By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 27, 2005
Ronald Reagan kept a diary -- handwritten, blue-inked reflections and observations of nearly every day of his eight years in the White House -- and now it will be published, executives of HarperCollins and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Foundation announced yesterday.
The existence of the five leather-bound volumes embossed with a gold presidential seal was not a secret. Key entries were quoted in the press during the investigation into the Iran-contra arms sale controversy in the mid-1980s: "I agreed to sell TOWs to Iran" -- Jan. 17, 1986. Reagan drew on the diary for his 1990 memoir, "An American Life: The Autobiography," and certain scholars have had access to it over the years.
But very few people have seen most of it. And in an investigative era when written introspections have a way of becoming public -- President Bush recently told journalists that for that reason he declines to send e-mail, even to his daughters -- it may be the first and last contemporaneous daily glimpse of a presidency through the eyes of the president himself.
"We are not aware of any president in the modern presidency who has kept a detailed personal diary," said Fred Ryan, an assistant to the president in the Reagan White House and now chairman of the library foundation. "It literally begins the day he's sworn in as president and it ends with his flight back to California eight years later. . . . It has a very unique type of candor."
The only significant gap is the few weeks after John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate Reagan in 1981, said Edmund Morris, one of the few scholars to have read the whole thing and who quoted bits in his 1999 book "Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan."
"The diaries are amazingly dispassionate, clear and sequential," Morris said. "They show a man, a chief executive, with an extraordinary degree of objectivity. There's very little vanity and self-congratulation in the diaries."
Nor apparently is there much news.
"No bombshells at all," Morris said. "What you saw with Reagan was pretty much what you get with the diaries."
Still, scholars are greeting publication with anticipation: "We've known of these diaries for a long time, and it'll be interesting to see if they tell us anything that's new," said Lou Cannon, a former Washington Post reporter and author of several books about Reagan, including "President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime," his biography. "One of the things all of us who write about Reagan know, no matter how much we thought we knew him, there's always something else to learn."
HarperCollins will publish the diaries next year, said Jane Friedman, president and chief executive. The precise format -- one volume with highlights of the hundreds of pages or multiple volumes containing every word -- has not been decided. The company has not even seen the entire work yet, having been shown only a portion during negotiations in recent weeks, when several publishing houses were vying for the prize.
A person with knowledge of the transaction said HarperCollins is paying "in the high seven figures," but Friedman declined to confirm that. Whatever the price, all the money will go to the nonprofit library foundation.
Ryan said none of the president's words -- possibly a half-million by Morris's estimate -- will be withheld from the HarperCollins editors, but the prose may be subject to a national security review for inadvertent mentions of classified information.
The story of the presidential diaries goes back to the end of Reagan's term as governor of California. "When we left Sacramento, we felt the time passed so quickly, we could hardly remember the eight years," Nancy Reagan said in a statement released by the library foundation. "When Ronnie became president, he wanted to write it all down so we could remember these special times."
He bought the bound journals from a local bookbinder -- Ryan forgets which -- and paid with his own money. By all accounts, he was a diligent diarist, setting aside time every day. The handwriting is wobbly when he is flying by helicopter to Camp David.
Reagan gave the diary to the foundation about a decade ago, with instructions to dispose of it as the foundation thought best. The decision to find a publisher now was not driven by Reagan's death last year. Nancy Reagan and the foundation board "concluded it's a valuable piece of history and this should be available to the public," Ryan said.
HarperCollins secured world publishing rights in the deal, perhaps counting on Reagan's comments on foreign leaders having particular appeal to different audiences. "We feel there will be a tremendous amount of world interest in this," Friedman said.
The first volume of the diary was put on display for the first time yesterday at the library in Simi Valley, Calif.
What does Reagan sound like when he's confiding to his diary? The library declined to release excerpts yesterday. But Morris included some snippets in "Dutch."
"The inauguration was an emotional experience," Reagan wrote at the beginning, according to Morris's book, "but then the very next day it was 'down to work.' "