Stories in His Own Hand: The Everyday Wisdom of Ronald Reagan
Edited by Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson and Martin Anderson
This book is a compilation of Ronald Reagan’s writing between 1976 and 1979 with a few letters from his presidential years. Reagan told stories and provided short commentary on radio in the late 1970s between presidential campaigns. He wrote and edited these scripts long handed on legal pads. Skinner culled what he deemed to be the best of more than 650 stories Reagan authored.
Included in the book are reproductions of Reagan’s hand written scripts including his edits. This provides us with a glimpse into the style and process of communication by one of the great communicators in history.
Foreword by George P. Schultz
Shultz served Ronald Reagan as his Secretary of State. Reagan’s White House has been characterized by his detractors as a collection of “yes men.” Schultz was no yes man. He was one of Reagan’s advisors unafraid to tell the boss bad news, to tell him he was wrong, and to tell him he was being ill-served by others. Of all of the men involved in the Iran-Contra mess, only George Schultz has emerged in history as a hero.
Schultz recalls his boss fondly and recalls the tales with which Ronald Reagan regaled his cabinet and advisors. He notes that Reagan’s speeches usually included anecdotes and stories to drive home the point he was trying to make. Reagan was a plain spoken man which is what made him the Great Communicator he was. He understood better than anyone that the best way to reach the American people was not through political sermons or cold political analysis. You reach people by grasping and tugging at their emotions. Reagan’s stories did that.
Skinner notes that when these manuscripts were uncovered in the Reagan Library, they were often accompanied by notes that verified the veracity of the stories Reagan presented as factual. Other stories, Skinner notes, were based on folklore even though Reagan told them as if they were true. Reagan sometimes confused anecdote with fact.
That sometimes Reagan mixed fantasy with reality is well known and well documented. That’s not the point, Skinner tells us. Reagan the man was and remains an enigma because he revealed so little of his genuine feelings. The window into the mind of Ronald Reagan, Skinner says, is in his stories. Whenever Reagan said, “That reminds me of. . .“ and launched into an anecdote or story, you knew he was revealing his true feelings on the matter at hand.
Life and Death
Reagan tells two stories dealing with death and how it affects us. One is inspirational and the other is poignantly tragic.
The first is about a seven year old boy dying of leukemia. The boy is suffering and wants to die. He tells the doctors to disconnect the equipment that is keeping him alive and even plans his own funeral. Before dying, he tells his family that he wants to die because he does not want to suffer anymore. He wants to go to heaven where he will be disconnected from his earthly body which is broken, but will live on with his spirit which is not. He is confident he will be able to see the lives of his loved ones unfold from heaven. Reagan’s account is documented with a news clip attached to the manuscript. He tell us that sorrow is our own for what we have lost. The dead have no sorrow for they have gone to a better place.
The second tale tells of a father writing to his son who is away at war. In a poem, the father expresses his regret that his distorted conception of manhood and masculinity never allowed him to hug his son or express love and affection. His love for his son comes through as he tells his son if he were here with him, he’d hug him and tell him how much he loved him and expresses regret for his cold and taciturn nature. The story concludes with Reagan telling us that the day the letter containing the poem was mailed, the man received a War Department telegram telling him his son had died.
I’m no psychologist, but I’ve read enough psychoanalysis of Ronald Reagan to wonder if he was not reaching out to his own children through this story. Reagan was emotionally detached from his children. He was not cold, but he was not close to them and he remained as much an enigma to them as to history.
Love and Compassion
Reagan tells two tales that deal with overcoming the odds against disease and injury rather than stories of love and compassion.
In the first tale, he recounts how Alexis de Toqueville observed that Americans look to themselves and their fellow Americans to help solve their problems rather than asking for the government. He then tells the tale of a young girl with leukemia who needed a bone marrow transplant, which was an experimental procedure at that time. The girl was from California, but the surgery was to be performed at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. People in Minnesota and California joined forces to raise more than $10,000 for the girl to have her surgery. The government did not help and did not need to.
The second tale is of a young man injured in a car accident. Doctors gave him no hope of recovery and he lay in a coma for almost a year. During that time, his fiancé refused to give up hope and visited him daily. As it turned out, he did recover and the couple married.
