The Magazine

The Real Reagan

In his own words.

Jun 25, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 39 • By FRED BARNES
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When I interviewed President Reagan in the Oval Office in 1987, I took with me a photograph of him with two dozen women at the Presidio of Monterey in California 50 years earlier. My mother, the presidio commander’s daughter, was one of the women. I wanted Reagan to autograph the photograph, and he graciously obliged, but not before telling me in extraordinary detail how he happened to be at the presidio, a cavalry post, and everything about the movie he was making there.

Photo of Ronald Reagan delivering a radio address in the mid-1970s

Delivering a radio address in the mid-1970s

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He was starring in a B movie called Sergeant Murphy, the third film in his long career as an actor. Sergeant Murphy was a horse, and Reagan played a young cavalry private. This was surely one of the least memorable of Reagan’s 53 films. B movies were the second film in a double feature, and this one, lasting a mere 57 minutes, was half the length of movies today. Yet Reagan remembered everything: the characters, the tangled plot, the temperament of the horse, the scene at the presidio. Reagan was said to have had a photographic memory. It’s true.

Another noteworthy thing occurred during the interview, which lasted less than 40 minutes. At the time, the Iran-contra scandal that had engulfed the Reagan presidency was fading. To quell the furor, Reagan had addressed the nation, acknowledging that arms for hostages had been at the heart of the scandal, contrary to what he had said earlier. But it was with great reluctance and at the strong urging of his advisers that he had made this admission. In the interview, with White House press aides Marlin Fitzwater and Tommy Griscom standing nearby, Reagan reversed himself and said it wasn’t arms for hostages at all. And he insisted he’d never believed it was. 

I met with Reagan one other time during his second term as president. I sat next to him at a lunch in the room adjacent to the Oval Office. The lunch had been arranged by Pat Buchanan, then the White House communications director, and we were joined by my McLaughlin Group colleague Mort Kondracke, radio broadcaster Paul Harvey, and Reagan’s chief of staff, Don Regan. The session was off the record, but I figured I could elicit tidbits of information from Reagan that could later be leveraged into stories. This practice may sound sleazy, but was (and still is) considered journalistically ethical. I’d been warned by Robert Novak, the great reporter and columnist, that it would be tough to get anything out of Reagan. He was right. Novak had spent hours one-on-one with Reagan aboard a private plane in the late 1970s and come up empty. My experience was the same. Reagan was genial and talkative. He told Hollywood stories. But he avoided any comment that might become public, one way or another. He was friendly but disciplined.

These anecdotes may not appear to be terribly significant. But they’re more revealing than I thought at the time, for they undermine the profile of Reagan created by the media, the permanent Washington establishment, political insiders, many Democrats, some Republicans, and even a few members of Reagan’s White House staff. Their idea of Reagan—a bumbling, likable lightweight blessed with good luck and clever aides—wasn’t the Reagan that I encountered. It wasn’t the real Reagan.

It turns out there’s a far more convincing rebuttal of the fashionable characterization of Reagan than my limited personal experience. It comes from Reagan himself, in his own words—that is, in his writings and private statements. Except for an autobiography published in 1965, these didn’t become public until after he left the White House in January 1989.

The Reagan collection consists of seven books. Two are autobiographies: Where’s the Rest of Me? The Autobiography of Ronald Reagan (1965) and Ronald Reagan: An American Life (1990). Scripts he wrote in longhand for radio broadcasts between 1975 and 1979 are anthologized in Reagan, In His Own Hand (2001). Reagan: A Life in Letters (2001) brings together 1,000 letters he wrote between 1922 and 1994. Reagan’s Path to Victory (2004) collects more radio broadcasts. The Reagan Diaries (2007) consists of almost daily entries during the eight years of his presidency. Reagan’s Secret War: The Untold Story of His Fight to Save the World from Nuclear Disaster (2009) focuses on Reagan’s passion for eliminating nuclear weapons and his summit meetings with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Former Reagan aides Martin and Annelise Anderson made the selections for the anthologies. Historian Douglas Brinkley edited the diaries.

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