WASHINGTON — I remember a big surprise Ronald Reagan gave me in one of his interviews. As I sat down beside him in a plane somewhere over the Midwest during his 1980 presidential campaign, I noticed he had a newspaper open to an astrology column. "Do you read that?" I asked him. "Yes," he said. "An old friend writes it, and Nancy and I keep up with it." "But just for fun," he said. "We don't take it seriously."
As surprised as I was by this Reagan disclosure, the big surprise for me back then was that he was telling me something about himself I hadn't heard before. Later (much later, near the end of his second term as president) we learned from his chief of staff, Donald Regan, that first lady Nancy Reagan was having some of her husband's important events rescheduled if she felt the "signs" would be bad for him on that particular day. She obviously was taking astrology seriously -and maybe he did, too.
You normally didn't learn anything new when you sat down with Mr. Reagan. I had been working at it over the years, starting when I rode around with him and Nancy when he was trying to decide whether to run for governor of California. He seldom wandered from a well-honed speech, in which he would hammer away at the need, as he saw it, to return power to the states and strengthen the defense against the Soviet Union. Then, of course, there were always a lot of Reagan anecdotes.
That was the theme, repeated in many variants later on in my interviews and breakfast meetings with Reagan during his years as president. It would be pretty much the same old gruel. Yes, you could say he was single-minded and single-purposed. But you could also conclude that he wasn't quick to entertain new ideas and didn't do a lot of thinking for himself. Indeed, the knock on Reagan, from the Democrats and much of the press, was that President Reagan was dumb. Likable, but dumb.
Yes, that's what George W.'s opponents are saying about him, too: He's likable, but dumb.
Now, out of the blue, comes a big and, doubtless, unsettling surprise for those who have been bad-rapping Reagan with the "dumb" charge. A new book, "Reagan, in His Own Hand," includes original writings from Reagan during the period 1974 to 1980, when he gave more than 1,000 daily radio broadcasts and wrote two-thirds of them himself.
These radio speeches certainly show what the editors, Kiron Skinner, Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson, contend: "The wide reading and deep research self-evident here suggest a mind constantly at work."
The selections of Reagan's writings in the book are reproduced with Reagan's own edits, offering, as these editors contend, "a unique window into his thought processes."
The book also includes writings selected from throughout Reagan's life: short stories written in high school and college, a poem from his high school yearbook, newspaper articles, letters, and speeches both before and during the presidency.
New York Times columnist, William Safire, a onetime Nixon speechwriter, writes that "these handwritten documents prove (to the dismay of all speechwriters) that the original revolutionary was Ronald Reagan.... (They) reveal a writer adept at marshaling a philosophical argument in a listener-friendly, conversational style...."
And what do I think of the book? Well, I'm "flabbergasted" by it -to use a word Reagan would use. I liked Ronald Reagan as a person. And I'm not surprised that some historians now are calling him a "transcendent" president, applauding him for pursuing a grand strategy that encouraged the Soviet Union to collapse of its own weight. But in my many get-togethers with this genial fellow, I never was overwhelmed with his braininess.
And the writings in this book have not convinced me that here was a hidden intellectual. But I now feel certain that Reagan was in no way the puppet he has been portrayed, by his critics, with others doing his thinking. He was, indeed, a thinking man who searched out his own answers to complex problems.
How come I -and my colleagues in the press -never discovered these Reagan depths? To use another response that sounds like Reagan: "It beats me."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor