Home » politics

President Pepys

By (March 1, 2009) No Comment

The Unabridged Reagan Diaries

Harpercollins, 2009

Thomas Mallon, in his highly entertaining study of diary-keepers, A Book of One’s Own, refers to celebrated Restoration diarist Samuel Pepys as a bit of a “boob.” He’s talking about a quality that will be smile-inducingly familiar to the legions of readers Pepys has gathered in the 150 years since his diary first came to light. Pepys kept almost daily entries for ten years in the midst of a busy, bustling life in what we would now refer to as public service, a life and a service in which, despite periods of turbulence, he was esteemed and generally beloved. So where does Mallon’s ‘boob’ come from, and why no prompt, outraged refutation? The diary’s readers will know: it comes from the fact that in the narrow confines of his diary, as nowhere else in his life, Pepys shed the sophistication of his various public personae and simply reveled in unadorned selfhood. All things are confessed, adduced, described for this little book he called his second self – a cut of veal, the suspicion that his upholsterers are overcharging him, the great whack across the face he gave his wife over what turned out to be a trifle, the fact that it did turn out to be a trifle.  

The remarkable thing about the Pepys diaries isn’t that a man in his position would write them – diary-keeping was, for whatever complex of reasons, a natural-born English trait undergoing at that time a renaissance – but that he would keep them, guarded by a quasi-French ‘code’ a 12-year-old could crack. The volumes sit there, laden with scandals, perhaps the most damaging of which wouldn’t have been the importuned housemaids but rather the undisguised … credulity? Impetuosity? Selfhood. In a world clustered thick with poses and facades, the Pepys in the diaries is staring out at you in the unflattering, accurate light of a bathroom mirror. It’s the ultimate trick of diary-keeping, virtually impossible to pull off: the utter erasure of the imagined audience.

Rare, yes, but there it is again, page after page of it, in quite possibly the past place on Earth you’d expect to find it: the presidential diaries of Ronald Reagan.

Other presidents have kept diaries, as editor Douglas Brinkley informs us: George Washington, John Quincy Adams, James K. Polk, and Rutherford B. Hayes. But this list is unhelpful – Washington’s was barely more than a ledger, Polk’s was an extended rearguard apologia, Hayes’ a string of self-justifications, and although the enormously detailed personal journal John Quincy Adams kept not only during his presidency but throughout his long life may be the single most remarkable document ever written by an American (Adams never forgot a single fact to which he as was exposed, and he had copious opinions about everything), it’s very much composed with an eye to posterity. It’s a magnificent achievement in the sense that a snow-capped mountain is: august and even edifying, but uninviting.

  You’d think that in our media-saturated century, Pepysean self-disclosure would be impossible (kindly blather me no blather about the blogosphere – utterances intentionally transmitted to a server in Indiana, no matter how embarrassing, by definition cannot be unaware of an audience), and even if it were possible, you wouldn’t expect to find it anymore in a politician, and even if by some miracle you found it in a politician, you’d never find it in a sitting U.S. President that one solitary goldfish in a giant fishbowl on Pennsylvania Avenue. And to find it in a president who was also an actor? Impossible, impossible.

And yet, there it is again and again, page after page of it, in the brief diary entries President Reagan made every day of his two terms in office (he only skipped when he was in the hospital – and considering some of the lame excuses diarists have concocted over the centuries, “shot by John Hinckley” certainly merits a pass). Reagan’s entries are scrupulous, concise, often remarkably good reading – and as blithely free of self-scrutiny as the very best of Pepys. Given the theatrical background of the author, it’s both accurate and ironic to call it an impressive performance.

In any discussion of President Reagan (and as the 21st century progresses in the only way it really can – by reprising the 20th – there are bound to be many such discussions), there are three looming obstacles, and the largest of them is that very quality of blitheness, a lack of introspection, even a suspicion of introspection. Read quickly or with squint-eyed partisanship, the diaries seem to confirm the worst of it all: they seem to portray a shallow, distractible coot who was incompetent to hold office long before the onset the full-blown Alzheimer’s Disease that eventually claimed his life. Take a brief entry from 1986:

Friday Sept. 5 – Later in day got more details [about a hijacked Pan Am flight landed at Karachi] – roughly 18 dead & 100 or more wounded. 2 of the hijackers were killed, 2 captured & there is a possibility of a 5th. Ron and Doria arrived in the afternoon & stayed for dinner. It was a nice visit.

