Oral Histories of Reagan Offer Glimpse of President

Monday, February 20, 2006

T here are by now scores of books about President Ronald Reagan, from full-blown biographies to memoirs by members of his administration, from polemics on the right and left to a long out-of-print coloring book.

The newest compilation of Reagan's presidency, however, does not come between hard covers. Instead, it is available on the Internet in the form of oral histories from about 45 friends or former advisers, compiled by the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs.

In conjunction with the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, the Miller Center has been interviewing Reagan administration officials since 2001 and recently released more than 2,500 pages of transcripts.

The interviewees include such well-known figures as former secretary of state George P. Shultz, former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger, Reagan treasury secretary and White House chief of staff James A. Baker III and longtime Reagan political adviser Stuart Spencer, as well as lesser-known officials who had close access to the president and who provided intimate reminiscences of his presidency.

These are the recollections of Reagan loyalists, who offer generally positive portraits of the president, but not always. Reagan is at once human, detached, strong and malleable -- determined to bankrupt the Soviets with a costly arms race; baffled and humbled by the Iran-contra affair; influenced by his wife, Nancy; quick with a joke or story; indifferent to the details of many of his administration's policies.

Stephen Knott, an associate professor at Virginia and the Reagan project team leader, said Reagan's weaknesses -- as well as his strengths -- were evident from the interviews, but Knott said he was struck by the consistent description of Reagan's decency, describing him as "utterly without guile." "This man is the anti-Nixon to the core," Knott said. "It's kind of refreshing that someone seemingly this decent can rise to the top of the American political system. The man had his weaknesses, but as a human being, he seems to be first-rate."

The Miller Center has issued excerpts from many of the transcripts and an edited selection of those excerpts is included below. They represent a fraction of the material available to the public. A link to the transcripts can be found at .

-- Dan Balz

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