How Reagan Did It

Article excerpt

Reagan, In His Own Hand

Edited by Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson

Free Press /576 pages /$30

REVIEWED BY Peter Robinson

One day in 1998, while working her way through boxes containing the private papers of Ronald Reagan, an assistant professor of history named Kiron Skinner discovered scripts in Reagan's own handwriting for the five-minute, five-day-a-week radio spots that he broadcast in the late seventies. Aside from private correspondence and a few items dating from Reagan's earliest years-stories he wrote in high school and college and a handful of newspaper columns from his days as an Iowa sports announcer-the radio scripts that Skinner discovered represent the only body of material in Reagan's own hand. Word of Skinner's findings began to circulate among historians. Soon a major publisher agreed to bring out excerpts of the material, working with Skinner and two old Reagan advisers, Martin and Annelise Anderson.

Reagan, In His Own Hand will appear in February. In some quarters, the incontrovertible proof that Reagan could actually read and write was enough to cause a sensation. But the book is useful in a number of ways. Above all, it makes untenable the lingering perception of Reagan as a genial dolt. As president of the screen actors' guild, as spokesman for General Electric, as governor of California, and as a three-time presidential candidate, Reagan wrote newspaper columns, radio spots, and speeches numbering in the many thousands. Or so those who worked with him have always claimed. The trouble is, without any material in Reagan's own handwriting they were never able to defend him against the charge that his material was ghosted.

Reagan himself, it seems, could hardly have cared less about the historical record. As the editors explain, Reagan composed in longhand, usually on yellow legal pads, then had secretaries type his work. When they gave him their typescripts, Reagan cheerfully ripped up his originals, letting them flutter into a wastebasket. The material that Skinner uncovered seems to have survived only because a secretary saved it from Reagan himself.

But survive it did-more than 600 radio scripts. (The editors include a few other manuscript items, including speeches, that have since been discovered.) The scripts deal with every issue of the day, from stagflation to Soviet duplicity, and they bear out what the old Reagan hands have always said: Right up until he became president, when he no longer had the time, Reagan did most of his writing himself. Reagan preferred the short form-the editors confess that the two full-length books that Reagan ostensibly authored, Where's the Rest of Me and An American Life, were indeed ghosted-and he wrote conversationally, composing for the ear rather than the eye. In other words, he expressed himself in the manner of popular culture. Yet we now know that he produced more original writing than any president since Woodrow Wilson.

Reagan's work is relaxed, fluid, vivid, humorous, and pointed. Repeatedly, he manages to compress into a few informal paragraphs an entire world view. "I was going through a bundle of quotations I've collected over the years," Reagan wrote in August 1978.

While doing that a thought came to me apropos of the present world situation where we continue to believe we can maintain a detente with the Soviet U....

There was that poetry from whence comes the inscription on our statue of liberty: "Her name-Mother of Exiles....Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...."

How that contrasts with these words of the Soviet U's founding father.. Lenin: "It would not matter if 34 of the human race perished; the important thing is that the remaining 14 be communist."

Detente -isn't that what a farmer has with his turkey-until thanksgiving day? To everyone who still permits himself to think of Reagan as a simpleton, Reagan, In His Own Hand will prove both unpleasant and impossible to ignore, a dead mouse among the ladyfingers at the garden party for good liberals. …