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The real reagan

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Sunday, Sep. 21, 2003
The Real Reagan
Think you know what made him tick? His letters may surprise you

Ronald Reagan remains the unsolved mystery of modern American politics, breaking rules, defying odds and confounding even people who knew him well and watched him up close. His biographer Edmund Morris described him as "an apparent airhead," not just unknown but unknowable, a man who slept through meetings, read from scripts, mistook anecdotes for analysis and prepared for a summit by watching The Sound of Music. His heirs and allies defend him as the redeeming visionary of the latter 20th century, a man who invited people to underestimate him because it served his purposes. As for the private man, he was portrayed as a cold, remote performance artist, and as a humane and generous soul; columnist James Reston called him "an authentic phony"; to George Will, he was "an open book who read himself to the country."

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."

Among the people he persuaded, if you believe the Bush gospels, is his Vice President's eldest son. One of the odd plot twists of George W. Bush's presidency is his claim to be more Reagan's heir than Poppy's. This is, among other things, an advantage when it comes to appealing to a Republican base that likes its populism meaty, its tax cuts nonnegotiable, its foreign policy undiplomatic, in strict black and white. Before there was any "axis of evil," there was the "evil empire." There are more hard-line Reaganauts in the second Bush White House than there were in the first; Bush's staff, his rhetoric, his world view, his habits, his virtues and faults, all give rise to descriptions of this as Reagan's third term. And so the principles that emerge from Reagan's letters provide not only a source book for a past presidency but also a guide to a present one.

It has always been tempting to compare the two men, especially since the Bush shop keeps a 24-hour honor guard around the Reagan flame. The letters remind us that Bush and Reagan both rose as Governors of big states; both are Westerners to the core, vigorous, unabashed, plainspoken and dismissed as incurious. They were bracketed by tinkerers and tacticians: Carter, Bush pere and Clinton all worked the margins, looked for an opening. Reagan and Bush are by contrast radicals, risk takers, playing for keeps. It's almost part of the conservative catechism: Bush, as Reagan did, conveys the sense that he has had a full life apart from his political fortunes; both men give the impression that they could have run and lost and been content back at the ranch with their beloved wives, clearing brush, chopping wood, moving on. So with nothing to lose, they play for the whole table: overhaul the tax code, topple the evil empire, save the world from terrorism. Why settle for less?

While Bush is widely seen as one of the most genuinely devout modern Presidents, Reagan was sometimes charged with being a phony, one who talked up religious values but was actually a divorced, nonchurchgoing Hollywood type who was remote from his own kids. He tells one pen pal that he would go to church more if he could, but the Secret Service argued that because of terrorism threats he presented too big a risk to other parishioners. Yet elsewhere, Reagan sounds better equipped to lead a congregation than join one. In a 1978 letter, he argues with a California pastor about the divinity of Jesus: "(E)ither he was what he said he was or he was the world's greatest liar. It is impossible for me to believe a liar or charlatan could have had the effect on mankind that he has had for 2000 years. We could ask, would even the greatest of liars carry his lie through the crucifixion, when a simple confession would have saved him? ... Did he allow us the choice you say that you and others have made, to believe in his teaching but reject his statements about his own identity?"

The letters counsel humility to journalists and scholars alike, by revealing how little we know in real time about what goes on in the White House. Reagan emerges as a much more hands-on President than many of his aides—and their sometimes self-promoting memoirs—suggested. While recuperating from a gunshot wound in 1981, Reagan sat down in the White House solarium and drafted a four-page letter to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, appealing to the their common humanity to reduce tensions between the two countries. The letter is genuine, heartfelt—and sublimely idealistic. When he showed it to top aides, they blanched; Presidents did not send such personal appeals right off the bat, they said. Reagan and his aides went back and forth for days; at one point, the State Department was given the job of writing an alternative letter. In the end, however, Reagan made sure that both letters were sent.

If there were those who found Reagan inscrutable, there will be many who find his letters guileless. In mid-1981, under attack for not laying out his foreign policy, Reagan writes a friend, "I have a foreign policy; I'm working on it. I just don't happen to think it's wise to always stand up and put in quotation marks in front of the world what your foreign policy is." Five years later, on his return from the Reykjavik summit, Reagan sounds a bit frustrated that the Soviets aren't buying his promise to share Star Wars technology in exchange for a reduction in all offensive missiles. "I have never entertained a thought that sdi could be a bargaining chip. I did tell Gorbachev that if and when we had such a system ... we'd share such a defense with them. I don't think he believes me."

Since Reagan left office, there has been an abiding frustration among his most loyal supporters that he was seen, as Democratic power broker Clark Clifford described him, as "an amiable dunce." These letters, compiled with the help of two of his aides and approved by his wife, are published in part to polish Reagan's image in the twilight of his life. (Reagan, 92, suffers from Alzheimer's disease and made his last public statement in a farewell letter in 1994.)

That helps explain why this Life in Letters has its gaps. There is little here about his mother Nelle, even less about his difficult, alcoholic father Jack, and the book skips past his first marriage to Jane Wyman altogether. Reagan was carefully courting public opinion long before he became President, and as any good politician can appreciate, that is a campaign that never ends.

Copyright © 2003 Time Inc. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

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