America has recently discovered Ronald Reagan's touch with humor, but another facet lies generally hidden: Reagan the poet.
At the urging of the editor of Literary Cavalcade, a magazine for high schoolers, Reagan, in 1974, while governor of California, composed two short verses, "Time" and "State Budget." They remain largely unnoticed and obscure, and to Cavalcade editor Michael Spring's mind, deservedly so, but Reagan's "Time" was still published in the magazine's February 1975 issue, after Reagan was no longer in office, because, Spring said, "I did not want to embarrass him."
Reagan was the only one of 12 political figures to respond to Spring's request with new, unpublished material (Eugene McCarthy sent a few of his old poems). "It is important that politicians show they are capable of at least trying to write poetry," Reagan wrote to Spring. "It's a challenge."
Aged leaders of China have for centuries considered their careers incomplete without a fling at verse. Reagan has visited Taiwan, and may have picked up a few pointers. His poems have the pithy charm and appreciation of life's constants found in the works of Li Bai, or even Mao Tse-tung.
Here is "Time": Budgets Battles Phone calls Hassles. Letters Meetings Luncheons Speeches. Politics and Press Releases. News conferences Delegations Plaques and Presentations. Travels Briefings Confrontations. Crises Routines Mediation. Eight years pass swiftly. But I look out the window. The elm in the park looks just the same.
Reagan's other poem, "State Budget," owes more to Ogden Nash than Mao Tse-tung, which may explain why Spring chose not to publish it. Lawmakers in Washington, particularly those on the Democratic side of the aisle, might do well to study it, however: A surplus? I said. A surplus! he said. The State has a surplus. Not a deficit -- A surplus, instead. Unheard of? I said. Unheard of! he said. It's almost unheard of -- and each legislator will soon have it spent in his head. No! Let's give it back! I said. Give it back? he said. But you can't do that. They'll send you a bill To create a new bureau. Just like that! I'll sign it! I said. I'll sign it, then blue line it. And with no money, What good's the bureau Without the crat?
Spring said at the time he received Reagan's work, "I was pretty snotty about it, because they were not very good poems." But he was prescient enough about his contributor's political future to refrain from such harsh words in his brief magazine introduction to "Time."
"No final judgment is in on the worth of these poems," Spring wrote in 1975. "You will have to decide that for yourselves."