Book Review: The Notes: Ronald Reagan's Private Collection of Stories and Wisdom

The Notes:
Ronald Reagan's Private Collection of Stories and Wisdom

Edited by Douglas Brinkley
Harper; 320 pages; $25.99


"The battle for the mind of Ronald Reagan was like the trench warfare of World War I: Never have so many fought so hard for such barren terrain." A dollar to the first reader who can identify the author of that line. Christopher Hitchens? Bill Maher? The editor of Pravda?

Nope—it was Peggy Noonan, in her otherwise adoring 1990 memoir of her time as one of Reagan's speechwriters. That was then. Now it's 2011, the centennial of the Great Man's birth. In recent years a profusion of books has sought to make hash of the idea that our 40th President was an "amiable dunce," as the late Clark Clifford, the Democratic presidential horse whisperer and disgraced bank scandal figure, once proclaimed him to be. At the top of this syllabus is the verbosely titled Reagan, In His Own Hand: The Writings of Ronald Reagan That Reveal His Revolutionary Vision for America. Then comes The Age of Reagan, by Steven F. Hayward, and the identically titled The Age of Reagan, by the left-leaning but admiring Sean Wilentz. And, most recently, The Reagan Diaries, edited by historian Douglas Brinkley.

Here, again, comes the indefatigable Brinkley with this fascinating addition to the No-Dummy-He sub-genre of Reaganalia. As Brinkley explains in his introduction, The Notes consists of the collection of 4-by-6-inch index cards that Reagan kept in his desk—his chrestomathy, or commonplace book of wit and wisdom—all of which were written in his own "impeccable" scrawl. Brinkley speculates that Reagan began these jottings sometime between 1954 and 1962, when he was a spokesman for General Electric (GE), and kept on amassing them after he became the most powerful man in the world. Thankfully, Iran-contra counsel Lawrence Walsh didn't know of their existence or he'd surely have subpoenaed them—and left them to languish in some government warehouse like the one in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Instead, amazingly, they languished for years in a cardboard box at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif. They were only recently discovered during a renovation leading up to this year's centennial. The library staff calls them "the Rosetta Stone," but their discovery puts me more in mind of archeologist Howard Carter's utterance, in 1922, upon first peering into King Tut's tomb and being asked what he saw. "Wonderful things," he said. Indeed, these notes—which make up Reagan's own private Bartlett's Familiar Quotations—are wonderful things. Witticisms, observations, apothegms, newspaper cuttings, statistics, bons mots—and indeed, some pretty mals mots—from Aristophanes to Zedong, Mao. In between is a lot of Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, and a French politician of the 1840s whom I'd never heard of named Claude-Frédéric Bastiat. Along the way is Hilaire Belloc, Whittaker Chambers, Abba Eban, Ho Chi Minh, Ibn Khaldoun (about whom, more in a moment), Lenin, Ortega y Gasset, Pascal, Seneca, and Sun Tzu. For a dummy, Reagan was a voracious pack rat of wisdom—especially in the days before Google.

These notes provide a portal into the—dare one say, fertile?—mind of one of the late 20th century's great leaders. Two big themes run through them: a) the imperilment of individual liberty by growth of state power; and b) the oppressive taxation that the leviathan demands. In other words, as Goldwater once put it—though it's strangely not included here—"A government that is big enough to give you everything you want is also big enough to take it all away." Yet many of the sources that are included prove surprising for a so-called right-wing ideologue such as Reagan: "Every time that we try to lift a problem to the govt., to the same extent we are sacrificing the liberties of the people." Irving Kristol? Actually, JFK. "Strike for the jugular. Reduce taxes and spending. Keep govt. poor and remain free." Jack Kemp? Nope. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

I'll bet anyone another (aftertax) dollar they won't guess the provenance of this one: "At the beginning of the dynasty taxation yields a large revenue from small assessments. At the end of the dynasty taxation yields a small revenue from large assessments." Who knew that Ibn Khaldoun, identified by The Gipper as "Moslem Phil. 14th Century," anticipated the Laffer Curve by 700 years? (Not me.) Reagan's delight in witticisms, never much in doubt even among his detractors, is also on full display here. The section titled "Humor" is the book's longest. My favorite is the "Chinese Proverb, 400 B.C." that proclaims, "When the music of a nation becomes fast, wild & discordant it shows the nation is in confusion." Could Reagan have come across this one after his first exposure to Janis Joplin? Or the dulcet arpeggios of Meat Loaf singing Paradise by the Dashboard Light?

Alas, Brinkley does not tell us when Reagan found this one or, for that matter, any of the notes. It's possible that there is no way of knowing, but even so, The Notes is deplorably lacking in footnotes. There is a glossary at the back that will tell you who in the world ... Ibn Khaldoun was. (Answer: A forefather of social science in the East, and, as the The Gipper noted, something of a philosopher.) Or Claude-Frédéric Bastiat. (An early 19th French political economist known for his clever attacks on certain state policies.) Many of the notes cry out for more notes—unless, for instance, you already know why Harrison Gray Otis of the Los Angeles Times, circa 1910, was such a stinker. (It's a long story.)

Brinkley's introduction is pleasant and informative but also marred by sentences such as: "The reader gets the impression that Reagan is a redwood tree and these are the decorations of his own philosophy, the ammunition that he will need to survive the hustings ahead." O.K., if you insist. But surely the "U.S. federal government" is a wee bit tautological; and—not to nitpick—was James A. Garfield technically "assassinated on July 2, 1881" if he actually died months later on Sept. 19? The Notes would have been a richer book had its editor invested more effort. Brinkley, a protégé of the late Stephen Ambrose, is a humblingly prolific writer. How many historians are capable of writing a biography of Dean Acheson and editing the letters of Hunter S. Thompson? The man must sleep only one hour a night, but to quote the song, "Slow down, you move too fast."

Still, as we used to say during Watergate: This is a dandy little volume. It may also be an important one. Much has been said and written about Reagan's enigmatic, elusive personality. And, true enough, Reagan has been, and may yet remain, a puzzle to his biographers and critics. Although a few recent books have proclaimed to have finally uncovered the real Reagan, there's a chance we'll never get any closer than in these scribbles, which reveal so much about a curious mind, glad soul, and warm heart. They reveal him to be a man who had known sorrow and defeat but who, by dint of indomitable cheer, gentlemanly grace, and extraordinary energy overcame those obstacles—to say nothing of an evil empire—and always kept his smile. And his wit. As Reagan jotted to himself: "An underdeveloped Nation—that's one Henry Kissinger hasn't visited yet." Or, in a line that may inspire the next gusher of Reaganalia, "When a woman loves a man he can get her to do most anything she really wants to."

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