Magazine article The Spectator

Right for His Times

Magazine article The Spectator

Right for His Times

Article excerpt

THE REAGAN DIARIES edited by Douglas Brinkley Harper Press, £30, pp. 767, ISBN 9780060876005 £24 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Visit the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, high on a hill overlooking Simi Valley, California and you are greeted at the door by a bronze statue of the former president dressed as a cowboy. For many on the Left in Britain that is exactly how they saw the 40th president of the United States.

They should read his diaries and think again.

Reagan was no Pepys, or even an Alan Clark -- he was far too close to the action to be a wry observer -- but his daily entries provide a fascinating insight into a presidency that saw the end of the Cold War and a resurgent belief in the power of the individual.

Yet these diaries also show that Reagan the man was not as simple as Reagan the myth. Instead, each page reveals a man who was deeply secure in his convictions but also flexible, pragmatic and caring. For example, the man who won 49 out of 50 states in the 1984 presidential election worked closely with Democratic congressmen on the budget and many other issues. A particularly revealing entry for 6 May 1981 suggests that many Democrats found Reagan more accessible than Jimmy Carter:

These Demos are with us on the budget and it's interesting to hear some who've been here 10 years or more say it is their 1st time to ever be in the Oval Office.

Another recurring theme is his acute insight into the human tragedy of communism. Early in 1981 Reagan writes to Brezhnev asking him to release the Jewish dissident Anatoly Sharansky, falsely accused of being a US spy: 'If you could find it in your heart to do this the matter would be strictly between us, which is why I'm writing this letter by hand.' In his diary he keeps returning to Sharansky's imprisonment, at one point exclaiming 'damn those inhuman monsters', until in 1986 he finally secures his release. After Sharansky visits him in the Oval Office on 13 May Reagan writes with obvious satisfaction: 'I learned that I'm a hero in the Soviet Gulag.' Nor is the Reagan in these diaries the mad warmonger of Spitting Image fame.

On 6 April 1983 he takes his National Security Council staff to task for being too unyielding. His justification is refreshingly optimistic:

I think I'm hardline and will never appease but I do want to try and let [the Soviets] see there is a better world if they'll show by deed they want to get along with the free world.

On another occasion he neatly sums up the fundamental Cold War dilemma:

Intelligence reports say Castro is very worried about me. …

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