But this entry – and there are many like it – isn’t in fact shallow and callous as it seems – it’s merely unconscious of dramatic presentation. The diarist wants to keep many strands of narrative going every day – political, professional, personal, familial, financial, even gustatory; each needs a mention, and entry-making time is short (like all diarists since the dawn of time, Reagan ended up making many of his entries at night before bed, with sleep beckoning. You keep expecting him to close with the signature Pepysean “and so to bed” – and he very nearly does, but with a geriatric spin: “early to bed.”).

And one expects that a daily diary kept by an often rapturously-popular two-term president of the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the history of mankind won’t be read quickly (and one hopes that it won’t be read squintily); if read with attention – indeed, even if opened at random – the Reagan diaries repeatedly present the exact opposite impression: a man much more engaged than was commonly thought, tersely recounting the details of an incredibly full presidency. Two months after his inauguration, the laconic President Taft (whose own attempt at keeping a presidential diary lasted exactly two entries – something of a record, even for slugabeds) remarked, “I was hoping there would be more dull days,” but even given the accelerated pace of the 20th century’s latter half, entries like this (from Friday, Feb. 5, 1988) are common for President Reagan:

Then Colin came in NSC time. We are putting NSC to work keeping watch on Ortega & the Sandanistas to see if they are going to play games. We’ll have rat traps set for them.

We have worries about King Fahd of Saudi Arabia […]

Our Rep. at Haiti inaugural will be our Ambas. – Sunday Noriega of Panama will be indicted today. And in Japan – p.m. Takeshita seems to be trying to do something about Beef Quotas & construction contracts from Am. Co’s. Then desk time & receipt of gifts.

And that was on his birthday.

The second obstacle to dealing with Reagan is the common perception that he was at best intellectually underengaged and at worst downright dim. This alleged shortcoming was enshrined in the annals of irony by an immortal Saturday Night Live skit in which Phil Hartman plays the good-natured, doddering Reagan of popular imagination – but only as long as the press is in the room. When the reporters leave, sleepy Reagan instantly becomes an informational dynamo, effortlessly in charge of every fact, every detail, wearing out his staff with whip-cracking energy. The skit is so successful because it plays off the conception of Reagan as an ineffectual old man fond of naps.  

Again, the diaries almost seem to confirm this, often with an earthiness President Reagan was scrupulous to keep out of his public pronouncements:

Friday, May 24, 1985 – George S. came in – we have a problem with an Ambas. we appointed at the request of one of our Congressional leaders. He has become a pain in the Anus & George wants to fire him.

But the point that bears repeating here is the private nature of these diaries. On some level, President Reagan may have anticipated they’d be studied by future scholars of history, but he certainly wasn’t thinking of that future while he was industriously jotting down the present. Even as early as 1981 he swerves from serious discussions of policy to a happy notice of pageantry, as in this entry from April on his first full day back in the White House, only two weeks after he’d been shot:

Our astronauts landed and what a thrill that was. I’m more and more convinced that Americans are hungering to feel proud & Patriotic again. The circus came to town and paraded in front of the White House & put on a show. They had a big get well banner. I waved from the biggest window I could find & thank Heaven they saw me.

But almost always the swerving happens not in his attention but in his writer’s focus, something a dim septuagenarian couldn’t fake (and wouldn’t bother to if he could); usually, the desired effect is to keep as many plates spinning as possible, to hit as many diarist points as time allows, as in this entry from March 8 1985:

A large breakfast with members of the Sen. & House teams who are going to Geneva for the opening of arms talks, plus our negotiators. There seemed to be a feeling of unity even including Sen. Ted Kennedy. Then over in the Roosevelt room we had a formal send-off.

Then it was off to Bethesda Naval Hospital for my annual check-up. I’m so healthy I had a hard time not acting smug.

Which brings us to the third obstacle to dealing clearly with Reagan: the idea that he was a lucky bungler, standing at the crux of great historical events largely by accident, like a Walter Mitty with a Secret Service detail. He was an actor, proponents of this view are wont to say, and he never stopped acting … as if this were the ultimate slur, as if all public life isn’t mostly comprised of acting in various roles. A riposte comes readily to mind: wouldn’t you rather have a man acting like a president while sitting in the Oval Office than not acting like one? But such a riposte is not only too bitter (the last eight years have left certain parts of the American psyche quite tender) but beside the point, or rather, too precisely on point: after all, if an actor is elected to the actual, honest-to-gosh presidency, starts acting like the president, and never stops acting like the president (if the Reagan diaries prove nothing else, they prove this continuity), what’s the point of harping on him being an actor? As a very wise book once pointed out, a difference which makes no difference is no difference.

