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Sincerely yours, the Great Communicator

Reagan: A Life in Letters; Ronald Reagan, edited by Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson and Martin Anderson; The Free Press: 936 pp., $35

November 23, 2003|Douglas Brinkley | Douglas Brinkley is director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies and professor of history at the University of New Orleans.

Back in 1994, at an Algonquin Hotel book party in New York, a well-known autograph dealer buttonholed me to talk about Ronald Reagan. Because I was often a CNN talking head, providing commentary on U.S. presidents, he was eager to regale me with his most recent acquisition: 276 letters that Ronald Reagan wrote to Lorraine Makler Wagner, longtime head of his Philadelphia fan club. A fiercely opinionated Democrat, Wagner lived in a working-class section of the City of Brotherly Love. Their correspondence began in 1943 and continued with "Ronnie's" farewell message, one sent to thousands of friends, after his public announcement that he suffered from Alzheimer's disease. That short 1994 letter ended an epistolary relationship that lasted 51years.

My immediate reaction to the autograph dealer was "Well, they must be form letters," the kind political candidates sign en masse to constituents unlucky enough to find themselves on the receiving end. He assured me that most were highly personal and handwritten, analyzing everything from his relationship with his first wife, actress Jane Wyman, to delineating why his true political hero was Franklin D. Roosevelt. One letter was handwritten when the 43-year-old Reagan was hosting a variety show at the Last Frontier Casino in Las Vegas. The dealer boasted about other long, personal missives written on White House letterhead. I found it all hard to believe: Reagan as a prolific letter writer? The Gipper as sage counselor to a blue-collar Philadelphian? We made an appointment so I could inspect the collection.

Nothing prepared me for the richness of the correspondence. Because some in the media had unfairly portrayed Reagan as an "amiable dunce," in former Defense Secretary Clark M. Clifford's ugly phrase, it was hard to believe he had a literary bent. Even his Hollywood friends believed that Louis L'Amour's pulp westerns were Reagan's idea of high art. The Reagan-Wagner correspondence showed that I was the ignorant one. Reagan had a naturally smart, breezy writing style filled with good humor, common sense and bracing political convictions. Far from being form letters, his correspondence with Wagner was brimming with wry observations, clever asides and stone-cold candor. He offered advice on child-rearing. He railed against what he deemed the "gossiping buzzard Brigade," the mainstream press that tried to destroy politicians' reputations. He defended conservatism in the cultural wars of the 1960s as an extension of his nationalism. "I've always resented kids spoiling the Churchill V for victory by their use of it as an anti-Vietnam gesture," he complained. A virtual shooting gallery of post-Truman-era liberal Democrats was the target of his rapid-fire pen. "Carter disturbs me more than a little," Reagan wrote of Jimmy Carter just days before he was elected president in 1976. "I have a deep-seated feeling that he is a real phony."

Eventually I wrote "The President's Pen Pal" for the New Yorker, which brought an avalanche of media attention on Wagner, who had just retired from the IRS and whose husband was seriously ill. Soon after her 15 minutes of fame, she sold the correspondence to the Young Republicans of America, which runs Reagan's ranch in Santa Barbara. They now consider the Wagner-Reagan correspondence one of the centerpieces of their effort to bear the Reagan torch to new generations.

Nearly 100 Reagan missives to Wagner are published in "Reagan: A Life in Letters," a compilation of more than 1,000 letters personally written or dictated by the Great Communicator. The three editors -- Kiron K. Skinner, an assistant professor of political science at Carnegie Mellon; Annelise Anderson, a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and Martin Anderson, a senior policy advisor to Reagan's 1976 and 1980 presidential campaigns -- do a meticulous job of organizing and annotating this hefty volume, which covers more than 50 years, from his acting days through his governorship of California, before and after his presidency. Reading them is proof positive that Reagan was not a cue-card reader or empty suit. He was -- dare we say it -- an intellectual of sorts. "Ronald Reagan loved to negotiate and he enjoyed talking about the process," former Secretary of State George P. Shultz writes in an introduction. The prose is always clear and direct. He is no Thomas Jefferson when it comes to displaying his intellect on paper. His writing is a wholesome combination of Ann Lander's well-meaning advice and Ayn Rand's fierce individualism. At times he is as sentimental as a Hallmark card. He treats an Alaskan third-grader's question about Girl Scout cookies with the same gravitas as a stranger's opinion on the death penalty. A democratic spirit comes through that is old-fashioned, quaint and likable.

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