Reagan In His Own Hand: The Writings of Ronald Reagan That Reveal His Revolutionary Vision For America
Ronald Reagan, Kiron Skinner, Martin Anderson, Annelise Andersib
(Free Press)

"Politics is not a bad profession. If you succeed there are many rewards, if you disgrace yourself you can always write a book."--Ronald Reagan, (who employed ghost writers for his first two literary efforts, Where's the Rest of Me, and An American Life)

Ignore the lewd implications of the book's title. Reagan, in His Own Hand is about intellect. This work delivers a cache of rough-draft essays as proof that former president Ronald Wilson Reagan actually "had a mind." The question should've been resolved decades ago, before electing him president even once, I'd say. Instead, Reagan had two rounds as leader of the free world and the question of brainpower is still on the table, hazy and complicated by his rapid descent into dementia. We're left to wonder, was Reagan actually "a moron, incapable of intellectual engagement," as Andrew Sullivan sums the question up?

Former Secretary of State George P. Shultz enthusiastically writes, "And that is the reason why this book is so important. It provides a key to unlocking the mystery of Reagan that has baffled so many for so long. How could a man of supposedly limited knowledge and limited intelligence accomplish so much?"

A scary question, though not without precedent. The book reads as desperate proof generated in the 11th hour of some common law trial. Nancy Reagan provides testimony to the authenticity of the written work: "He was always sitting at his desk in the White House, writing." California cop Dennis LeBlanc claims Reagan, "never slept on planes when he was traveling...It was like--you're wasting time if you are sleeping...and his thing to do when I was with him was writing." Really. This insider info about sleep deprivation sheds light on the time Reagan fell asleep during a meeting with the Pope, until he was shaken awake by an eagle-eyed aide. Surely he was up all night...writing!

Exhibit A is an inventory of Reagan's high school accomplishments, listing 17 handwritten manuscripts and a French quiz. The book doesn't include the actual high school work though, or the grade on the French quiz, so the information carries no weight in this sad, nearly posthumous debate. A high school education is compulsory, particularly if you hope to be president. It's not taking the quiz, but passing that counts.

"Modern day students in our public schools may have heard their grandparents sing a nostalgic chorus of 'School Days,'--but they'll never understand it...I'll be right back," Reagan writes, in a prelude to a piece about why schools don't need money; educators just need to use a little more of the "hickory stick," he concludes. Five years later and still protesting money for education, he announced, "We think there is a parallel between federal involvement in education and the decline in profit over recent years."

On the book's cover, our two-term president (whose name contains the anagram Insane Anglo Warlord) is pictured bent over a desk. He holds a pen, mouth open, tongue perhaps tucked between his teeth in studied concentration. Like a real world Forrest Gump, Reagan writes, "About a year ago I imposed a little poetry on you. It was called 'The Incredible Bread machine' and made a lot of sense with reference to matters economic..." For cynics who doubt Reagan's ability to draft these thin essays, the actual pages of Reagan's handwritten work are reproduced, complete with grammatical errors and a self-styled "short-hand." It's a regular Bridget Jones's Diary of compression. "Right" is often "rite," and punctuation is a free for all. The pages are presented and explained as though they are as compelling and cryptic as that of an ancient scribe, eighteenth century poet and visionary William Blake, or even Jimi Hendrix, with his scrawl of revised and labored lyrics.

The thing is, they're not.

"I've brought someone with me today who has a heartwarming story to tell about an educational program. We'll be right back," Reagan wrote in a scripted opportunity for Nancy to discuss her trip to an "asphalt jungle" school in Harlem, where she was surprised to find real girls and boys. "I [just] wasn't prepared for [the] rooms full of bright happy children and proud teachers obviously with great affection & love for those children," Nancy's lines read, in this mini radio drama. According to Newsweek, this book "...has done more to counter the image of Reagan as a manipulated dolt than probably any other publication." I'm not convinced these writings clear up the dolt part of the question. Reagan writes, "A modern day little Red Hen may not sound like (crossed off) appear to be a quotable authority on economics but then some authorities aren't worth quoting..." He co-opts a parable, and the little Red Hen becomes a communist in a barnyard surrounded by welfare mooching pigs and unemployed cows. In another essay, Reagan bemoans the constraints on DDT and other pesticides, insisting there's "no threat to animal, bird or marine life," despite the fact that we all have similar endocrine systems. He blames Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, for starting an environmental movement that gets in the way of good, chemical filled farming. He champions clubbing baby seals, because the "humaneness compares favorably with the method of dispatching the domesticated animals which provide us with our food supply."

All this, from a man who said, "Facts are stupid things," in a 1988 failed effort to quote John Adams. Adams once said, "Facts are stubborn things." This book hasn't sold me on Reagan's intelligence. Instead, it calls to mind Shakespeare: "Republicans do protest too much."