Tag Archives: Ronald Reagan

Way to Go Joe

It was so hush-hush that even his wife was kept in the dark.  “She knew I was acting awfully strange. I don’t know if she thought I was carrying on an affair or what.”  So recalled Joseph “Joe” Whittle, U.S Attorney for the Western District of Kentucky, of his immersion in an ultra-secret investigation of bribery and corruption in the Kentucky General Assembly. 

Confirmed as U.S. Attorney under President Ronald Reagan in 1986, the Grayson County native had worked to enlarge and modernize his office, prosecute civil rights and environmental cases, and collect debts owed the government through the forfeiture of assets derived from crime.  But this corruption case, opened in 1990, promised to be his most consequential.  The FBI had learned that some Kentucky legislators, particularly members of the Business, Organization, and Professions Committees (BOP), were willing to sell their votes in connection with the regulation of horse racing (the “trot”).  To collar the wrongdoers, the feds launched Operation BOPTROT.

The undercover sting – which featured secret tape recordings, drops of cash marked with invisible ink, and the flipping of a suspect by showing him FBI file cabinets supposedly filled with incriminating evidence – was highly productive.  From 1992-1995, some 17 legislators, including the House Speaker and Senate Minority Leader, were charged and convicted of bribery, conspiracy, extortion, racketeering, and lying to the FBI.

About halfway through the investigation, however, President George H.W. Bush (who had reappointed Whittle as U.S. Attorney), lost his reelection bid to Bill Clinton.  Although it was Clinton’s prerogative to replace U.S. Attorneys as his own nominees were confirmed, his new Attorney General, Janet Reno, surprised all 93 incumbents by demanding their immediate resignations.  Despite warnings that some critical investigations, including BOPTROT, might be disrupted, all stepped down, including Whittle, who left office in July 1993.  Many of his fellow U.S. Attorneys exchanged farewell letters with Whittle, advising of future plans and testifying to the pride they had taken in their work representing the United States.

Whittle served as Grayson County Attorney and also ran for Attorney General of Kentucky

Joe Whittle has recently donated to WKU’s Special Collections Library a collection of his correspondence, clippings and personal items covering his early legal career and his tenure as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Kentucky.  Included are speeches recalling his work on Operation BOPTROT, the history of the U.S. Attorney’s office, and summaries of his achievements.  A couple of unusual items also appear.  In 1985, a 38-year-old Illinois rabbi and diamond dealer disappeared while in Louisville on business.  An investigation pointed to his murder, but his body remained missing for years.  In the meantime, Whittle helped provide enough evidence to satisfy Jewish religious authorities that his widow was eligible to remarry.  Another item is a list of predictions for 2050 prepared by Whittle in 1985 and placed in a time capsule at the Leitchfield Deposit Bank in Grayson County.  Some of them proved remarkably tuned in to the future.  He imagined that “80% of homes had personal computers which were used for communications, electronic mail, electronic banking and to control electrical and electronic devices”; that “most telephones were wireless and were carried on the person so that he or she could be reached by telephone wherever they might be”; and that “many people traveled within a fifty mile radius by way of electric powered automobiles and that it had become necessary by the year 2050 to restrict the use of internal combustion engines because of environmental considerations.”

Whittle with President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan

Click here to access a finding aid for Joe Whittle’s papers held in WKU’s Special Collections Library.  For more of our collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Filed under Manuscripts & Folklife Archives

“First in the mystical haze”

Nancy Reagan and her husband

“Without Nancy, there would have been no Governor Reagan, no President Reagan,” said aide Michael Deaver when Nancy Reagan died on March 6, 2016.  Like many other First Ladies, she was a behind-the-scenes adviser, lightning rod, and icon in her own right. 

Two collections in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections fall at slightly different points on the spectrum of opinion about Mrs. Reagan.  As we have previously blogged, the Reagans inspired Logan County native Betty Kathleen Hall to write a kind of joint biography in the form of a narrative poem.  As hagiography, her 184-page work has no peer.  Here’s Nancy at Reagan’s 1967 inauguration as Governor of California:

The inaugural ball was stylish and gleaming,
and Nancy was first in the mystical haze:
She wore a white, one-shouldered gown, by Galenos.
all beaded with diamond-like glass daisies.

Nancy’s worshipful gaze at “Ronnie” whenever he spoke also earned notice:

while others applauded
Nancy transfixed into a pure adoration.

But Nancy was no shrinking violet, as Hall made clear in her evaluation of the sources of Ronald Reagan’s success:

And towering high with an eagle eye,
Nancy’s antennas scan political sky.

In 1982, at the request of a Kentucky cousin, Frank Kavanaugh recalled his interactions with “Some First Ladies and Their Husbands” beginning in 1967, when he arrived in Washington as a documentary filmmaker associated with George Washington University’s Department of Medical and Public Affairs.  His most vivid memories of Nancy Reagan related to the March 30, 1981 attempt on the President’s life and a subsequent TV film that recreated the assassination attempt and its aftermath.  As Reagan recovered in hospital, he wrote, Mrs. Reagan was “the strongest force in that building.  She was aware of every activity or plan surrounding the president, seldom left his side, and could make life miserable for anyone who was not contributing to President Reagan’s chances for recovery and comfort”—a role that, Kavanaugh realized, was “not too unlike the role she took throughout the president’s life.”  In her determination to preserve Reagan’s image as the “good guy” and “the great and charming communicator,” he observed, Mrs. Reagan “could be vicious.”  Even though she, like her husband, had acted in films, she never saw the highly praised documentary about the attempt on her husband’s life. “To her it was a nightmare that she wanted to avoid reliving,” said Kavanaugh.  The President, on the other hand “loved it.  He was back in the movies.”

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections.  For more of our collections about political women, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Her “Great American King and Queen”

Ronald and Nancy Reagan

Ronald and Nancy Reagan

As we approach the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth (February 6), we can be sure that authors and pundits will continue to weigh in on the legacy of the nation’s 40th president.  Thousands of books–from Where’s the Rest of Me?  The Ronald Reagan Story (1965) to dozens of new volumes awaiting release in 2011–offer perspectives, both positive and negative, on Reagan and his political career.

Ronald Reagan has also inspired local authors.  WKU’s Special Collections Library holds a biography of Reagan written by Logan County native Betty Kathleen Hall (1908-1995).  Presented in the form of a narrative poem, the 184-page composition covers Reagan’s life from his youth (He was a lifeguard in the depression days / and he hitchhiked from town to town, / looking for radio work or, just anything–/ honest or honorable that could be found) to his and First Lady Nancy Reagan’s last days in the White House (Then suddenly, a commotion attracts us, / there’s a bustle of vigor and vim, / as we join all Americans and shout / “Good-bye!  Good-bye!” to them.)  Hall takes on the issues, personalities and controversies of the Reagan years, in every instance maintaining a thorough lack of sympathy for the President’s critics.

A finding aid for the Betty Kathleen Hall Collection can be downloaded here.  For other resources on Ronald Reagan at the Special Collections Library, search TopScholar and KenCat.

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