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The Reagan Diaries

Publisher: Harper Perennial • 2009 • 784 pages
4.79 out of 5 • View Ratings Details • 24 Ratings
The Reagan Diaries

As Ronald Reagan lay close to death from a gunshot wound on Monday, March 30, 1981, at George Washington University Hospital, he had only three things on his mind. The first was that he wanted to see his beloved Nancy. The second was to try to stay conscious while his lungs filled with blood. This he did by focusing his attention on one item in the operating theater: “I focused on the ceiling tile and prayed” while his life was seeping away. The third thing was his faith in God and the conundrum of how to be a loving Christian while hating John Hinckley, the man who had shot him and three other men.

Reagan solved this problem by praying; not for himself, but for Hinckley. “I realized I couldn’t ask for Gods [sic] help while at the same time I felt hatred for the mixed up young man who had shot me. Isn’t that the meaning of the lost sheep? I began to pray for his soul and that he would find his way back to the fold.” He then pledged the balance of his life to God: “Whatever happens now I owe my life to God and will try to serve him in every way I can.”

During the week of the Reagan funeral in June 2004, innumerable Reagan “experts” babbled endlessly on television and seemed only to believe that Ronald Reagan was a nice guy with a good sense of humor–a sort of global Captain Kangaroo. What they didn’t know, and what these diaries now reveal, is that Reagan was a man of great passion, great ideas, great anger, great ideology, great pragmatism, and great love. He liked a good joke but he loved a good conversation.

Though some think Reagan didn’t have a temper, he himself admitted that he did. In an unpleasant phone conversation with Senator Pete Domenici, the president inscribed, “I got mad.” Nancy was always on his mind, and whenever they were apart, he missed her terribly and wrote about his “loneliness” when she was away: “I don’t like an empty White House.” He worried also that she didn’t eat enough.

Whatever anyone thought they knew about Reagan, especially those who did not work closely with him, they will have to unlearn, and then re-educate themselves by reading these diaries, brilliantly edited by Douglas Brinkley. In an interview, Brinkley pointed me to a fascinating entry from late January 1982. The Reagans had visited an exhibit dedicated to Franklin Roosevelt at the Smithsonian Institution: “The press is dying to paint me as now trying to undo the New Deal,” he wrote. “I reminded them I voted for FDR 4 times. I’m trying to undo the ‘Great Society.'”

Too many, over too many years, have deliberately misunderstood Reagan, or injected themselves into the story, or just plain didn’t pay attention. Brinkley lets Reagan be Reagan–and rather than getting in the way, he edits out only the extraneous to let the reader focus on the mind, emotions, and humor, and the trials and successes, of the eight years of the Reagan presidency. Brinkley was under no mandate from the Reagan Library or from Nancy Reagan. At no time did anyone tell him to take out anything that would embarrass either Reagan, his administration, his staff, or his policies. This is to the benefit of history because, as Brinkley says, his mission was “to do a fastball down the middle . . . just a straight editing job.”

Reagan is the only president besides James K. Polk to have kept a comprehensive daily diary, and Brinkley wisely turned to the example of the old Columbia historian, Allan Nevins, who edited the Polk diaries, for guidance. The leatherbound volumes were kept in the private residence in the White House, and the last thing the president did every evening before turning in was to make a journal entry. Nancy Reagan, it turns out, also kept a daily diary, and they often wrote together each night.

Reagan’s anticommunism was set in stone from day one. Indeed, only a few days into his administration, a log entry for February 4, 1981, reads: “Trade was supposed to make Soviets moderate, instead it has allowed them to build armaments instead of consumer products. Their socialism is an ec. failure. Wouldn’t we be doing more for their people if we let their system fail instead of constantly bailing it out.” He was always chary around Mikhail Gorbachev as he was with other Soviet officials.

