. VIII, Western Europe, 1985–1988.