The Magazine

Reagan After Dark

Every evening, a summary of the day.

Jun 11, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 37 • By CRAIG SHIRLEY
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The Reagan Diaries

Edited by Douglas Brinkley

HarperCollins, 784 pp., $35

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.