Reagan, In His Own Hand: The Writings of Ronald Reagan That Reveal His Revolutionary Vision for America, ed. by Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson (Free Press, 549 pp., $30)
We were awfully excited when we first heard about it — “we” being Reaganauts (to use the original term), and “it” being a cache of documents in the former president’s own hand. We had always known he was an inveterate writer, and a formidable one. And now we would be able to prove it to the world.
And that is a problem we Reagan champions have: always trying to prove that our man — undeniably a politician and leader of great skill — was an intellectual force as well. This has become an exhausting, sometimes pathetic mission. The strength of Reagan’s mind has long been obvious to anyone who has given the man two seconds’ thought; but, of course, many people — many influential people — are unwilling to put in a good two seconds. To them, Reagan will always be, if not quite a boob, a lightweight all the same — a lucky innocent, who stumbled onto some success as president.
About that cache of documents: Not long ago, a scholar from Carnegie Mellon, Kiron K. Skinner, was poking around Reagan’s private papers for a study of the Cold War. And among those papers she found a treasure-trove of manuscripts — true manuscripts, which is to say, documents written by hand. These were radio addresses that Reagan had given between the years 1975 and 1979 (after he left the governorship of California and before he became president of the United States). There were almost 700 of them, and they showed Reagan in something close to his fullness. Together with the Hoover Institution’s Martin and Annelise Anderson — veteran Reaganauts — Skinner assembled the manuscripts into this present, extraordinary volume: Reagan, In His Own Hand. And these writings really do, as the subtitle proclaims, “reveal” our 40th president’s “revolutionary vision for America.”
He was one of the great proselytizers of recent history, Reagan. He was a pamphleteer, an arguer, a persuader, a propagandist, at times an evangelist — restless and relentless. He was a shy, remote man, as we all know, but he had what must have been a compulsion to take the public by the arm and say, “See? This is the way it is. Did you hear about this? Did you ever consider that?”
And he was always writing. He seemed not only to like to write, but to need to do so. He wrote from childhood, and he always wrote well — solidly and often stylishly. Over nine decades, he wrote thousands of letters, including 276 to a pen pal who was president of a Reagan (movie) fan club. He wrote for his school newspapers, he wrote a sports column for the Des Moines Dispatch, he wrote speeches and statements as a union leader, he wrote as a corporate spokesman, he wrote as a political candidate, he wrote as a governor and as a president — he never stopped, at least until the day in 1994 when he wrote a stunning, heartbreaking letter to his fellow Americans, explaining why he had to withdraw from public life. In 1947, when Reagan was 36, a reporter profiling him observed, “In private life, Reagan is most interested in writing.” Reagan lived a life of words. Constant, well-chosen, in the end, world-changing words.
The mid-’70s radio addresses were five minutes long, and they were to be delivered five days a week. Along with his newspaper column (which, unlike the radio speeches, was largely ghosted), they were Reagan’s principal means of keeping in touch with the public between campaigns. The editors reproduce the manuscripts exactly as they are, with crossings-out and additions and marginal notes and misspellings and mispunctuation and instructions to the typist — everything. Now, I myself do not see the point of retaining misspellings and mispunctuation. Anyone can appreciate the drive for authenticity, but these oddities are distracting, and contribute little. Also, Reagan did not intend for the public to see his scribbles; he wrote privately and probably hurriedly, and he wrote in a kind of shorthand. The spelling and punctuation, in my view, should have been regularized, if only as a courtesy to the author.
For these addresses, Reagan wrote to a precise length, and he did so with no evident struggle — his revisions are relatively few (and they are almost invariably improvements). He took a break from the broadcasts to wage his 1976 campaign against President Ford for the Republican nomination. (In the interim, Sen. Barry Goldwater took over the radio job.) He resumed two weeks after the party’s convention. And he never lost the bug to communicate by radio: As president, he instituted a weekly radio address, a practice copied by his successors.
