BOOK REVIEW: More evidence of Reagan’s range and insight

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RONALD REAGAN: THE NOTES: RONALD REAGAN‘S PRIVATE COLLECTION OF STORIES AND WISDOM
By Ronald Reagan
Edited by Douglas Brinkley
Harper, $26.99, 256 pages

By the time he left office, President Reagan had accomplished two of the three major goals he had set for himself. The first was getting the economy back on track and expanding it using primarily growth-oriented tax policies. Second was a strategy to steadily push the Soviet Union to the brink of bankruptcy in an arms race until Mikhail Gorbachev cried “uncle” and ended the Cold War.

His third objective, to curb the growth of the federal government, brought mixed results. Nevertheless, the other two were signal successes.

Many academic liberals and left-leaning media commentators could not bring themselves to give him credit for this. They clung to the belief he was an “empty suit,” with a persuasive speaking style, but otherwise devoid of intellectual curiosity and detached from the details of presidential leadership.

Then in 2001 came the book “Reagan in His Own Hand” by Martin and Annelise Anderson and Kiron Skinner, scholars at the Hoover Institution. They had gained access to Reagan’s handwritten scripts for several hundred of his daily radio commentaries between 1975 and 1979.

The topics were wide-ranging and, as they put it, he was something of “a one-man think tank.” I can attest that he researched nearly all of the hundreds of scripts he wrote. (I was his principal assistant on the radio project.) In his office, at home and on his many flights to speaking engagements he used his time to read and write.

Now, 10 years later, historian Douglas Brinkley has given us further evidence of the range of Reagan’s curiosity about the world in “Ronald Reagan: The Notes.” Mr. Brinkley reports that in early 2010, staff members at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation came across a cardboard box hand-labeled “R.R.’s desk.” It contained batches of his 4x6-inch cards, like the ones on which he wrote (in his own shorthand) his “stump” speeches over the years. Mr. Brinkley was called in to review and organize them. As he put it, “These notes reveal the real Reagan - a fiercely patriotic, pro-democracy avatar of limited governance.”

I recall many times on flights with him when he was preparing notes for an upcoming speech, his briefcase was filled with batches of these notes, each held together by a rubber band and separated by subject matter. He’d pull a card out and tuck it into the cards he was organizing for his speech. On the next flight he might pull out the special citations and replace them with new ones for the next stop.

As editor, Mr. Brinkley has organized the Reagan “Notes” under several useful headings: On The Nation, On Liberty, On War, On The People, On Religion, The World, On Character, On Political Theater and Humor. There is also a glossary identifying many of the people who were sources of his quotations. Here is a sampling:

c The oft-quoted declaration of John Winthrop on the deck of Arabella off the Massachusetts coast in 1630: “We shall be as a city on the hill.”

c From Thomas Jefferson: “The policy of the American government is to leave their citizens free, neither restraining nor aiding them in their pursuits.”

c From Cicero, some 2,000 years ago: “The budget should be balanced, the treasury should be refilled, the public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled.”

There are hundreds of sources within this collection of quotations and observations. The sources are eclectic, and some are surprising: Mao, Lenin, Pravda, Goebbels. He put their words to use to underscore the importance of liberty.

Anyone looking for a joke with which to warm up an audience will find a trove of possibilities here, such as, “A protest march is like a tantrum, only better organized.” And, “Why can’t life’s problems hit us when we’re 18 and know everything?” And: “Most people’s financial problems are very simple - they are short of money.”

This is a book to return to often and sample the collected wisdom found there that buttressed a remarkable man’s vision.

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