Ronald Reagan, In His Own Words

Reagan in the White House in 1981. His leather-bound diaries were edited by Douglas Brinkley.
Reagan in the White House in 1981. His leather-bound diaries were edited by Douglas Brinkley. (By Michael Evans -- Official White House Photo Via Ap)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Ronald Reagan thought Alexander Haig was "utterly paranoid," considered former senator Lowell Weicker "a pompous, no good fathead" and was "surprised at how shy" Michael Jackson was.

Reagan also refused to talk to his son after Ron Reagan hung up on him, felt that daughter Patti had "a kind of yo yo family relationship" and was invariably "lonesome" when his wife, Nancy, was out of town.

A self-portrait of the 40th president -- determined, funny, wistful, at times clinging to his beliefs despite countervailing facts -- emerges from diaries that he faithfully kept from 1981 to 1989, his eight years in the White House. Historian Douglas Brinkley had exclusive access to the five hardback books bound in maroon leather, each page filled to the bottom with Reagan's neat handwriting. Vanity Fair magazine, in its June issue, is publishing excerpts of the book "The Reagan Diaries," edited by Brinkley and due out this month from publisher HarperCollins.

The earnest entries are marked by a spare writing style in which Reagan reduced complicated matters to their essence. In 1982, when he accepted Haig's resignation from the Cabinet and Haig said they had had disagreements over foreign policy, Reagan wrote: "Actually the only disagreement was over whether I made policy or the Sec. of State did."

A 1981 entry on Cuban leader Fidel Castro said: "Intelligence reports say he Castro is very worried about me. I'm very worried that we can't come up with something to justify his worrying."

The former actor was well aware of his public image, and tweaked the Fourth Estate after he deliberately reversed the order of the opening sentences of his welcome at the 1984 Olympics: "The press having a copy of the lines as written are gleefully tagging me with senility & inability to learn my lines."

When his former chief of staff, Donald Regan, disclosed that Nancy Reagan had consulted an astrologer for advice on her husband's travel schedule, the president remained in denial:

"The press have a new one thanks to Don Regan's book. We make decisions on the basis of going to Astrologers. The media are behaving like kids with a new toy -- never mind that there is no truth to it."

The diaries, which have been stored at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., cover the gamut of his presidency, from arms-control negotiations to the Challenger disaster to his meetings with Hollywood figures. Reagan drew on the diaries in writing his 1990 autobiography.

In the excerpts released yesterday, Reagan recounted his March 30, 1981, shooting by John Hinckley in a just-the-facts, "Dragnet" style: "I walked into the emergency room and was hoisted onto a cart where I was stripped of my clothes. It was then we learned I'd been shot and had a bullet in my lung.

"Getting shot hurts."

During the first-year negotiations over his tax cut plan, Reagan wrote that congressional Democrats had made a counterproposal: "They want to include a reduction of the inc. tax rate on unearned income from 70% to the 50% top rate on earned inc. We wanted that in the 1st place but were sure they'd attack us as favoring the rich. . . . I'll hail it as a great bipartisan solution. H--l! It's more than I thought we could get." Reagan never spelled out even mild curse words.

Reagan got his tax package. But when Democrats balked during budget negotiations the following year, Reagan wrote that if he couldn't get a deal, "then I take to the air [TV] and there will be blood on the floor." Two weeks later, he complained: "The Demos. are screaming and lying like bandits charging us with cutting Soc. Security--we aren't touching Soc. Security."

Reagan often took umbrage at media coverage. When The Washington Post's Bob Woodward published a hospital-bed interview with William Casey after the CIA director's death, Reagan wrote: "He's a liar & he lied about what Casey is supposed to have thought of me." And when Soviet authorities charged journalist Nicholas Daniloff with espionage, the president wrote: "The press is obsessed with the Daniloff affair & determined to paint all of us as caving in to the Soviets which they of course say is the worst way to deal with them. The simple truth is we've offered no deal and are playing hard ball all the way."

Emotion comes through strongly in some entries, with Reagan sometimes describing "a lump in my throat." Recounting an Oval Office meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, Reagan wrote: "I let the F.M. know I was angry & that I resented their charges that Daniloff was a spy after I had personally given my word that he wasn't. . . . I enjoyed being angry."

After the 1981 assassination of Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, whom Reagan had found to be "truly a great man," he directed his ire at Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi: "I'm trying not to feel hatred for those who did this foul deed but I can't make it. Qaddafi gloating on TV, his people jubilantly celebrating in the streets. He is beneath contempt."

By contrast, Reagan passively recorded his reaction to a 1986 staff meeting in which he was told that White House aide Oliver North, national security adviser John Poindexter and other officials were involved in a scheme to divert money from U.S. arms sales to Iran to the Nicaraguan rebels backed by the administration. "North didn't tell me about this. Worst of all John [Poindexter] found out about it & didn't tell me. This may call for resignations."

Even momentous decisions got terse treatment. Writing on the day he nominated Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court, Reagan said: "Already the flack is starting & from my own supporters. Rite to Life people say she's pro-abortion. She declares abortion is personally repugnant to her. I think she'll make a good Justice."

Reagan enjoyed meeting the "most likable" Prince Charles in 1981, but tea proved a disaster because the royal visitor refused to drink it: "Horror of horrors they served it our way with a tea bag in the cup. . . . I didn't know what to do."

The meeting with Jackson -- "the sensation of the pop music world" -- came during a 1984 ceremony to honor the singer for contributing to a campaign against drunk driving. "He is totally opposed to Drugs & Alcohol & is using his popularity to influence young people against them," Reagan wrote.

Strains in Reagan's relationship with his children punctuate the diaries. He bristled at Ron's stubbornness:

"He wants to Sign off Secret Svc. for a month. S.S. knows he's a real target -- lives in a N.Y.C. area where the Puerto Rican terrorist group is active. In fact he's on a hit list. He thinks we're interfering with his privacy. I can't make him see that I can't be put in a position of one day facing a ransom demand. I'd have to refuse for reasons of the Nation's welfare."

In another entry, Reagan described how Ron and his wife had "arrived for a family pow-wow. He'd been rude to Nancy on a phone call and when I phoned him about it he said he thought we needed to clear the air. It wasn't the greatest meeting but still I think it opened the door to a closer relationship. He seemed to be carrying water for Patti who has a kind of yo yo family relationship. She's either warmly attentive or very distant & Nancy seems to bear the brunt of it."

Six months later, the problems with his son were continuing: "I don't know what it is with him. . . . I'm not talking to him until he apologizes for hanging up on me."

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