Book Review: The Ronald Reagan Diaries

Ever wonder about the private thoughts of a President? Enter The Reagan Diaries published by Harper Collins. Originally five volumes, the diaries were edited down by Douglas Brinkley to a more palpable 693 pages that take the reader through Reagan’s Presidency in the White House between 1981 and 1989.

The historical significance of the diaries will be immediately obvious to political scientists and historians alike, especially if we consider that only four Presidents (George Washington, John Quincy Adams, James K. Polk and Rutherford B. Hayes) kept a consistent diary.

Nonetheless, if you’re a political and history aficionado you don’t need to be a scholar to enjoy this book. Reading diary entries could seem heavy, but the book will leave readers feeling as though they were taken on a private political tour by a President.

Strikingly, the tone of the diaries is free of any pompous overtones and is consistently marked by Reagan’s thoughtful and principled ruminations. Reagan was succinct, confident, clear and consistent in his beliefs. This much can be discerned with his outright contempt for taxes, big government and communism, tempered with his love of Nancy Reagan, people with physical abilities and the spirit of America.

Personally, the Reagan years represented a time when I was becoming politically aware and historically inclined as a teenager. Among the many things that stuck with me, one in particular was how often the media negatively portrayed Reagan.

Reagan noticed it, too. His distrust of the media led him to comment on more than one occasion, as he did with CBS and the Washington Post when he said, “I think their bias towards the Dems. is showing.” In another entry he wrote, “I cannot conjure up 1 iota of respect for just about all of them.”

In international affairs, Reagan was a Cold War leader who honestly believed in the inherent goodness of America. His approach towards the Soviets was one of firm engagement while eschewing the temptation for hard-line posturing.

Mixed in with the Cold War was the Middle East. Though a staunch ally of Israel, the Reagan administration exerted pressure on Israel on numerous occasions when it came to its policies in the region.

An interesting observation readers may make is how often Reagan gave assurances to Israelis that the United States was not going to abandon them. "I assured him (Prime Minister Shamir) of our continued friendship…"

Over the course of the decade, Reagan nurtured close relationships with Turkey, Egypt and Jordan, while constantly worked with them regarding various issues in the region. As for Saudi Arabia and Syria, Reagan was not naïve. He writes, “…the Saudis and Syrians aren’t exactly friends.”

Reagan stood up for American interests without apologies and sometimes with dark humour. In one entry, while attempting to broker a peace settlement in Lebanon, he writes, “We want it to be a level-headed approach to peace to reassure the eggheads & our European friends I don’t plan to blow up the world.”

Domestically, we gain insights on various issues throughout the book. Morality in particular was not something Reagan (who thought the “Shroud of Turin” was proof of the bodily ascension) believed could be disassociated from politics. Indeed, this sort of writing and thinking would make most post-modern individuals cringe, but to Reagan it made perfect sense.

Over the course of two Presidential terms, Reagan faced tragedies such as the space shuttle crash in 1986, the death of hundreds of Marines by terrorists in 1983 (the marine holocaust, as he called it) in Lebanon, Iran-Contra, Cuba and Fidel Castro, Libya’s Quadaffy, and of course the assassination attempt against him in 1981.

The book also provides plenty of intriguing quotes. For example, following a lunch he had with Jacques Cousteau he wrote, “….Cousteau who is a true ecologist who like me is disgusted with the eco. freaks.” Speaking of which, Reagan often mentions how proud he was of his administration’s environmental record.

For the paranormal enthusiasts among us, Reagan adds this comment, “I think the ghost of Abe Lincoln is stirring around upstairs where we live.” Note: The film Ghostbusters had been released two years earlier so he was perhaps still caught up in the whole 80s phantasmal craze.

Family matters, not surprisingly, were bound to leave their mark in the book. Reagan’s relationship with his children was often rocky but it does leave us with one of the more memorable quotes in the diary, “Insanity is hereditary – you catch it from your kids.”

Above all, it’s his undying love for Nancy Reagan that jumps through the pages, ready to hand the reader a red rose. The President simply could not stand being away from her. After waking up in the hospital following the assassination attempt on his life, we get a glimpse of how deep his love and respect were for her, “I opened my eyes once to find Nancy there. I pray I’ll never face a day when she isn’t there. Of all the ways God has blessed me, giving her to me is the greatest and beyond anything I can ever hope to deserve.”

Just in case you feel Reagan was incapable of idealism we’ll end with this final quote: “Why don’t we let the young people run the world – there wouldn’t be any war.”

We can never know for sure how a person whom we never met truly feels, but the book leaves you with a feeling of genuine authenticity. Indeed, it has the genuine rawness of a diary.

All in all, this was a fascinating read offering insight into the mind of an important American president.


  1. I think this will make a very good summer reading. I have just linked to your post from my blog. So long.

  2. Hey Rob, it definitely merits the time.


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