The Reagan Diaries
Ronald Reagan, Author
Douglas Brinkley, Editor
My earliest childhood memories involve reading: the fall book fair at school, my first library card, the joy of a newly-discovered book that captured my imagination. I read as a child constantly, even if it was only the cereal box at breakfast that I'd read the day before. I'd read anything put in front of me and I still do - until now.
Oh, how this book has made me suffer. Seldom has an activity that I've always loved been so excruciating. Yes, I've just read Ronald Reagan's White House diaries and I went there to spare you all the same agony. Review below the orange image of my head spinning.
Snow has come to Kansas City (home of America's most beautiful public library) with a vengeance and before the first foot arrived last week I decided that a new book would go well with a February mini-blizzard. I browsed around Amazon and noted that The Reagan Diaries was in the weekly Kindle bargain bin for the low low price of $1.99.
I generally enjoy presidential musings. I've read almost all of the memoirs of the contemporary presidents (I skipped both Bush I and II) and a special favorite are the transcriptions of presidential tapes. The best of this group is the massive two-volume offering of the LBJ tapes which are brilliantly edited by Michael Beschloss, who offers clear commentary and clarification throughout. Abuse of Power is a volume of sinister Nixon tapes edited by Stanley Kutler. It's fascinating reading the inner thoughts of these powerful individuals without the gloss that often goes into post-presidential memoirs.
I thought that perhaps The Reagan Diaries would be somewhat similar. I enjoyed Brinkley's interesting although somewhat flawed The Great Deluge about Hurricane Katrina, so spending a couple of bucks for some presidential snow reading seemed like an easy choice. I came of age during the Reagan years and remember him well, although I never voted for the man and indeed had a great deal of contempt for him. Perhaps some perspective into the inner man would give me a more balanced view of him.
This didn't exactly happen.
Before I got to the text of the diary itself I had to wade through a fawning, fluttering, distorted introduction by Brinkley. This passage from the introduction almost made my head explode:
Another personality trait that frequently surfaces in passages is Reagan's enormous empathy for citizens with physical disabilities. At one juncture or another, he comments on blindness, epilepsy, sickle cell anemia, deafness - the list goes on and on. He learned as much as possible about those afflicted with conditions such as muscular dystrophy or cancer, and reported their stories to his diary. On many occasions, as he freely admitted, he "puddled up" in the face of human tragedy and the courage that often accompanied it. "Francis Albert (Sinatra) came by with the Multiple Sclerosis Mother and Father of the year," he wrote. "He's heading up their fundraising drive - 'FS for MS.' What a cruel disease." Observations such as this one abound.Really, Mr. Brinkley? The list that goes 'on and on' doesn't include the biggest public health crisis of his administration. I spent the Reagan years in San Francisco where I saw one hell of a lot of human tragedy and courage that never ONCE made Ronald Reagan 'puddle up'. AIDS also never made Ronald Reagan 'speak up' and this massive failure in his response to the disease makes this entire passage incredibly offensive. Brinkley is supposed to be an historian; his failure to mention the one exception to the 'puddle up' rule is a disgrace to his scholarship and clearly a sop to his audience, which he must have known would be almost exclusively Reagan fanboys and fangirls. In one paragraph he just wishes away the human suffering of the 1980's and this error of omission made me red-hot pissed even before I began the actual diaries.
Brinkley hastened to inform us that these diaries would demonstrate how involved Reagan was in policy, especially during his first term. Why any president wouldn't be goes unsaid but you quickly discover what really interested Ronald Reagan during his eight years in the most powerful job in the world: movies. Nestled between superficially understood 'policy' issues (communism, taxes = bad) you find a careful notation of the movie shown that evening at the White House as well as brief reviews of many of them. In his first year alone he saw the following and thought them all important enough to include in his White House diary:
Rich and Famous
Tribute "Jack Lemmon. He is truly a great performer."
Nine to Five "Funny, but one scene made me mad. A truly funny scene if the 3 gals had played getting drunk but no they had to get stoned on pot. It was endorsement of pot smoking for any young person who sees the picture."
