The triumph of free markets and democracy over totalitarianism is the great political story of the 20th century, and Ronald Reagan was one of its most visible authors.
There is no doubt that he was the Great Communicator; and the words with which he so adeptly communicated live on. Not only his spoken words, but his written words, too–which survive in his own hand, in numerous speeches and letters he drafted on yellow pads.
What a person writes reflects his thinking and his values, and gives us greater insight into his soul than a ghosted speech, a press conference, or even a private conversation. Reagan’s writings may, therefore, be his most important gift to us–because they explain the man behind the accomplishments. They reveal the thinking that drove his policies and strategies as president (and, earlier, as governor of California). And they reveal the knowledge, intelligence, determination, and discipline with which he pursued both public office and the goals he set for himself, once there.
From his first newspaper article–a two-paragraph account of a sports contest published in the Dixon Telegraph when he was not yet twelve years old–until the 1994 letter to his fellow Americans that marked his withdrawal from public life, Reagan wrote.
He wrote essays and short stories in high school and college. He wrote sports columns for the local newspaper during his career in Iowa as a sports announcer. From Hollywood he wrote a series of 17 feature articles for the Des Moines Register about becoming an actor. He wrote his own speeches for the countless groups to whom he spoke while he traveled the country for General Electric from 1954 to 1962. He wrote his famous 1964 speech for Goldwater and many of his speeches as both governor and president.
Between 1975 and 1979, Reagan delivered 1,025 three-minute radio commentaries, of which he wrote at least 673 himself. About 70 percent were on domestic policy, 30 percent were on foreign policy and national defense–and all laid out his views on a wide range of issues. “I am surprised at times,” Reagan wrote in a January 1980 letter, “that there is so much lack of knowledge about my positions…. I took up virtually every subject mentionable and stated my views on those subjects, but I guess there were a lot of people who were not listening.”
As his interest in politics developed, Reagan also became a prolific letter writer. Drafts, usually on yellow pads, have been found of about 6,000 of his letters. Reagan wrote love letters to Nancy and letters of advice and comfort to his children; but he also wrote to old friends from high school, college, and his various careers; to supporters, to heads of government, to journalists, to children and young people; and even to people he did not know–people who had written to laud his policies or complain about them. Among his most cherished correspondents were old friends, including William F. Buckley Jr., Laurence Beilenson, George Murphy, Victor Krulak, Barney Oldfield, and Walter Annenberg. He corresponded with Richard Nixon from 1959–when Nixon wrote to congratulate him on one of his speeches–until Nixon’s death in 1994.
Reagan’s most important letter, the handwritten draft of which was located in the summer of 2003, is no doubt his April 18, 1981, draft to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, written while Reagan was still recovering from the attempt on his life. It marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
The man who emerges from these writings is different from the public figure we all know. It was often said about Reagan that “what you see is what you get,” and in a way this is true–he was open and honest and believed what he said. He spoke from the heart. But Reagan’s amiability, adroit use of humor, unfailing courtesy, decency, and confidence in his own beliefs do not fully explain his extraordinary success. These graces–and that success–were sustained by the Great Communicator’s greatest asset: a formidable intellect, as a reader, a thinker, a strategist–and a writer.
–Annelise Anderson is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and co-editor (with Kiron K. Skinner and Martin Anderson) of Reagan, In His Own Hand, Reagan: A Life in Letters, and Reagan’s Path to Victory (to be published in October 2004).