Sincerely yours, the Great Communicator

Douglas Brinkley is director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies and professor of history at the University of New Orleans.

Back in 1994, at an Algonquin Hotel book party in New York, a well-known autograph dealer buttonholed me to talk about Ronald Reagan. Because I was often a CNN talking head, providing commentary on U.S. presidents, he was eager to regale me with his most recent acquisition: 276 letters that Ronald Reagan wrote to Lorraine Makler Wagner, longtime head of his Philadelphia fan club. A fiercely opinionated Democrat, Wagner lived in a working-class section of the City of Brotherly Love. Their correspondence began in 1943 and continued with "Ronnie's" farewell message, one sent to thousands of friends, after his public announcement that he suffered from Alzheimer's disease. That short 1994 letter ended an epistolary relationship that lasted 51years.

My immediate reaction to the autograph dealer was "Well, they must be form letters," the kind political candidates sign en masse to constituents unlucky enough to find themselves on the receiving end. He assured me that most were highly personal and handwritten, analyzing everything from his relationship with his first wife, actress Jane Wyman, to delineating why his true political hero was Franklin D. Roosevelt. One letter was handwritten when the 43-year-old Reagan was hosting a variety show at the Last Frontier Casino in Las Vegas. The dealer boasted about other long, personal missives written on White House letterhead. I found it all hard to believe: Reagan as a prolific letter writer? The Gipper as sage counselor to a blue-collar Philadelphian? We made an appointment so I could inspect the collection.

Nothing prepared me for the richness of the correspondence. Because some in the media had unfairly portrayed Reagan as an "amiable dunce," in former Defense Secretary Clark M. Clifford's ugly phrase, it was hard to believe he had a literary bent. Even his Hollywood friends believed that Louis L'Amour's pulp westerns were Reagan's idea of high art. The Reagan-Wagner correspondence showed that I was the ignorant one. Reagan had a naturally smart, breezy writing style filled with good humor, common sense and bracing political convictions. Far from being form letters, his correspondence with Wagner was brimming with wry observations, clever asides and stone-cold candor. He offered advice on child-rearing. He railed against what he deemed the "gossiping buzzard Brigade," the mainstream press that tried to destroy politicians' reputations. He defended conservatism in the cultural wars of the 1960s as an extension of his nationalism. "I've always resented kids spoiling the Churchill V for victory by their use of it as an anti-Vietnam gesture," he complained. A virtual shooting gallery of post-Truman-era liberal Democrats was the target of his rapid-fire pen. "Carter disturbs me more than a little," Reagan wrote of Jimmy Carter just days before he was elected president in 1976. "I have a deep-seated feeling that he is a real phony."

Eventually I wrote "The President's Pen Pal" for the New Yorker, which brought an avalanche of media attention on Wagner, who had just retired from the IRS and whose husband was seriously ill. Soon after her 15 minutes of fame, she sold the correspondence to the Young Republicans of America, which runs Reagan's ranch in Santa Barbara. They now consider the Wagner-Reagan correspondence one of the centerpieces of their effort to bear the Reagan torch to new generations.

Nearly 100 Reagan missives to Wagner are published in "Reagan: A Life in Letters," a compilation of more than 1,000 letters personally written or dictated by the Great Communicator. The three editors -- Kiron K. Skinner, an assistant professor of political science at Carnegie Mellon; Annelise Anderson, a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and Martin Anderson, a senior policy advisor to Reagan's 1976 and 1980 presidential campaigns -- do a meticulous job of organizing and annotating this hefty volume, which covers more than 50 years, from his acting days through his governorship of California, before and after his presidency. Reading them is proof positive that Reagan was not a cue-card reader or empty suit. He was -- dare we say it -- an intellectual of sorts. "Ronald Reagan loved to negotiate and he enjoyed talking about the process," former Secretary of State George P. Shultz writes in an introduction. The prose is always clear and direct. He is no Thomas Jefferson when it comes to displaying his intellect on paper. His writing is a wholesome combination of Ann Lander's well-meaning advice and Ayn Rand's fierce individualism. At times he is as sentimental as a Hallmark card. He treats an Alaskan third-grader's question about Girl Scout cookies with the same gravitas as a stranger's opinion on the death penalty. A democratic spirit comes through that is old-fashioned, quaint and likable.

