Roger Johnson: Review of "The Notes: Ronald Reagan’s Private Collection of Stories and Wisdom," edited by Douglas Brinkley (Harper, 2011)


Roger Johnson received his PhD in American history from the University of Sussex in 2010. He blogs at Gipperwatch.

The Notes: Ronald Reagan’s Private Collection of Stories and Wisdom is the latest publication to promise direct insight into the mind and work of America’s fortieth president.  It follows compilations of his letters, radio addresses and diaries which targeted the common perception of Reagan as a passive simpleton and revealed him as a prolific and attentive writer.  These earlier publications are of unarguable value to students of Reagan, of revisionist intent or otherwise, and The Notes seeks to match their importance to researchers and enthusiasts.  Like The Reagan Diaries, with whom the book shares an editor, Douglas Brinkley, The Notes have their origin in the expansive collection of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.  Rather than his own writing, the book comprises Reagan’s own trusted collection of historical quotes, aphorisms and jokes which served as a constant aide to his public communication over forty years.  This is significant and potentially revealing content, but suffers here for want of coherent organization or useful explication.

Brinkley believes in the collection’s importance.  It is “the Rosetta Stone” which reveals “the real Reagan”; its publication is “a landmark event in Reagan studies,” “equally important” to that of his diaries.  “For if Reagan is remembered as the Great Communicator,” Brinkley asserts, “these notes provide the most effective way of decoding his craft.”  The editor, though, leaves the decoding to the reader, presenting the note cards in their raw form, organised into loose categories.  Unfortunately, he leaves us without certain tools for the job.  Brinkley explains in the introduction that only forty percent of the notes are written on White House stationery, but gives no indication in the body of the book which ones, or when any of them might have been collected.  Worse, he remarks that there are errors in Reagan’s quotations and attributions, but aside from one example (a paraphrased Voltaire quote given to Arnold Toynbee), he offers no guide to the reader.  There are certainly more misappropriations, but we are left to spot them on our own, and then wonder alone why Reagan went around for years with his favorite Tom Paine quote—“We have it within our power to begin the world over again” —attributed to Patrick Henry.  The only context Brinkley provides is a glossary of Reagan’s selected contributors, which yet omits a number of the collection’s more obscure names.  The reader, then, must approach the disparate assortment with no certainty over their original context, where Reagan found them or how he used them—all we are sure of is that Reagan felt them worth writing down, and keeping.

The result is a collage portrait of Reagan’s philosophy, largely neat and recognizable, but with the occasional jarring image or glimpse of nuance.  Reagan devoted a great proportion of his collection to the reinforcement of his conservative, nationalist ideology with nuggets of historical confirmation.  Sam Adams, Claude-Frederic Bastiat and John Stuart Mill warn against the dangers of an expansive state.  Cicero argues for balanced budgets, Ibn Khaldoun for low taxes, and William Gladstone for the genius of the American constitution.  John Winthrop and John Adams herald America’s divine destiny.  Reagan found further political affirmation from prominent Democrats:  Woodrow Wilson’s and Franklin Roosevelt’s cautions on the corrosive nature of state dependence, John Kennedy’s support of tax cuts, and the union leader Samuel Gompers’ emphasis of the rights of the individual provided evidence for Reagan of the consensual nature of his conservative principles.  His anticommunism inspired several of his choices.  Violent or treacherous rhetoric from communist leaders at home and abroad litters the collection, alongside condemnations of socialism and state planning.  The collection describes Reagan’s political philosophy thoroughly, and those familiar with his rhetoric will feel it echo between the passages.  Off-key moments, then, stand out all the more.

The book has moments of discordant despair, where Reagan—remembered best for his infectious, visionary optimism—seems drawn to prophecies of American decline and victorious totalitarianism.  Alexis de Tocqueville (though accredited by Reagan as “John Stuart Mill & Daniel Webster”) predicts a mild, degrading despotism of total government; Alex Fraser Tytler states the inevitable collapse of democracies into dictatorships; Whittaker Chambers announces the wreck of Western civilization.  Bleak forecasts such as these, combined with the unsettling stated strategies of America’s enemies, create a tension which is not fully resolved by the gentle whimsy of the aphorisms and jokes which make up the book’s latter half.

Tangents from Reagan’s political philosophy and rhetorical tactics none-the-less provide some compelling insight.  The longest passage in the book is from a lecture given by the playwright and screenwriter Maxwell Anderson, explaining and defending the moral purpose of the theatre.  Anderson declared the theatre “a religious institution—devoted entirely to the exaltation of the spirit of man.”  Affirmative, and rooted in its own time, the theatre “is an attempt to prove that man has a dignity & a destiny, that his life is worth living”; it is “the central artistic symbol of the struggle of good & evil within men”—and one which promises the triumph of good.  Anderson wrote the piece in 1941, when Reagan was at the height of his Hollywood career, soon to venture into politics.  If Reagan at this point internalized such a passionate and eloquent defense of righteous myth-telling, this is a truly novel and valuable insight into his ideology.

Elsewhere, the lack of contextual framing creates ambiguity.  The question of executive power, something which Reagan rarely directly addressed himself, emerges from the collection to cast the unflattering light of hindsight on his presidency.  Quotes from J. William Fulbright and Ted Sorensen argue that the president is a “moral teacher” who must “rule” unbound by public opinion and the archaic restrictions of the constitution.  Reagan kept these as evidence of the undemocratic impulses of Democrats during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, but here, free-standing, they might recall the overreaches that marred his own time in office.  I do not know why Reagan kept a quote from Walter Lippmann asserting that because “[o]nly the Pres[ident] in a position to know all the facts...the Pres[ident] alone can lead the country,” nor why he decided to credit it to Henry Steele Commager.  Yet not only does it seem to contradict one of Reagan’s favorite paraphrased lines from Jefferson that, “if the American people know all the facts, they can never make a mistake,” it brings to mind the secrecy with which his administration lead America.  The Iran/Contra affair and its deceptions exists between the lines in this collection— perhaps only emerging as if from a Rorschach pattern—yet is difficult to otherwise interpret the inclusion of Abraham Lincoln’s own self-defense: “I felt that measures otherwise unconst(itutional) might become lawful by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the nation. Right or wrong I assumed that ground & now avow it.”

In his introduction, Brinkley tells the story behind the collection’s publication.  Forgotten and lost, Reagan’s cache of note cards was only discovered during the refurbishment of the Ronald Reagan Museum in Simi Valley as it prepared for his centennial celebrations this year.  Their significance immediately recognized, the notes were given to Brinkley for publication, and then placed on permanent exhibition in the museum’s new display.  Reagan’s diaries were treated similarly, if less dramatically:  published to further scholarship on the fortieth president, but also displayed as a sacred artifact at his most prominent memorial.  The story may explain the technical problems of this publication—a rush to make it part of the centennial commemoration may not have allowed for deep research into the origins and import of each selection.  It also emphasizes the conceptual problem.  The collection feels all too much like an untouched museum display, an object to be admired and venerated, but not handled too roughly or taken apart.

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