Reagan had several pet peeves. First, he despised it when conservatives accused him of not being loyal to conservatism, and he made no bones about naming names, including those of Richard Viguerie and Howard Phillips. Early in the administration, Viguerie, publisher of Conservative Digest, had produced a cover story accusing the Reagan administration of being taken over by big business interests associated with George H.W. Bush and James Baker. Reagan received a letter from Viguerie “with copy of Conservative Digest. He tried to write in sorrow, not anger about my betrayal of the conservative cause. He used crocodile tears for ink.” Astonishingly, Reagan worried that he would not be well received at the 1982 Conservative Political Action Conference dinner because of Conservative Digest. But “I was interrupted a dozen times with applause and got a lengthy standing ovation,” he wrote proudly.

Reagan had an ego, dispelling yet another myth. He was happy when he got good polling reports from Richard Wirthlin and was ecstatic when he felt he gave a particularly good speech or press conference. Reagan was asked by the ABC White House correspondent Sam Donaldson if he bore any blame for the bad economy of 1982, and replied: “Oh my yes. I share the responsibility. I was a Dem. for years.” He rather enjoyed the repartee with Donaldson. Reagan gave a speech to the National Rifle Association that went over schedule by 15 minutes “because of applause including a standing ovation.” When he performed badly he was his own worst critic. In any case, readers may be surprised to learn that Reagan either wrote his own speeches or often rewrote those drafted by speechwriters.

Other revelations: Jack Kemp sometimes got on his nerves: “Jack Kemp now knows I’m mad. He’s against us on IMF increase but promised he wouldn’t work against us. . . . I’m teed off with him.” Robert Byrd and Tip O’Neill got on his nerves as well. The mythology in Washington is that O’Neill and Reagan were friends, but Reagan regarded O’Neill warily and thought he was far too partisan. (O’Neill betrayed his own mixed feelings about Reagan in his autobiography.)

Jimmy Carter is another personage Reagan could not warm to. Reagan had presented the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously to Robert F. Kennedy, and the entire Kennedy family returned to the White House for the ceremony. But the medal had been struck in 1978, and Reagan shook his head and wondered why President Carter had not awarded the medal himself: “It was voted by Cong. in 1978 and the former Pres. never presented it.” Carter also failed to give a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal to Hubert Humphrey, but Reagan presented it to Humphrey’s family: “I don’t know what was with Pres. Carter–this Medal was voted by Congress in 1979.”

Reagan liked new ideas and wrote that he was impressed with a concept of Newt Gingrich’s to freeze the budget in 1983. He loved the idea of a space-based antinuclear weapons system. He could be droll: When his longtime political aide Stuart Spencer gave him a 1984 campaign book, Reagan commented that it was “a monster book (like an L.A. phone book). . . . I’m supposed to read it.” Alexander Haig bothered Reagan. When Haig finally left the administration in 1982, Reagan sarcastically confided to his journal: “Actually, the only disagreement was over whether I made policy or the Secretary of State.” But many conservatives Reagan genuinely liked. He appreciated one meeting organized by Paul Weyrich–although he called him “hard core”–and he admired Phyllis Schlafly: “She is darned effective.”

Reagan was very sensitive to press coverage of both himself and people he liked, or who worked for him. When his controversial Environmental Protection Agency administrator ran afoul of the media, he wrote: “Most important event–the Press Conf. By the time I got to it I was mad as h–l. I’d watched the news and seen the witch hunt that is on for Anne Gorsuch at E.P.A. The media is a lynch mob that thinks it smells blood.” Here’s another entry: “Called Don Devine who withdrew his name from the Sen. Confirmation process. This was another lynching. He did just what I wanted him to do in his appointed position and he’ll be greatly missed. He saved the govt. $6 Bil.–something his Senate critics have never done.”

Reagan was equally protective of Interior Secretary James Watt, a liberal bête noire, and when the press or the Democrats on Capitol Hill went after his people–unfairly, he believed–Reagan often referred to a “lynching” or a “lynch mob.” He called Bob Woodward a “liar” for claiming to have interviewed CIA director William Casey on his deathbed. (Doctors had told Reagan that Casey was unconscious, and in no condition to talk to anybody, while afflicted with terminal cancer.)