While scholars will want to scrutinize his letters to Presidents Nixon and Eisenhower and Soviet leaders Leonid I. Brezhnev and Mikhail S. Gorbachev for their Cold War insights, it's his letters to his family that are most revealing and intimate. When his son Michael is about to get married in June 1971, Reagan explains to him the grandeur of a happy union: "Let me tell you how really great is the challenge of proving your masculinity and charm with one woman for the rest of your life .... It does take quite a man to remain attractive and to be loved by a woman who has heard him snore, seen him unshaven, tended him while he was sick and washed his dirty underwear.... Mike, you know better than many what an unhappy home is.... Now you have a chance to make it come out the way it should."

Reagan often penned these letters on the spot, not with posterity in mind. It was simply another way he communicated. While at times he is genial, he is often hard-headed about policy matters. As Deputy Chief of Staff Michael K. Deaver explained the phenomenon to Newsweek in 1982, "I don't think there's a day goes by that he doesn't appear with that yellow pad and say, 'Boy, did I let this guy know what I think.' " In this volume, however, even when he is being tough, he is good natured -- less the ideologue than the shrewd political veteran. What will surprise is how well he argues heartfelt conservative positions. Take his July 4, 1960, letter to Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner about a story the magazine had run by Dalton Trumbo titled "The Oscar Syndrome." Reagan had battled the screenwriter and novelist in the 1940s when the Communist Party tried to wrest control of the film actor's union. "I, like you, will defend the right of any American to openly practice and preach any political philosophy from monarchy to anarchy," Reagan wrote Hefner. "But this is not the case with regard to the communists. [Trumbo] is bound by party discipline to deny he is a communist so that he can by subversion and stealth impose on an unwilling people the rule of the International Communist Party which is in fact the government of Soviet Russia.... Hollywood has no blacklists.... I must ask you as a publisher, aside from any question of political philosophy, should a film producer be accused of bigotry for not hiring an artist when the customers for his product have labeled the artist 'poor box office,' regardless of the cause?"

Conservatives will enjoy "Reagan" because he has an engaging way of defending the right-wing agenda. It's not so much a nod-and-wink as it is a sense that he has outgrown liberalism. He makes his opponents seem churlish and wrongheaded. He doesn't dislike them as much as he wants to convert them. While his letter to Gorbachev talking about "the brotherhood of man" showcases Reagan as dreamer, his letters to friends like philanthropist Walter Annenberg, actor and former U.S. Sen. George S. Murphy and conservative William F. Buckley Jr. give us the Machiavellian Reagan unplugged. By the late 1950s, Reagan had become a brazen spokesman of conservatism, critical of what he saw as the excesses of Adlai E. Stevenson and Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1964, when Wagner worried about GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater's views on racial issues and war, Reagan wrote in defense of the Arizona senator: "I know I probably sound like a stuck record with this idea about Barry's being misquoted, and yet the assault against him has now reached such a point of desperation that there seems to be no conscience whatsoever with regard to ignoring things he has actually said." The real Goldwater, he told her, was a man who had "a fantastic record of personal involvement in behalf of Negroes long before he ever got involved in politics."

What makes this book so endearing is that Reagan personally responded to regular folks. "You specified you wanted to hear from me personally," Reagan wrote to one correspondent in 1981, "so here I am." He called the people "Uncommon Americans," the great middle class. Grenada aside, and Star Wars notwithstanding, the man who emerges from these pages is an egalitarian conservative eager for world peace, and it wasn't by accident that Reagan reduced nuclear weapon inventories on his watch.

When one such "Uncommon American" named Stephan E. Speer wrote to Reagan after his landslide reelection in 1984 and expressed concern that the nation's leaders were viewing war as inevitable, the president responded: "Let me assure you I have no higher priority than peace. I'm going to do everything I can to see if we can persuade the Soviets to join us in eliminating nuclear weapons. We have to face this fact, the Soviet Union doesn't want war but it does want to control the world and will use the threat of force to reach its goal. Which is why we must not let down our guard. I think of our force as a deterrent to war."

Reagan's letters show that his legacy is that of a president who made the world a safer place.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World