A 20th-century American tour
For the second time in less than two years, CMU political science professor Kiron Skinner has found herself on national TV and radio talking about the mind, character and writings of Ronald Reagan.
In 2001, she was promoting “Reagan: In His Own Hand,” a best-selling and historically important compilation of radio commentaries, speeches and other writings by Reagan that she co-wrote and co-edited with former Reagan administration hands Martin and Annelise Anderson.
Now the three have teamed up on “Reagan: A Life in Letters,” a meticulously researched collection of more than 1,000 letters Reagan wrote over 70 years to friends, movie stars, world leaders, movie fans and everyday people he never met.
Skinner, a Hoover Institution research fellow and Cold War scholar, had just finished her guest spot Wednesday on G. Gordon Liddy’s radio talk show in Washington, D.C., when I talked with her by telephone:
Q: You can’t get much better play than the cover of Time, can you?
A: No. That was a pleasant surprise and extremely well done.
Q: How has the TV and radio media coverage been so far, friendly or unfriendly?
A: It’s been friendly for the most part, and nothing unexpected has been asked.
Q: Tell us what the book shows about Reagan’s personality and character.
A: I think the book actually is Reagan’s own autobiography, because it is mainly his words for more than 70 years of his life. What emerges from his letters, covering all aspects of his life — discussions with his family about personal issues, discussions with friends about politics, discussions with heads of governments and with perfect strangers — is that there is no spin in what Reagan writes about himself or his understanding of the domestic and international scene. He tells it the way he sees it.
That’s what I think is going on in this book. It’s Reagan’s own tour through the 20th century of American history, with himself as the tour guide.
Q: Why did we know so little about Ronald Reagan’s true nature when he was president or before that?
A: That’s a good question, because the letters are all over the place. There are thousands of them, maybe upwards of 10,000 of them over the course of his life. There could be even more.
Reagan never talked about what he did. He just did it quietly, and a lot of people conspired with him. The recipients of these letters didn’t tell that they had this ongoing correspondence with him, or they did tell and it never added up to a larger picture.
There were a few articles here and there about the White House mail during his presidency and stories that he had pen pals. But I don’t think anyone saw a portrait of Reagan from a letter-writing perspective — that he was doing this all over the place, at all times. It just didn’t come together before this book.
Q: Edmund Morris, Reagan’s biographer (“Dutch”), reviewed your book for The Washington Post, and he pretty much declares, in a snippy, snooty way, that Ronald Reagan remains a bore, as he pretty much calls him. Is he being too tough?
A: I think there is a way in which he is unfair to Reagan. He talks about a letter to Mrs. Esther Ranes, where Reagan is giving sympathy to this woman he knew for the loss of her husband.
Morris says there is nothing new there, but when you think about it, the fact that Reagan is writing, that he takes the time, that he seeks out people, that he writes so many sympathy notes — most unsolicited — after he heard that someone has passed that he went to college with; I think it says something about his character and his nature.
Maybe it is boring to sit and write lots of thank-you notes and sympathy notes and to write checks to various charities, but that’s what Reagan did. I think it takes the eye of the beholder to evaluate that. But that was important to Reagan, and he sat there and did it day after day.
Q: What do we know about Reagan now through these letters that we didn’t know before?
A: One of the main things we learned about Reagan was that at every turn in his life, he was in charge. He was in charge of himself, he was in charge of whatever job he had, and he was always running the show.
That’s what the book shows, because he says it. He says, for example, on the issue of the Strategic Defense Initiative: “It was my idea to begin with and we will deploy when ready.” He also says in another letter, “I have a foreign policy plan. I don’t believe in putting quotation marks around it and proclaiming it publicly, but I believe in quiet diplomacy.” In another letter, he says that he does have a global agenda.
When things have happened to him or to his political career, or during his administrations as governor and presidency, that were unfavorable, he typically would say, “I take responsibility.” He did during the Iran-Contra crisis. He says it in letters and he says it in speeches as well.
Q: What is the historical value of a book like this?
A: The immediate value is that it opens up for scholars — there are quite a few private letters in this book — material that would otherwise not be available to the public for a very long time on sensitive issues, like Iran-Contra, on what Reagan was saying in real time.
It allows scholars to immediately begin to mine this book for their own work.
The long-term importance of it is that I think it is going to stand as Reagan’s biography for a long time.
Q: Are there any letters that were mean or nasty, that would have given us a different look at Reagan’s personality?
A: No, I don’t think so. Reagan was consistent and even in his approach to critics and friends: tough, firm, never disrespectful, never talked down to people, never talked up, but very even. You see that throughout his life.
Q: Did Nancy Reagan have final say on the letters?
A: Yes, she did.
Q: Did she kill any?
A: I think she asked us to remove two personal letters, but nothing else.
Q: When you three selected the letters, you weren’t out to make Reagan look smarter, or nicer or more caring than he was or anything like that?
A: No. We didn’t do that at all, in fact. There was no attempt to make him look any particular way. I think the research process would suggest that, because — and this was really important — I think we all felt as scholars that we shouldn’t just use what was given to us in the private collection.
We went to private collections all over the country. … We also went to other archives. In every presidential library from Franklin Roosevelt to George Bush I, we looked for letters. We went around as much as we possibly could to non-Reagan facilities. I think that adds to the credibility to the work. If we had just used what was at the Reagan Library in the private papers that Mrs. Reagan controlled, I think that would have been a much more biased set.
Q: Is there other material that you know of that could be bundled up and put into another book?
A: My view is that there is a lot more out there, because Reagan wrote so much. But in terms of a kind of strict adherence to new-evidence standards, the letters book and his radio essays give a fairly complete picture of Reagan.