These writings are Reagan in essence. They are profound and simple. They are folksy and informed. They are gutsy and gentle, meek and bold, indignant and relaxed. They have a little poetry, and a lot of prose (Reagan was addicted to facts and figures, and to logic; he indulges in almost no platitudes or flights of rhetoric). They are utterly natural, never contrived (professional showman though Reagan may have been). They always respect the dignity and intelligence of the audience. They show a basic sympathy for people — especially for those bent under tyranny — and they show a love of life. They show religious faith. And they show a strange, almost unbelievable patriotism.
The broadcasts bring to mind Paul Harvey, and Rush Limbaugh, and Milton Friedman’s old Free to Choose series. One nice thing about them is that they provide a walk down Memory Lane, issues-wise: oil, the Humphrey-Hawkins bill, Namibia! Reagan would write about anything and everything, drawing from a variety of sources (and not only Human Events). It seems that nothing failed to engage his attention, large or small. He was endlessly curious, his mind always moving. How about this speech by Eugene Rostow, or this column by James Burnham, or this memoir from this new dissident, Bukovsky? Did you hear what happened to the refusednik Ida Nudel? Whaddya say we write the embassy? And if the Soviets could lie so flagrantly about the Katyn Forest — history matters immensely — could they be trusted on anything?
He would begin with a little enticer, such as, “If you thought the United Nations was a debating society, brace yourselves.” And he liked to end with some quiet zinger. After a fairly high-minded discussion of the East–West drama, he says, “Détente: Isn’t that what a farmer has with his turkey — until Thanksgiving?” Effortlessly, he mixed the high and the low. Talking about the importance of strength to deterrence, he would cite Paul Nitze, but also Will Rogers, who once quipped, “I’ve never seen anyone insult Jack Dempsey.”
He had a clear, orderly mind, that could take an issue and wrestle it down. In October 1975, for example, he considered the Russian wheat deal, a complicated, hotly debated question. We can see the train of his thought as he considers every angle — the economic, the strategic, and the moral. Reagan winds up favoring the deal. But the larger, long-term “moral question,” Reagan warns — the question of whether to do anything to sustain the Soviet economy, and thus that rule — “won’t go away.” For Reagan, it always came down to the moral question. We see in these radio addresses that his project, fundamentally, was moral.
Of the famed Reagan wit, there is plenty: “No wonder Gromyko describes negotiations as ‘business-like & useful.’ Translated from the Russian, that means, ‘Uncle Sam has been skinned again.’” And there is considerable humility. Asks Reagan, “What should the United Nations’ duty be to people who are subjected to vicious and inhumane torture?” (He is thinking now about that eternally vexing question: Africa.) “I must confess I don’t know the answer.” But Reagan dwells on the matter with utmost care, and power.
And then there is that patriotism, a patriotism that seems to make the country new again: “Every once in a while, all of us native-born Americans should make it a point to have a conversation with one who is an American by choice. They have a perspective on this country we can never have. They can do a lot to firm up our resolve to be free for another 200 yrs.”
So gleaming is this volume, you could quote from almost any page. Readers may take particular delight in a robust defense of the Electoral College, made in April 1977, after Vice President Mondale proposed eliminating it. With the patience and precision of a fine civics teacher, Reagan makes the case for republican government. In a purely popular referendum, he notes, “a half-dozen rural states could show a majority for one candidate and be outvoted by one big industrial state opting for his opponent. Presidential candidates would be tempted to aim their campaigns & their promises at a cluster of metropolitan areas in a few states, and the smaller states would be without a voice.” You don’t say.
For me, the trait that shines most brightly through these pages is goodness — a core, manifest goodness. Here is one marginal note — or, rather, message — I especially love: It is from Reagan to his typist. At the bottom of a speech, Reagan (who often wrote while he was traveling) jots, “Sorry, the plane was bouncing around.” Just a small thing, but telling. And then there is his first address after the 1976 presidential campaign. He speaks of the people he met all over the country, who stood in the rain for him, and listened to him, and solemnly weighed their choice — “the campaign trail is no place for the cynic.” And with all those conscientious Americans, “only the world’s worst scoundrel could intentionally let them down.”
