The late Ronald Reagan’s detractors considered him a jellybean-chomping cowboy with little more than chestnut-colored hair inside his Stetson hat. Perhaps visualizing different headgear, the deceased Democratic honcho Clark Clifford famously dismissed Reagan as “an amiable dunce.” Veteran historian Arthur Schelsinger Jr., writing in the June 14 Newsweek, adds, “He had ‘the vision thing” in abundance–alas, not too much else. He had no capacity for analysis and no command of detail.”
“Utter nonsense,” Milton Friedman retorts. The Nobel Prize-winning economist and Reagan advisor tells me: “He was intellectual in the sense that he had a real interest in ideas. He read widely and was interested in what was going on.”
Friedman cites several collections of Reagan’s radio talks and personal letters. Weren’t they drafted by others and handed to Reagan merely to read or sign? Reagan’s handwritten manuscripts prove he penned them personally.
“Between 1975 and 1979, Reagan delivered 1,025 three-minute radio commentaries, of which he wrote at least 673 himself,” Hoover Institution scholar Annelise Anderson explained last week on NRO. With Hoover’s Kiron Skinner and Martin Anderson, she
co-edited Reagan, In His Own Hand and Reagan: A Life in Letters. The relevant radio spots aired weekdays on 286 stations and discussed U.S. policy in Nigeria, the SALT II arms-control treaty, postcard voter registration, income-tax indexing, and loads more.
In developing his viewpoints, did Reagan simply parrot his pals at the country club?
Nyet, says Lee Edwards, a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation. In 1965, after interviewing Reagan for a magazine profile while he contemplated his gubernatorial bid, Edwards found himself in his subject’s book-lined study. Nancy and Ronald were in the kitchen making iced tea. Edwards was overcome with curiosity.
“I went over and began looking at the titles,” Edwards says. “They were history, biography, economics, politics. All serious stuff.”
“I began pulling the books out of the shelves and looking at them,” he continues. “They were dog-eared. They were annotated. They were smudged by his fingers, and so forth. This was a man who had read hundreds of books.” Edwards found these volumes highlighted in blue pen and full of Reagan’s notes and comments. “It was clear that he had read them, had digested them, and had studied them.”
Edwards remembers three particular titles: Witness, by one-time American Communist Whittaker Chambers, Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt, and The Law by 19th-century French economist Frederic Bastiat. “I said to myself, there are not too many Hollywood actors who have read The Law.”
“So I knew right away, this was a thinking conservative. This was a man who loved ideas. He was comfortable with ideas and was able to take ideas and translate them into a common idiom.”
Reagan must have loved Bastiat’s parables in which he satirically offered “solutions” to the economic “problems” of his day. In Economic Sophisms (Foundation for Economic Education), he ridiculed concern over the balance of trade with this suggestion:
“France has a quite simple means of doubling her capital at any moment. It suffices merely to pass its products through the customhouse, and then throw them into the sea. In that case the exports will equal the amount of her capital; imports will be nonexistent and even impossible, and we shall gain all that the ocean has swallowed up.”
In addition to Bastiat, President Reagan told columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak in a March 23, 1981, interview published in The Reagan Revolution that he was influenced by Austrian-school, free-market stalwarts F. A. Hayek and Ludwig Von Mises.
In response to Evans’s question, Reagan said: “Oh, I know about [Richard] Cobden and [John] Bright in England–and the elimination of the corn laws and so forth, and the great burst of economy and prosperity that followed.” Invoking such esoteric thinkers went far beyond platitudes about respecting private enterprise.
Reagan’s interests stretched from economic arcana to strategic weapons.
Conservative luminary William F. Buckley Jr. recalled a late-evening discussion about unemployment figures he enjoyed with then-President Reagan in 1981 while the Buckleys were his vacation guests. “The next morning I found under our door a page and a half of legal paper written over by our host,” Buckley wrote in October 1999. “In this scribbled memo to me,” Reagan lamented the tendency of static joblessness data to overlook dynamic, if unseen, forces in labor markets. Buckley observed: “Midnight reflections on such questions, written out, aren’t the work of dormant minds.”
President Reagan’s proposal for ballistic-missile defense did not spring from science-fiction cinema, as Massachusetts Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy hinted when he lampooned it as “Star Wars.” As Lee Edwards wrote, “Governor Reagan began seeking an alternative to the U.S. missile defense policy of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) at a meeting with physicist Edward Teller in 1967.” (Teller is the departed and distinguished father of the hydrogen bomb.)
The Kremlin’s worries that it could not overcome Reagan’s plans to neutralize its warheads helped shatter the hammer and sickle.
Reagan cleverly let people think him a simpler man than he truly was–all the better to outwit them.
Former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan elegantly summarized this in the June 7 Wall Street Journal: “And when it was over, the Berlin Wall had been turned into a million concrete souvenirs, and Soviet communism had fallen. But of course it didn’t fall. It was pushed. By Mr. Know Nothing Cowboy Gunslinger Dimwit. All presidents should be so stupid.”
Here again, his critics got him wrong. Statesman. Communicator. Intellectual. As great an American as our age has seen, Ronald Reagan was a more gifted man than even his supporters realized.