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Reagan's heartfelt letters illuminate his presidency

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 26, 2003


Ronald Reagan, the person, has faded from public view. But Ronald Reagan, the political symbol, is still vibrant - perhaps more so than at any time since the end of his presidency.

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It's not just the recent publication of a mammoth collection of his letters that's keeping his memory alive today.

Look at the California recall race, which began as a sort of Reaganesque crusade against perceived fiscal irresponsibility. The actor-turned-politician parallel hardly needs mentioning.

Then there's the current president, whose fervor for tax cuts matches Mr. Reagan's own. Like Reagan, George W. Bush presents himself as a Westerner, with boots and ranch. Like Reagan, Mr. Bush spends vacation time clearing brush.

The deficit has exploded into a preeminent domestic issue. Abroad, the nation faces an implacable foe.

True, that foe is terrorism, not the Soviet Union, but otherwise, the current political environment in Washington eerily mirrors that of the early 1980s in many ways.

Reagan's "legacy is important and still very much alive and well," says Matthew Dallek, a former speechwriter for Democratic presidential candidate Richard Gephardt and author of a book about Reagan's first gubernatorial win.

Next January, it will be 15 years since Reagan boarded Air Force One for the last time and flew off to a California sunset.

Perhaps with the upcoming anniversary in mind, publishers this fall have released a freshet of Reagan-related material.

Lou Cannon, a journalist who covered Reagan in California and Washington for The Washington Post, has published his fifth Reagan-related book: "Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power."

Mr. Cannon - arguably Reagan's most thorough biographer - paints a many-dimensional picture of the ex-actor's Sacramento years. As Cannon notes, some of the actions Reagan took in those years, such as his crackdown on student protesters, fit the conservative image of the man we hold today.

Others, such as his approval of a $1 billion tax increase in 1967, don't.

The breadth of Reagan's interests are shown in another new book, "Reagan: A Life in Letters." It's a phone-book size tome, with Reagan being as prolific a letter-writer as, say, Jane Austen, producing thousands of missives, important and trivial, in his life.

Here's Reagan giving marriage advice to his soon-to-be-wed son Michael (divorced after a year, but never mind). Here he is extolling the virtues of honesty to his daughter Patti, then 15, upon the occasion of her admitting to school authorities that she smoked.

"Yes, turning yourself in was the right thing to do and I'm sure you feel better for having done it," he wrote Patti, who was a boarding student at the Orme School in Arizona.

Here is his famous letter to Hugh Hefner denying the existence of a Hollywood blacklist of suspected communist sympathizers.

Here is Reagan, writing over the State Department's objections to Soviet leader Brezhnev, in a personal plea for peace. (See letter, below.) Here he is writing a trusted friend about his hopes for a "star wars" defensive shield against nuclear attack.

"The scientists working on this have achieved several breakthroughs and are quite optimistic," he wrote Laurence Beilenson, a former attorney for the Screen Actors Guild.

Should the details in the letters change history's judgment on Reagan? Was he more involved in policy than many thought?

"You see someone who is much deeper and more sophisticated politically than many have thought in the past," says Kiron Skinner, a Carnegie Mellon professor of history who is one of the book's co-editors.

He addressed an astonishing array of matters in his life, says Professor Skinner. The letters detail his extensive probing and thinking about political philosophy, she says.

It's true that Reagan thought a lot about politics, say other analysts. His first wife, Jane Wyman, divorced him in part because she found him a bore.

Arnold Schwarzenegger may be a more accomplished actor than Reagan was. But he has far less experience speaking about government issues than Reagan did when he made his first run for the California governorship.

But it's important to remember that Reagan was a divisive figure in his time, says Rick Perlstein, author of "Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus."