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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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."

Craig Shirley, president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, is the author, most recently, of Reagan's Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All.