Reagan's heartfelt letters illuminate his presidency

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.

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."

His tax cuts and military spending plunged the nation into red ink for years, says Mr. Perlstein. He was nearly impeached over the Iran-Contra affair. His administration drifted at its end.

"As long as his partisans succeed in creating this indelible memory of him as someone everyone loved all they time," says Perlstein, "they will have won a partisan struggle."

Reagan letter to Brezhnev

In 1981, President Reagan wrote a letter to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in an effort to improve relations between the two nations. Below is Mr. Reagan's second draft of that letter, reproduced from the original written in his own hand.

My Dear Mr. Pres.

I regret and yet can understand the somewhat intemperate tone of your recent letter. After all we approach the problems confronting us from opposite philosophical points of view.

Is it possible that we have let ideology, political & ec. philosophy and governmental policies keep us from considering the very real, every day problems of the people we represent? Will the average Russian family be better off or even aware that his govt. has imposed a govt. of it's liking on the people of Afghanistan? Is life better for the people of Cuba because the Cuban military dictates who shall govern the people of Angola?

In your letter you imply that such things have been made necessary because of territorial ambitions of the United States; that we have imperialistic designs and thus constitute a threat to your own security & that of the newly emerging nations. There not only is no evidence to support such a charge there is solid evidence that the United States when it could have dominated the world with no risk to itself made no effort whatever to do so.

When W.W.II. ended the United States had the only undamaged industrial power in the world. It's mil. might was at it's peak - and we alone had the ultimate weapon, the nuclear bomb with the unquestioned ability to deliver it anywhere in the world. If we had sought world domination who could have opposed us?

But the U.S. followed a different course - one unique in all the history of mankind. We used our power & wealth to rebuild the war ravaged economies of all the world including those nations who had been our enemies. May I say there is absolutely no substance to charges that the U.S. is guilty of imperialism or attempts to impose it's will on other countries by use of force.

A decade or so ago Mr. Pres. you and I met in San Clemente Calif. I was Gov. of Calif. at the time and you were concluding a series of meetings with Pres. Nixon. Those meetings had captured the imagination of all the world. Never had peace and good will among men seemed closer at hand.

When we met I asked if you were aware that the hopes and aspirations of millions & millions of people throughout the world were dependent on the decisions that would be reached in your meetings.

You took my hand in both of yours and assured me that you were aware of that and that you were dedicated with all your heart & mind to fulfilling those hopes & dreams.

The people of the world still share that hope. Indeed the peoples of the world despite differences in racial & ethnic origin have very much in common. They want the dignity of having some control over their individual destiny. They want to work at the craft or trade of their own choosing and to be fairly rewarded. They want to raise their familys in peace without harming anyone or suffering harm them selves. Govt. exists for their convenience not the other way around.

If they are incapable as some would have us believe of self govt. then where in the world do we find people who are capable of governing others.

Mr. Pres. should we not be concerned with eliminating the obstacles which prevent our people from achieving these simple goals? And isn't it possible some of these obstacles are born of govt. aims & goals which have little to do with the real needs & wants of our people?

It is in this spirit [-] in the spirit of helping the people of both our nations [-] that I am preparing to lift the grain embargo with the hope that we can enter into negotiations for renewal of long term grain sales to benefit the people of our two countries for several years to come.

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