What was it like to meet and work with President Ronald Reagan? Kristian Solem, 66, a California recording/mastering engineer, talked to The Epoch Times about his memories of recording an audiobook for the 40th U.S. president in 1990.
“Speaking My Mind” was a Simon & Schuster audiobook collection of Reagan’s major speeches during the course of his political career. Solem’s job was to sit with the president and record his introductions to each speech, which gave them context. They spent the better part of a day together. The speeches included one at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate before the Eastern Bloc collapsed in 1991, a speech after the Challenger disaster, and a speech after the release of Beirut hostage David Jacobsen, the last two having taken place in 1986.
“Can you pass a Secret Service background check?” was how Solem got the news from Simon & Schuster of his presidential assignment. He had no doubt earned the book publisher’s trust by previously recording celebrities like Gilda Radner, Ned Beatty, Richard Chamberlain, Leonard Nimoy, and George Takei.
Reagan’s post-presidency offices were located in a Century City high rise near Beverly Hills. After being searched and escorted by Secret Service agents, Solem was led through an anteroom into an imposing round, windowless room with red walls. “On the walls were life-size photographs of Reagan with [former Soviet Union leader Mikhail] Gorbachev, [former UK Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher, [former French President François] Mitterrand and [former Chancellor of Germany Helmut] Kohl. The effect of being surrounded by these images was awe-inspiring,” Solem said. “Everywhere you turned, they followed you.”
Solem was then led into a conference room where he began to set up his recording equipment. A side door opened and men in suits took up positions as Reagan entered the room. A reception line formed.
“You look like a young man who spends a lot of time out of doors,” the president said when it was Solem’s turn in line. Solem, an accomplished rock climber at the time, said he loved the mountains. “Well, did you hear about those two hikers in Alaska who found themselves between the mother grizzly bear and her cubs?” joked Reagan. “One of the hikers took off his heavy boots and put on his running shoes. The other said to him, ‘You can’t outrun that bear.’ ‘No,’ answered the friend, ‘but I can outrun you.'”
In addition to Reagan’s humor, Solem made other discoveries about the former president that were not widely known or publicized. For example, he was an exceptional reader who could record the first chapter of the audiobook, and subsequent chapters, on the first “take.”
“Even the best actors and authors I have worked with rarely get through more than a few paragraphs before stumbling and having to do a pickup, so this was amazing,” said Solem.
Reagan was also a skilled writer. When the president encountered a phrase during recording that he said, “read well but did not speak well,” he was his own rewrite man. “He took out a clean sheet of paper and rewrote the offending section. The meaning was unchanged, but the language was much better. I realized then that unlike most politicians, the president had written the chapters himself,” Solem said.
Shocked at Media Treatment of the Late President
In 1994, Reagan told the American public in a handwritten letter that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Solem said he was shocked and offended at how quickly major news outlets spun a narrative that the president had been impaired during his last years in office.
Solem said it was media depictions of the president’s illness that made him reject the liberal politics with which he was raised.
One example of the deprecations was a book written by CBS News‘ Lesley Stahl, Solem said. Stahl wrote in the 2000 memoir that when she encountered the president as a White House correspondent in 1986, “Reagan didn’t seem to know who I was. He gave me a distant look with those milky eyes and shook my hand weakly. Oh, my, he’s gonzo, I thought. I have to go out on the lawn tonight and tell my countrymen that the president of the United States is a doddering space cadet.”
Stahl did not limit her remarks to the former president’s cognition but included an additional attack on his physical aging. “Reagan was as shriveled as a kumquat. He was so frail, his skin so paper-thin. I could almost see the sunlight through the back of his withered neck,” she wrote.
The retroactive bashing of Reagan’s cognitive abilities was not just gratuitous and mean-spirited, it was flat-out wrong, Solem said. “I worked with him, the president, years after the negative characterizations of his performance and he was so alert and sharp it was amazing,” said Solem. “His charisma was so powerful it filled the room. It was unlike anything I had experienced before. He reached out and grabbed me by my brain.
“In 1992, three years before his letter disclosing his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, two years after I worked with him for a full day and six years after Stahl’s pronouncements, President Reagan spoke, as a private citizen, at the Republican National Convention. The speech was so remarkable that even the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, not a friend of conservatism or Reagan, called it ‘flawless.’ Had he miraculously turned back the hands of time, or were the media fabricating his impairments?”
An Airline Disaster, Captured on Tape, Raises Questions
On Aug. 31, 1986, Aeroméxico Flight 498 from Mexico City to Los Angeles was hit by a private plane and crashed into the LA suburb of Cerritos. Sixty-seven people on the planes and 15 on the ground lost their lives.
Within days, Solem said, reporters opined that the Mexican pilots’ skill and discipline were the reason behind the tragedy. “On the basis of no evidence, so-called journalists speculated that the flight attendants had been in the cockpit distracting the pilots and that there may even been partying. This didn’t pass the ‘smell test’ for me even before the media’s treatment of Reagan, but like most air disasters, this vanished from the news cycle before the facts were known. Much of the public was left with the impression that the crash was the fault of an incompetent crew. A Mexican crew.”
Three years later, Solem was contacted by an attorney for Aeromexico who was in possession of the cockpit voice recorder tape from Flight 498 which the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) had called “unplayable.”
An NTSB official had issued a statement, soon after the crash, that the tape was damaged irreparably due to the poor condition of the aircraft’s recorder; that it was folded and twisted and would not play, and that the damage pre-dated the crash. When Solem saw the tape however, it was clear that this wasn’t the case. The tape appeared normal. However, when coming off the reel it broke every so often. A separate problem entirely.
The restoration was successful. Interactions between the air traffic controller and the pilot or co-pilot could be heard, dispelling media charges of distraction or error. More disturbingly, the co-pilot suddenly yelled “Ay Cabron!” in Spanish and “This can’t be!” in English.
“At that same moment, from the mic in the passenger compartment, screams of the terrified passengers could be heard as they rode the upside-down diving aircraft to their deaths. Instantly, it ended. From then on, I kept that track muted. Hearing it once was enough,” said Solem.
To verify the accuracy of the tape transcript, two Aeromexico pilots who had flown with the Flight 498 pilots were brought in to audit the tape—a traumatic deed for them, said Solem. When the case finally went to court, a jury absolved Aeromexico and found the private plane and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) culpable for the accident.
“The coverage of the crash of Aeromexico flight 498 began my deep suspicion of anything I saw or heard from the mainstream news outlets,” Solem said. “Media coverage of President Reagan’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis sealed the deal. People suffered from both examples of misreporting.”
Post Sound Engineering
Despite his successful career as a recording/mastering engineer, Solem first love was rock climbing. It was his identity until he was sidelined by an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) in the brain. Today he focuses his time on writing and photography.
Since he first started recording public figures, the music and recording businesses have dramatically changed. The main reason, said Solem, is the introduction of digital distribution. With songs selling for as little as ten cents, “record companies do not have the big budgets they once did. Musicians used to give concerts to sell their CDs; now they make recordings to drive their concert revenue.”
Solem is writing a book about his life, spectacular rock-climbing career, and special moments like having a chance to record Reagan.