September 26, 2003


-REVIEW: of 'Reagan: A Life in Letters' edited by Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson and Martin Anderson (Edmund Morris, Washington Post)

The central paradox about Ronald Reagan, our most world-changing president since Harry Truman, was that a man so attractive in his public persona, so irresistible in negotiation, and so transparently decent a human being, could have been such a bone-cracking bore. I interviewed him regularly throughout his second term, read half a million words of his presidential diaries and reams of his manuscripts (including most of the letters collected in these two volumes), and can only endorse the bemused remark of his first wife, "Ronnie never shut up."

It wasn't what he said or wrote that glazed your eyes. At least through late middle age, when his hard drive filled up, Ronald Reagan was exceptionally well informed. An editor of The Washington Post met him in December 1939, and was amazed by his detailed knowledge of the situation in Finland. The silky voice, the delightful humor, the clarity of expression (his manuscripts are remarkable for their lack of erasures) never failed to impress -- at first. Only when you began to note, the sixth or 36th time he repeated himself, that his facial expressions, his phraseology, even his self-deprecating chuckles seemed to be projected from some inner, infinitely replayable DVD, did you get the creepy feeling he was not quite real, and wondered where, if anywhere, the real Reagan was.

I like Edmund Morris--whose Reagan novel is vastly underrated--but this is silly.

Do you tell stories in your family? We do. When someone starts one we can all pick it up and finish it for them, complete with pauses, gestures, etc. That's the nature of story-telling. And that's just within our family, never mind a professional politician who has to perform for strangers endlessly.

Ronald Reagan was a story-teller par excellence and the best story he told was the one about us, the American people. When that story gets to be "a bore", then God help us.

It's a curious aspect of the intellectual class that they think it a drawback when a man knows who he is and what he thinks or when our nation believes itself to be decent and good, as it always was in Ronald Reagan's telling.

-BOOKNOTES: Reagan In His Own Hand edited by Kiron Skinner (C-SPAN, April 29, 2001)
The Real Reagan: Think you know what made him tick? His letters may surprise you (MICHAEL DUFFY AND NANCY GIBBS, 9/21/03, TIME)

Future scholars may argue with the substance of Reagan's principles but not with their pedigree, for now they will have a paper trail of the kind historians can only dream. It was his Vice President, George Herbert Walker Bush, who was famous for the thank-you notes he flecked off in every direction. But few people knew that Reagan ranks among the most prolific Presidents, author of more than 5,000 letters on everything from his love of Snoopy to his guilt about sex, his hatred of gossip and his taste for Ayn Rand. And so the private account of a public life, to be published in Reagan: A Life in Letters, is a code breaker for anyone still curious about which version most resembles the Real Reagan.

The letters are easy, intimate; but to read them is to wonder if they are an extension of his personal relationships or a substitute for them. He began his public life as a radio announcer, talking to an audience he could not see; he went on as a movie star to delight an audience he never met. But the fans would write letters, and he would write back. In the case of Lorraine Wagner, Reagan fan-club president, Philadelphia chapter, there were some 150 letters over the course of 50 years. As his political following grew, the conversation continued, and there was remarkably little difference in tone and tenderness in his letters to his fans, his children and the leaders of other superpowers.

The letters suggest a man for whom writing was less a habit than a need, like food and water, as though the very act shaped his thoughts as much as the thoughts shaped the writing. Reagan didn't type; he wrote by hand in blue or black ink on a yellow legal pad or dictated for his secretaries to transcribe, and so the drafts were often saved, stuffed into a box and then forgotten. In 1996 Kiron Skinner, now a professor at Carnegie Mellon, was researching a book on the end of the cold war when she stumbled on the first batch. As she dug a little deeper, more boxes appeared. Overwhelmed by the sheer volume, she called in Martin Anderson, who served as Reagan's first domestic-policy adviser, and his wife Annelise, a Reagan aide at the Office of Management and Budget, to help. First there were 1,000 letters, then 3,000, and in the end the trio sorted through more than 5,000, and suspect there are an additional 3,000 or 4,000 out there still unaccounted for—until they turn up on eBay.

Reagan was called the great communicator, and that was usually meant to describe the way he spoke. But it may be that one secret to his success, his ability to persuade people, was that he took his beliefs more seriously than he took himself. Spelling and grammar errors aside, the prose is literate, not literary; he does not seem to try to make an impression with shiny turns of phrase. He stays out of the way of the arguments he is making, and in his asides and self-deprecation, there is the verbal version of that little duck of the head, the modest gesture that says, "This isn't about me. This is about things that matter more than both of us."

-ESSAY: Reagan's heartfelt letters illuminate his presidency: Collection of letters provides new glimpse of the former US president. (Peter Grier, 9/03, CS Monitor)

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 26, 2003 2:23 PM

The problem wasn't that he told stories. It was that he believed them, even when they wre preposterous.

The dying airman is the most famous, but his speech on the award of the first Medal of Honor during his administration was the silliest.

He even told the reporters, "You're not going to believe this." With the exception of me, he was wrong about that.

As a general proposition, you don't want to fantasist in a position of power.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 26, 2003 3:42 PM

Why? Willmoore Kendall explained long ago why it's precisely such men that win the national office, while Congressmen tend to be more prosaic:

Posted by: oj at September 26, 2003 3:45 PM

Would you have preferred a President who was over his 'inordinate' fear of Communism? His supposed reality proved to be a far bigger fantasy than any story Reagan ever told.

Posted by: jim hamlen at September 26, 2003 4:10 PM

We all have our faults. Reporters excepted that is. Most of the fantasy I remember being discussed during the Reagan administration consisted of stories regarding nuclear armagedon if we didn't make nice-nice with the soviets. Reagan knew they were fools but never let on.
Too nice a guy, I suppose. Not one to pick on those smaller than himself.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at September 26, 2003 4:28 PM

OJ missed the silliest aspect: "our most world-changing president since Harry Truman." Huh? Reagan changed the focus of domestic policy (though his acheivements there are somewhat exaggerated), but he hardly changed the world.

Posted by: Peter Caress at September 26, 2003 5:34 PM

Peter - Well, which post-Truman president changed the world more? I suppose Johnson or Nixon would be the only candidates, but you could get them out of the contest by restricting it to positive changes.

Posted by: pj at September 26, 2003 5:40 PM

He (Reagan) will only be the most world-changing President until George Bush completes his second term.

Posted by: Rick T. at September 26, 2003 6:31 PM

Geez, I thought Peter meant Truman and I agree.

Posted by: oj at September 26, 2003 7:11 PM

I'd prefer not to have fantasists running my government, thanks. Willmoore Kendall can have Thabo Mbeki if he likes.

For example. I could give plenty more.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 26, 2003 8:56 PM


Your hero, FDR, went to his grave thinking the New Deal had been useful, his third and fourth terms had been selfless sacrifices and Uncle Joe would come around in the end. All great leaders, and most bad ones, are defined by their capacity to make reality conform to their fantasies.

Posted by: oj at September 26, 2003 9:00 PM

I'd buy 'would have been useful." My hero went to his grave persuaded that the same people who created the problem had sabotaged his best efforts to fix it.

Such evidence as there is suggests it would have worked. The New Deal was strangled in its cradle.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 30, 2003 3:50 AM

Sadly it wasn't strangled, only made brain-dead, still it lingers...

Posted by: oj at September 30, 2003 7:59 AM