How Reagan Did It

Monday, April 30, 2001
Review of Reagan, In His Own Hand, edited by Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson. Published by the Free Press.

One day in 1998, while working her way through boxes containing the private papers of Ronald Reagan, Hoover fellow Kiron Skinner discovered scripts in Reagan’s own handwriting for the five-minute, five-day-a-week radio spots that he broadcast in the late seventies. Aside from private correspondence and a few items dating from Reagan’s earliest years—stories he wrote in high school and college and a handful of newspaper columns from his days as an Iowa sports announcer—the radio scripts that Skinner discovered represent the only body of material in Reagan’s own hand. Word of Skinner’s findings began to circulate among historians. Soon a major publisher agreed to bring out excerpts of the material, working with Skinner and two old Reagan advisers, Hoover fellows Martin and Annelise Anderson.

Illustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest.

Reagan, In His Own Hand appeared in February. (For an excerpt from the book, see "Reagan in His Own Hand.") In some quarters, the incontrovertible proof that Reagan could actually read and write was enough to cause a sensation. But the book is useful in a number of ways. Above all, it makes untenable the lingering perception of Reagan as a genial dolt. As president of the Screen Actors Guild, as spokesman for General Electric, as governor of California, and as a three-time presidential candidate, Reagan wrote newspaper columns, radio spots, and speeches numbering in the many thousands (or so those who worked with him have always claimed). The trouble is, without any material in Reagan’s own handwriting, they were never able to defend him against the charge that his material was ghosted.

Reagan himself, it seems, could hardly have cared less about the historical record. As the editors explain, Reagan composed in longhand, usually on yellow legal pads, then had secretaries type his work. When they gave him their typescripts, Reagan cheerfully ripped up his originals, letting them flutter into a wastebasket. The material that Skinner uncovered seems to have survived only because a secretary saved it from Reagan himself.

Ronald Reagan got to be so good at public speaking in the same way that Laurence Olivier got to be so good at acting or Vladimir Horowitz got to be so good at playing the piano. All he did was give it a lifetime of unremitting effort.

But survive it did—more than 600 radio scripts. (The editors include a few other manuscript items, including speeches, that have since been discovered.) The scripts deal with every issue of the day, from stagflation to Soviet duplicity, and they bear out what the old Reagan hands have always said: right up until he became president, when he no longer had the time, Reagan did most of his writing himself. Reagan preferred the short form—the editors confess that the two full-length books that Reagan ostensibly authored, Where’s the Rest of Me and An American Life, were indeed ghosted—and he wrote conversationally, composing for the ear rather than the eye. In other words, he expressed himself in the manner of popular culture. Yet we now know that he produced more original writing than any president since Woodrow Wilson.

Reagan’s work is relaxed, fluid, vivid, humorous, and pointed. Repeatedly, he manages to compress into a few informal paragraphs an entire worldview. "I was going through a bundle of quotations I’ve collected over the years," Reagan wrote in August 1978.

While doing that a thought came to me apropos of the present world situation where we continue to believe we can maintain a détente with the Soviet U. . . .

There was that poetry from whence comes the inscription on our statue of liberty: "Her name—Mother of Exiles. . . . Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. . . ."

How that contrasts with these words of the Soviet U’s founding father . . . Lenin: "It would not matter if 3/4 of the human race perished; the important thing is that the remaining 1/4 be communist."

Détente—isn’t that what a farmer has with his turkey—until thanksgiving day?

To everyone who still permits himself to think of Reagan as a simpleton, Reagan, In His Own Hand will prove both unpleasant and impossible to ignore, a dead mouse among the ladyfingers at the garden party for good liberals. Yet it would be a mistake to see the book merely as a satisfying gift for liberals. To those of us who have always admired the 40th president, the book proves satisfying in a different way. It explains how Reagan did it.

Think for a moment about his technical proficiency. He was so good at giving speeches that his skill as an orator has become a standard part of presidential lore, like FDR’s wiliness or Clinton’s libido. The press, which only saw, or heard, the finished rhetorical product, dubbed Reagan the Great Communicator. Those of us who helped produce his speeches (I served for six years as a speechwriter in the Reagan White House) found ourselves constantly marveling at feats of which the press was never aware.

For example, the morning after returning from one of his first summit meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan reported on the summit in a speech he delivered in a Washington, D.C., hotel. The first few moments of the president’s performance proved entirely routine. He strode to the lectern as he was announced and then, as was his unvarying practice, acknowledged the applauding audience with his right hand while with his left hand he reached into his jacket pocket to pull out the half sheets—the half sheets were just that, ordinary pieces of typing paper that had been cut in half—on which his speech was typed, setting them on the lectern while he told an opening joke. Then something terrible happened. At least you would have thought so if you had written the speech. The hotel’s ventilating system kicked on. Issuing from a ceiling vent directly over the lectern, a sudden blast lifted the half sheets into the air. They fell slowly, like fat snowflakes, scattering themselves across the floor.

An advertisement for Ronald Reagan’s radio commentaries. Reagan delivered more than 1,000 syndicated daily radio broadcasts between 1975 and 1979.

It was one of those moments when a cliché comes true: the audience really did gasp. The president himself remained calm, smiling gamely as he bent to scoop up the sheets. When he replaced them on the lectern, however, he had a problem. They were out of order. Although they were numbered, reordering them was going to take about as much time as it would to put a deck of cards back in order. The president spent a moment trying to do just that. He shuffled through the deck of half sheets to find the first, placed it on top of the deck, shuffled again to find the second, placed it on top, then he began shuffling yet again to find the third. The audience began shifting in its seats. "If I don’t put this speech back in order pretty soon," the president quipped, still shuffling, "I’m going to have to tell another joke." When the audience stopped laughing, the president looked up and began the speech.

