From the day he took the oath of office, on March 20, 1981, until the day he left Washington to return to California, President Ronald Reagan kept a daily diary. The diaries are a fascinating account of one of the most eventful periods in modern American history. They'll be published on Tuesday, May 22 by HarperCollins.
The fact is that many Americans and -- not surprisingly to some of you reading this blog -- many members of the mainstream press believed that Ronald Reagan was aloof and disconnected from the events that marked his presidency. Historian Douglas Brinkley, who edited the diaries at the invitation of Nancy Reagan, says they show Reagan to be exactly the opposite.
In an interview with CBS White House Correspondent Bill Plante, Brinkley says, "I don't think that you can call the man who wrote these diaries a dunce. He's somebody is very much on top of what his policy is, who has reflection, who has a handling on details…" Brinkley says his writing does not reveal a man as intellectual as Thomas Jefferson or Theodore Roosevelt, yet, he is "able to keep his game together, he knows that the wolves are always circling him but they never outfox him."
Anyone who reads the diaries will understand, as Brinkley says, that the defining moment of his presidency came on March 30, 1981, when a crazed young man tried to assassinate him. It is clear from reading the diaries that Reagan believed that he was saved from death in order to do great things, and he perceived these things to be arms control and restraining and remaking the federal government.
Reagan's thoughts on arms control are striking. The man thought to be a hard line anti-communist with his finger on the nuclear button is revealed to be a leader determined to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
In addition to arms control the diaries make clear the Reagan wanted to cut taxes and turn back the clock on Lyndon Johnson's great society programs. And, he underscores his concern over blocking Soviet-communist hegemony in Central America. He writes about his knowledge of the arms for hostages deal with Iran that devolved into the Iran Contra scandal that nearly brought down his administration. The diaries appear to make his case that he really didn't know that money from those deals was being diverted to anti communist fights in Central America in violation of the law.
But more than these important and fascinating details, Reagan comes across as a man who LOVED being President. The former actor is not embarrassed about loving the big part. In the diaries, he is his own reviewer – commenting on his performances at press conferences, summits, speeches and just about anything he does on the presidential stage.
As much as he loves Washington, it is also clear from the diaries that he is truly most comfortable in California among his old Hollywood friends. There are many mentions of Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart and other old pals.
You'll have to read them for yourself to find your favorite entry. For this reader, the most interesting is his writing of breaking in a new pair of blue jeans while at the presidential retreat Camp David. How did the leader of the free world break in a new pair of jeans? He wore them while swimming and then let them bake in the sun.