The Reagan Diaries
The presidency of Ronald Reagan is one of the most interesting of the twentieth century. It was a time of political and ideological realignment, as a new form of American conservatism came of age with Reagan’s election. As the oldest elected U.S. president at sixty-nine, Reagan was often accused by the press of napping in cabinet meetings and working short days, and many people viewed him as not one of America’s brightest or energetic chief executives. The appearance of The Reagan Diaries, edited by Douglas Brinkley, will put most of these misconceptions to rest. Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University, is the author of Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War (2004) and The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast (2006). He is the history commentator for CBS News and a contributing editor to Vanity Fair.
Only four other presidentsGeorge Washington, John Quincy Adams, James K. Polk, and Rutherford B. Hayeskept diaries on a consistent basis. Such access to a president’s daily inner thoughts are therefore rare indeed. Reagan regretted that he had never kept a diary before becoming president. “The Sacramento years”when he was governor of California“flew by so quickly,” he writes, but “we just did not seem to have time.” From his first day as president, however, he was determined to write daily, which he did, except when he was in the hospital. Each night before retiring, Reagan would chronicle his day in longhand. Other twentieth century presidents, Harry S. Truman for example, left behind the official daily appointment books and then recounted their presidency in memoirs written after leaving office. Before Reagan, no president, even those who kept daily diaries, had ever revealed their daily activities so candidly and personally. Reagan wanted to leave a detailed daily record of his eight years in office not only for posterity but also so that he and Nancy could better remember their White House days after they left Washington.
What quickly emerges from Reagan’s writings is the grueling daily grind that comes with the nation’s highest office. Endless meetings, speeches, luncheons, and ceremonies are all part of the job. Reagan took them all in stride. Apparently, the press was not aware of the tremendous amount of activities the president undertook during an average day: “The press keeps score on office hours but knows nothing about the never-ending desk and paperwork that usually goes on ’til lights out,” he reflects. This was not a part-time president by any means.
Reagan’s relationship with the press was cordial but often a source of annoyance. Regarding his visit to a Nazi military cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, in 1985, the president wrote that he could not understand why reporters continued to criticize him for what he viewed as honoring the war dead of both sides of a conflict that must never happen again. Despite the negative press, he stuck to his promise to West German chancellor Helmut Kohl to visit the cemetery. Eventually, the American people came around to Reagan’s side. In another incident, the press tried to create a scandal over the so-called Jimmy Carter playbook. Sources claimed that Reagan’s campaign staff had gained access to Democratic candidate Carter’s strategy book for the 1980 campaign. Reagan wrote that he knew nothing about it. This denial, however, immediately started rumors of a cover-up. In frustration, he wrote that he hoped the whole matter would simply go away, which it soon did.
One feature that is very apparent throughout his writings is his deep love and affection for his wife, Nancy. She was his rock and the center of his life. He misses her greatly whenever she is away from him for any length of time. Days after he was shot by John Hinckley, Jr., on March 30, 1981, Reagan writes, “I opened my eyes to find Nancy there. I pray I’ll never face a day when she isn’t there.” Interestingly, in spite of their extremely close relationship, he never seems to confide in her or seek her advice on government matters. His time with Nancy is relaxing time and family time, never business.
Throughout his presidency, Reagan found time to relax at his California ranch and at Camp David in...
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