Here’s the Rest of Him

Tuesday, January 30, 2001

The search for the real Ronald Reagan—for evidence of an interior life behind the genial but remote figure of our 40th president—has frustrated everyone who has ever taken it up. Most famously, of course, we have the example of Edmund Morris, the president’s biographer.

For more than a dozen years the author of Dutch persisted in his quest. Morris spent hours with Reagan without ever capturing a glimpse of the inner man. He pored over Reagan’s presidential diaries, hoping that somewhere Reagan had engaged in at least a few acts of self-revelation. Instead Morris found that Reagan had committed to writing only a dispassionate account of the highlights of each day, compiling a narrative that no more laid his soul bare than if he had been keeping the minutes of corporate board meetings. In the end Morris seems to have lost his grip; abandoning the conventions of biography, Morris inserted into Dutch a fictional narrator who could at least hint that he understood the real Reagan that had eluded Morris himself—like a knight whose search for the grail had driven him mad.

Now, with the publication of her new book, I Love You, Ronnie, Nancy Reagan demonstrates that the grail lay within easy reach all along. It was stashed in a shopping bag. Into this shopping bag Mrs. Reagan placed the dozens of holiday cards, love notes, telegrams, and letters that her husband sent to her during the more than four decades between their first meeting, in 1950, and his falling victim to Alzheimer’s disease in the middle of the 1990s.

Mrs. Reagan, who will divide the royalties from her book between the Alzheimer’s Foundation and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, writes that she originally intended simply to donate her husband’s love letters to his presidential library. Then, realizing that she “hated the thought of their being stuck in a file there, read by a few scholars and researchers,” she decided to publish the letters first. “That way all the people who admire Ronnie could share in discovering the side of him that he’s always kept hidden from public view.”

Ronald Reagan may have limited his emotional life to one woman, but he loved her so completely and tenderly that there are passages in this book that will make you blush. “My Darling,” Reagan writes in a typical passage, “do you know that when you sleep you curl your fists up under your chin and many mornings when it is barely dawn I lie facing you and looking at you until finally I have to touch you ever so lightly so you won’t wake up—but touch you I must or I’ll burst?”

In his letters Reagan is intimate, warm, gentle, and playful, addressing his wife as “Nancy Pants,” “Nancy Poo,” “Muffin,” and “Mommie” while signing himself, as governor of California, “Your In Luv Guv,” and later, as president, “Prexy.” Throughout the decades, Reagan’s tone remains utterly unchanged. He remains as smitten, besotted, and head-over-heels in his 70s as he was in his 40s. “I told you once,” Reagan wrote to Nancy on their 31st anniversary, “it was like an adolescent’s dream of what marriage should be like. That hasn’t changed.”

Romance is not the only emotion Reagan expresses in these letters. He also gives voice, in surprising abundance, to an emotion that so far as I know he expressed nowhere else in his entire life: fear. What Reagan fears, he says repeatedly in these letters, is life without Nancy. You might be tempted to dismiss his talk of fear as a mere conceit, invented by an adoring husband to offer his wife yet another compliment. But Reagan’s sense of dread is palpable. The very thought of life without Nancy genuinely unmans him. As governor he writes that he would be “desolate” without his wife. Even as president, at the peak of his powers, surrounded by a staff of hundreds to do his bidding, Reagan is capable of writing to his wife, “I more than love you, I’m not whole without you. . . . When you aren’t there I’m no place, just lost in time & space.”

“I told you once,” Reagan wrote to Nancy on their 31st wedding anniversary, “it was like an adolescent’s dream of what marriage should be like. That hasn’t changed.”

Various reasons have been put forward to explain why Ronald Reagan proved so emotionally limited—remote from his staff, distant even from his children. Lou Cannon, the author of President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, still the best Reagan biography, makes much of Reagan’s upbringing as the son of an alcoholic. After your father has subjected you to the humiliation of getting himself known as the town drunk in half a dozen places, Cannon suggests, you tend to close in on yourself. Edmund Morris stresses the devastation Reagan experienced when his first wife, Jane Wyman, ended their marriage. The letters in I Love You, Ronnie offer no definitive explanation, yet they present a striking new insight of their own: Reagan was aware of his own limitations. Only one relationship, he recognized, offered him security and happiness. Outside that relationship, he would have been disoriented and miserable, “lost in time & space.”

Although I Love You, Ronnie is the most unideological book imaginable—in the brief essays in which she offers a chronology of the Reagans’ life together, Mrs. Reagan never advances a single political argument—it is easy to read the book as an argument for a particular notion of marriage. Consider Reagan as president. Throughout his two terms, Reagan remained serene. Only during Iran-contra did Reagan’s spirits flag, yet even then he remained remarkably poised, engaging in none of the long, self-pitying soliloquies with the White House staff that were so characteristic of the last eight years. How did Reagan retain his calm? What was his source of strength? “He sits in the Oval Office,” Reagan writes in I Love You, Ronnie, “[and] he can see (if he scrooches down) [Nancy’s] window and feels warm all over just knowing she is there.”

Now consider Bill Clinton. In a book published last fall, Eyewitness to Power, David Gergen, a former Clinton staffer, offers this portrait: “From the beginning, there were signs of trouble at home. A chipper president would arrive at the office in the morning, almost whistling as he whipped through the papers. A phone would ring. It was a call from upstairs at the residence. He would listen, utter a few words, but as we started back to work, his mood would darken, his attention wander, and hot words would spew out. . . . What, I would wonder, had [Hillary] said to him now?” Maybe it would be charitable to let that portrait stand without comment.

Yet what remains most striking about this slender volume is not that it represents an entry into the fray over notions of marriage but that it amounts to an historic document. Just as Mrs. Reagan intended, I Love You, Ronnie makes public the real Ronald Reagan. “That is to say,” as Mrs. Reagan writes, “his private side. His heart.” Perhaps it is only fitting that it was Mrs. Reagan, and not a historian, who gave us this view of her husband. His heart belongs to her alone.