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.
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.
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.
Reagan was undaunted and blunt. He left no doubt he would be actively in charge. “During the campaign, I pledged to implement a new foreign policy and restore the margin of safety,” he said. “I look to this group to help me. . . . I will use the NSC structure to obtain your guidance, but I will make the decisions. . . . Although the decisions will be mine, you are the obvious source for good ideas. I want good advice.”
His diaries show how engaged Reagan was. He held so many press conferences that, in comparison, President Obama appears to be in hibernation. He gave hundreds of interviews, even to magazines like Runner’s World and Sports Afield with no connection with national policy or politics.
I opened his diaries at random—trust me on this—to see what Reagan had done on a single day. It was November 12, 1987, perhaps not a typical day, but not a wildly abnormal one either. He met with his education secretary, Bill Bennett. “Then Jim Baker & Jim Miller along with Howard B. & Ken D. This was about negotiations re the deficit. They wanted instructions from me as to what they could do to get an agreement. I want them to hold out for more spending cuts.” He “OKd” a schedule for a three-day meeting with Gorbachev. He sent flowers to an aide who’d had a sinus operation. After Colin Powell briefed him on the Middle East, Reagan met with an Afghan delegation and later with Republican members of Congress to discuss Romania. Added, in italics, were activities Reagan hadn’t mentioned: a session with Senators Joe Biden and Strom Thurmond, another with officers of the American Legion, the launching of the Christmas Seals campaign, and an appearance at a farewell party for a staffer.
What misled reporters was that Reagan often sounded hazy. He did seem detached. In truth, he never was, unless one believes he routinely lied to his diary. The book was published 18 years after the end of his presidency and 3 years after his death. Everything we know about Reagan tells us he wasn’t the sort of man who would think of deceiving those who would pick up his diaries years later.
That Reagan was like a child fortunate enough to have hired adults as his chief handlers—that myth has dogged him since he ran for governor of California in 1966. And it remains embedded in the conventional wisdom of the political community. Not only have his managers and strategists been credited with running efficient campaigns on his behalf—while he was limited to speechmaking—they’ve also been credited with guiding him through a successful governorship and presidency. Reagan’s contribution in this scenario was simply to have been an excellent speaker willing to echo the words of his handlers.
This is nonsensical: No politician has ever had advisers with skills so unfailing. Besides, the big ideas of the Reagan era came from Reagan himself. The biggest was his obsession with eliminating nuclear weapons entirely, a goal he pursued despite the opposition of many of his advisers and his closest foreign ally, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. It was Reagan, not his aides, who came to the conclusion that mutual assured destruction, the theory that fear of massive nuclear retaliation would deter a first strike by the United States or the Soviet Union, was immoral. “What’s so good about a peace kept by the threat of destroying each other?” Reagan asked “many times,” according to Secretary of State George P. Shultz. “The public was hesitant to embrace” Reagan’s idea, Shultz writes in the foreword to Reagan’s Secret War, and “advisers Reagan trusted and who were experts in this area didn’t support it. But none of that diminished Reagan’s conviction.”
And it was Reagan who thought it possible to win the cooperation of the Soviets. All they needed was assurance of America’s good intentions. Shultz agreed and became his closest adviser. Reagan rebuffed efforts by hardliners in his administration to have Shultz fired, explaining in his diary on November 14, 1984, “George is carrying out my policy.”
Nor did Reagan allow subordinates to make major policy decisions. He instructed Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis, he noted in his diary on June 21, 1981, to tell the head of the air traffic controllers’ union he “would not countenance an illegal strike nor would I permit negotiations while such a strike was in process.” When the controllers struck, Reagan fired them, to the shock of nearly everyone in Washington. He gladly accepted the resignation of his first secretary of state, Al Haig. “The only disagreement was over whether I made policy or the sec. of state did,” Reagan wrote on June 25, 1982.
Another idea that was almost exclusive to Reagan was the belief the Soviet Union was hurtling toward the “dustbin of history.” He used that phrase in a speech in 1972, then again as president 10 years later. Reagan believed the Communist system would eventually collapse, and he wanted to hurry the process. He imposed curbs on the export of technology the Soviets needed but couldn’t produce on their own. Not coincidentally, Saudi Arabia decided to pump more oil, reducing the world price and devastating a Soviet economy that depended on high oil prices. Reagan accelerated the arms race by pushing development of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), knowing the Soviet Union couldn’t match the United States on a space-based missile defense and would bankrupt their country if they tried. Rather than a puppet, Reagan was a puppeteer.
