The diarist and the detail man
THERE is a great deal of great interest in “The Reagan Diaries,” but what sets the late president’s personal recollections of his eight years in the White House apart from the recent spate of tell-all, inside-Washington books is what’s absent: You can scour this thick volume from back to front and find not a trace of self-righteousness, self-pity or self-justification -- all standard issue accouterments among today’s office-holders and political appointees, whether their veins bleed red or blue.
Some of this has to do, of course, with the fact that the former actor and California governor experienced his eight years in office as a turbulent but successful period in his life and that the subsequent reviews of his performance have been good. There’s a reason why the 2008 campaign’s first debate among aspiring Republican presidential candidates was held at the Reagan Library and why the participants all strove to drape themselves in “The Great Communicator’s” mantle.
Historian Douglas Brinkley, who adroitly edited what could have been “two or three fat volumes” into one substantial book, clearly came away from the experience with not only an academic regard for Reagan’s written legacy but also a genuine regard for the writer. As Brinkley writes in his warm introduction:
“There is an appealing earnestness to the diaries, an unvarnished account of his days in office. The entries don’t dazzle in a self-congratulatory fashion. Nor do they consciously attempt to spin history in his favor.... Nowhere in the entries did the president bask in glory, savor the misfortune of adversaries, or wallow in his own defeats. More often than not, he is self-deprecating.”
It’s an entirely apt characterization and, taken as a whole, “The Reagan Diaries” brings to mind nothing so much as Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous appraisal of the young Franklin Roosevelt: “second-class intellect but a first-rate temperament.” (It’s interesting that Reagan returns repeatedly to his admiration for the New Deal and mentions that when he hosted members of the Roosevelt family at the White House, he quipped that he was the only person in the room who had voted for FDR four times.)
To borrow Holmes’ condescending appellation is not to denigrate Reagan’s intelligence. The chief executive who emerges from these pages has a capacious attention to and knowledge of this country and the world. It is not, however, a self-examining or particularly reflective intelligence. On the other hand, it’s hard not to feel that, if you called Central Casting and said, “Send us somebody with a presidential temperament,” you couldn’t have done much better than this guy.
Reagan the diarist is at home with himself, unself-consciously comfortable -- even proud -- of his film industry origins. He retains something of the film personality’s instinctive attraction to the personal gesture. He always has time for children who are ill, for the unexpected average hero he read about in the newspaper or to inquire whether his staff can’t do “something” for a California householder in danger of losing his property in a misunderstanding over municipal taxes.
Reagan’s conservatism runs through his observations less as an ideology than as a deeply felt emotion. He believed communism was evil and his inclination to think from the personal to the general led him to have a lively interest in Soviet-era dissidents and, particularly, the persecution and privations of the Jewish refuseniks. He read what they wrote and gladly received them in the White House, when opportunities arose. Here too though, one thing that gave Reagan such a superb presidential temperament emerges -- he always knew not just where he wanted to go but was keenly interested in who and how many were willing to follow him.
Take this entry from Tuesday, May 13, 1986: “Met with Anatoly Scharansky. It was fascinating to hear the story of his imprisonment by the Soviets. I learned that I’m a hero in the Soviet Gulag. The prisoners read the attacks on me in Tass & Pravda & learn what I’m saying about the Soviets and they like me.”
There’s a touching quality to this sort of “you-like-me-you-really-like-me” Hollywood affect, but the former president’s anti-communist fervor takes on a more chilling quality when it blinds him -- as it does throughout the diaries -- to the realities of the dirty war U.S. policy promoted in El Salvador and Nicaragua. The seeds of Iran-Contra are there from 1982 on.
Reagan continually and, almost reflexively, took the popular pulse of whatever audience he was addressing, whether it was calls to the White House after a televised address or the reaction of the Washington press corps to his appearance at the annual Gridiron Dinner, which he found exhausting but enjoyable. While Reagan frequently points to what he saw as unsympathetic and “biased” treatment in the press, he never took it personally. (He also watched a lot of old movies in the evening and usually preferred them to contemporary films, which he found riddled with left-wing politics.)
Reagan’s attitude toward the press was all of a piece with something else that set him so distinctly apart from today’s national politicians: He was a man of firm conviction without any inclination to rancor. In part this seemed to stem from an unshakeable confidence in the force of his personality and in the efficacy of personal contact. (He was, for example, genuinely fond of Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill, with whom he so frequently butted heads but shared a convivial relationship, as if they were two sundered sons of the New Deal.)
Take, for example, this entry for Nov. 17, 1987: “From there to a meeting of Jewish leaders & 3 refusniks we succeeded in getting out of the Soviet U. I told them of how we intended to get more Jews released & hopefully better living conditions & freedom for all Soviet Jews. Then my sneeze shot & upstairs to a meeting with Justice Thurgood Marshall. I’d asked for a meeting because of his public statement to Carl Rowan that I was a racist. I literally told him my life story & how there was not prejudice in me. I have examples of my relations with Minorities in school, as a sports announcer & as Gov. I think I made a friend.”
For all his years in Hollywood and subsequent political success, two things run through the diaries like a thread: One is a kind of gee-whiz everyman’s delight in finding himself in such interesting and enjoyable circumstances; the other is his love for and reliance on Nancy. Some will be put off by the cloying pet name -- “Mommie” -- by which he referred to her. On the other hand, people who remain attached to each other at their age and circumstances are entitled to style their own affections. What is clear is that he always was miserable without her, as in these entries:
“I miss Mommie. She called from Fla. -- will be home tomorrow nite.”
Or this, while on a 1986 visit to Tokyo without her: “Another fabulous suite at Hotel Okura -- actually a penthouse.... Dinner alone in my suite. I’ll be glad when Nancy joins me. CNN has an English language channel in Japan. I ate dinner watching ‘The A Team’ & ‘Hart to Hart’.... “
In October 1988, as the Reagans prepared to return to California, he persuaded her to go to Los Angeles and toss out the first ball of the World Series at Dodger Stadium: “Well -- spent the day reading & checking over things for the Library. Then exercise -- shower and dinner. Watched 1st game of World Series. Saw Nancy throw out the 1st ball -- she done good. Also told crowd & TV audience about the need to step up the anti-drug campaign. Dodgers won 6 to 5 with an exciting come from behind finish. And so to bed.”