Reagan’s actorly provenance might be a persistent tickle of phlegm in the throats of his critics, but of one thing there cannot be any legitimate doubt, even this early in the process of historical assessment: the President was not only an active agent in the events of his time, he was a pivotal one. Another president meeting new Soviet premiere Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik in 1986 might have struck an unacceptably Nixonian hard line (indeed, Reagan broke with the Nixon/Kissinger bloc of his own party primarily over his relatively conciliatory stance toward the Soviets) or worse, been bedazzled by Gorbachev’s very un-Soviet charisma (when aides worried about this, Reagan laughingly pointed out that he had once co-starred with Errol Flynn). It was the President who insisted on the inclusion of the now-iconic “Tear down this wall” line in his 1987 speech at the Brandenburg Gate, and he did so over the objections of virtually all his advisors. It was Reagan’s persistence and charm that produced the historic INF treaty with the Soviets in late ’87 – an unprecedented and even valiant attempt to reduce significantly the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons, and it was Reagan’s amiability and tenacity that got it ratified by Congress the following year. These things happened, and giving credit for them to presidential handlers like George Shultz or, gawd help us, Alexander Haig, is imputing to them abilities they themselves admit they didn’t have. These things happened, and they however temporarily made the West a slightly safer, saner place, and it was President Reagan who made them happen.

I suspect it’s his undisguised homesy paternalism that gets some critics’ hackles up, and if this is the case, those critics probably need to take stock of their own personal perplexities instead of being so quick to tote up Reagan’s. The President was a simple man and often a simplistic one, prone to shopworn anecdotes and moralizing that was no less saccharine for being earnestly felt, but he had a buoyant, forceful personality and an instinct-driven talent for sizing people up. As a politician, he could change long-held stances as situations warranted, and as a statesman he could make the hard compromise for the greater good. These are qualities to admire in a president, and if this particular president liked to affect a folksiness which strikes 21st century cynics as odd or forced, well (so to speak), that’s not Reagan’s fault. Presidents have idiosyncrasies. Theodore Roosevelt wore an pince-nez. It’s a tough world.

  But no matter what the state of your irritation is when it comes to Reagan, these diaries stand apart. Quite unconnected with presidential legacies or lack thereof, they exert an emphatic, intimate, and utterly winning appeal. This is exactly what the best diaries do – they bring us effortlessly inside the un-self-conscious mind of another person, catching that person in the act of simply being:

Wednesday March 21 1984 – Over to Capitol hill to talk to our Repub. Senators & Res. The subject was our $150 bil. down payment on the deficit. First I talked to the Senators in the original Old Senate chamber, then I did a Q & A. It went well & I answered Lowell Weicker’s Q without telling him what a schmuck he is.

There is the black-and-white morality of an earlier age:

Sen. John Danforth has returned from his Africa trip. He brought over some slides of the starving people principally in Mozambique. He plead for immediate help for these people. The govt. of M. had thrown in its lot with the Soviets. Now the Soviets have failed them. I told our gang to get underway & we’ll ride to the rescue.

And there is the apparently requisite receptivity to the supernatural, in a story that would have been equally at home in every diarist from Pliny the Younger to Pepys and onward:

Wednesday January 22 [year unclassified]– I think the ghost of Abe Lincoln is stirring around upstairs where we live. Rex sets up a holler & goes barking down the great hall for all the world as if he’s barking at someone. Finally I accompanied him all the way to Lincoln’s bedroom. There he balked at going into the room.

This narrative feat – this erasure of all future audiences – is the real achievement of The Reagan Diaries – diaries in which the single least important fact is what job the writer held during those eight years. No, instead we get a three-dimensional portrait of an unaffected person – a person who is sometimes abrupt, sometimes overly reliant on clichés (the same phrases crop up so often you can start to sense them coming or even – in a weirdly definitive little triumph – you start to use them yourself), but who was able in these volumes to shed performance anxiety and simply transcribe his own soul. Here is the abiding love for his wife, the dogged assaults on the mountain of “homework” that comes with the job (and which, you suspect, certain other presidents have ignored), even the oft-repeated fact that our modern-day Pepys doesn’t like Mondays.

The new unabridged edition of the Reagan Diaries contains not only every dated entry Reagan made during his eight years in office but also a large number of miscellaneous undated or unclassified entries, arranged as best editor Brinkley and his team of Reagan archivists could manage. The result is more than twice the amount of entries as is found in the 2007 abridgement. To unsquinted readers of all ideologies, that will be all the recommendation necessary.

Steve Donoghue has kept an extensive and unshared diary for most of his life, and it now totals well over 100,000 pages of small Latin script. His slightly less extensive shared diary is just a few years old, is handily digitized, and is found at http://www.stevereads.blogspot.com.

Return to Main Page