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Reconstructing Ronald Reagan

Reagan: A Life in Letters

edited by Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson, with a foreword by George P. Shultz
Free Press, 935 pp., $18.95 (paper)

Of the seventeen presidents the United States has survived since Theodore Roosevelt declined his third term, none is so mystifying as Ronald Reagan. A New Deal Democrat until the age of fifty, he became the most revered Republican of his generation; a child of the working class, he inspired business to heightened resistance to labor. Admired for his belligerence toward the Soviet Union—“the evil empire”—he became the great peacemaker of his generation. Tirelessly denouncing big government, he made government bigger; a champion of fiscal conservatism, he inherited a deficit of $80 billion and in eight years increased it to $200 billion.

The contradictions go on. He had a visceral dislike of Communists, but his ability to work with Mikhail Gorbachev led to the ending of the cold war. Reluctant to use American forces in battle, he supported an army of contras in Nicaragua. A hero to anti-abortionists, he did virtually nothing to advance their cause. Applauded by conservative supporters of “family values,” he was divorced from his first wife and seldom went to church.

Equally puzzling was the Reagan personality. His affability and good humor were irresistible, but many took them as evidence of a man too simple-minded for the job. “An amiable dunce” was the famous judgment of Clark Clifford, a Democratic eminence of the day, though Reagan had already beaten Democrats twice for the governorship of California and once for the presidency, for which he would soon beat them again. Some dunce.

There was obviously something about this seemingly unremarkable man that made him extraordinary, but no one could define it. He was a riddle impervious to all who tried to catch him in an introspective moment. Even his wife Nancy was puzzled. “You can get just so far to Ronnie, and then something happens,” she told his biographer Lou Cannon. And Nancy, Cannon notes, “may have been the only person who really knew him at all.” George Shultz, his secretary of state, has written about the Reagan “mystery” and recalled Robert McFarlane, White House national security adviser, marveling that “he knows so little, and accomplishes so much.”

Edmund Morris, the much-praised biographer of Theodore Roosevelt, was given extensive access to the Reagan White House in the expectation that he would write the definitive Reagan biography. This close view left Morris so baffled that instead of a brilliant biography, he produced a literary hybrid of fiction and fact which was almost as puzzling as its subject. Lou Cannon, who is the indispensable if not definitive Reagan biographer, found that the President’s lifelong associates “suspected that there was something beneath the surface they had never seen, but they did not know what the something was.”

In Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History, John Patrick Diggins refuses to be baffled. Professor Diggins has bold ideas, juicy opinions, and the cheek to state them forcefully. His book is barely underway before he declares that Reagan “may be, after Lincoln, one of the two or three truly great presidents in American history.” And:

Reagan was also one of the three great liberators in American history. Abraham Lincoln helped emancipate African Americans from slavery; Franklin D. Roosevelt helped wrest Western Europe from fascism; Ronald Reagan helped liberate Eastern Europe from communism.

And whereas Lincoln, FDR, and Truman had to fight brutal wars for human liberation, “Reagan alone succeeded in liberating people from tyranny without going to war, and he did so through conversation and dialogue.”

All this will doubtless please Reagan’s more passionate admirers, but some of Diggins’s other formulations may not sit so well. Reaganites will not be amused to find Diggins describing their man as a “liberal romantic.” Is any word in the conservative lexicon more vile than “liberal”? Diggins’s suggestion that Reagan’s incessant attacks on government were wrong-headed if not hypocritical may also chafe people of the right who cherish as inviolable truth Reagan’s assertion that “government is the problem.” Diggins dismisses this as nonsense. Absence of government is the real problem, he says, and states where government is weak tend toward breakdown. He does not fail to note that under Reagan “a gargantuan government and a huge national debt became the perpetual curse of conservatism and the Republican Party.”

His criticisms seem slight, however, compared to the exuberance with which he ranks Reagan among the giants. He is not one of the old Reagan claque that sought to rename government buildings, airports, and subway stations in honor of its hero. His many previous works, which include a sympathetic history of the American left, suggest a mind beyond the seductions of political cant. During the 1980s, he writes, he viewed the Reagan presidency as “little more than the age of avarice.”

My belated respect for the man grew from appreciating his boldness in dealing with the three miseries of the modern era,” he writes. These he lists as the nuclear arms race, which was “terrifying”; the expanding welfare state, which was “crippling;” and “a joyless religious inheritance,” which was “inhibiting.”