The Black Stallion
The Fan "bloody"
"The French Lt's Woman" "Beautiful and unusual"
From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China "wonderful"
Reds "A most imaginative job"
One Way Passage "wonderful"
Where Brinkley decided to actually do some editing and edit out the constant and inane movie references he includes them in the brief editing summary following many of the passages and even includes Reagan's movie reviews:
[Friday, October 30: routine medical tests; Mrs. Reagan had a cold, left for Camp David, saw the film Rich and Famous (1981) and considered it pornographic. Saturday, October 31: desk work; saw Heartland (1979) and considered it strange.]Again, I say: really, Mr. Brinkley? The films that finally made your editing cut were still important enough to include in the editing summary? Seriously? Brinkley never puts anything in context, never adds any commentary to the text, but he takes the time to mention these two films in the edit. He never clarifies who the "Marmie" character who frequently pops up in the diary is; I had to muddle through years of this thing and finally hit google before I figured out that it's what Reagan often calls his daughter Maureen. This is clearly a lazy rush job to get this book into print.
No wonder he had to assure us that Reagan actually did some work! Not only are the movie reviews endless but so are the trips to California, and Camp David, and glam dinners with his Hollywood friends and trips to New York to see Sugar Babies or to the Kennedy Center to see Little Foxes. Holy crap was I bored with this endless nonsense.
Fortunately there were entries - many of them - that caught my interest. All of them were petty snipes at Jimmy Carter, whom Reagan refers to as J.C. and insults like a child. I don't have the stomach to go back and find all of the Carter references but here's a sample:
Monday, January 26th ...We just may not implement some of the Carter executive orders on grounds they violate our own laws. Hostages will arrive in country tomorrow. It seems some of them had some tough questions for Carter in Germany as to why they were there for so long and why they were there to begin with."Gee, why were diplomats at an Embassy 'to begin with'?
Friday, June 5 ...Did however give a metal to Ethel Kennedy honoring Robt. K. It was voted by Cong. in 1978 and the former Pres. never presented it.
September 13th ...Gave bravery and service awards to 9 young Americans. They had performed the deeds in 75 & 76 but J.C. wouldn't give out the medals. The law says only the Pres. can do thatFunny, "J.C." was inaugurated in 1977.
Tuesday, October 13 ...This afternoon met with J.C. I expected the worst but he was cordial, friendly and just exchanged views on the Middle East, etc.Where he's nasty about J.C. - and the comments are sprinkled everywhere - he loves his Mommie but has a major sad whenever she leaves his sight. He's at his most child-like during these passages.
Saturday, May 16th - Armed Forces Day Nancy is up at the crack of dawn to leave for Miss. & the launching. Why am I so scared always when she leaves like that? I do an awful lot of praying until she returns. She returned and I've said my thank you.His first year ends with constant paranoia that Gaddafi is going to 'off him' and is stalking him everywhere with squads of hit men. It's bizarre but given that he had already survived one assassination attempt I gave these frequent bursts of 1930-era gangster references a pass. But this Gaddafi plot clearly obsesses him - very strange.
Even when serious policy issues are discussed in the diaries - and they occasionally are - Reagan seems clueless and dim-witted He describes being in a roomful of the best economists in the country and is astonished that they can't explain to him why inflation was so high. Oh, I'm sure they could have. They also could have explained to him why he has opposable thumbs and why beans are often prepared with ham or other pork products. His ability to understand always seems to be the sticking point.
The first year was such a boring, unpleasant drag that I did something I seldom do: I stopped reading it and started re-reading the far superior third Churchill volume by William Manchester (who actually wrote none of it before he died, but did much of the research). I dreaded seven more years of Reagan but eventually went back to it. It was morbid curiosity more than anything; I still failed to see the attraction so many have to this man. So, onward and upward.
Remainder of 1st Term: Still too many movie references and reviews but to be honest Reagan here seems to be growing a bit in the job. In most of the entries he seems engaged, aware, and while often wrong at least he's doing his job. Most of the second year covers Falklands war, Haig resignation, Lebanon and movies. Also complaints from far-right wing are cropping up about him (sound familiar?) which annoy Reagan to no end.
In year three, El Salvador and Nicaragua starting to pop up frequently, as is his usage of 'hell' and 'damn' which he always writes out as h--l and d---n. Looks into the whole Shroud of Turin thing, is convinced it was burial cloth of Christ. On June 16th he writes extensively about a high school senior who was part of a group of young scholars who met on the White House lawn. She presents a petition for a nuclear freeze and he berates her in his diary for being 'arrogant'. The very next day he writes, "Oh! Forgot..." and tells the same story again.