Faith and Religion
This chapter includes three essays on Christian faith and a letter to a nun Reagan wrote while serving as president.
In the first, he discusses his love of all things Christmas. He says, some complain of the crass commercialization of the holiday replacing its spirit. For Reagan, the decorations and displays warmed his heart and were part of the Christmas. He defines the root of his faith. Were there no such things as miracles, how, he asks, could a homeless carpenter wander the countryside for three years, preaching his faith and proclaim himself the son of God and start a whole new religion that has endured for 2,000 years? A superb question to put to atheists. . .
In his second essay, he critiques the claims of a scientist who claims that the some of the miracles found in the Bible can be explained away by mirages. This scientist stated that Moses parting the Red Sea was but the reflection of heat off of the desert – not real water. The same phenomena can explain the “illusion” of Christ walking on water. Reagan then goes on to quote the scripture in easily understood terms. The mirage did not sweep away Pharaoh’s men as they pursued the Hebrews. Christ walked upon the water to a boat tossed on heavy seas. Mirages do not toss boats. It will take more than a mirage to sweep away the claims of the best selling book of all time, claims Reagan.
In his third essay, Reagan talks about a group of Christian athletes who travel the country, playing college and pro basketball teams. They get paid little, but must spend halftime professing their faith to the crowd. Many of these young men gave up scholarships and lucrative pro money in the name of their faith.
The letter is written to a nun who had obviously written to congratulate Reagan on his re-election in 1984. In it, Reagan expresses his strong belief in intercessory prayer. Reagan says that he prays on behalf of others so much that he believes God says to himself, “Here he comes again!” He concludes by quoting Abraham Lincoln’s belief that no man can stand as president without the help of God.
Reagan’s strong statements of faith are probably genuine. Reagan was wont to profess faith while president. Yet, he was not a regular church goer as president, nor was he in civilian life. Contrary to popular belief, Reagan never introduced legislation or justified policy employing theology.
In two essays on the subject of women, Reagan discusses how women are, by nature, peacemakers. Despite being regarded as the weaker sex, Reagan says it is the courage that comes naturally to women that make them peacemakers. Perhaps it was that belief that women are most prone to bring peace that he took the courageous and historic step of making Jean Kirkpatrick the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and appointing the first female Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor. It was in his strong belief in the necessary role women must play in the political and government process that Reagan was a progressive in the true sense of the word.
In his first essay, Reagan recounts a somewhat humorous story of a dinner taking place in a palace in India. As the diners enjoyed their repast, one of the Americans in attendance noticed that one of the servants placed a saucer of milk outside the door to the dining hall and left the door open. He knew that milk was used to lure cobras and that the serpent must be in the room. He feared moving lest he frighten the snake and cause himself or another diner to be bitten. Eventually, the snake made its way out from under the table. The man later asked the hostess how she knew the snake was in the room. She replied that it was lying on her feet during the meal.
His second essay tells of the courage of the women of Northern Ireland in the face of guerilla warfare in their country. The Irish Republican Army and their protestant counterparts too often considered children to be collateral damage in their war of terror against each other. Finally, the women had enough. Catholic and protestant women of Northern Ireland banded together and protested in the streets. They knew the feelings on both sides of the war over Northern Ireland were too powerful for them to stop it. But they demanded of their respective warriors respect the sanctity of life of children. It was a great risk, but the women prevailed.
Ronald Reagan was mindlessly derided as a racist by liberals of his day because he staunchly opposed race based solutions to race based problems. He saw the fundamental flaw of combating discrimination with reverse discrimination. While liberals may have mindlessly called Reagan a racist, those who knew him – including black liberals who knew him on a personal level -- knew differently. Reagan may have been the most colorblind president in history.
The first essay is an interview conducted by a sports program. It is a story that Reagan recounted in his autobiography and is often told by those who adore him. Reagan, as a young college football player, was shocked and dismayed that, in his home state of Illinois, racism existed. He found this out when his Eureka College football team tried to find a motel while playing in Illinois. Eureka had two black players on its team and no motel in the area would accept them. Reagan implored his coach to let the players stay in his parents’ home and to tell them that there simply wasn’t room. The young men stayed at Reagan’s home and the crisis was defused. According to Reagan, he did not know that his black friends were not fooled. The interviewer, who had spoken to one of the players involved, said the young man knew then as he knew today that he’d been refused a room. Reagan said he was surprised. I doubt this. Reagan often feigned ignorance of racial strife to demonstrate that he was above it. One can be quite confident that Reagan was aware his friends knew. That does not diminish Reagan’s progressive views on race in the era of Jim Crow.
