O LUCKY MAN!; Books

By Lemann, Nicholas | The New Yorker, May 28, 2007 | Go to article overview

O LUCKY MAN!; Books


Lemann, Nicholas, The New Yorker


While he was President, Ronald Reagan kept an almost daily diary. He was the only President during the last century to do so, and the result--in a form that is greatly reduced but still makes a very long book--"The Reagan Diaries" (Harper-Collins; $35), takes its place next to an earlier volume, almost as large, of correspondence written in his own hand, another of speeches, and yet another of his radio talks. Presidents, including Reagan, usually write memoirs of their White House years afterward; Reagan wins the prize for copiousness of in-office Presidential writing.

Some great politicians have an eerie (Clintonian, one might say) talent for leaving admirers with wildly varied impressions of them. Reagan wasn't like that. He presented a consistent persona, to which people's reactions varied wildly. Reagan ran for office as the nominee of a major party four times--twice for governor of California and twice for President--and won all four races by big margins. But people who got close to him were often unable to feel the connection that voters did from a distance. Aide after aide, and Reagan's official biographer, Edmund Morris, have testified to his remoteness and unknowability, and his children seem to have felt the same way. Intellectuals, journalists, and old Washington pros always saw him as a lightweight--Clark Clifford memorably called him "an amiable dunce." He also generated consistent ideological opposition, mainly from the left but also from conservatives who thought he didn't deliver on his assurances that he was one of them.

Reagan's diaries will reinforce each of these reactions. Those who adore him will find that he didn't have much of a dark side (though he does once refer to Senator Lowell Weicker, of Connecticut, as "a schmuck"). He doesn't curse and plot against enemies, like the Richard Nixon we know from his Oval Office tapes; he doesn't agonize and fall prey to insecurity, like Lyndon Johnson, whom we also know best from his office tapes. He keeps a couple of key principles--taxation is bad and Communism is evil--clearly in mind at all times and doesn't get mired in details. He maintains regular, though unavoidably somewhat scripted, contact with ordinary Americans, especially courageous hard-luck cases, often people whose stories Reagan saw on television and whom he was moved to invite to the White House. He gets genuinely upset when he encounters profanity in a movie. Although, as his critics have often noted, he was not a regular churchgoer, his faith in God is a consistent element in the diaries and doesn't seem staged. (He also mentions that he believes Armageddon is coming, that the Shroud of Turin was, in fact, the burial cloth of Jesus Christ, and that Abraham Lincoln's ghost inhabits the White House.)

Reagan has a quotidian quality, which will appeal to traditional conservatives who don't like holders of state power to think of it as a great and glorious calling. Day after day, he turns up at the office, works his way through papers and meetings, and longs for the arrival of the weekend. The Presidency in Reagan's hands seems almost boring: a ceaseless round of plane flights, official dinners, greetings proffered to groups of visitors, adjudication of squabbles among aides, and flattering phone calls to wavering members of Congress. As his term wears on and he enters his late seventies, Reagan also devotes a lot of his time to doctors' visits, all of which he duly recorded. He's a trouper, not a maestro energized and exhilarated by power.

Although Douglas Brinkley, the historian who edited the diaries, generously calls Reagan's writing "uncomplicated and humble," the truth is that Reagan was a master of spoken, not written, English. He writes in a simple, singsong prose, with many misspellings. Richard Crossman he's not. Here is an entry from a day six months into the Presidency:

Saw "Mommie" [Nancy Reagan] off for London & the Royal Wedding. I worry when she's out of sight 6 minutes. …

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