If you would truly know a public man, read his private correspondence. We are indebted to young black academic Kiron Skinner and veteran conservative scholars Annelise and Martin Anderson, for uncovering and publishing in Reagan: A Life in Letters some 1,000 of Ronald Reagan’s letters to his family, friends, and colleagues as well as people he had never met.
What emerges from these letters-written from the age of 12 to 83, when Reagan informed the American people that he had Alzheimer’s disease-is the portrait of a deeply principled, compassionate, and religious man who revealed more of himself in these private letters than he ever did in public interviews and appearances.
In June 1979, for example, he wrote an old friend explaining why he had decided to run again for President: “We may be approaching a disaster point both economically and on the world scene, but Ed, someone has to do it. If this is what the Lord would have me do, then we will find that out, and maybe it should be someone . . . who is at an age where he can do what he thinks should be done without worrying about the votes in the next election.”
He reassured another long-time friend, former Republican Rep. H. R. Gross (Iowa), that he had no intention of moderating his positions in pursuit of the office: “Let me tell you . . . I am not changing, have not changed and will not. There wouldn’t be any point in seeking that man-killing job if I didn’t do it with the idea of working for the principles I believe in.”
Once in the White House, Reagan wrote candidly to supporters, critics, journalists, foreign leaders, and life-long friends about nearly every subject under the political sun. In the field of foreign policy, for example, he quieted the anxieties of such well-known conservatives as George Murphy, a fellow film actor and former U.S. senator from California, and William F. Buckley Jr., editor, author, and commentator, about sitting down with the Soviets.
Following his first meeting with Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, Reagan wrote Murphy that “it would be foolish to believe the leopard will change its spots. He is a firm believer in their system . . . and he believes the propaganda they peddle about us. At the same time he is practical and knows his economy is a basket case. I think our job is 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.”
When Buckley expressed concern in the spring of 1987 about the elimination of medium- and short-range nuclear forces in Europe without redressing the conventional arms imbalance, Reagan responded that any reduction of nuclear warheads “would have to be tied to conventional weapons on their side.” He revealed that he had warned Gorbachev at Reykjavik that “his choice was to join in arms reduction or face an arms race he couldn’t win.”
It is a measure of the man that as governor and then President, Reagan always found time for people far removed from the world of politics, like the Sisco sisters and their mentally handicapped brother, Joseph. When the Siscos wrote Gov. Reagan in 1972 asking for assistance, Reagan sought to find state programs that would help them and also responded personally. “I am looking into the possibility of the rocking chair you mentioned and believe I can find one.” In fact, Reagan sent his own rocking chair as well as a personal check.
When President Reagan learned that Mother Teresa-“that wonderful lady”-had asked him to pray on a particular day about the disastrous gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, Reagan informed the correspondent that he had prayed “a number of days before and after” the day in question. “Truth is,” the President said, “I try to remember to pray in her behalf frequently.”
And then there was the pen pal relationship between President Reagan and Rudolph (Ruddy) Lee-Hines, a young African-American enrolled in a Washington, D.C., elementary school. Ruddy wrote to the President about acting, friendship, summer camp, and schoolwork, to which Reagan replied with lessons from his own boyhood.
As their relationship developed, Ruddy invited the Reagans to his house for dinner, asking that they let his family know in advance “so my mom can pick up the laundry off the floor.” Once the old pro counseled the young actor who was nervous about remembering his lines: “When you are walking, lying in bed awake or just sitting around, try to mentally recite your lines. Don’t say them aloud-just think them and see if you can remember them.”
Ruddy often queried the President about politics. Two days before he addressed the nation about the Iran-Contra scandal, Reagan began his letter to Ruddy with some humor. “Please thank your mother for her note and tell her not to worry at all about forgetting the stamp. As some of the newspapers would have you believe, forgetting is what I do best.”
As the editors point out, Reagan took special delight in writing to children and young people, often using humor to make a point or impart a lesson. When a seventh grader wrote that his mother had declared his bedroom “a disaster area” and he was therefore requesting federal funds “to hire a crew to clean up my room,” the President had an apt reply. “Your application for disaster relief has been duly noted,” Reagan wrote, “but I must point out one technical problem: the authority declaring the disaster is supposed to make the request. In this case your mother.”
When an 18-year-old asserted that if he was old enough to fight for his country in a war, he was old enough to be allowed to drink, the President responded in a more serious vein. He recalled feeling the same way as Scott at about the age of 18, but resolved to limit himself to an occasional cocktail or glass of wine because he realized that heavy drinking would abuse his body, and because “my father was an alcoholic.” He loved his father, “but he died at age 58 . . . from heart disease . . . the victim of a habit he couldn’t break.”
The editors created a database of over 5,000 Reagan letters “for which we have a hand-written draft or which he dictated.” They estimate that during his life, Reagan may have written as many as 10,000 letters, making him one of the most prolific letter-writers among American Presidents, the equal of Thomas Jefferson or Harry Truman, who wrote to his wife Bess every night. Skinner and the Andersons have divided their collection of Reagan letters into sections such as “The Early Years,” “Hollywood Years and Friendships,” “Core Beliefs,” “The Cold War,” and “The Lighter Side” to encourage dipping by the reader.
Reagan: A Life in Letters is the latest collaborative effort of Skinner and the Andersons, whose earlier work, Reagan In His Own Hand, offered nearly 700 of Reagan’s handwritten manuscripts for his daily radio program in the middle to late 1970s. Once again they have performed an important and lasting service for historians and plain citizens seeking to learn more about the mind, heart and soul of an extraordinary man who shaped history as very few Presidents have.
To purchase Reagan: A Life in Letters, click here.