The second essay is a radio eulogy of Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr, the first black four star general in the history of the United States. Rather than offering testimony to the greatness of the American melting pot that saw this man rise to this high rank, he offered testimony to the spirit of the man that was Gen. James – a man who would not let the ugly face of racism destroy his belief in the fundamental rightness of America and that for which she stands. James, as a young officer, had been denied entrance into officers clubs, despite his rank and his unabashed and undisputed heroism in battle. Gen. James was not ambivalent about racism. He knew it and experienced it. But he also knew America. James said of his country, "I fought in three wars and three more would not be too many to defend my country. I love America and as she has her ills and weaknesses, I’ll hold her hand.”
The third and final essay is yet another eulogy – this one for a San Diego police officer who was often part of Gov. Reagan’s protective detail when he visited the city. Reagan spoke of the man’s dedication to duty and to the people he knew growing up. He insisted on serving the poor neighborhood in which he grew up. Sometimes, he posted the bail of those he arrested, hoping that they would change their ways. He helped his neighbors by working on their cars – the cars upon which they depended to get them to and from work. He died of a rare disease at the young age of 42. Here, although he doesn’t say it, we see Reagan embrace compassion as part of conservatism – a vital component missing in many of today’s conservatives despite claims of compassionate conservatism. Not only that, Reagan never mentioned his race. He simply feted the life of a great man who lived a great life. Again, Reagan was colorblind. The man’s race didn’t figure into any equation in Reagan’s mind.
Ronald Reagan was the ultimate patriot. When America’s morale was low, it was Reagan who convinced us we could be great again. When we were victims, he lashed out at our enemies. When we were criticized abroad, he told the world we were the last, best hope for man on the face of the earth. In these essays, Reagan relates anecdotes that reflect his love of America and how others came to love it as much as he.
The first essay is about a young man by the name of Peter Johnson who, in 1973, decided to walk across America. It was not a marathon; he sought to promote no awareness of a social or political issue. Like many of the Vietnam era and the age of the hippies, he just started wandering. He walked from Connecticut to Oregon, taking a meandering course through the south and the southwest. Like many of his generation, Johnson didn’t care for America when he set out. When he waded into the Pacific Ocean five years later, joined by 150 people – ordinary Americans – he met on his journey. Each, in some small way, had lent him aid or assistance as he journeyed on God’s good graces across our country. He also discovered God and his good grace.
The second essay was written by a Canadian journalist in the 1970s, during Watergate and found new life during the impeachment of Bill Clinton. In 1973, as the world watched Watergate unfold and it seemed as if America was headed toward an ugly constitutional crisis on the heels of the Vietnam War, America’s morale was low and the opinion of it around the world had sunk to new lows. Canadian Gordon Sinclair took to the Canadian airwaves to extol American strength of character and charity. He talked of the valiant effort of our soldiers in World War II, the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe, the aid and assistance we lent countries in times of disaster. No other country, Sinclair pointed out, was so apt to step in and help in an international crisis. As Reagan notes at the beginning of the essay, it is right, proper, and sometimes patriotic to criticize government. But we, as Americans, can always be proud of ourselves as people and as a nation.
The third essay summarizes a capsulized summary of history called, There Once Was a Great Nation. It talked of its rise under the leadership of the hero of its independence. He then recounts the rise and eventual fall of that great nation under a burdensome and corrupt government. You believe he is talking about America, but it is the rise and fall of the Roman Empire he is recounting. Reagan believed that big government would forever be the doom of civilizations of the earth.
In fourth essay, Reagan described the early days of the healing process that followed the disaster in Vietnam. Vietnam was a subject little discussed in 1977. Reagan recounted how four Vietnam War veterans met by chance and ended up in Washington, asking for permission to return to Vietnam to help out a small village that was destroyed in the war. Reagan wrote the essay because he felt that it was unfair that, after President Carter provided amnesty to Vietnam draft dodgers, that those who ducked the war were getting all of the attention while those who fought were being ignored while America tried to forget that abortive war and its own bad behavior during those years.
