I’ve been looking through Reagan: A Life in Letters, a book whose publication will no doubt startle a lot of people unaware that Ronald Reagan was the most prolific presidential correspondent of modern times. I’m not talking about the kind of “letter” produced in batch lots by a team of secretaries equipped with autopens, either. Of the 1,100 letters in this 934-page book, some 80% were written by hand, another 15% dictated. The editors had “over 5,000 genuine Reagan letters” to choose from, and they estimate that another 5,000 or so have yet to surface.
Put aside for a moment your opinion of Reagan (either way) and think instead about the implications of those numbers. Speaking as a biographer, I can assure you that this is an extraordinarily large number of letters to have been written by any public figure, much less one who wasn’t a professional writer–though Reagan, as it happens, spent a number of years writing his own speeches, radio commentaries, and syndicated columns, and would also have been perfectly capable of writing his own memoirs without assistance had he been so inclined. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other 20th-century president who left behind so large a body of informal writing, and few who wrote as much in any medium. Theodore Roosevelt, probably Nixon, possibly Calvin Coolidge (who was, believe it or not, the best by-his-own-hand presidential prose stylist in modern times), and…who else? Nobody comes to mind.
On paper, Reagan was unselfconscious, fluent, surprisingly candid, and rarely eloquent–most of his best-remembered speeches were written by other people, and I doubt that anything in Reagan: A Life in Letters will make it into the next edition of Bartlett’s. Still, I have no doubt whatsoever that his next biographer will quarry this volume assiduously. I’m about to start work on a biography of another non-writer, Louis Armstrong, who left behind a large body of correspondence, and I can tell you that the existence of Armstrong’s letters (of which several hundred have been preserved) is one of the main reasons why I decided to write a book about him. It’s hard to write about the great jazz musicians of the past precisely because they rarely left behind that kind of material. Unless they happened to be interviewed on tape by intelligent, well-informed journalists (of which there aren’t nearly enough) or deposed for oral-history projects, we have few if any reliable documents of the way they expressed themselves off stage. We only know them from their work, and while that’s the most important thing, it doesn’t tell you everything a biographer wants and needs to know.
Beyond this, of course, the mere fact that Reagan chose to put so much energy, even as president, into corresponding with friends, colleagues, and plain old pen pals is fascinating in and of itself. So is the introduction to Reagan: A Life in Letters, in which the editors describe his letter-writing routine in some detail. As I worked on The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken, I never ceased to be astonished by the sheer volume of Mencken’s correspondence, and I couldn’t help but wonder how he managed to churn out so many letters while simultaneously functioning as a full-time writer. I’m even more mystified that Reagan wrote all those personal letters–most of them by hand–while serving as president.
I also can’t help but wonder how the next generation of biographers will approach the next generation of subjects, now that e-mail has essentially replaced snail mail (and now that public officials are routinely warned not to keep diaries for fear that they’ll be subpoenaed in court cases). I wonder, too, whether there will ever again be so self-revealing a politician as Ronald Reagan, though that seems an odd word to use about a man whose colleagues all found him difficult to know. Peggy Noonan thought so, too, and offered a plausible explanation of his opaqueness in her deft life of Reagan, When Character Was King:
Ronald Reagan once had deep friendships and close friends. He had men who knew all about him, but by the time he’d reached the presidency they were dead. He’d outlived them.
True enough, I suspect, but not the whole truth. Could it be that Reagan was simply more comfortable writing to people than talking to them? I don’t know–I never met him–but henceforth, anyone who tries to make sense of Reagan the man will have to start by explaining the very existence of these letters.