Reagan was also aware of staff conflicts. In early 1983, Reagan wrote about a meeting with Lyn Nofziger, of whom he was greatly fond. Nofziger had left the White House but wanted to come back: “Lyn N. has evidenced a desire to come back to us. He wants to report directly to me–this, of course, is upsetting to Jim B. I’d like to have Lyn back but it’s a touchy thing to work out.” Of course, Jim B. was James Baker, Reagan’s first chief of staff, and the battles between the old Army Ranger and the old Marine were legendary around Washington in the 1980s. Before Haig’s departure, Reagan “called in Dick Allen and Al Haig and ordered a halt to the sniping.”

Reagan was hands-on when the need called for it.

The conventional wisdom is that Reagan didn’t know people’s names, even those closest around him. This is complete nonsense. The diaries are filled with references to the great and not-so-great, accompanied by specific observations, complaints, and praise. He clearly started out liking his budget director David Stockman, but after taking Stockman “to the woodshed” for his comments to journalist William Greider about Reagan’s tax cuts, he soured on Stockman and believed he was trying to trick him into raising taxes. Reagan was confident in his negotiating skills: Regarding dealings with Congress, he wrote, “The boys are playing games but I think I can snooker them.” Of Republican Congressman Bill Hendon of North Carolina, Reagan confided that he thought Hendon was “off his rocker” over U.S. complicity regarding servicemen missing in action in Vietnam.

Another myth is that Reagan’s Alzheimer’s Disease began in the last years of his presidency, but as Brinkley points out, Reagan “writes more fulsomely in the latter years than in the first years.” Reagan is tentative in the first several months of his entries, but it becomes clear that the diaries are therapeutic as he expressed things in confidence to himself
that he could not say publicly. Sen. Lowell Weicker, Republican of Connecticut, is referred to as a “pompous, no good, fathead.” On another occasion: “I answered Lowell Weicker’s question without telling him what a schmuck he is.” Gloria Steinem earned his ire after watching her on television: She is “ignorant” and a “liar.”

Though he clearly relished the presidency, he craved the privacy of a walk in solitude, or horseback riding, which he did several times a week. He once took a flight on a small jet and wrote that one “can get spoiled” pretty quickly on Air Force One.

Reagan was extremely competitive. He was happy to see Jerry Brown defeated by Pete Wilson in their 1982 Senate race: “Bye, Bye Brown.” In 1984, watching the Democratic national convention, he observed that Walter Mondale was “introduced by millionaire-son of wealth Sen. Ted Kennedy, who assails me as the friend of the rich.” On another occasion in 1983 Reagan took note of the rudeness of Geraldine Ferraro. He was proud of his victory that year: “Well 49 states, 59% of the vote and 525 electoral votes. The press is now trying to prove it wasn’t a landslide . . . onto the ranch.”

He liked to watch a movie in the evening, looked forward to weekends at Camp David, intimate dinners with friends like Paul Laxalt, and time at the ranch. He despised Mondays, cherished his weekends, and said so often. (This reveals, according to Brinkley, his “blue collar origins.”) People he genuinely liked included Laxalt, George Shultz, Howard Baker, George H.W. Bush, Charlton Heston, Jeane Kirkpatrick, William Clark, George Will, and William Buckley. He looked forward to meeting sports greats, but also John Paul II. He enjoyed Laxalt’s annual “Lamb Fry”–except for “the delicacy of the evening . . . lamb gonads. They made for lots of humor but they’re not my favorite food.”

He clearly loved his children and worried about each. One day, after several bouts with Patti and Ron when unpleasant conversations took place between Mrs. Reagan and her children–they always seemed to need money, and Patti had abused her Secret Service detail–Reagan wearily wrote, “Insanity is hereditary–you catch it from your kids.”

