Reagan was a highly articulate, well-read and subtle man. The range of his interests, the extent of his knowledge and understanding of world events and history, his grasp of detail are all completely counter to the image we have long held. From developments in Communist China to the latest economic figures, from isolated dissidents he helped free from the Soviet Gulag to an intricate account of how the Iran-Contra affair escaped his political management, we find a man far more clued in than we had been led to believe. Maybe it's a function of low expectations that I found the letters so impressive (and I haven't managed to read all of them yet). Maybe it's more brilliant stagecraft by the man or his editors. But private letters are among the most intimate of a public person's output. They can reveal more about a person than many other public documents. And in this case, they really do.
He was extraordinarily humble. Even while in office, he would take hours out of his day to hand-write detailed and earnest replies to complete no-bodies. Even the crackpots who vented at him received polite and gracious counter-arguments. I loved this opening sentence to an angry woman in 1977, when he was recovering from his failed first run at the presidency: "I have been informed of your complaint about my broadcasts and your suggestion that they be taken off the air. I'm sorry you feel that way and hope you won't mind my writing a few words in my own defense." Why didn't he just throw the hate-mail in the dust-bin? Or in another missive, he could find a gentle way to inform a correspondent that his idea was preposterous: "I found your suggestion very interesting and yet as I turned it over in my mind it had a drawback - at least in my opinion." How's that for letting someone down gently? And remember that this was a nobody who had written to him, no one he had to impress or cajole or flatter. To a critical teenage girl who was president of her school, he concludes the letter, "We presidents must stick together."
After a few hours devouring the book, I couldn't find a single letter in which he didn't try to end on a conciliatory or friendly note. Well, one. It was to a ornery conservative activist who, early in Reagan's first term as president, had accused the president of selling out conservative principles. Reagan concluded: "And I must be honest and tell you I don't believe I am guilty of dividing and, yes, destroying the conservative movement at the very moment it has the greatest opportunity to reshape government philosophy it has ever had. But someone is." That someone was his correspondent, a man still throwing rhetorical bombs anywhere he can. But Reagan never sent the letter.
The intelligence of the man is undeniable. There's a detailed letter setting Professor Arthur Laffer right on petrol taxes; there's a complicated analysis of spending trends in his administration to another irked correspondent; there's a long explanation of the crossed wires that led him to pay tribute to dead SS Officers at a cemetery in Bitburg, Germany. And there's sharp honesty about his strategy for defeating the Soviets as early as 1982. He tolerated the deficits, he explained, for a long-term reason: "I don't underestimate the value of a sound economy but I also don't underestimate the imperialist ambitions of the Soviet Union ... I want more than anything to bring them into realistic arms reduction talks. To do this they must be convinced that the alternative is a buildup militarily by us. They have stretched their economy to the limit to maintain their arms program. They know they cannot match us in an arms race if we are determined to catch up. Our true ultimate purpose is arms reduction." At the time, he was pilloried as a warmonger by the nuclear freeze movement. Later, critics were stunned by his apparent volte-face into peace-making. But he knew what he was up to from the beginning. And now we know for sure.
Tuesday, September 30, 2003
Andrew Sullivan has a wonderful tribute to Ronald Reagan and Reagan's letters.
Posted by Betsy Newmark at 6:27 AM