Friday, 06 February 2004
Reagan: The Great Communicator - THE COMMENTARY
By Joseph Planta
VANCOUVER - If one had to consider which American president were the most fascinating, from a purely contemporary lot, one could suppose Richard Nixon. Excepting Bill Clinton, Nixon was also probably the smartest of the 20th century. However, like Clinton, Nixon was incredibly complex. Both had rather destructive personalities that affected their persona and presidencies so. Ronald Reagan was not a towering intellectual. Perceived by some as an empty suit, Reagan was a great communicator rather than an impressive calculator of statecraft. In an age of the heightened awareness of media and the conflagration of the medium and style over substance, Ronald Reagan appeared to embody something that few could: ease on Main Street, as well as on Wall Street, and confidence, not to mention hope. It wasn't overbearing, but it was empathetic, if not down-to-earth, no matter his penchant for the glorious ideals of capitalism and neo-liberalism.
The book jacket claims Reagan to have been the most prolific correspondent since Thomas Jefferson. Of course, that is in dispute, but Reagan's letters reveal so much about a man who has confounded so many, including his family and namely his official biographer Edmond Morris. Morris, who after over a decade of research and writing, thousands of interviews and endless pondering, considered Reagan much more of an enigma than when he first started the project. So what did Reagan's letters reveal? A more personal side of a public man, yes, but also a deep humanity that struggled to understand complicated matters of international importance as much as the average American did. Perhaps that is what endeared Americans so much to Ronald Reagan - an effusive charm and respect for America and all that is embodied.
The book, Reagan: A Life in Letters, contains over 1,000 letters taken from 72 years of his life, from 1922 to 1994. These are letters written when Ronald Reagan was an actor, when he was Governor of California, when he was President and when he became a private citizen once more. They are letters written to political foes to family members, to fans, to regular citizens who wrote to Reagan on a multitude of subjects. Whether it was responding to a critic or a letter from a pen pal, or to another fellow head of state, the letters are interesting to read for their economy of words, as well as the incredible insight into the man himself.
Published last fall during the hubbub of CBS's controversial decision to air and then cancel a less than flattering portrayal of Ronald and Nancy Reagan starring James Brolin and Judy Davis, Reagan: A Life in Letters is not a complete collection of letters, but it is comprehensive enough to provide a sweeping view of the man and his beliefs. It discounts the notions that this was a man who was flighty. On the contrary, in reading the collection one gets the intimate sense that this was a man who though perhaps not on the level intellectually of a Nixon or Clinton, endeavoured to fulfill the office of President with careful thought and a worthy disposition. The great novelty of this book is the fact it contains letters written when Reagan was a young man, as well as when he was much older. In fact, one of the more recent letters is that 1994 epistle whereupon Reagan wrote to the American people disclosing the fact he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. In the book's introduction, the editors write that the medium to which the former President chose to inform his "fellow Americans" was worthy of attention: "He might have used television or radio, but instead he said goodbye in a letter."
Reagan: A Life in Letters includes letters from a wide cross section of American and world figures. It also includes letters from 'ordinary' Americans invariably touched by Reagan's work, whether as an actor or as a politician. Besides letters to Margaret Thatcher or Richard Nixon or Barry Goldwater, there are warm personal letters to Lorraine Wagner, a woman who was once president of his fan club, when he was an actor. There are warm notes to celebrities like Ella Fitzgerald thanking her for performing at the White House, to Bob Hope, commiserating on the death of Hope's brother. There's also a note to Johnny Carson, thanking him for a campaign donation. The set of letters I found particularly warm and pleasant were the series of correspondence had with one Ruddy Hines. Hines, six-years-old in 1984, began writing to President Reagan well into 1988 at the end of his presidency. Hines, a black student in Washington, D.C. began a pen pal relationship that years later, makes for delightful reading. Obviously, it is a curious contrast seeing a young African-American boy corresponding with a rich, powerful white man. Nevertheless, it is obvious that both enjoyed each other's letters and gifts, with Reagan exuding a keen interest in the young lad's schooling and interests, indulging him by answering his inane yet inquisitive questions. For example, young Ruddy's asked about whether the President was still able to ride horses to whether Mikhail Gorbachev spoke any English or if he always needed an interpreter.
Ronald Reagan turns 93 today. It's been nearly a decade since he began that long goodbye to his beloved American people, with his ever-beloved Nancy by his side. In the decade since, people have assessed and re-assessed Reagan's life and his contributions to American life, political or otherwise. While Edmund Morris, in the course or writing his biography of Reagan, Dutch, altered his opinion of Reagan from that of him being an "airhead" to being an enigma, those that discount Reagan's sincerity or his understanding of politics and policy, would be commended to reading Reagan: A Life in Letters. It is a glimpse into a man who was very much "The Great Communicator" his admirers claimed, and which he so obviously was.
Reagan: A Life in Letters, Edited with an Introduction and Commentary by Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson (with a Foreword by George P. Shultz), published by The Free Press (ISBN: 074321966X), is $55.00 CDN ($35.00 USD).
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