The last essay in the chapter, America, is also about Vietnam. Reagan notes that the movie, The Deerhunter had won an Oscar for best picture. Some Hollywood elites were bitter because of its positive portrayal of the Vietnam veteran as a virtuous person and America as a virtuous nation. He called on Hollywood to make a movie about the Hanoi Hilton and the experiences of Captain John McCain who was roasting in a coffin sized box whilst Jane Fonda dined with North Vietnamese leaders. He wanted the world to know of the experience of Jeremiah Denton who spent six years in the Hanoi Hilton and was beaten into making a statement to Fonda and the world about how well he was being treated, all the while blinking his eyes in Morse Code the word, “torture.” Basically, Reagan was telling the Hollywood elite – people he knew too well – they could shove their self loathing up their un-American asses.
Reagan was called the Great Communicator because of his remarkable ability to engage people. He could engage mass audiences and he could engage them one on one. Reagan was fascinated by people, but was actually a shy man who revealed very little about himself to those closest to him. He often forgot the names of his closest advisors. But there were people who made an impression on Reagan and he recounts some of those people in this series of essays.
The first essay is about a brave University of California student who touched Reagan’s heart. Reagan was the governor who imposed tuition upon the students of California who before enjoyed a free college education at the various campuses of the U.C. He was hated for that and for his conservative politics when he was governor of California. One day, Reagan had to attend a board of regents meeting in San Diego. Students there devised a clever and effective means of protest. Instead of shouting at Reagan, they decided to line the sidewalks and remain silent as Reagan walked the 200 yards from his car to the building. Reagan felt the tension and admits he was intimidated. Just before he got to the building, one young woman stepped forward, extended her hand, and told Reagan how much she appreciated his leadership. Reagan said he could not reply for the lump in his throat and troopers whisked the girl away before he could get her name. Reagan says he never found out who that girl was, but that he would be forever grateful for her kind words.
His second essay extols the virtue of President Calvin Coolidge. Some historians blame Coolidge for setting the stage for the Great Depression (he actually tried to warn of its coming) and others claim that he simply did nothing while he was in office. He was mocked as “Silent Cal,” for his penchant for saying little in public. But, as Reagan notes, Coolidge turned debts into surpluses and presided over the largest economic expansion in American history to that point. America moved forward economically, technologically, and socially in the era of Calvin Coolidge. That is why Reagan feted him by hanging his portrait in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.
Reagan enjoyed extolling the virtues of the American Dream and worked hard to convince Americans that it still existed even when President Carter told us we had a “crisis of confidence” in ourselves. The third essay is about a high school dropout who went on to serve in the Army. He returned from the service and decided to take courses to first get his GED and eventually his college diploma. He learned to play a musical instrument (Reagan never says which one) and played with his city’s philharmonic orchestra. He went on to form two successful business enterprises and become comfortably wealthy. Reagan saw all of this on the CBS News. The last line struck Reagan as the man told the world that anybody could do what he did if they would only take advantage of what was available to them in our great nation.
The last two essays are a two part story about a 27 year old man whose productive years seemed to be cut short when an industrial accident made him a paraplegic. After a period of feeling sorry for himself, this man decided to resume his hobby of riding horses. He found a horse that was yet unbroken. He then hired a blind horse trainer. Together, they trained the horse and the man took to touring the country, showing off his skills to the handicapped to show them that they need not be defined by what made them different.
Enter the big, bad government. This man only made enough on his shows to break even. He received a regular disability check, but the government cut that off because they deemed him a “performer” capable of earning a living. The story ends with the banks threatening to repossess his horse. Reagan derides the “computers and desk jockeys,” of the Social Security Administration for their lack of humanity and desire to crush a man who worked so hard to make something of what he thought was a ruined life.
Values and Virtues
Reagan holds forth on the values that are desirable in Americans. I doing this, he quotes the son of one of our greatest Americans, and then describes the business practices of one of America’s legendary entertainers who was an immigrant.
