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The Real Reagan

In his own words.

Jun 25, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 39 • By FRED BARNES
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Taken together, these books torpedo the four elements of the conventional profile of Reagan. One, he had scant knowledge of many of the issues that came before him. Two, he was a “detached” president—that was Newsweek’s description—aloof from the day-to-day business in the White House. Three, he was overly reliant on the advice of his advisers and was often their puppet. Four, he was lazy. When I covered the Reagan presidency, I agreed to some degree with three of these. I was wrong. All four are false.

Three of the Reagan books are conclusive. The radio broadcasts knock down the idea that Reagan was clueless on complex issues. The book on nuclear weapons provides a picture of Reagan in command of his advisers and willing to override their views and those of his foreign allies. And the diaries, which are fun to read, reveal how hard he worked, especially on weeknights in the living quarters of the White House and on weekends at Camp David.

The subject matter of Reagan’s broadcasts alone reflects a familiarity with a broad range of issues. His topics included: Namibia, ocean mining, Cambodia, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, treaties, the B-1 bomber, missile defense, national security strategy, intelligence, Chile, visas, Vladimir Bukovsky, human rights, the Helsinki Accords, Cuba, Rhodesia, the Panama Canal, Guantánamo, Leonid Brezhnev, foreign aid, Palestine, Jamaica, and the United Nations.

The broadcasts were detailed, succinct, well argued, intellectually rigorous, and studded with humor. Reagan was opposed to giving the Panama Canal to the Panamanian government, and he devoted many broadcasts to that issue. “You know giving up the canal itself might be a better deal if we could throw in the State Department,” he said at the end of a broadcast in 1979. That same year, he actually gave two radio commentaries on Namibia. Many broadcasts were dense with facts and details. Reagan frequently comes off as a well-informed wonk.

Another demonstration of Reagan’s grasp of issues (but not in the books) was an exchange with Republican congressman Jack Kemp in 1979. To promote urban enterprise zones, Kemp delivered a speech emphasizing their political, economic, and social value. David Smick, his chief of staff, got House approval to send the speech, under the congressional frank, to a long list of policy experts. “Unbeknownst to us, one recipient turned out to be Ronald Reagan,” Smick said. A month later, Kemp received a reply.

“Can you believe this?” Kemp said as he read a Xerox of the speech that Reagan had sent back by mail. “Crammed into the margins of the speech were detailed comments from Governor Reagan,” Smick told me. “There were many arrows pointing to circled and underlined sections of the speech. What was striking was that this was not an attempt to flatter Kemp with congratulatory praise using words such as ‘good point.’ Reagan, on point after point, instead offered a variety of suggestions and insights about his experiences as governor in crafting urban policy.”

It was all handwritten, with Reagan continuing some of his detailed critique on the back of pages. “I remember that on a number of relatively technical points in the [enterprise zone] legislation, he suggested there might be a better way of implementing the proposal based on his experience in state government,” Smick said. “Reagan reveled in the wonkdom of urban policy in a way that might have even made a young Bill Clinton envious. The more I read the comments in the margins of Kemp’s speech, the more obvious it became that Reagan had a passion for policy details.”

In their introduction to Reagan’s Secret War, Martin and Annelise Anderson write that Reagan “accomplished so much with such apparent ease that the casual observer often assumes he had nothing to do with it. .  .  . Perhaps he had advisers whose lines he read with such skill. Perhaps it was Gorbachev or Thatcher or the Pope. Or maybe it was just plain luck.” 

Then, on page 21, comes the refutation. It quotes a document, declassified in 2005, containing minutes of the first meeting of Reagan’s National Security Council on February 6, 1981. In attendance were the vice president, secretaries of state, defense, treasury, and justice, the director of central intelligence, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the White House chief of staff, the national security adviser, and numerous presidential aides. 

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