Ronald Reagan's fans and foes disagree about almost everything, except this: they both tend to depict the 40th president as something of a one-dimensional figure. To those who love him, the Gipper is the hero who rescued America from self-doubt and the world from communism. To those who revile him, Reagan was a coldhearted cowboy who tried to classify ketchup as a vegetable for school kids and subverted Congress in the Iran-contra affair.
The publication this week of "The Reagan Diaries" should give both sides reason to see the late president as a more complicated and more interesting man than either caricature would suggest. The journals, which Reagan kept throughout his White House years, are more record than reflection: he has his generation's tendency to avoid emotion; "a good time was had by all" is used here without irony. A performer, a public man—he was a lifeguard, a sportscaster, an actor and a politician—he seems to have always had an eye on his audience, and these journals are no exception. Taken all in all, however, they paint a portrait of a president who was engaged by his job and had a healthy perspective on power.
There is a kind of touching banality to many of the entries, as though Reagan were just another CEO writing about corporate life at the top, albeit corporate life that revolved around nuclear and hostage negotiations. Edited by Douglas Brinkley (an occasional NEWSWEEK contributor and friend), the book shows a Reagan almost sweetly amazed by small trappings of office. "We discovered some of the niceties that go with this job," he wrote of a trip to the Kennedy Center. "At intermission in the room behind the Presidential box we found a W.H. usher on hand serving snacks & drinks." A dinner once kept him from seeing an interview he had done with Walter Cronkite, "but," Reagan said, "I was treated to another W.H. service. They taped the program & played it back to us later in the evening." After a sweaty speech on the road, he was thrilled to discover "a service I hadn't been aware of—a change of clothing is always carried when I go on a trip."
There are small acknowledgments of troubles with the children, and occasional personal notes. Six weeks after his shooting in 1981, he went to a gathering at the Georgetown Club and "was surprised to find my back tingled a bit when I got out of the car & went up the steps with a crowd of people across the street in the dark." The problems Reagan confronted in office still resonate. "Saddam Hussein is a 'no good nut' and I think he was trying to build a nuclear weapon," Reagan said in 1981. "He has called for the destruction of Israel & he wants to be the leader of the Arab world—that's why he invaded Iran."
Reagan watches the Sunday news shows, "The Waltons," "Arthur" and "Nine to Five"; he unwinds from his paperwork with "horse and western magazines." He is sensitive about the impression that he does not work hard: "The press keeps score on office hours but knows nothing about the never ending desk & paperwork that usually goes on 'til lights out." One night at Christmas 1986, Reagan attended a magic show that, he said, "baffled even the most sophisticated among us. I confess I have no idea how he did what he did." Reading these diaries, Americans will find it easier to understand how Reagan did what he did for so long: by steady work, and a steadfast commitment to the job at hand.