The first essay is about Charles Edison, the son of Thomas Edison. Reagan recounts how a reporter once asked Charles if his father had given him any important advice. Charles replied that he sought advice from his father, but his father was convinced that youth wouldn’t take advice; that youth had to learn lessons "on the battlefield of their own experience." One lesson that Thomas Edison imparted to young Charles was the importance of honor in all facets of life. A life that is lived honorably will be naturally fruitful and rewarding.
The second lesson is about Lawrence Welk. For my generation, and my parents' generation, Lawrence Welk, with his bubble machines and wacky tuxedos, was the punch line of a joke. But there is no doubt he was one of the most enduring figures in American cultural history, remaining popular from the Big Band era of music through the days of The Beatles and The Doors on Ed Sullivan. Reagan tells us that no musician has a contract with Lawrence Welk. If you were a talented musician or performer, willing to live by the values established by Lawrence Welk, you would be employed by Welk and paid handsomely with a nice pension, profit sharing, and benefits to boot. Reagan says that if anyone had spent time with Welk and his cadre of 50 performers, they would have found a strong family spirit of mutually supportive people.
Reagan’s final essay in the chapter is a tale common, but uplifting. A boy living in Seattle had cancer. While sick, he got to meet two famous football players: Jim Zorn, quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks and running back O.J. Simpson. Reagan said that this young man probably thought it was a special moment for him, but the moment was probably more special for Zorn and O.J. when they found out this kid played football – and started for his high school team – while undergoing treatment for cancer.
Human Nature, the Economy, and Progress
Ronald Reagan spent his entire political career railing against government intrusion into the lives of Americans. Reagan did not espouse these values because they fit some preconceived idea of what the Constitution says, like today’s doctrinaire Tea Party. He espoused these values and fought for them because they improved the human condition. Ronald Reagan didn’t preach constitutional principles. He simply sought to improve the human condition – something the modern Republican Party ought to re-examine.
The first essay is simply called, The Hen and is a parable on the nature of man to take the path of least resistance when it is offered. I believe my grandmother told me something very similar when I was in junior high school to demonstrate to me how welfare was killing America. For those of you not familiar with the story, a hen spends the entire summer growing grain, harvesting it, and baking bread while the other animals lie about and give the hen excuses as to why they can’t help. Then, when the bread is done, they all want to partake. The hen wants to keep all the bread since she worked for it, but the farmer (government) says you must give up half your bread to feed those who did not contribute.
The second essay is an example of an argument a socialist and a conservative might have. Reagan says today’s (read 1970s) socialist ignores the strength of the human spirit to achieve if it is set free to do so. While the above parable is brilliant in its simplicity, this essay reads more like a grade school screenplay. Sometimes event the brilliant miss the mark and Reagan’s simplistic argument fails to impress.
The third essay is entitled, Kettering, drawing its name from a former General Motors vice president, C.F. Kettering, who delivered a speech on how one generation builds upon the accomplishment of others. He goes on to show how the development of the radio (the modern means of mass communication at the time Kettering delivered his address) actually started before Christ when Greek philosopher, Thales of Miletus, discovered that rubbing together two pieces of amber created a force that would pick up straw – the discovery of electricity. Reagan’s use of the Kettering speech demonstrates what was at the core of Reagan’s foreign policy, his economic policy, and his social policy: that man, when left to his own devices, is capable of achieving great things. It was stories like that told by Mr. Kettering that Reagan kept in his head and could tell flawlessly on a moment’s notice.
A fourth essay is entitled, Pollution, but has very little to do with clean air or clean water. Rather, Mr. Reagan tries to demonstrate to a younger, pessimistic generation in the late 1970s that their ancestors did not have it so well. Pollution comes into play when Reagan talks about the coal burning furnaces with which every home was equipped and how every home belched coal smoke into the sky every night from autumn through summer. He goes on to talk about the unsanitary conditions of the outhouse and the rapid spread of disease in the prior generation. He concludes that perhaps life was not so simple before the mechanized age.
