Visit the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, high on a hill overlooking Simi Valley, California and you are greeted at the door by a bronze statue of the former president dressed as a cowboy. For many on the Left in Britain that is exactly how they saw the 40th president of the United States. They should read his diaries and think again. Reagan was no Pepys, or even an Alan Clark — he was far too close to the action to be a wry observer — but his daily entries provide a fascinating insight into a presidency that saw the end of the Cold War and a resurgent belief in the power of the individual.
Yet these diaries also show that Reagan the man was not as simple as Reagan the myth. Instead, each page reveals a man who was deeply secure in his convictions but also flexible, pragmatic and caring. For example, the man who won 49 out of 50 states in the 1984 presidential election worked closely with Democratic congressmen on the budget and many other issues. A particularly revealing entry for 6 May 1981 suggests that many Democrats found Reagan more accessible than Jimmy Carter:
These Demos are with us on the budget and it’s interesting to hear some who’ve been here 10 years or more say it is their 1st time to ever be in the Oval Office.
Another recurring theme is his acute insight into the human tragedy of communism. Early in 1981 Reagan writes to Brezhnev asking him to release the Jewish dissident Anatoly Sharansky, falsely accused of being a US spy: ‘If you could find it in your heart to do this the matter would be strictly between us, which is why I’m writing this letter by hand.’ In his diary he keeps returning to Sharansky’s imprisonment, at one point exclaiming ‘damn those inhuman monsters’, until in 1986 he finally secures his release. After Sharansky visits him in the Oval Office on 13 May Reagan writes with obvious satisfaction: ‘I learned that I’m a hero in the Soviet Gulag.’
Nor is the Reagan in these diaries the mad warmonger of Spitting Image fame. On 6 April 1983 he takes his National Security Council staff to task for being too unyielding. His justification is refreshingly optimistic:
I think I’m hardline and will never appease but I do want to try and let [the Soviets] see there is a better world if they’ll show by deed they want to get along with the free world.
On another occasion he neatly sums up the fundamental Cold War dilemma:
Intelligence reports say Castro is very worried about me. I’m very worried that we can’t come up with something to justify his worrying.
At times the diaries descend into a mere list of engagements. Indeed, three years in he realises this himself: ‘I think I’ve been doing wrong in these diaries for three years. I’ve made them a log book.’
The style throughout is concise and uncluttered, sometimes to the point of parody. ‘Getting shot hurts’ is his reaction to the attempted assassination in 1981. But just when the attention begins to wander one gets a glimpse of Reagan’s humanity. ‘I had a lump in my throat all day’, he writes, after meeting the widow of a soldier killed in action or a child suffering from a terrible disease. ‘You specified that you wanted to hear from me personally, so here I am’, he replies to a presumably astonished citizen who has sent an angry letter to the White House. He also comments frequently on his devotion to Nancy and the loneliness he feels whenever she leaves him alone in the White House — ‘I don’t like it here by myself’ is a common refrain.
The national outpouring of grief when he died in 2004 revealed a nation that was nostalgic for the optimism that Reagan represented. As he wrote near the beginning of these diaries, ‘Americans are hungering to feel proud and patriotic again.’ The same nostalgia is currently afflicting the Republican party as it considers its options for next year’s presidential election. While 60 per cent of Democratic primary voters pronounce themselves satisfied with their presidential choices, only 35 per cent of Republicans say the same. At the GOP presidential debate in May at the same Simi Valley Presidential Library the dissatisfaction was not far beneath the surface. ‘Where is our Reagan?’ summed up the mood.
At difficult times political parties are vulnerable to nostalgia for their great leaders of the past, but as these diaries make clear the truth is that Reagan was right for his times. The big domestic problems that faced America in 1981 are very different from the challenges of today. Republican candidates know that a simple anti-Washington, anti-communism platform is not going to mobilise American voters in the same way. Conservatives everywhere need to communicate different answers to a different set of problems. You can read his diaries but you cannot bring back Ronald Reagan.