- The Washington Times - Monday, October 27, 2003


Peter Robinson

Regan Books/Harpe

There are many reasons why Peter Robinson’s charming “How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life” is worth reading. Atop that list are the varied reactions his title evinces upon the dour, drab faces of the commuting Metro masses. “Not another Reagan book,” some faces seem to say.

“A Reagan self-help book? Reagan as a religious figure, seeking converts?” they wonder. And like that, they’re off at the next stop, ready to slog through their day in a federal bureaucracy Mr. Reagan would have dismantled. Comforting thought, that.

Then there are those serious, solemn looks of solidarity — knowing nods that might mean anything and everything from “Reagan saved my small business” to “Reagan saved the free world from those pinkos.”Comforting thought, again.

Even today, as Mr. Reagan lives out his remaining days hidden from public view, his legacy still polarizes. Indeed, much of the current, fashionable Bush-hating is but another iteration of an earlier, also fashionable Reagan-hating phenomenon.

Mr. Robinson’s book is refreshing because he introduces what might be an altogether different Reagan legacy — this one more personal. When finished, readers walk away with a more intimate view of Mr. Reagan, not to mention Mr. Robinson and what it’s like to be a young, talented speechwriter in a White House that didn’t want to “let Reagan be Reagan.”

There are many enjoyable nuggets here: Mr. Reagan intuitively knowing how to embrace Ray Charles; Mr. Reagan finding solace through manual labor at his ranch; and then Mr. Robinson fighting a younger Colin Powell over his objections to Mr. Robinson’s most famous line in his most famous speech: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Perhaps it’s a stretch to say that Mr. Reagan changed Mr. Robinson’s life, but he certainly showed him how to become a better man. In a way, Mr. Robinson, now a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, offers this book in thanks. His assessment of Mr. Reagan is not uniformly glowing, and he delicately deals with two issues that have befuddled both Reagan scolds and hagiographers: Was Mr. Reagan a man of faith? And, how could such a caring, gentle man been a rather unloving father?

Mr. Robinson argues that Mr. Reagan was a privately but deeply religious man. When Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev died, the president said a prayer for him at the Soviet embassy, “asking the blessings of God on the deceased leader of a nation devoted to atheism.”

As for being a father, Mr. Robinson explains that Mr. Reagan was a man only one generation removed from the Victorian era, not entirely comfortable with the modern burdens of parenthood.

For certain, Mr. Robinson is a Reagan Samurai, willing to defend his man until the end. In one telling example, he and a woman he is dating communicate their level of seriousness in Reagan-speak.

“What’s amazing about the Reagans,” Mr. Robinson recalls telling his then-girlfriend, Edita, “is just how much they mean to each other. She’s his whole world.”

Mr. Robinson decodes the message: “Translation. I am getting serious about this. Would you ever permit me to place you at the center of my life just as completely as the President places Mrs. Reagan at the center of his?”

Luckily for Mr. Robinson, Edita also speaks “Reagan.”

“What I find so admirable about Mrs. Reagan,” she responds “is that she always backs her husband up. She puts his interests first.”

Again, Mr. Robinson graciously translates: “I’m getting serious about this myself. And if you want me to be as loyal to you as Mrs. Reagan is to the President, buster, you’d better make sure you’re just as deserving of loyalty.”

This exchange — indeed this new language — is fascinating, yet a little confusing. Edita’s actual comments about Mr. Reagan don’t include any conditions. Then, presto, in the translation, it’s incumbent on Mr. Robinson (the “buster”) to be deserving of her loyalty. How does that work?

For historians, the existence of this language, heretofore unknown, could shed light on some of the darker areas of the Reagan administration. And if the Soviets also spoke “Reagan,” then the entire history of the Cold War needs to be rethought.

While it’s doubtful that geopolitics has its own language, the same can’t be said of love. Mr. Robinson makes Edita Mrs. Robinson and his life becomes complete. One can only wonder if they are teaching any of their five children to speak Reagan as well. After all, it’s important to be bilingual in today’s California.

Hans Nichols is a reporter for the Hill.

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