Discovered that he breaks in his new jeans by swimming in them and then wearing them in the sun until they dry (notes that it "took hours"). I have to think that just washing them and then throwing them in the dryer would be a fine idea. At this point I was like dear god, I'm only through July of year 3.
As the diaries continue he discusses the invasion of Grenada and bombing of the Marine Barracks in Beirut. He seemed surprisingly casual about both of these items.
Most of 1984 covers his reelection campaign, his disgust at the Democratic Convention ("demagoguery and lies"), his election victory. Lots of talk about improving relations with the Soviets. Lots of movies. I have to say that I've found a few of his entries charming and sincere so far. He was wrong about many things but he wasn't a nasty SOB like, say, Nixon.
Second Term: It's here that you gradually begin to see a decline in the quality of the entries; the crispness is gone and much of the detail as well. More on this later.
The December 7th, 1985 entry is really kind of surprising. He openly discusses the 'complex plan' that would swap arms to Iran via Israel for US hostages. A few days before this entry he claims that the deal is 'so secret' that he wouldn't even entrust it to his diary and then does so within 48 hours. This puts lie to his speech of March 4, 1987, in which he said:
"A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not. As the Tower board reported, what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages. This runs counter to my own beliefs, to administration policy, and to the original strategy we had in mind."A lie - plain and simple. All he had to do was go back and read his own diary around the time this whole stupid plot was hatched.
December 7: Day opened with "Rex" ---(our new dog) on our bed. I then had a meeting with Don R., Cap W & Bud M, John P., Geo. Schultz and Mahan of CIA. This has to do with the complex plan which could return our 5 hostages & help some officials in Iran who want to turn that country from it's present course & on to a better relationship with us. It calls for Israel selling some weapons to Iran. As they are delivered in installments by air our hostages will be released. The weapons will go to moderate leaders in the army who are essential if there's to be a change to a more stable gov. We then sell Israel replacements for the delivered weapons. None of this is a gift --the Iranians pay cash for the weapons---so does Israel.You can really feel Reagan slipping around 1986. In July 1986 he thinks that Nancy is in London for the Royal Wedding of Charles and Diana, even though the married Royals had dined at the White House the previous year. The actual wedding she attended was for Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson (and Brinkley doesn't correct this in his edit summary; in previous years he occasionally corrected errors). In August 1986 he's in a helicopter above Los Angeles and becomes frustrated when he can't remember the names of LA landmarks. That same month he talks about the 'fuzzy way' he understood an arms control agreement.
Most of the rest of his second term is caught up in Iran-Contra. You see from late 1986 on how light his schedule is; he arrives at the office around 10:00, he does a lot of ceremonial picture-taking and some fundraisers but aside from White House meetings he isn't nearly as scheduled as the first term or even in 1985. The writing becomes even more choppy than usual, the spelling and syntax get worse, he loses his train of thought more often.
Was he competent to hold office late in his second term? I don't know. He was a lame duck anyway and it's doubtful he could have accomplished much in his last two years with a Democratic Congress in any event. He lived for 15 years after leaving office so his physical health other than Alzheimer's must have been good. Based on the diaries I'd guess that he was, but his situation was deteriorating rapidly and by the end of the second term was becoming marginal.
A couple of quick thematic notes and one in particular on Ron Reagan:
--Reagan is obsessed with his poll numbers and discusses them constantly.
--Any time one of his sycophants lavishes him with excessive and often ridiculous praise he scribbles it down and this happens A LOT. "...was told it was the best reception to a UN speech ever" & etc.
--Not long after Iran-Contra broke Ron Reagan came to the White House and forcefully encouraged ("it was out of love" says the father) him to get in front of the scandal, fire some people, and so forth. The next day Ron wants to "spend a day in the office with me to see what it's like"...I suspect Ron wanted to see for himself if his father was being too passive with his advisers. Throughout the book I liked both Ron and Maureen very much. He occasionally mentioned Patti and was often critical of Michael.
I can't really recommend this book. It contains far too much trivia, he doesn't really engage in the issues of the day in any depth and the Mommie stuff is, frankly, creepy. Buyer Beware.
Just a note: The following are Kindle books on sale in March. A few look pretty decent.
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