- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 6, 2001

Ronald Reagan, though he was far better conditioned at 75 than Bill Clinton at 50, didn't jog. As might be expected of a former lifeguard and movie cowboy, he liked to swim and ride horses. But also, whenever life gave him a chance to do physical work, he seized it.

During his presidency, it was generally known that Mr. Reagan liked to cut brush and do other chores around his California ranch. The press, accustomed to presidential golfers and tennis players, treated that as just another Reagan eccentricity or, more darkly, as hypocritical public-relations spin.

It doesn't take much to imagine the indignant mumbling in the ranks of the scribblers of 20 years ago; it would have a familiar ring in today's Washington. He's not a real rancher. Whoever heard of a Republican who enjoyed manual labor, anyway? Besides, everyone knows that he's lazy, as well as not very bright. Probably he cuts a few weeds for the cameras and then goes inside for a jelly bean and a nap.

Mr. Reagan, like Dwight Eisenhower, had the good fortune to be consistently underestimated by his adversaries. During his years in office, and for a long time afterward, the many successes of his administration were routinely attributed either to good luck or good staffing. It's sad that, as he reaches 90, he can't enjoy or be gently amused by the acclaim now belatedly coming his way.

His stature is further assured by today's publication of "Reagan in His Own Hand," some of his own writings, quite literally in his own hand. These include poetry and fiction he wrote as a student, letters, speeches, presidential memoranda and his poignant goodbye when at 83, he informed the nation of his Alzheimer's disease. (Yes, he wrote that himself.)

Those miscellaneous materials are all interesting. But the heart of this collection is drawn from recently discovered, handwritten drafts Mr. Reagan's wide-ranging radio commentaries. He personally wrote about 670 of these between 1975, when he stepped down after two terms as California's governor, and 1979, when he began the campaign that would lead him to the White House.

The commentaries were written and edited in his own clear hand on yellow legal pads, then given to secretaries to type. Mr. Reagan would carefully proofread the typed copy. This was not a man who took words casually.

However, he was also a highly-disciplined man who liked a clean desk, and he would throw out his longhand drafts at the end of the work day unless aides intervened. Many first drafts of speeches from his tenure as governor disappeared that way, according to people who worked closely with him. Later, more efforts were made to preserve his notes.

Mr. Reagan could write on airplanes or in cars as easily as he could at home in his and Nancy's bedroom. During his years out of office, he and two helpers, former California state policeman Dennis LeBlanc and Barney Barnett, would regularly leave Los Angeles at daybreak in a '69 Ford station wagon, bound for the Reagans' recently acquired ranch.

The trip took two and a half hours. At the ranch, the three would work all day gutting the house in preparation for renovations, then return that night. Mr. Reagan would spend most of the five hours in the car writing. (Though his radio commentaries were aired daily, he usually prepared them in batches, so he was days or even weeks ahead of his deadline.)

About a quarter of the radio commentaries he wrote were concerned with foreign and defense policy. Another quarter discussed economics. About 15 percent dealt with political philosophy, especially as it related to individual liberty, and 10 percent with energy and the environment. The rest were divided between health, education, crime, the media and assorted other issues.

When Mr. Reagan was president, the press was both awed and annoyed by his ability to bypass it and build support for his policies by speaking directly to the American people. He was labeled the Great Communicator, but no compliment was intended. Rather, the implication was that with his actor's skills, he could sell whatever his handlers asked him to.

And indeed, perhaps he could have, if he hadn't been so busy selling his own deeply held beliefs. The original drafts of these essays are of special value because they're obviously the immediate work product of someone who has thought hard about vital issues, and worked equally hard to find the right words to discuss them.

Words, phrases and entire paragraphs are crossed out and rewritten. There are occasional misspellings and frequent uses of the phonetic shorthand which writing for broadcast invites. (All the commentaries begin with a one-sentence lead, and then the words "This is Ronald Reagan. I'll be right back." Often, however, the notes say "This is RR. I'll be rite back.")

With few exceptions, after 25 years these commentaries still read well and make sense, whether their topic is communism or redwood forests or tax policy. After 125 years, my guess is that they'll read well and make sense still.

"He wasn't a complicated man," Nancy Reagan told the editors of this book. "He was a private man, but he was not a complicated one. But he was a very sentimental one. And he was a very, very good writer."

She had that right. Happy Birthday, Mr. President. We'll be reading you.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer living in Maryland.

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