With this reference to America’s inhibiting religious inheritance, it becomes clear that one of Diggins’s main purposes is to set forth the somewhat startling theory that Reagan was heavily influenced by the thinking of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the nineteenth-century poet, essayist, and philosopher. At the peak of his intellectual powers in the 1830s and 1840s, Emerson was instrumental in creating the Transcendentalist movement, a philosophical reaction against orthodox Calvinism and the Unitarian Church’s rationalism. The Transcendentalists developed their own faith, which held that God is present—immanent, in theological language—within man and nature. This gave man an important, even rarefied status. “The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God,” Emerson wrote in his essay titled Nature. From this exhilarating belief came an optimism alien to New England’s glum Puritan culture. The individual was no longer a doomed sinner in the hands of an angry God; he was now divine, now himself part or parcel of God. The political consequence of this, which is what interests Diggins, is enhanced importance for the individual. What emerges is a new optimistic individualism.

Optimistic individualism begins to sound vaguely like Ronald Reagan, but it takes some effort to visualize Reagan immersed in Emerson’s writings. Diggins is insistent, however, that they contributed heavily to Reagan’s world view, blessing him with an “Emersonian outlook” which accounted for his habitual optimism, political popularity, and success in ending the cold war.

Professor Diggins’s field is intellectual history, which, as he has written elsewhere, deals with how the mind and character of an era are formed by historical experience. It is a discipline that encourages new ways of exploring the Reagan puzzle, and these free him from the useless clichés about movie acting, dozing in Cabinet meetings, and passing out jelly beans in the Oval Office. Could Reagan have been a nineteenth-century Transcendentalist? If a distinguished professor of the City University of New York Graduate Center thinks so, it may be worth considering.

Thus he suggests that Reagan’s 1984 campaign slogan—“It’s morning in America”—can be seen as a quintessential expression of an Emersonian spirit. Invoking a sense of a bright and happy day coming, it contrasted with the dark Baptist visions Jimmy Carter had summoned up with his talk of American failings. A born-again Christian, Carter was committed to a religion rooted in the sin-drenched philosophy of the Calvinists. Emerson rejected the Protestant fascination with sin, and, in Diggins’s reading, so did Reagan. In his 1980 campaign against Carter, Reagan won easily. Like Emerson, Diggins writes, Reagan believed that “we please God by pleasing ourselves and that to believe in the self is to live within the divine soul.” America had shifted to Emerson. “Reagan opened the American mind to optimism and innocence, leaving it closed to sin and experience.”

The “Morning in America” campaign of 1984, Diggins writes, spoke to a nation delivered “from fear and loathing” by a man who “stood for freedom, peace, disarmament, self-reliance, earthly happiness, the dreams of the imagination and the desires of the heart.” The 1980s had become

America’s “Emersonian moment,” when people were told to trust not the state but the self and to pursue wealth and power without sin or shame. Far from being a conservative, Reagan was the great liberating spirit of modern American history, a political romantic impatient with the status quo.

This is a highly original view of the “Morning in America” campaign. Political junkies have usually supposed it was concocted by an advertising agency, perhaps with the guidance of Mike Deaver, Reagan’s brilliant aide in charge of preserving, protecting, and perfecting the presidential image.

If it is hard to imagine the Great Communicator himself communing with Emerson, it may be because of popular misperceptions about both men. Contrary to his reputation as a ponderous sage, Emerson had one of the more adventurous minds of the nineteenth century. In his splendid 1995 biography, Emerson: The Mind on Fire, Robert D. Richardson Jr. portrays “a complicated, energetic, and emotionally intense man who habitually spoke against the status quo and in favor of whatever was wild and free.” Contrary to popular impression, Reagan had a mind that was interested in complex problems.

Diggins is vague about how Reagan imbibed Emersonian ideas, aside from suggesting that they came from his mother’s religious instruction. He does not suggest that Reagan read closely in Emerson, but notes that Reagan quoted him on several occasions, including his last speech, in which he said, “Emerson was right. We are the country of tomorrow…. America remains on a voyage of discovery, a land that has never become, but is always in the act of becoming.” We now know, moreover, that Reagan’s mind was attuned to the pleasures of the written word. Recent publication of Reagan: A Life in Letters reveals a compulsive, lifelong letter writer and possessor of a sound and economical prose style, a man obviously comfortable in his command of language.

Letter writing was clearly important to Reagan. Even as president he kept dashing off letters to friends, pen pals, media people, statesmen, critics, and the kind of people who write to presidents never expecting a reply. He wrote letters in the Oval Office and his White House study, at Camp David, on helicopter rides, and during long trips aboard Air Force One. A man writing a letter is a man in the act of thinking, and it was an exercise Reagan obviously enjoyed. After his first meeting with Gorbachev, for example, he sent a “Dear Murph” letter about it to his old friend George Murphy, a former senator and actor who had once played Reagan’s father in a film. Thanking Murphy for “that most generous review of my performance,” he said he had “enjoyed playing the part,” before adding:

Seriously it was worthwhile but it would be foolish to believe the leopard will change its spots. He is a firm believer in their system…. At the same time he is practical and knows his economy is a basket case. I think our job is to try to show him he and they will be better off if we make some practical agreements without attempting to convert him to our way of thinking.

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