As strongly as Reagan felt about eliminating nuclear weapons, he believed it was impractical and dangerous to do so without the deployment of SDI. Otherwise, a nation that cheated—the Soviet Union, he assumed—would have the upper hand. He and Gorbachev clashed on this very issue in their negotiations in Iceland in October 1986. Reagan was a tough and experienced negotiator from his years as head of the Screen Actors Guild in Hollywood, a fact lost on the media, which saw Gorbachev as the smarter and more unyielding of the two. But in Iceland, Reagan out-negotiated Gorbachev.
The Soviet strategy was designed to exploit Reagan’s eagerness to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Gorbachev offered a deal: We’ll both destroy our nuclear arsenals and you’ll abandon SDI. “I couldn’t believe it and I blew my top,” Reagan noted in An American Life. He said that deal would give Soviets the advantage, since they already had several anti-missile installations and were likely to build more. In the end, Reagan was unshakable, the Soviets shaken. They soon softened on arms control and accepted U.S. terms to reduce missiles in Western Europe. Reagan stuck by SDI.
A lazy leader could never have gone eyeball-to-eyeball with Gorbachev and forced the Soviet leader to blink. Yet Reagan seemed to encourage people to believe he was passive and inattentive. He specialized in self-deprecatory humor. “It’s true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?” he said. And this: “I have left orders to be awakened at any time in case of a national emergency—even if I’m in a cabinet meeting.”
His diaries, however, reveal a man who labored long and hard. His wife Nancy regarded him as a workaholic. His TV watching was limited to news shows. He spent hours editing speech drafts, occasionally rewriting them. He took paperwork home in the evening. He didn’t have the heart to decline meetings with people with disabilities or leaders of groups representing them. He wrote thousands of letters. In the foreword to Reagan: A Life in Letters, Shultz recalls weekends at Camp David. “I stopped by the president’s cabin at Aspen [Lodge] several times and saw him seated at a table writing,” Shultz says. “He’d nod as I came in and say, ‘Please wait for me while I finish this,’ and he’d continue writing.” In his diaries, Reagan commented, “Presidents don’t have vacations, they just have a change of scenery.”
His reputation for laziness contributed to what Shultz calls “the mystery of Reagan that has baffled so many for so long.” Shultz has his own explanation for how “a man of supposedly limited knowledge and limited intelligence [could] accomplish so much,” get elected and reelected president, and preside over prosperity and the winning of the Cold War. “Well, maybe he was a lot smarter than people thought.”
He was, but Reagan nurtured an image of himself as a common man, neither smarter nor more capable than anyone else. One aide theorizes that during his grade school days Reagan discovered that the smartest kid in the class was not the most popular, the one looked up to. Reagan acted accordingly and became a leader in high school, college, Hollywood, California, and the nation. Ed Meese, his longtime friend and adviser, believes Reagan preferred to be underestimated. And he usually was, as Pat Brown and Jimmy Carter discovered to their regret. Bill Clark, a friend for decades, told me Reagan masked his brainpower. “When your guard was down,” Clark said, “he would come through” and get others to agree with him. “That was his approach to running anything. It wasn’t to trick anybody.”
Reagan even declined to reveal his reading habits. “Late in his presidency, press aide Marlin Fitzwater noticed Reagan reading several current books, as opposed to the Louis L’Amour novels Reagan often admitted to reading,” Reagan biographer Steven F. Hay-ward wrote in Greatness: Reagan, Churchill, and the Making of Extraordinary Leaders. “Fitzwater asked Reagan if the press office could put out a media advisory about his current reading—Clinton [would] do this routinely—as a way of combating the widespread criticism that Reagan was out of touch and incurious about the world.” Reagan responded, “ ‘No, Marlin, I don’t think we need to do that.’ ”
Reagan was rarely outsmarted, but I thought I had him when I was a panelist in his first campaign debate with Walter Mondale in October 1984. With the help of Tom DeFrank, then of Newsweek, I came up with a question I figured would surprise Reagan. (For what it’s worth, this is what journalists strive to do at press conferences.) I asked Reagan why, as a Christian, he didn’t attend church regularly. He said his presence in church could prompt a terrorist attack and “pose a threat to several hundred people. . . . I miss going to church, but I think the Lord understands.”
I was sure I’d succeeded in raising a subject he’d never suspected would crop up in a nationally televised debate. Then last year, I read The Reagan Diaries and discovered he had repeatedly struggled with the matter of going to church. He had skipped going until he figured out a way to go without risking the safety of the congregation. “Went to church,” he noted in his diary on May 1, 1983. “We kept it a secret until the very last minute. It felt good.” Once again, from his own words, the real Reagan emerged.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard. This article is adapted from “Reagan in His Own Words,” delivered at Regent University’s seventh annual Ronald Reagan Symposium.