The Reagan I Knew
By William F. Buckley, Jr.
(Basic Books, 279 pages, $25)
When William F. Buckley died in February 2008, it was widely known that he had been working on a book about Ronald Reagan. He died before completing the task. The unfinished nature of the work is something that should be understood at the onset. It is quite clear that The Reagan I Knew runs short of a great deal of personal reflection by Buckley on the former president. There is simply no question about it.
The good news for readers is that the editorial team made skillful use of Buckley-Reagan correspondence and a series of footnotes to create a highly engrossing reading experience. Indeed, the book may have begun as the narrative story of a relationship with substantial personal reflection, but of necessity it became a successful collection of letters with a solid array of commentary by an author who pre-deceased his project’s completion.
Perhaps, first, the thing to note is the surprise the book offers. Though I have been a longtime fan of both Buckley and President Reagan, I had no idea the relationship between Nancy Reagan and Bill Buckley was so substantial. They exchanged many letters in which they talked about Ronald Reagan, their families, and a joking plan to run off together to Casablanca. Buckley seems to have had a great deal of personal affection for the former Nancy Davis.
On the other hand, Buckley’s letters to and from Ronald Reagan will add to the corpus of evidence supporting Reagan’s intellectual bona fides. They communicated with each other on a friendly and personal basis (with a running joke about Buckley’s fictitious appointment as ambassador to Afghanistan), but there is also much friendly disagreement and discussion about policy, personnel, and politics.
What one sees in the letters between the two great icons of 20th-century American conservatism is a conversation between equals. Buckley was not the Machiavellian manipulator liberals might have believed Reagan “the amiable dunce” needed. Instead, he was an ideological soulmate, a debate partner, and occasionally an opponent. These were two men working to the same end, but never shy to differ or to try to convince the other of their own position.
Reagan’s letters, in fact, show not the slightest intellectual intimidation before the mighty Ivy League debater Buckley. He was, instead, confident and strong. Reagan is often credited with dispatching Communism to the ash heap of history. This book will likely help dispatch something else to the ash heap, as well, which is the late night sketch comedy image of Reagan as a Forrest Gump-like lucky bumbler.
One of the strongest sections of the book deals with the two men’s differences over the fate of the Panama Canal. Buckley thought the United States should allow the Panamanians to control the canal as part of their sovereign territory, while Reagan insisted Americans should retain ownership and control. The conviviality of their debate on the Canal recommends it as a model for conservatives of today, who sometimes seem ready to split and create camps at the slightest provocation. Of course, the Buckley and Reagan of the 1970s were part of a rising movement, not guardians of an exhausted establishment. One moment in their televised debate is worth reproducing here, as it has been elsewhere:
ERVIN (Sam Ervin, the moderator): At this time…the chair will recognize Governor Reagan and give him the privilege of questioning William Buckley.
REAGAN: Well, Bill, my first question is, Why haven’t you already rushed across the room here to tell me that you’ve seen the light? [Laughter and applause.]
BUCKLEY: I’m afraid that if I came any closer to you the force of my illumination would blind you. [Laughter and applause.]
The disagreement was real, but not a threat to the friendship. Buckley credited Reagan’s position on the Panama Canal treaty with helping him attain the presidency. During the rest of their lives together, the two men joked about their different positions. Buckley recalled driving up the Reagan driveway one evening for dinner to find a series of signs arranged Burma Shave style (in sequence) for his benefit. They read, “WE BUILT IT. WE PAID FOR IT. IT’S OURS.”
The Reagan I Knew is successful on several levels. For the reader who wants to relive the glory days of American conservatism, the material is here. Reagan’s rise goes from being improbable in Buckley’s eyes to seeming almost inevitable. It is also a wonderful thing to experience Reagan’s personality through his communications with Buckley. Based on what has often been said of Reagan, one doesn’t expect to find any close friends outside of his wife, Nancy. But here is Buckley, giving us the historical evidence of their warm friendship and inter-family ties. Buckley knew Reagan. The man he knew was warm, funny, a dedicated student and practitioner of American politics and public policy, and a born leader capable of brushing discouragements to the side.
In addition, we are reminded of Reagan’s steadfastness. He expresses his determination to stay the course while pursuing a revolutionary economic policy designed to revitalize the American economy. When Buckley indicates his concern about strategy, Reagan gently reassures him and reasserts what he intends to do. In hindsight, we see that Reagan’s determination and commitment paid off. He got what he wanted, radically cutting marginal tax rates and closing loopholes. The same dynamic applies to his foreign policy with the Soviets. He got what he wanted and did what he said he could do, even when everyone around him, even Buckley at times, was skeptical.
In the end, the reader is left glad that we had men like these during the times when we had them. At National Review‘s 30th anniversary in 1985, Buckley offered the final remarks in tribute to President Reagan. The entire world still stood on the precipice of nuclear confrontation. Rather than bemoan the times he lived in, Buckley voiced his thanks that he had lived his sixty years as a free man in a free country and his hope that their sons would be able to do the same. I can’t speak for the sons of these great men. Both speak for themselves. But I do know that a great many of us are, as he hoped, “grateful that, at the threatened nightfall, the blood of their fathers ran strong.