Reagan biographer Lou Cannon reflects on politics and journalism


One of the giants of political journalism decided to hang up at 88. But anyone who knows Lou Cannon doesn’t think for a moment that retirement means more time on the beach or crawling on all fours with one of his seven great-grandchildren.

Cannon has reached Chapter 23 of his memoir, he said, and plans to write several more before a self-imposed deadline in a few months. Hence his departure from professional news after more than 60 years of daily grind.

The book – one of the many shelves produced by Cannon – quite promises reading.

After his election in 1966, he began covering California Governor Ronald Reagan for the San Jose Mercury News, then chronicled Reagan’s two White House terms for the Washington Post, establishing himself as the largest authority of the 40th President. Even after five books from Reagan, Cannon – a man of unquenchable curiosity and inordinate humility – said that there was still much for others to explore.

“I don’t think I made the last word,” he said. “There is always more to learn and to discover about people. “

Cannon and his wife, Mary, have lived in Summerland for over 30 years, after Cannon discovered her quiet charms in covering Reagan during his frequent stays at the Western White House outside of Santa Barbara. He left the Post in 2000, after 26 years on the national staff, including several as the newspaper’s West Coast bureau chief.

(Cannon’s 1997 book, “Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD,” ​​was hailed as a definitive work on modern Los Angeles.)

Since 2005, Cannon has written a weekly column on state government for the Sacramento-based State Net Capitol Journal, an online newsletter.

A few days after dropping off his last dispatch, Cannon went to lunch at a local institution, the Summerland Beach Cafe. The restaurant, housed in an 1893 Victorian building, marks the arrival and departure of this small seaside town as drivers speed through Highway 101.

Cannon wore a black newsboy cap, a green mask, and a salmon-colored cable-knit sweater. Freeway traffic maintained a steady pace, punctuated by the intermittent sound of a hesitant car alarm.

Cannon has said he doesn’t wish to be one of those “old farts” who complain about how much better things used to be, although he admitted that politics have changed a lot over the past few decades, and not for the good.

Reagan and other practitioners viewed politics as a profession, he said, with certain protocols. There was vehement disagreement, even among members of the same party, but the ideology and the whole thing of “owning” the opposition, through taunts or wacky stunts, was less important than getting things done.

“Politics was a shared experience for all of these people,” Cannon said. “With a few exceptions, they’ve all had transactions across the aisle. Many had friends who were the other party. Many of them had … [home-state] interests ”that transcends partisanship.

“I have a chapter in my memories where [Republican Sen. Bob] Dole and [Democratic Sen. George] McGovern worked together on food stamps.

“It wasn’t ‘Rebecca from Sunnybrook Farm’” – all virtue and light – but there was “an inherent respect because the other person was working at the same company as you,” Cannon said.

Much has changed in politics and journalism, but Lou Cannon says the fundamentals remain the same.

(Mark Z. Barabak / Los Angeles Times)

A waitress brought a side of pickles and the car alarm went off.

Cannon has seen a lot of change in the news industry, also to the detriment of our fragile republic.

The implosion and collapse of hundreds of newspapers. The loss of tens of thousands of jobs in journalism. The rise of partisan information networks which serve as signal amplifiers, and sometimes as propaganda weapons, for major parties and their most vehement personalities.

But the core values ​​of political reporting, Cannon said, endure.

“You want reporters who are skeptical,” he said between bites of a turkey burger. “You want journalists who have the right mind. You want a reporter who is tough, but fair, and who doesn’t get easily taken in by advertising and promotion.

Despite the devastation suffered by the information industry, he remains optimistic.

“Everyone says it’s a dying industry, but there is going to be a need for journalism in every conceivable scenario of our democracy,” said Cannon, who would welcome any of his 14 grandchildren or grandchildren. – grandchildren following in his footsteps.

“You’ll do fine if you do the basics.” Get the facts right … care about what you do, care about the people you cover. These essential elements are, for me, unchanged.

Recently, friends and admirers gathered on a Zoom call from coast to coast, one of those assemblages is your life, marking Cannon’s retirement – although what “retirement” is. to actually mean then that it exceeds 88½ was a common joke.

There were reporters supervised by Cannon; an old hand from Reagan’s Sacramento days; neighbors of Santa Barbara; Cannon’s son, Carl, editor-in-chief of RealClearPolitics; and several powerful oaks of political reporting, including The Post’s Dan Balz, former San Francisco Chronicle editor Jerry Roberts and LA Times Sacramento columnist George Skelton.

“In the Political Writers Hall of Fame, you are Henry Aaron,” said Al Hunt, a longtime member of Beltway journalism.

After over an hour and his humble thanks, Cannon seemed ready to wrap up. There was still to write.

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