Reagan almost never swore in his entries; the most he usually wrote was “G.D.” or “h–l” or “d–n.” But there is this funny passage: “I phoned Berke Breathed–cartoonist who does Bloom County. He obviously thought I was calling to bitch about something. I called to thank him . . . where he had Nancy in the strip looking lovely. He’s sending me the original.” And he could be crafty in his disdain: “[Navy Secretary James] Webb resigned over Navy budget cuts. I don’t think Navy was sorry to see him go.” He was blunt in his assessment of Texas congressman Jim Wright, calling him a “storm trooper.” Though he often groused about the media, and sometimes about Republican party officials and various conservatives, he never, ever complained about meeting and talking to his fellow Americans–and, indeed, relished these public and private events.

There is a touching entry about a woman in Indiana who was having hard times. Tenderly, he wrote her a check for $100 to help her along, but a banker didn’t cash the check, telling the woman’s son it was not intended to be cashed and she wanted to keep it as a souvenir: “I phoned Mrs. Gardner and told her to cash it and I’d send the cancelled check back” for her to have as a keepsake. The call with the struggling woman put “a lump in my throat. . . . She sounded like the nicest kind of person.” He read a story one morning about an unemployed young black man–“Mr. Andrews”–in New York, who risked his life saving a 75-year-old blind man who had fallen onto the subway tracks. Reagan called the man to congratulate him, and found out that he was being considered for a job. Reagan called the company manager to put in a plug: “Andrews has a job.”

In the first years of his administration, Reagan writes tentatively about events and derisively about political enemies; but in the later years he seems to forget about his critics and is focused on more important things. In 1986 he was anxious to sign a new immigration bill for one reason: “We need to get control of our borders.” Reagan was suspicious of his Chinese hosts after he found five listening devices in his suite in Beijing. At one point, during Iran-contra, he took Oliver North to task for claiming to have briefed him on the arms-for-hostages deal at Camp David. North had said on tape that such a meeting took place but, wrote Reagan, “It is complete fiction. There have been no meetings with North at Camp D. He’s never been there while I’ve been President.”

On November 24, 1986, Reagan learned for the first time about Iran-Contra and about “our Col. North”–thus creating some distance: “North didn’t tell me about this.” He also wrote of his concerns that North might “lie” about him while testifying on Capitol Hill. From late 1986 until January 1989 the distraction of North cropped up from time to time until, on his last day in the White House, Reagan turned down his request for a pardon.

Reaganites of all stripes will be happy that they are included in his diaries, from his political director Frank Donatelli to Peggy Noonan to Lee Edwards and Tom Winter, Ken Khachigian and Allen Ryskind. Little, it seems, escaped Reagan’s attention. Everything was an adventure for Reagan, and at age 77, as he and Mrs. Reagan were leaving the White House for the last time, his last entry declares, “Then home and start of a new life.” He was always looking forward.

I am aware of the complaints, especially from conservatives, about Douglas Brinkley and his books on Jimmy Carter and John Kerry: that he grew too fond of his subjects, or that Brinkley is a “celebrity historian.” But I am hard pressed to understand how this would have ruled out Brinkley from editing the diaries. Had the diaries been edited by a conservative they might well have been dismissed by the media and academia. Now they cannot be ignored.

Reagan was a great man, but he was also flawed, like all men. These diaries are rich in detail and the manly virtues, along with Reagan’s human qualities. They are, says Brinkley, “Reagan’s gift to the American people,” and in choosing Brinkley, the Reagan library, trustee Fred Ryan, and Nancy Reagan chose well. Brinkley concludes that Reagan was “brilliant,” “a great American president,” and “we have to look at Reagan as an intellectual.”
Ronald Reagan had always belonged to the conservative movement, but conservatives should cheer because now he, too, “belongs to the ages.”

Book Review from The Weekly Standard, by Craig Shirley

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