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)

The Gorbachevs and the Reagans
The Gorbachevs and the Reagans; drawing by David Levine

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…

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