Dear Americans: Letters from the Desk of Ronald Reagan
edited by Ralph E. Weber and Ralph A. Weber (Broadway, 372 pp., $26)
Public outcry eventually convinced CBS to drop its biopic “The Reagans,” starring Barbra Streisand’s husband as a buffoonish, mean-spirited Ronald Reagan (it was run on Showtime instead). But the episode served as a reminder that the keepers of the culture—Hollywood, the mainstream media, and the academy—continue to have it in for Reagan. And while journalists and watchdogs like Matt Drudge and Brent Bozell did an admirable job in bringing the film’s biases to light, one cannot help but wish that the Great Communicator had been healthy enough to speak for himself. Thankfully, in recent years a number of books have been published that permit him to do precisely that, bringing together speeches, essays, and letters written by the former president. Each collection reveals a different facet of Reagan’s politics and character, untainted by Hollywood’s filter. The most recent of these documentary histories is Dear Americans: Letters from the Desk of Ronald Reagan, which brings together some 300 letters that the president wrote during his two terms in office, and provides a glimpse into a man far different from the CBS/Showtime fabrication.
Edited by the father-and-son team of Ralph E. Weber and Ralph A. Weber, Dear Americans is the latest in a string of collections of Reagan’s writing published in the last few years. I Love You, Ronnie, a moving collection of Reagan’s love letters to Nancy, appeared in 2000. The most comprehensive collections are a trio of books edited by the team of Kiron K. Skinner, Annalise Anderson, and Martin Anderson. These include Stories in His Own Hand: The Everyday Wisdom of Ronald Reagan, which collects personal anecdotes and parables written for the radio addresses he broadcast between 1975-1979, and the weightier Reagan, in His Own Hand, a bestselling collection of the policy essays that Reagan wrote for those same broadcasts. This latter book, which displays the future president’s grasp of the issues, political prescience, and literary skill, may do more than any other book to dispel the canard of Reagan-as-simpleton. Most recently, Skinner and the Andersons published Reagan: A Life in Letters, a hefty collection of correspondence written between 1922 and 1994. Narrower in scope, Dear Americans zeroes in on the years 1981-88, drawing from 3,500 handwritten letters now kept at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
As the Webers explain in an introduction, the White House received around 300,000 pieces of mail during the Reagan years. The letters were first x-rayed for safety before being sorted according to subject matter and sent to the appropriate federal department by a staff of 60 full-time analysts, 30 part-timers, and 500 volunteers. Out of the mass of letters from friends, colleagues, supporters, detractors, and schoolchildren, the director of Presidential Correspondence chose thirty or so to give to the President each week. (Envelopes with a special code number sidestepped this process and went directly to the President’s office.) Reagan handwrote his responses, which were then typed out by White House secretaries.
As one might expect, the book includes Reagan’s correspondence with a number of famous names, from heads of state like Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher, to fellow actors Paul Newman and Mickey Rooney, singers Frank Sinatra (whom Reagan addresses as “Francis Albert”) and Sammy Davis Jr., and confidantes William F. Buckley, Jr., and the Rev. Billy Graham. Some of these letters are quite fun—as when Charlton Heston worries that the President is getting too chummy with the Soviet Union and Reagan responds with a swagger straight out of a 1940s war movie: “Don’t worry about me holding the ‘Bear’ too close. I’m willing to dance but intend to lead.”
But the most interesting letters in the book (and these represent the vast majority), are addressed to people you have never heard of, ordinary Americans who probably wrote the White House never dreaming they would actually hear back from the Commander-in-Chief. Some of the letters are in thanks to people who offered their support for one or another of Reagan’s policies; others are patient responses to critics. These last are telling: Reagan takes his detractors’ complaints seriously, and gives them forthright, often detailed answers without hedging or pandering.
Reagan’s letters to children are particularly sweet. One seventh grade boy requested federal relief funds because his mother had declared his room a disaster area. Reagan suggested he start a private-sector volunteer program to deal with the problem. There are several letters to Ruddy Hines, a Washington, D.C., boy who became pen pals with Reagan after the president visited his elementary school, including one note in which Reagan advises an impatient Ruddy to be understanding if his parents don’t allow him to begin karate lessons right away (“I can recall some turn-downs by my parents when I was young....”)
In 1971, Reagan, then the governor of California, received a letter from a 10-year old girl who dreamed of owning a horse. Reagan suggested she begin saving her allowance. Thirteen years later, the girl wrote back. She had taken Reagan’s advice and now owned a Hanoverian gelding, the same kind of horse he rode.
Of course, being President isn’t all fun and games, and Dear Americans has its share of sad moments. It is clear that the trappings of high office had not numbed Reagan to the reality of human suffering. In one letter Reagan comforts a soldier, guilt-ridden because he survived his mission while some of his comrades did not, reassuring him that “when we are spared it is because He has things for us yet to do.” And, in my favorite letter in the book, he writes to an Alabama woman whose son had been killed in the bombing of the U.S. Marines barracks in Beruit:
I have no words to tell you how much your letter meant to me. My heart has ached for all of you who bear such a burden of sorrow and then to have the added pain of someone telling you the sacrifices your loved one made were for no reason.
Mrs. Collins, there was a reason and a cause. The cause was peace and your son and those other fine young men died because the enemies of peace knew they were succeeding. Now your letter comes and with all you have to bear you express concern for me. I have asked, with regard to men like your son, where do we find such men? Now I ask where do we find such women as you?
Not every letter is as moving as that one, and in fact many are rather mundane when read in isolation. But seen all together, these letters to regular folks reflect the generosity of spirit that was the source of Reagan’s great connection with the American public. After reading them, it seems fitting that when Reagan said his official goodbye to the country a decade ago, he did so not with a press conference but with a letter. One suspects that for all of the successes of his eight years in the White House, the chance to write to ordinary Americans was one of the things the President liked best about his job.