The former essay is a poor segue into the final essay which is entitled Freedom. Here, Reagan tries to make the case that in the good old days, things were much simpler. The good old days were before government placed regulations on everything. He talks about how there was no government mandated age for a driver’s license. In his day, if you drove well enough for your father to trust you with his car, you drove well enough for the motoring public. He points out that after he graduated from college, with the Great Depression in full swing, he had to take a job doing construction. He’d need half a dozen licenses to do today what he did to get by during the depression. He concludes by saying, “We are all stamped – ‘Property of the United States Government. Do Not Fold, Bend, or Mutilate.’”
Reagan’s Own Life in Stories and Humor
Reagan loved telling stories about Hollywood and the glamorous life he led while working as an actor. He also enjoyed the folkish stories he told of his youth. History has shown us that Reagan had a troubled youth with a ne’er do well father who was an alcoholic. Reagan never discussed that. He chose to remember his youth as a idyllic time.
In a letter to a constituent written in 1984, Reagan describes his youth in those idyllic terms and the essay is called, Reagan’s Huck Finn Years. Reagan attributes his family’s nomadic ways to his father trying to achieve upward mobility in the shoe industry. There is some truth to this as Jack Reagan was always chasing the next big job and moved the family all over Illinois. But Reagan omits that his father lost jobs because of his alcoholism. One can hardly blame him for this omission. I knew children of alcoholics when I was growing up. It was always something that the family believed it was keeping secret. I’m sure the Reagans were no different.
The second essay is entitled Reagan’s First Jobs and is also written in 1984. Reagan tells again the story about working construction and tells how he ended up working as a lifeguard. He then talks about how he got into radio which was his dream. He hiked all over Illinois trying to see program managers to demonstrate his talent. Nobody would even see him since he didn’t have any experience. He finally got a program director at WOC in Davenport to listen to him retell the play by play of a Eureka College football game. He got the job rebroadcasting Cubs games as they came into him via teletype. Reagan’s public career was launched.
Ronald Reagan loved to tell jokes. At no point was this more evident than when he was shot and quipped with hospital staff until he was sedated. In 1986, he was asked by a reporter what three jokes he enjoyed the most. He replied, “I assume he [Ullman] means stories suitable for speeches.” Reagan was quite fond of the raunchy joke and he and Tip O’Neill use to exchange them every time they saw each other. Reagan was quite fond of Irishman jokes.
In 1937, Reagan’s hometown newspaper asked him to send back regular updates on how his Hollywood career as a contract player was going. Reagan writes to his hometown paper through 1937, telling them about how tough the job was sometimes, how he got to meet Olivia de Havilland, and how uncomfortable he was seeing himself on screen for the first time when he had to attend a movie premier.
What comes out of all these essays is Reagan’s simplistic – sometimes excessively simplistic views on life. Coolidge read Plato. Reagan read Sports Illustrated. Nixon read Cicero. Reagan read the funny pages.
One should not sell Reagan short, claiming he lacked intellectual curiosity. Reagan was an avid reader of newspapers and contemporary political thought. He was an intelligent man gifted with incredible insight into the American character. Just like Kennedy (who was no Rhodes Scholar like Bill Clinton), Reagan proved a man need not be an intellectual giant to be a great leader.
He was called the Great Communicator. His detractors would say he was great at reading a script. Even a cursory examination of Reagan reveals that there was much more depth to Reagan’s skill. Like Kennedy, Reagan was a gifted writer. Kennedy’s detractors will point to Ted Sorensen as the genius behind Kennedy’s eloquent prose and verbiage. Sorensen was a great speechwriter, but it was Kennedy who put the flourish and the style into Sorensen’s rough drafts. Kennedy almost always knew what he wanted to say and just how to say it.
Reagan was very similar. Reagan employed speechwriters, but he saved the writing of the most important speeches for his own hand. As one can see in the marked up rough drafts of the essays, Reagan put a great deal of thought into what he wrote and usually exercised good judgment in his editing. Like Kennedy, Reagan understood words. He knew how to deploy the English language for maximum benefit.
I would point to this book when I hear Reagan’s intellect derided. Yes, Reagan had a simplistic view of America and the world. Sometimes, those views were old fashioned. Sometimes he mixed anecdote with fact. But he was a smart, intelligent man gifted with the ability to write and speak. I would challenge any Reagan detractor to read these essays. They may not change their views of Reagan’s politics or principles, but they would dispel any notion of Reagan as an intellectual lightweight.