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Reagan’s letters fill Time

Gen. Wesley Clark last week became the 10th and, let us pray, last Democrat to toss his helmet into the crowded 2004 presidential race.

But although the former four-star NATO boss timed his announcement well and instantly became his party’s front-runner in the polls (if you don’t count the “I don’t know or care” candidate), he only made Newsweek ‘s cover, not Time ‘s.

Newsweek’s ace political writer and Pittsburgh native, Howard Fineman, says Clark should not be underestimated by the Bush administration, which apparently hurt the general deeply by not recruiting him for the battle against Al Qaida after Sept. 11, 2001.

Time magazine takes a perfunctory look at Clark. But its cover belongs to Ronald Reagan, who is in the news again, thanks to a new book containing nearly 1,000 letters he wrote to his family, friends, world leaders and movie fans.

In its exclusive excerpt, Time gives big and mostly friendly play to “Reagan: A Life in Letters,” a private account of a public life that often mystified and confounded Reagan’s friends and enemies.

The book was co-edited by Carnegie Mellon University professor Kiron Skinner, a Cold War scholar and Hoover Institution research fellow, and former Reagan advisers Martin and Annelise Anderson.

The trio sorted through more than 5,000 of the estimated 10,000 letters Reagan wrote from 1922 to 1994, when he announced — in a hand-written letter — that he had Alzheimer’s.

Time offers two pages of mostly friendly commentary from Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy to set up six pages of excerpts and photos from “A Life in Letters,” a near-autobiography they say provides “a paper trail of the kind historians can only dream.”

Among the sampled letters is Reagan’s note to his 15-year-old daughter Patti, who had turned herself in to her boarding school for smoking, in which he discusses the virtue of always telling the truth. Another, to his son, Ron, tells him to buckle down in his studies.

Historians, of course, are most interested in letters in which Reagan discusses the role of government, tax policy and the Cold War. In one to Richard Nixon in 1960, Reagan called JFK’s speech at the Democrat National Convention “a frightening call to arms” for “old-fashioned socialism.”

And in 1981, while recovering from an assassination attempt, Reagan drafted a cool, calm handwritten response to a tough note from Leonid Brezhnev, the boss of the evil U.S.S.R.

In it, Reagan reminds Brezhnev of their meeting 10 years earlier, when they had agreed how important it was to the hopes and aspirations of the people of the world that leaders like them settle their ideological differences.

Reagan’s appeal to Breshnev to join with him in trying to help people attain the simple, universal human goals — individual dignity, economic freedom and peace — is, like the rest of his letter-writing, confident, measured and clear. It hardly sounds like a war-happy president whom many feared posed a danger to the planet’s survival.


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