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What 'The Reagan Diaries' tell us about our 40th president

Reagan's diaries shed light on both his daily schedule and his thinking.

By John Hughes / June 26, 2007



In the otherwise scrupulously maintained diaries of Ronald Reagan there is one significant gap. It is between March 30 and April 12, 1981. March 30 was the day he was shot by John Hinckley. April 12 was the president's first full day home from the hospital. A near encounter with death tends to trigger introspection. In Reagan's case it caused him to write the following passage in his diary:

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"Getting shot hurts…. But I realized I couldn't ask for God's help while at the same time I felt hatred for the mixed-up young man who had shot me. Isn't that the meaning of the lost sheep? We are all God's children & therefore equally beloved by him. I began to pray for his soul and that he would find his way back to the fold."

A little later, he wrote: "Whatever happens now I owe my life to God and will try to serve him in every way I can."

We do not know how Ronald Reagan perceived his relationship with God before his shooting, but these words in a hitherto private diary do much to explain his reliance on prayer, the many instances of his unpublicized caring and compassion, and his sturdy public insistence on principle, in the years thereafter.

In 1983, after one animated cabinet meeting "based totally on political considerations," he wrote in his diary: "I finally reminded everyone we came here to do what was right not what was politically expedient."

At 765 pages The Reagan Diaries, edited by Douglas Brinkley, do not make for light summer reading. But they do shed fascinating light on the daily schedule and thinking of this president.

His critics have suggested that Reagan was a goof-off, but when he was in Washington his days from early morning to late evening – sometimes very late evening – were filled with meetings, sessions with foreign leaders; speeches; briefings by, and instructions to, his national security aides; jawboning with congressmen; formal state dinners and luncheons; and a never-ending stream of "desk work."

When he traveled abroad, Washington was not left behind and the schedule came with him. Small wonder that he enjoyed working weekends when possible at Camp David and allowed his thoughts to turn longingly to the ranch in California he and Nancy had temporarily forsaken.

Amid this schedule the diaries show numerous supporting calls he made to ordinary citizens, often children, whose hardships or medical problems had come to his attention, perhaps in the newspapers or on TV.

Once when he was leaving the White House for speechmaking in Florida, he saw a "little boy on the lawn jumping up and down waving a paper pad and pen."

Wrote Reagan, "I couldn't resist. I ran over to him & signed the autograph. Found out later he had only recently lost his father. His mother tells me he was shedding tears of happiness."

Other critics suggest that the former movie actor was a lightweight where foreign policy was concerned. The diaries show he mastered voluminous briefing books, held his own with foreign leaders, was deeply involved in digesting counsel from his advisers, but firm in direction and follow-through after deciding on action. Ironically perhaps his greatest achievement, and the cornerstone of his legacy, was in foreign policy, facing down Soviet communism and paving the path to the end of the cold war.

But the diaries are perhaps at their most engaging when they reflect the little human moments in his day.

Wife Nancy was the love of his life. Whenever she was away, the White House was "lonely" and he could not wait for her return. Rex the dog would then jump in bed with him at night.

On another occasion they spent the weekend "watching over an unhousebroken puppy."

Then Reagan was intrigued by a "huge bowl of goldfish," given him by Aly Khan, whose house he and Nancy had stayed at in Geneva. It was "a reward for taking care of his son's aquarium while we were in occupancy."

When evenings were free, entertainment at the White House was often a movie. Reagan recorded his displeasure with movies containing "nudity, [bad] language, sex."

On a state visit to Asia, he noted with pleasure his dexterity with chopsticks.

All in all, these diaries offer a delightful look into the life of a man who sometimes seems to have gained more stature and recognition after his departure from the White House than he was accorded when he lived in it.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, occupied three senior positions in the Reagan administration.

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