Except that it wasn’t the speech, not the speech as I had written it. First he ad-libbed. Then, when he reached a block of material that I had written, it came from the middle of the speech. I pulled out my own copy of the speech and tried to figure out what was going wrong. Then it came to me. Instead of taking an awkward amount of time to put everything back in order, he had simply launched into a speech, glancing down to find blocks of material that went together while improvising transitions. In the act of delivering it, in other words, the president was composing an entirely new speech. Perhaps half a dozen people in the room were aware of what was taking place. We exchanged alarmed glances. Could he pull it off? Then we smiled. Reagan? He could pull off anything. The president delivered the speech without so much as a pause, a stumble, or an "uh."

How did he get to be so good? Reagan, In His Own Hand provides the answer. It is startling only because he always made his performances look so easy. He worked at it.

Reagan wrote incessantly. "I can see him sitting at his desk writing, which he seemed to do all the time," Mrs. Reagan recalls in an interview with the editors of Reagan, In His Own Hand. "I don’t ever remember Ronnie sitting and watching television. . . . When I picture those days [before Reagan became president] it’s him sitting behind that desk . . . working."

The editors quote Dennis LeBlanc, who drove Reagan back and forth from Los Angeles to the ranch he bought in 1975 in the hills above Santa Barbara. The drive lasted two-and-a-half hours. On the way up to the ranch, Reagan sat in the back seat, writing. Then Reagan and LeBlanc would put in a full day of work. "We ripped out walls and really gutted the place, so you couldn’t stay there overnight. Then we’d drive back." On the return trip, Reagan, well into his sixties, might have napped. For that matter, if he was the simpleton his detractors believed, he might have spent the time telling old Hollywood stories. Instead, LeBlanc reports, "when we drove back . . . he was just always writing."

Reagan reverted to his writing habit when he left the White House. When I visited him in 1990, I found him with a yellow legal pad on his desk, a pen in his hand. "Now that I’m out of office," he told me with a grin, "I have time to get back to writing my speeches myself."

To cram speech material onto 4 x 6 cards and, later, half sheets, Reagan invented his own shorthand. He constantly rewrote speeches, adding material to keep his presentations fresh. Frustrated that his contact lenses made it impossible for him to achieve eye contact with his audiences, Reagan trained himself to deliver remarks wearing just one lens: glancing down at his cards, he would focus through one eye, and then, raising his head to the audience, he would focus through the other eye. As Reagan, In His Own Hand makes clear, Ronald Reagan got to be so good at public speaking in the same way that Laurence Olivier got to be so good at acting or Vladimir Horowitz got to be so good at playing the piano. All he did was give it a lifetime of unremitting effort.

Which brings us to Reagan’s ideological tenacity.

During his eight years as president, it was on display again and again. In passing the tax cuts of 1982 and 1986, he overruled much of his own senior staff. When he announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, he flouted the opinion not only of many in his administration but of virtually the entire American scientific establishment. (The Union of Concerned Scientists still opposes a ballistic missile defense.) Speaking in Berlin, Reagan delivered the now-famous line, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" even though the State Department and National Security Council had mounted an effort, led, it is worth noting, by Colin Powell, to drop it. (For the full story of the Berlin Wall speech, see the essay on page 192.)

Reagan had academics, the press, much of Congress, and on occasion even senior members of his own administration demanding that he moderate his views. But it was not easy to persuade him to change. Where did he get his self-assurance?

The conventional explanation holds that Reagan absorbed the simple values of the small-town Midwest where he grew up. This implies that Reagan stopped thinking when he left Des Moines for Hollywood at the age of 26. Yet we know that in his twenties Reagan was an ardent Democrat, that as late as the age of 37 he campaigned for Harry Truman, and that it was not until he was 51 that he became a Republican. Instead he seems to have begun thinking about politics seriously when he was middle-aged, undergoing a journey away from the politics of his youth.

Very little material in Reagan’s own hand survives from the crucial period between 1948, when he campaigned for Truman, and 1964, when he gave his famous speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater. Yet Reagan, In His Own Hand demonstrates the way he must have reached his positions. The radio scripts in the book cite dozens of newspaper columns, magazine articles, and learned volumes, indicating that Reagan read steadily. ("Nobody ever thought that he read anything," Mrs. Reagan tells the editors. "But he was a voracious reader.") The scripts bristle with statistics—inflation rates, tax burdens, differences in productivity between the American and Soviet economies—showing a mind hungry for facts, not merely opinions. And they return again and again to American history, quoting the Founders and discussing the Constitution (the book includes a stout defense of the Electoral College), demonstrating that Reagan examined the issues of his day in light of enduring American political traditions.

By the time he became president he had spent decades both steeping himself in public affairs and engaging in the one act that above all others enables a man to know his own mind: putting his thoughts down on paper. After concluding that federal taxes were "confiscatory" (December 1976), Reagan wasn’t about to let his staff talk him into trimming taxes here and there instead of cutting taxes wholesale. And after deciding that communism amounted to a "sickness" or a "disease" (May 1975) while the Soviet Union itself represented a "Godless tyranny" that had established a "hold on millions of helpless people" (October 1975), he wasn’t going to let the State Department or the National Security Council persuade him that it would be unduly provocative to call for the demolition of the Berlin Wall.

Ronald Reagan read widely, wrote constantly, thought for himself, and paid ideas the supreme compliment of acting on them. There is a word for this kind of person. It is the last word Reagan’s enemies would care to see associated with him, and I suppose it may bring a smile even to the lips of some of his friends. Reagan, In His Own Hand proves that it is the right word all the same. Reagan was an intellectual.