- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 15, 2003

REAGAN: A LIFE IN LETTERS

Edited with an Introduction and Commentary by Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson, Martin Anderson

Free Press, $35, 934 pages

REVIEWED BY WOODY WEST

Personal correspondence by mail is soon likely to be filed in the same historical category as oil lamps — historically interesting but archaic. E-mails and faxes are desiccated compared to letters. For many of us in this wild new world, about the only first-class mail that falls through the slot these days begins, “This is your final notice … ”

Thus, the published volumes of personal correspondence between notable public persons will inevitably diminish. The insights and revelations of character that can be found in collections of contemporary letters are definitely an endangered species. This is especially the case when they come from the pen, say, of former presidents of our era — in this case Ronald Reagan.

Two years ago the editors of “Reagan: A Life in Letters” published a collection of his radio addresses from the 1970s and other ruminations from his pen over the years, entitled “In His Own Hand.” The collection deflated, or should have deflated, the contemptuous characterization of Mr. Reagan as an “amiable dunce”— the description of him by Washington fixer Clark Clifford.

“A Life in Letters” ought further to restore the dignity and decency that has been denied Mr. Reagan by a good many of the opinion elite, as illustrated in the recently scuttled CBS “docudrama” (or “mockudrama,” as Reagan biographer Edmund Morris tartly put it in the New York Times) of the president and his wife, Nancy. That production reportedly portrayed them as a singularly unpleasant couple, if not worse.

More than a thousand of Mr. Reagan’s personal letters are included and annotated in this collection. The editors, Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson, offer these as “the closest we will have to an autobiography” from Mr. Reagan.

The collection is organized chronologically and by theme — e.g., early years and family; Hollywood years and friendships; core beliefs, domestic policy and foreign affairs. The letters span more than 70 years of Mr. Reagan’s life, from 1922 when he wrote to one of his first girlfriends, to 1994 when his Alzheimer’s Disease set in, and he said goodbye to the nation in a letter in his own hand.

“Writing is an exercise in communicating with yourself as well as with others,” as George P. Shultz notes in a foreword. “A good writer is almost by necessity a good thinker.” And Ronald Reagan wrote well. A fair number of the letters are the succinct communications of a man intricately involved in the life of his times. Even these, however, illumine personality. Some of the most affecting are his recollections of his childhood in Dixon, Ill.

Responding in 1981 to a letter from a Dixon resident who asked what the town library had meant to him, he wrote, “The library was really my house of magic.” He elaborates on what reading has meant to him. “I can barely remember a time in my life when I didn’t know how to read … The joy of reading has always been with me. Indeed, I can’t think of greater torture than being isolated in a guest room or a hotel room without something to read.”

There is a deep layer of nostalgia for his early years in these letters. But there is also a consistent reiteration of his political philosophy. Hollywood, of course, was the catalyst of his movement from conventional liberalism to an adamant anti-communism. In a detailed 1960 reply to Hugh Hefner, of Playboy magazine, he recounted his experience in post-war Hollywood when he battled communist influence in the movie industry.

“I, like you, will defend the right of any American to openly practice and preach any political philosophy from monarchy to anarchy,” Mr. Reagan writes firmly and civilly. “But this is not the case with regard to the communist. He is bound by party discipline to deny he is a communist so that he can by subversion and stealth impose on an unwilling people the rule of the International Communist Party … ”

As governor of California in 1972, he replies to a constituent’s criticism of his support for President Richard Nixon’s run for a second term as politically expedient. “I believe there is a better chance to advance my conservative principles with a Republican president, even though I disagree with some of what he does … I believe this country could very well cease to exist as a free nation if one of the present Democrat challengers should be in charge for the next four years.”

His epistolary contacts cover a remarkable range, from private citizens, old friends, to public figures and world leaders. Walter Annenberg and William F. Buckley Jr. were among frequent correspondents. Foreign leaders included Canada’s Pierre Trudeau, France’s Francois Mitterrand, Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain, and the Soviet Union’s Leonard Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov — and many others.

These presidential letters are as personal in tone as those to private citizens. Indeed, the man himself emerges with clarity in his correspondence, as serious, affable, fully aware of the tensions and texture of his times and of his responsibilities.

One does not read a thousand letters at a sitting, or even several sittings. But to browse through this collection is to recognize why Ronald Reagan is embedded in the affections and respect of so many of his fellow citizens.

Woody West is associate editor of The Washington Times.


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