The final section of the book is given over to sundry writings, beginning with some juvenilia (which are exceptional — any mother, or teacher, would bubble over with pride) and ending with that 1994 farewell letter. The Holly wood diary, the correspondence, the slashing, expertly crafted political speeches — all are remarkable.
But if I could single out just one item, from the entire volume, it would be a 1971 letter — very long — written to the editor of a student publication at Eureka College, Reagan’s alma mater. The paper has obviously denounced Reagan as a Neanderthal and foe of academic freedom, incapable of understanding the current generation. So the governor of California takes the time to explain himself and to teach these students something about philosophy, and freedom, and history. Is Reagan really a benighted right-winger? “The first speech quoted [in the student attack] was made in 1966 before I was Gov. and while I was still making my living in Hollywood (I just slipped that latter point in, hoping you’d be reminded that Hollywood is not exactly a symbol of prudishness and sheltered living).”
Complains Reagan, “With a sureness that almost amounts to arrogance, the author of the article describes my generation of Eureka students as some kind of Rover Boys gaily playing pranks between classes in which we submitted cheerfully to being spoon-fed the customs and mores of the past. Never has the past been so open to question as it was in that long-ago time.” For “we came to college age in the midst of a social and economic upheaval, the Great Depression, which was for real. Life was a very grim business, but somehow we managed to keep a sense of humor, which I have difficulty finding, at least on our Calif. campuses today. And we presided over the greatest econ. & social revolution the world has ever seen.”
“True education,” Reagan concludes, “is society’s attempt to enunciate certain ultimate values upon which individuals & hence society may safely build. You have every right to ask the reason behind the mores & customs of what we refer to as civilization. Challenge, we can afford. You have no right & it makes no sense to reject the wisdom of the ages simply because it is rooted in the past. Challenge — but weigh the answers to your challenge very carefully.” Ultimately, “true freedom is the freedom of self-discipline — the freedom to choose within acceptable standards. Take that framework away & you lose freedom.”
This letter — which must be read in its entirety, excerpts failing to do it justice — is a small political masterpiece.
But there’s more: Reagan sends a copy of his letter to the college’s president, with a note saying, “I thought you might like to see this in case the editor chooses to keep it to himself.” Think of it: Reagan was governor of California, a major national figure, and Eureka’s most important alumnus, by far. And he not only pauses to compose this weighty letter — which must be the most significant document ever to reach that humble publication — but realizes that the punk editor may deep-six it!
So, how did this happen? How did it happen that Reagan — endowed with so great, and so obvious, a mental gift — was ever regarded as a simpleton? In a foreword to this book, George Shultz writes, “I could tell dozens of stories about specific times when Ronald Reagan displayed detailed knowledge about policy issues, and when he took decisive action based on that knowledge — without the benefit of someone whispering in his ear or sliding a note into his hand. But so ingrained is the belief that he was an amiable man — not too bright, the willing captive of his aides — that it would probably not make much difference.” This may be so.
But when excerpts from the book appeared in the The New York Times Magazine, I got a marveling phone call from an old friend, reared in the liberal Democratic (and Reagan-hating, or at least-belittling) faith. “Can you believe it?” he said. “Can you believe how impressive these things are? They are completely at odds with the image we have of him.” I could only respond, Reagan-style, “What do you mean ‘we,’ Kemosabe?”
Reagan-lovers will gulp down this book, and fall in love all over again; others — if they are open-minded, like my friend — will be affected. Whatever else the collection does, it proves that Reagan, in addition to the many other things he was, was a writer. As president in particular, he would have many top-flight speechwriters — Tony Dolan, Bentley Elliott, Peggy Noonan, Peter Robinson, John Podhoretz — but I think that all of them would agree that no one ever wrote for Reagan better than he wrote for himself, when he could.
I close by noting that Reagan, In His Own Hand carries a most unusual, and poignant, dedication: “For Ronald Reagan, who wrote the documents.” For several years now, we have grown accustomed to thinking and talking about Reagan in the past tense. It cannot be helped. But we should also note that Reagan turned 90 on February 6. And after reading and rubbing my eyes at this astounding book, I can only blurt out: Hail to the Chief.